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Doc (Dock) Bigham, 1869 - 1919

Title

Doc (Dock) Bigham, 1869 - 1919

Subject

Outlaws
Murderers

Description

The notorious outlaw and moonshiner Doc Bigham was the last man legally hanged in Tuscaloosa County – June 27, 1919.

On August 15, 1918, Sheriff Palmer M. Watts, Deputies Verner Robertson and Nick Hamner, and special revenue officers J.H. Smith and J.H. Draper had raided two stills in northern Tuscaloosa County and had one more to go. As the sheriff made his way down a ravine to a third still, a shot rang out and the sheriff pitched forward on his face, instantly dead. A deputy fired a shot at the shooter identified as Doc Bigham.

Police officers Hertis Thomson and Bertram Ozment located Doc Bigham about 12 miles below Tuscaloosa just off Fosters Ferry Road and engaged him and his two sons in a gun battle where, miraculously, no one was injured. Bigham, his wife and two sons were living in a tent on the old place of I.A. Robertson.
When Thomson and Ozment neared the tent, they were fired upon and got separated. Thomson thought Ozment had been killed and sent word back to Tuscaloosa. Sheriff Palmer, a number of deputies and policemen, as well as Coroner Rogers and several doctors hurried to the scene. Ozment was soon located unharmed, as was Thomson.
Judge H.B. Foster notified Gov. O’Neal and the reward for the capture of Bigham was raised from $50 to $150. Bigham had escaped from the penitentiary at Wetumpka two months before. Two days later Bigham and a son, Dude, were located on the bank of the Warrior River several miles below Foster’s Ferry. As officers approached Bigham and his son, they opened fire. The officers returned fire and both father and son went down. Dude died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital and Doc was badly wounded. Dude was only 18 or 19 years old and bled to death after a bullet ruptured an artery in his leg.
Doc Bigham was taken up the river by boat and it was said that he begged the officers to take a gun and shoot him, so despondent was he over the death of his son. The badly wounded Bigham was taken to the Williamson-Faulk Infirmary for treatment, where Dr. J. H. Ward said he would probably recover. Bigham’s second son, George Bigham, alias George Scales, was captured and placed in the Tuscaloosa County Jail.
It appeared to the officers that someone had been notifying Bigham of their movements as soon as they started after him. Each time they made a move toward his capture, he got word of it in time to get away.
He went before a jury on September 17, 1918, charged with the murder of the sheriff. The trial lasted three days before the case rested with the jury that deliberated just five hours before jury foreman John Wesley Morrison turned in the verdict that Bigham should be hanged for the crime which he did not deny having committed. Judge H.B. Foster immediately passed sentence upon Bigham and set Nov. 1, 1918, for his hanging. An appeal was made that delayed his execution; but the Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling.

On June 27, 1919, Doc Bigham paid the penalty for the murder of Sheriff Palmer Watts. At 11:02, Deputy Hughes pulled the lever that caused Doc Bigham's body to shoot downward through the opening. It was said to be the most perfect hanging that ever took place in the county. Bigham had guaranteed its success himself by tying the knot that instantly broke his neck.

Onlookers passed the hat for money to bury Bigham at Macedonia Cemetery in Piney Woods, as he had requested. Dr. C.M. Boyd, who had counseled Bigham while he was incarcerated, performed the burial service.
The following is an article from the Tuscaloosa News on April 28, 1957:
There’s Grave Silence Today in the County’s Death Cell
By Bob Kyle, News Staff Writer, Tuscaloosa News, Sunday April 28, 1957

The old death cell, gallows and trap door in the Tuscaloosa County Jail is now silent as a grave. You can thump on the iron bars and it bounces all around, a hollow sound that comes back and rings in your ears.

The old iron ring, attached to the ceiling overhead where the hangman’s noose was tied is still like the pendulum of an ancient clock that has gone to sleep forever.

But somehow a man doesn’t feel alone in the place. Not when he’s heard old-timers talk about the last public hanging that took place on a hot, muggy day, June 27, 1919.

Same Cell Still Used

On that day almost all the grownups in Tuscaloosa County turned their mules into the pasture and came to town. The crowd surrounded the jail. Guards were employed to hold back the curious while a desperate man inside calmly went about tying his own hangman’s knot.

The same gallows and trap door stand intact today, but the hinges are rusted. Very few people have had occasion to view the famous old death cell on the second floor of the jail. Many, perhaps, have walked by it without knowing what it was. They even use the same cell now to house juvenile offenders to isolate them from older inmates.

Last Legal Hanging

But right over the head of the jail keeper as he sits at his desk today is the trap door where Doc Bigham dropped to his death at two minutes past 11 a.m. that day 38 years ago. It was the last legal hanging in Tuscaloosa County, but it won’t be soon forgotten.

They say Doc was an extremely smart man for his educational opportunities – affable, genial and witty, but a man you couldn’t push around. He had friends that he believed in, but had a persecution complex and figured that a man had a right to operate his own “booze” still.
Once he begged his captors to kill him after they’d shot and fatally wounded his boy.

Had Good Points

The West Alabama Breeze said of Doc Bigham “He was one of the most notorious criminals ever produced in West Alabama.” But there were many that said he had his good points.

Some said his whole life was one of lawlessness. The Breeze said Doc was “raised in a part of Tuscaloosa County where making of booze was the calling of a good many men until prohibition sentiment grew to such an extent that wildcat stills were largely exterminated.”

“He believed he had a right to grow his own corn and turn it into booze and it was no man’s business” the paper said.

Shot Down Sheriff

His name was linked with other crimes and Doc Bigham was serving a 25-year sentence for killing a Negro, Sonny Pruitt, when he shot down popular Sheriff P. M. Watts on Aug. 15, 1918.

Twenty years before that he was arrested on a charge of assassinating his uncle, E. Cooper, who was shot from ambush.

Doc Bigham, when asked about it, said “13 of us have been in jail for that killing and none of us have been convicted.” He denied killing Sonny Pruitt, but said he was present and knew who did it.

He was also questioned in connection with the burning of 12 to 15 houses in the E. B. Tierce neighborhood. He denied it but “owned up” that he knew who did.

Begged to be Killed

Because he was such a likeable fellow, Doc Bigham gained the confidence of state prison keepers and was made a trusty. He escaped and came back to Tuscaloosa County.

When Sheriff Palmer and other attempted to arrest him in the woods near Fosters Ferry where he’d been living in the swamp with his 15-year old boy, a fight occurred and the boy was wounded in the leg. He bled to death.

It was while they were bringing Doc back up the Warrior River in a boat (he was wounded in the hip by buckshot) that he asked them to kill him.

Captured Unarmed

He was sent back to prison at Wetumpka, but escaped a second time. By then he had become a greatly persecuted man in his own mind and vowed never to be taken alive.

Later, Sheriff Watts and his deputies raided a still. Doc Bigham arose from behind a bush and fired a shotgun loaded with buckshot. The sheriff fell dead. A U.S. Deputy Marshall shot Bigham in one arm and shot off a kneecap. But he escaped into the woods.

Three days later when bloodhounds caught up with him, Bigham was unarmed except for a switch which he used to keep the dogs off. He had attempted a surgical operation on is knee with his pocket knife.

Refused to Talk

Two months before his execution, Bigham posed for his picture to be taken for the newspaper. He didn’t much want to, but he’d promised it. He wouldn’t talk anymore about his case because “every time he got to talking about it, he got mad.” He didn’t like to get into that frame of mind “any more than he could help.”

He’d been convicted in the spring of 1919. The solicitor who prosecuted him died soon after the trial.

On May 29, 1919, the State Supreme Court affirmed his death sentence.

Several people still living heard the trap door fall.

Guards Posted

The lever releasing the trap door was pulled by B.V. Hughes, brother of the sheriff, Perry B. Hughes, Sr., who did so at Bigham’s request. Doc said he wanted to be “hanged by an honest man.”

The crowd gathered early on the execution day. Many asked permission to see Doc Bigham but they were denied. The sheriff put a lock on the gate by the jail and posted guards. Deputy Will Lee, Deputy W.F. Wright and others were there. Three physicians and the condemned man’s spiritual advisor were in the cell with him.

Between 9 and 10 o’clock the sheriff and his deputies began fixing the rope and oiled the trap door hinges. Doc Bigham asked them to let him tie the rope knot. He tied the knot so that it would hit him behind the ear.

“Perfect Hanging”

When the hour of 11 came, the crowd outside fell silent. Men took off their hats. Three minutes later members of the crowd donated money to bury him.

Because he’d tied such a perfect hangman’s knot, the Breeze described the results as “one of the most perfect hangings that ever took place in Tuscaloosa County.”

Requests Granted

Doc Bigham asked to be buried in Macedonia Cemetery on the Crabbe Road. His request was granted.

In the last hour, he asked the sheriff not to let the crowd cut the hang rope into pieces and keep them as souvenirs. That too was granted.

It was the same summer that the papers were full of stories about Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard.

And it was also said that World War I was officially over.


Creator

Hinckley Photo Company

Source

Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society
Tuscaloosa News Archive

Date

Circa 1918

Contributor

Betty Slowe (Description)
Brenda Harris (Description)

Type

Photograph

Identifier

1041

Coverage

Tuscaloosa County (AL)

Original Format

Photograph