Sunday, November 11, 2012

Will Purvis, the "Miracle Man"

Remember how my grandfather told me that we were related to Daniel Boone and it turned out to be Daniel Boon of Mississippi and not Daniel Boone of Kentucky fame? My grandfather also told me that we were related to Will Purvis. Will Purvis is a very famous person in the state of Mississippi because he beat the hangman's noose. So was Grandpa telling the truth?

Nutshell version of the events: On 22 Jun 1893, a man by the name of Will Buckley was murdered in Marion County, Mississippi. Buckley's brother Jim testified that he saw Will Purvis at the scene of the crime and Will was subsequently arrested. The First Judicial District Court of Marion County, Mississippi found him guilty and sentenced him to hang. The case went all the way up to the Mississippi Supreme Court before the final judgment was passed on 04 November 1893.

On 07 February 1894, Will was taken to the scaffold. When they hung him the knot slipped and he fell to the ground unharmed. Rev. Sibley, who was in attendance, convinced the Sheriff not to try and hang Will again, instead, they retried him. He was again sentenced to hang. Before the sentence could be carried out, Will escaped from jail with some help from his friends. He was on the run for a time but then eventually surrendered and was put back in prison. Shortly after that he was pardoned by the governor.

In 1920, Joe Beard confessed to the crime. He started that Louis Thornhill had actually pulled the trigger but he was right there with him. Beard died before his confession was signed so his confession couldn't be used against Thornhill. The state ended up paying Will a bunch of money because he had been accused wrongly. Will was not completely innocent though. He had been a member of the White Cap Klan (similar to the Ku Klux Klan) but parted ways with them when he was only 19 years old. Will was convinced that the murder had been "pinned" on him as a lesson to the White Cap Klan. Beard and Thornhill were also members of the gang. Will did turn his life around after he was pardoned. He married and had 11 children. For the remainder of his years he lived the life of an ordinary rural Mississippi farmer.1

So how am I related to Will? Will's wife Sarah Matilda Boon was the granddaughter of, yes, you guessed it, Daniel Boon of Marion County, Mississippi. Sarah's aunt Mary Catherine was married to my great-granduncle William Isaac Simmons. Small world isn't it.

1Frances Williams Griffith, True Life of Will Purvis (1935; reprint, Purvis, Miss.: Lamar County Historical Society, 1989),4-6, 8, 28-9,32-3,37-40; This reprint has the correct day but wrong year for the hanging. The correct date/year was confirmed by numerous newspaper articles including, "Will Purvis' Neck Saved," The Daily Picayune, 08 Feb 1894, page 1, column 6.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. One very minor point: I'd be willing to bet that it wasn't the "Grand Jury" that "found him guilty and sentenced him to hang." The function of a Grand Jury is and was to determine if someone should stand trial; it's a petit or trial jury that would determine if that someone was guilty and, in some cases, decide what the penalty should be.

  2. I went back and re-read that part and you are of course correct. The actual trial was held in the "Circuit Court of the First Judicial District of Marion County, Mississippi." (page 8). It went on to say that the court was actually at the end of their term and the trial judge called a special term into session because emotions were running high in the community (page 8).

    It is a fascinating story. The book I used as a source was written in 1935 when Will was still alive. He dictated his story in his own words to biographer Frances Griffith. He details all of the witness testimony. I would love to get the trial transcript (did they do transcripts back in 1894?) and see if what Will said actually matches what the court documents say.

  3. Hi, I am a descendant of Will Purvis, and have been trying to figure out the Boone side of the family. You have that Sarah was the daughter of a Daniel Boone, but Frances Willard Griffith's book actually states that her father was a Reverend J. I. Boone, a Baptist minister.

  4. Good catch, Melissa! I mixed up my two Sarah's. (Daniel did have a daughter named Sarah as well as a granddaughter). I am fixing it now.

  5. I am a direct descendant of Will Purvis. My grandmother was Will Purvis's daughter Rose Grantham. We were also told we were related to Daniel Boone. My father researched this years ago and found the same information you refer to.

  6. According to the history of Lamar County, MS Daniel Boone III great grandson of Daniel Boone of Kentucky fame led an expedition of people who settled an area called Okahola near Purvis, MS. Sarah Boone was his granddaughter who later married Will Purvis. They settled in Marion County which was later divided into two, Marion and Lamar.

  7. Jerry,
    If you have proof of the lineage I would love to see it. No one I know has been able to prove the connection.