The Vagabond – Getting prayed off the gallows in 1847


By Danny Crownover

The Vagabond has heard stories about how Thomas B. Cooper, a wealthy iron manufacturer and noted legislator of Cherokee County, literally prayed a man off the gallows at Cedar Bluff in 1847. Accounts of that remarkable episode was confirmed by many witnesses.
In 1835, Cooper (pictured at right) settled in Wetumpka as a merchant. Two years later, he came to Cherokee County and began to practice law.
As the story goes, a man convicted of the charge of murder was sentenced to hang by the jury that tried him. The circuit court duly fixed the hour and day for his execution, and when the time came for that event, a large crowd collected on the public square on which the little log courthouse stood. As the hanging was to be public, the scaffold had been built out in the open.
As the moment drew near for the murderer’s execution, he and the sheriff climbed the 13 steps to the trap in the scaffold. While the sheriff was binding the hands and legs of the prisoner and putting on the death cap, Thomas B. Cooper, a resident of the Cedar Bluff, walked up to the top of the scaffold and announced that he wished to make a few remarks.
Cooper proceeded to defend the condemned man, saying that he was not guilty of first-degree murder. In fact, Cooper said that a courier on horseback was on his way from the state capital as he spoke with a reprieve from the Governor of Alabama.
Having talked until the sheriff reminded him that time was up, Cooper announced that he wanted to pray, a request that the sheriff, growing more nervous and more confused every second, dared not refuse. Cooper prayed and the courier did not come. When the sheriff decided to go ahead with the job, Cooper told him that the legal time fixed by the court for the execution had passed and that he could not hang a man under such circumstances.
While the sheriff was muttering to himself and showing that he was more confused than ever, a horseman came into view, racing down the road and waving a paper in his hand.
“The reprieve, the reprieve,” shouted the crowd, and before the horseman could stop, the prisoner was taken from the scaffold. During the excitement and milling around of the crowd, the prisoner was put on a horse and told to “git,” which he soon did. The man rode out of town like the wind and was never heard of again.
Just what interest Cooper had in the man scheduled to hang was never clear. The courier business was a fake, of course, having been arranged beforehand by men who must have understood mass psychology.
On January 1, 1871, Cooper wrote the first prohibition law in the history of this nation as a member of the Alabama state legislature. He was the manager of the Cornwall Furnace, and his bill prohibited the sale of intoxicants within three miles of the plant. Many other state legislators wanted such protection for schools and churches, and the movement grew rapidly all over the country. Cooper served in the legislatures of Alabama from 1842 to 1876.
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