16 May 2011

Polly Barclay - Another Murderous Woman?

[An updated version of this post may be found here at the new Georgia Lynchings blog.]

Lately, it seems like the title of this blog should be Female Murderers of Georgia. While searching for information about Julia Force, and especially Cora Lou Vinson, I was led to other "famous" female murder cases in Georgia's history.

"On the 30th ult. was executed at [Washington], Georgia, POLLY
BARCLAY, as an [accessory] in the murder of her [husband]."
- Charleston Courier (South Carolina), 11 June 1806

Polly Barclay is often misstated as being the first woman hung for murder in Georgia. That is incorrect, as that distinction belongs to Alice Riley of Savannah. (We'll save her story for another post.) Point is, Polly Barclay was actually the second woman to be hung for murder in Georgia.

Mrs. Barclay was tried and convicted for the murder of her husband, most often simply referred to as "Mr. Barclay," in 1806. The murder took place in the fall of the previous year. This all happened near the city of Washington in Wilkes County, GA.

Records regarding the murder are difficult to find, and historians owe a debt of gratitude to Miss Eliza A. Bowen for what is known. She wrote stories about Wilkes County people and published articles in the Washington Gazette and Chronicles from 1886 to 1897. Her manuscripts were compiled into a book, The Story of Wilkes County, reprinted in 1950 and again in 1997.

The final chapter of the book, which is cut off mid-sentence, with no additions yet to be found, is about Polly Barclay and the murder of her husband. Several articles of the murder have been written since, but none that I found contained "new" information. Therefore I regard Miss Bowen's research as most likely the closest thing we have to a portrayal of actual events.

Polly Barclay was actually a conspirator in the murder of her husband. She did not pull the trigger on the gun that fired the shot that killed him. She was, however, the only one convicted and punished for the crime. Miss Bowen states, "All the traditions concur in saying that Mr. Barclay was not killed by his wife's hand. All the stories mention her lover and her brother...All the sources of the story concur in saying that the actual doer of the deed escaped."

Polly's co-conspirators were her brother William Nowland and her lover Mark Mitchum. Some say the motive for murder was money, others say it was committed because Polly wanted to be with her lover. It's likely a combination of the two.

Miss Bowen states, "From tradition we learn that the murder took place in the fall or winter [of 1805], after Mr. Barclay had sold his cotton in Augusta and returned, that his wife was not at first suspected, but that suspicion was aroused through something about the money, that then people talked, and various suspicious circumstances were told which when put together led to a belief in the guilt of his wife and her arrest."

Miss Bowen viewed and transcribed minutes from the superior court sessions that took place 205 years ago this month. In them she discovered that trial commenced after a true bill of murder was put forth against William Nowland and Polly Barclay. On 8 May 1806, William Nowland was tried and found not guilty. The next day he was to be a witness for the State. Seems like a situation we would describe today as striking a deal with the prosecution to testify for the State against another individual and receiving immunity in that deal, but that is speculation on my part.

The next day, 9 May 1806, Polly Barclay was put on trial. Opening statements, witness testimonies, closing arguments, jury deliberation, and the verdict all came in one day. The result was, "We the jury find the prisoner at the bar guilty but recommend her to mercy."

What happened to the mercy, I do not know. According to Miss Bowen's transcriptions, the Judge (future U.S. Senator Charles Tait) in the trial handed down the ruling:
That you Polly Barclay be taken from this bar to the place from whence you came, there to remain until Friday the 30th, day of this present month of May, and that on the aforesaid 30th, day of May you are to be taken by a proper officer to a gallows previously to be erected in or near the town of Washington, and then and there on the day aforesaid, between the hours of ten o'clock in the forenoon and two o'clock in the afternoon, you are to be hung by the neck until you are dead and may God have mercy on your soul.
Here are the particulars of the murder as told by Miss Bowen: "Tradition says that...There were two men who came up the road at night fall [supposedly on a Saturday] from the direction of Augusta and stopped at Mr. Barclay's cotton house which stood on the road a short distance from his house, made some noise, to make him suppose that some person was stealing his cotton. There were some visitors at the dwelling house who reported at the trial, that Mr. Barclay was not disposed to go out, but that his wife urged him to do so. Shortly after he went, a shot was heard, and those present reported that she said, 'that shot killed my husband.' When found, he was still living but the ball had cut off his tongue. He died in a few hours."

Mr. Barclay was buried, "it is said," on the spot where he fell. It was marked "by two unhewn stones which were placed upon it and they can be still pointed out on the old Elberton and Augusta road a few miles beyond Sandtown. The grave is on the edge of the road..."

In addition to the scenario described previous, another major witness was revealed at Polly's trial. In short, it was a young boy who witnessed a conversation in which Polly offered her brother $200 to kill Mr. Barclay.

So what about Mark Mitchum, you ask? Well, charges were never brought against him -- nolle prosequi (to be unwilling to pursue). He supposedly ran away upon hearing of the possible indictment.

Legend has it that Polly Barclay was in denial when it came to her death sentence. Even when the officer came to take her to the hanging tree, she grappled for a piece of paper she saw in his pocket, believing it was a stay of execution.

Something else that is often commented on regarding Polly Barclay is her beauty: "All the lines of tradition unite in reporting that the unhappy woman possessed uncommon beauty...It also come down to us, that she put on a fine silk dress to go to execution."

On the 30th day of May, in the year of 1806, Mrs. Polly Barclay was hung on a large white oak tree "which once stood on the north side of Main Street." Legend has it she was not hung by a rope, but by a chain. Mrs. Barclay was buried in an unmarked, undisclosed grave.