One said he could hear a rattling noise in his head. The other claimed he killed in self-defense.
These two men were the only convicted murderers ever hung in Rabun County.
Both hangings took place in Clayton more than a century ago. The first was held in the privacy of the jail. The second was a public spectacle before a crowd of 800.
Seymour Keener: A “Rattling Noise” in His Head
Seymour Keener was convicted in 1895 of the murders of the girl he loved, Arizona Moore, 16, and her sister, Leona Moore, 14. Both women were cousins of Keener, who was said to be from one of the most respected and prosperous families in Rabun County. The victims were described as “the sweetest, pleasantest and most popular young ladies of the County.”
An eyewitness to the murders testified that the two girls were walking past Keener’s house when he confronted them with two pistols. He shot Arizona at point-blank range, killing her instantly. Leona made a run for it, but Keener followed her and shot her as well. He stood over her body and shot her five more times.
A June 30, 1895 article in the Atlanta Constitution gave an account of a discussion
between Keener and Clayton Sheriff John Dockins, who was taking the prisoner to a safer jail in Gainesville. When told that Leona Moore was dead, Keener replied, “Why, John, I do not remember killing her. I have intended for three years to kill Arizona…She held her head so high and took so little notice of me that I could not ask her (to marry me), but I just loved her so well that I had to kill her. I do not know whether I am crazy or not. I have had a sort of rattling noise in the top of my head for several years, and lots of my folks think I am crazy.”
At his trial, Keener’s attorneys attempted to prove he was insane. They submitted testimony from two doctors in support of that claim, but it was to no avail. Keener was convicted by a jury of the Rabun County Superior Court.
The sentence, death by hanging in Clayton, was scheduled for January 17, 1896. However, Governor William Yates Atkinson ordered a 30-day stay of execution, allowing Keener to be examined by a “lunacy board” in Gainesville. The board ruled Keener sane. His execution, the first in Rabun County’s history, was rescheduled for February 14, 1896.
An article headlined “Keener Swings” in the Toccoa Times recounted his final hours. “The death warrant was read (in his jail cell) by the Sheriff in the presence of a half dozen persons…After the Sheriff concluded reading the warrant, he laid upon the prison cot a new set of clothing and underwear…Realizing what it meant, Keener disrobed, took a bath and dressed for his coffin. At 12:30 he was called from his cell and escorted to the Gallows, which had been erected in the enclosure (within Clayton’s jail). He walked with a steady step and went up the short walkway without a sign of the slightest emotion. He was stolid and apparently indifferent…At 1:14 o’clock the trap door was swung and Keener went down, the fall breaking his neck. 24 minutes later doctors pronounced him dead.”
Will Brown: A Dispute Over a Woman
Will Brown, a black man, was hung before a crowd of 800 men, women and children in Clayton on February 16, 1916 for the killing of Will Sweet, who also was black.
The murder took place at what a newspaper account called a “frolic” or dance in Lakemont on the evening of April 30, 1915. The prosecution contended that when Brown arrived at the dance, he walked up to Sweet and shot him.
According to eyewitness Richard Rose, “I was present at the time Sweet was killed…Sweet wasn’t making any effort at all to get to the defendant, Will Brown, or do anything to him…Will Brown come in the house with both hands in his jumper pockets. When he stepped in the door, he made a step or two…and (pulled) out his pistol and shot Sweet. Sweet was sitting down at the time he was shot.”
Will Brown told the court a far different story: he killed Sweet in self-defense.
He testified he was talking to Sweet’s girlfriend outside Sweet’s house that evening. She had her hands on his shoulders. Brown said that when Sweet came outside and saw them, he “slammed” Brown to the ground and yelled, “What you doing here, got my woman barred up like this…If you cross my path anymore tonight I’m going to kill you.”
Brown also testified that after his encounter with Sweet, he went to a card game where a friend gave him a pistol in return for a loan of 50 cents.
As it turned out, Will Sweet went to the dance in Lakemont. So did Brown and his friends. Brown testified, “When we got there, this fella Sweet jumped up with a knife in his hand and come at me and says, ‘What did I tell you?’ Just as he come at me, I shot him.” Brown was arrested the next day and locked up in the Clayton jail.
Brown’s lawyers, T.L. Bynum and R.E.A. Hamby, argued the killing was in self-defense. However, the jury found Brown guilty of murder.
A February 16, 1916 article in the Clayton Tribune tells the rest of the story. “The Rabun County courthouse stood on the crest of a hill, which sloped sharply downward from the southwest corner of the building. The gallows was erected on this slope…At 1:10 PM, a minister spoke with Brown, who said he was ready to go to his ‘home in heaven’…His last words were in a choked voice. ‘Good-bye, men. Good-bye Mr. (Deputy Sheriff) Rickman. You have been good to me.’ “
The article continued, “The manacles were removed from Brown’s hands, which then were tied behind his back with a piece of plow line. His feet were tied together. Sheriff Dockins drew the black cap of very soft clinging material over his head. Then quickly followed the noose of the rope, with its huge knot set under his left ear; then the drawing of the rope securely around the neck; and finally, the Sheriff stepped back off the trap-door, motioned his deputies out of the way, and, with a quick movement of the arms and hand, sprung the trap; and the negro’s body shot downward out of sight!..He fell fully six feet from view and was pronounced dead in 16 minutes.”
The Georgia legislature replaced hanging with electrocution in 1924. No person convicted of murder in Rabun County was ever electrocuted.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Clayton Tribune on April 16, 2020.