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Walker’s Life Is Spared

Sentence Communted to Imprisonment for
Life at Hard Labor.

John B. Walker’s death sentence, which was pronounced by Judge Silas A. Holcomb in January, 1894, was commuted yesterday by Governor Silas A. Holcomb, to imprisonment at hard labor for life in the penitentiary. Walker’s case has been before the governor for some time, the plea of insanity having been set up by C. W. McNamara of Lexington, who defended him in the trial court. While the governor does not state that he interposed because he believed the condemned man to be insane, it is generally supposed that he is of that opinion, notwithstanding the fact that he adjuged Walker to be competent to enter a plea on his own behalf when the case was called for trial in the district court.

Walker was to have been hanged Friday for the murder of [George] P. Stevens, a neighbor farmer. Walker lived in [Frontier] county on a farm. He is now sixty-four years old and for years had lived alone, hermit-like, being peculiar in his actions, but yet apparently fully competent to transact business. He is said to have believed that people were following him with the intent to harrass him in various ways. He came into the town of Farnam May 11, 1893, and without warning shot and killed Stevens on the street. He then fired several shots into the group where Stevens stood, but fortunately all bystanders escaped.

After the supreme court affirmed the death sentence, a jury was called together to pass upon Walker’s sanity. He was pronounced sane. At that hearing five doctors testified that they believed the man was insane. One doctor pronounced him sane, and the prosecution laid much stress on the claim that the five physicians arrived at their conlusions after barely talking with Walker, while the other doctor, who lived near the criminal’s home, based his belief on a personal test and examination.

Walker was a rebel during the late war and a member of a band of guerillas. His attorney sought to show that he was insane by introducing the affidavit of a Missouri man who had heard from a brother of Walker’s that he had subsisted on raw rats rather than accept liberty at the hands of his captors by taking the oath of allegiance to the United States.


The order of commutation issued by Governor Holcomb reviews the history of the case very briefly, showing that sentence of death was pronounced against Walker on the 26th day of January, 1894, in the district court of Dawson county upon conviction of murder in the first degree. A writ of error was prosecuted to the supreme court and upon hearing and review by that court the sentence and judgment of the district court was affirmed and date of execution fixed on January 10, 1896. Governor Holcomb issued a respite January 6, until March 6, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. In closing his order of commutation the governor says:

“Whereas, it has been made to appear to me that the said John B. Walker is a fit and proper subject for executive clemency, now, therefore, I, Silas A. Holcomb, governor of the state of Nebraska, under and by virtue of the authority in me vested by law, and for good and sufficient reasons unto me appearing, do hereby by these presents commute the sentence of said John B. Walker from the death penalty to imprisonment in the state penitentiary of Nebraska at hard labor, for the period of his natural life.”

Clerk Campbell of the supreme court forwarded this order to Sheriff Henry Hobson of Dawson county, and a telegram was sent from the Governor’s office.


LEXINGTON, Neb., March 2.—(Special.)—The governor’s decision commuting Walker’s death sentence to life imprisonment was received by Sheriff Hobson by telegraph between 3 and 4 o’clock. The word was carried to Walker by Captain McNamar. Walker at first did not believe the captain and asked to see the telegram. It not being at hand he requested the captain to stop guying him. Finally, beoming convinced of the truthfulness of the report, he remarked that he did not think he would hang. It was just as he thought it would be. No demonstration was made by the prisoner. He accepted the decision calmly and as a matter of course.

Opinion here is about equally divided as to the decision, and there is an undercurrent of lynch sentiment. If any trouble occurs, however, it will have its origin in the vicinity where the tragedy occurred.


This communtation makes the third case within a few months where convicted men have successfully availed themselves of the plea of insanity. Debney, the Nance county man who murdered his wife in a most shocking and brutal manner, was adjudged insane by a jury and was sent to an asylum for the insane. Sam Paine, the Omaha murderer, was recently adjudged insane by a county board of insanity commissioners and was transferred from the penitentiary to an asylum by order of the governor. Debney and Walker were to have been hanged the same day. About the only difference in their cases is simply that a jury pronounced one insane and another jury held the other to be sane. If the governor’s commutation is based on the state of Walker’s mind it is believed by many that he ought to be treated with the same consideration accorded Debney and be assigned to an asylum. However, he can be transferred from the penitentiary as soon as the county board of insanity finds him to be insane.

The Nebraska State Journal 26:8, Tuesday, 3 March 1896


Published: 8/16/2022 -
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