Mississippi politician Dennis Murphree became governor of Mississippi twice on the death of the state’s chief executive while he held the lieutenant governancy, and was governor during the Great Flood of 1927. Murphree was also a newspaperman, editor of The Monitor-Herald, the weekly in his native county of Calhoun, and as such took a deep interest in its people; their histories, their stories, their legends. I reproduce here Murphree’s account of the story of Dock Bishop, a north Mississippi outlaw whose reputation has passed into the romance of legend. In the summer of 2002, deputy marshals from Fort Worth made a 12-hour journey from Texas and replaced the brick inscribed “WISE” in the Sarepta cemetery with a proper tombstone for their fellow officer. The ceremony was well-attended by the good people of Calhoun County.
The Monitor-Herald, Calhoun City, Calhoun Co., MS, Thursday, April 9, 1942
The Hanging of Dock Bishop
by Dennis Murphree
A few days ago the newspapers of the nation carried the thrilling story of how the FBI or “G” men had surrounded the Number One Bad Man of the United States, Charles Chapman, over in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and called on him to surrender. When he refused the demand and opened fire these representatives of the law promptly sent him to his death with eighteen bullet holes in his body. For years, it is said, Chapman had slipped in and out of this, his home community, being shielded from the law by friends and kinsfolks, while members of the FBI kept relentlessly on his trail until they finally cornered him and sent him to his death.
Pondering this grim story and talking with friends who had first-hand and personal information about its stark details, there came from time to time back to my mind the story of Calhoun County’s All-time Bad Man, and his gruesome end. This is a story which was fresh in the minds of all Calhoun County folks in my earliest boyhood days, and the details were so thoroughly implanted in my fresh young mind in those days that I have never forgotten. One day this week, I was gratified indeed to have a personal visit from my lifetime friend, Uncle Bill Yancy, 87 year old citizen of Sarpeta, and talking over these things with him and having him refresh my mind on various points, I decided I would endeavor to write this story for Calhoun County folks, all of whom have heard of it, and many of whom perhaps will find it of interest.
Nearly sixty years ago, up in the high hills of Northeast Calhoun County and along the line of Lafayette, there lived the characters of this story among a people who were honest, sincere, hardworking, mostly god fearing, and all in all the kind and type of folks who are even yet the very backbone and sinew of good citizenship of our land today. The blight of the four years of Civil War still lay heavy on the land. Times were hard, money was scarce, opportunity was lacking and yet these people made the best of what they had, and enjoyed life as best they might. There was a dance one night in the home of a good citizen who lived Northeast of Sarepta, with a fiddle and a banjo, and a man to “beat the straws,” in a big old log house, with a huge fire place, in which blazed a big fire of hickory logs and fat pine knots. It was the old-fashioned square dance. “All hands up and circle left,” “right hands across and left hands back,” ladies do see and gents you know,” “swing your partner and promenade.”
Ab Kelly was quite a character. Big and strong, a fine fellow when sober, but given to being quarrelsome and overbearing when under the influence of the brand of “wildcat” liquor, which was at that time a rather plentiful product on Cowpen and Potlockany. Ab was at the dance, more or less looking for trouble. Dock Bishop was there too. He was a man of striking appearance. More than six feet tall, coal black hair and eyes, handsome face, fine personality, Dock with his impressive personality, made many friends easily. Always he was a favorite with members of the fair sex.
On this night, Dock was having a fine time, dancing with one of the most beautiful girls present. Round and round he went, keeping perfect time, his polished boots seeming to tap most lightly as he lifted his beautiful partner to the strains of “Soldier’s Joy” and the “Eighth of January.” Somehow the sight of Dock Bishop having such a good time jarred on Ab Kelly’s vision. Somehow, Ab resented it. So, when Dock swung by with his partner on his arm, Kelly deliberately spat a brown stream of tobacco juice on Dock Bishop’s polished boot. Dock looked Kelly in the eye, half stopped, but decided to let the insult pass. Round he came again, and this time Kelly spat a big shot of tobacco juice on Bishop’s new jean trousers.
This was entirely too much. An invitation to go outside, a wild melee in which others joined, and in a few moments Kelly was flat on the ground with a pistol bullet through his shoulder, and there was the beginning of a feud which smoldered as messages passed back and forth between the principals and with friends on both sides being slowly drawn into the affair. Months passed and finally in the little town of Dallas, two miles north of the Calhoun-Lafayette County line, the long smoldering feud burst into full blaze when principals and friends on both sides met and engaged in a general battle and shooting scrape, in which it is said that Dock Bishop, always a crack shot with a pistol, shot and killed two men whose name was Harmon and shot through the mouth another man who was present. This was too much, and immediately the officers of the law began a manhunt for Dock Bishop, and for two or three other men who were his kinsmen and friends charged as accessories to the crimes.
But Dock Bishop, like Charles Chapman, had many friends, many kinspeople scattered throughout the area from Yoccona to Scoona Rivers. It was not easy to catch him. Over a period of several months, he roamed the territory accompanied by his friends, staying a night with one kinsman, a week with another, moving as the word was brought to him of efforts being made to apprehend him. I do not remember whether or not a reward was offered for their capture. Evidently there must have been. Anyway, down in the Robbs neighborhood in Pontotoc County and the Paris neighborhood in Calhoun County, each bordering the Calhoun-Pontotoc line, there appeared a man named Wise, from Texas, who claimed to be a cow buyer or cattle man and who made it his business to try to locate Dock Bishop and his associates. In reality, Wise was a famous detective, and he felt that he was outwitting these bad men thoroughly. But he was badly wrong, and he paid for his error with his life. Wise made friends with a member of the Bishop crowd, and agreed to reward this man if the man would direct him to Bishop’s hideout. All plans were made, and it was agreed that on a certain night, the accomplice would go on ahead of Wise and from time to time drop pieces of torn newspaper in the road so that Wise might follow and take the outlaws in their nest.
Jim Bishop was the man who promised to lead Wise to the outlaw den. It was the theory of the state in the prosecution of Dock Bishop that Jim Bishop was a tool and accomplice of Dock Bishop and that instead of leading Wise to the place where he might arrest Dock Bishop and the others, he betrayed Wise and led him to his death. Whatever is the truth about this, there can be no doubt but that Wise on a starlight night followed what he thought was a certain trail to catch the outlaws.
As a boy I saw the place where Wise was murdered. A narrow country road winding along the ridges and slopes of the red hills some five miles southeast of Sarepta in Calhoun county, and only a little way from the Pontotoc County line, came at one point between two huge white oaks trees, neither tree being more than ten feet from the road bed. It was down this road came Detective Wise on that starlight night way back in 1884, looking from time to time for the piece of newspaper scattered along the road. Neighbors who lived in hearing distance swore on the witness stand that suddenly there rang out on the still night air several gunshots and then there was silence again. The story is that when Wise walked down the road and just as he reached the two huge trees a signal was sounded and from shotguns and pistols a stream of bullets and buckshot poured into his body killing him instantly. Wise was missing several days before the countryside was aroused. But aroused it became when the story of the shots and his disappearance became known.
Posses were formed and a widespread search of the countryside was made. Combing the woods and the entire country, one member of this searching party, riding horseback through the woods, noticed as his horse stepped across a fallen log, a piece of bright red clay lying there. A clod of red clay lying by itself there in the deep woods aroused his suspicions. He got down off his horse and tied him to a nearby bush. Then he went and got down on his knees and began to remove the leaves, pine straw and other debris which covered the spot. It was a matter of a moment to determine that the earth had been disturbed there and recently. He notified other members of the posse and soon with shovels they began to remove the earth. Buried almost under the huge fallen log in a shallow grave not more than two feet deep, they found the bullet torn and mangled body of Detective Wise, and as you can very well imagine, excitement flared to a crescendo. Word went by telegraph back to Texas and within a short period there appeared on the scene grim and determined relatives of the dead man bent on seeing to it that the murderers of Detective Wise should be speedily brought to justice.
The shocking crime was too much for even the friends of Bishop and his associates. No more could they find shelter and safety in the home of people in that country. No more could they roam scot free. Public indignation mounted to such extent that realizing they could no longer escape, Bishop and one or two others went to Oxford and surrendered themselves all the while bitterly denying the murder of Wise. Money was not lacking to defend Dock Bishop and so there was employed as his legal counsel, the Hon. Hamp Sullivan of Oxford, one of the greatest criminal lawyers of his day and age.
Representing the State of Mississippi as District Attorney was the Hon. Ira D. Ogglesby, reputedly one of the ugliest men in personal appearance ever known in that country, but at the same time, one of the brightest and shrewdest prosecuting attorneys that section has known. From the very outstart, it was a battle of giants. Sullivan, with all his vast legal knowledge and great ability, took advantage of every legal technicality, every loophole, every possible avenue to save and acquit his clients. Ogglesby on the other hand backed by the majority of the law as well as public opinion, met his adversary on every point and maneuver.
Bishop was tried first. He was the chief object of the state’s attack. He was the acknowledged leader of the gang. Back and forth the battled raged, with each prospective juror being scrutinized and put under the legal microscope. Many were challenged and set aside. Those finally chosen were seated only after a barrage of questions seeking in every way and manner to determine their leanings or opinions. For days on end Ogglesby put on the stand an array of witnesses linking one to the other certain facts which all together would irrevocably damn and convict the accused Dock Bishop. Then for days, Sullivan threw forward an array of men and women whose testimony he hoped would raise a doubt as to Dock Bishop’s guilt. In the end, after many hours of deliberation, the jury filed back into a tense and crowded courtroom with a unanimous verdict of “guilty as charged.”
Standing cool, calm, and unruffled in the court’s presence, Dock Bishop declined to make any statement as to why the sentence should not be pronounced and heard the Judge sentence him to be “hanged by the neck until your are dead, dead, dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.” Then followed many months of waiting while Mr. Sullivan appealed to the Supreme Court and finally that high court said: “The case against Dock Bishop is affirmed,” and set the date on which he should die. Friday, the fourth day of July, 1886, was the awful day on which Dock Bishop was slated to pay with his life for his crime.
Bright, hot sunshine fell upon the untold thousands of men, women, and children, who on horseback, on foot, in mule and ox wagons and all other kinds of transportation then in existence, wended their way toward Pittsboro, the county seat of Calhoun “to see Dock Bishop hung.” The Board of Supervisors had made arrangements to have the hanging in public. They had selected a valley two miles west of Pittsboro on the old Pittsboro and Big Creek road as the site. It was a natural amphitheater, at the head of a little hollow where on three sides the earth sloped down to the little valley and under the fine trees that covered these hillsides, thousands upon thousands of people from all over Calhoun, Pontotoc, Lafayette, and Yalobusha Counties gathered in restrained silence, waiting, watching for the dread event. A gallows of huge square timbers had been built there, and from the cross beam several feet above the hinged trap door there hung a brand new grass rope, already coiled ready for the fatal knot.
As the appointed hour drew nigh, there was a buzz from the crowd, and coming slowly down the winding country road, there was a wagon with spring seats on which sat the sheriff and his deputies, one on each side of the prisoner. In the back of the wagon, partly covered by a quilt, was the black draped coffin inside of which the body of the prisoner was soon to rest. Scott Hardin, a good man and true, was sheriff of Calhoun County. He led the way up the steps of the scaffold and the prisoner followed. Dock Bishop stood on the gallows and looked over the great crowd assembled. There was the stillness of death over all. Pale from his long days in jail, Bishop was yet a fine looking man in the very prime of his life. A minister prayed for the forgiveness of all sins, and especially for the soul of the condemned man. Then Dock Bishop was offered the opportunity to speak for the last time on earth, and stepped forward. There was not a tremor in his voice. There was no hint of a breakdown. Calmly and with deliberation, Dock Bishop expressed his thanks to those who had befriended him; he told of how he held no malice against him nor against those officers of the law at whose hands he must suffer his life. With almost his last breath, he finished his statement by declaring that he was innocent of the death of Wise, at the same time admitting that he had killed a man in Alabama.
Not a muscle in his fine body quivered as Dock Bishop stepped on the fatal trap. The black cap was swiftly slipped over his face, and then the peculiarly tied hangman’s knot was adjusted so that it would break his neck when he fell. There was a long drawn sigh from the assembled thousands, and then Sheriff Hardin swiftly raised his hatchet and struck the rope which was so tightly stretched across the block, but not striking with the full blade, severing all strands in two save one, and the Sheriff found it necessary to make the second stroke. The trap door fell with a bang and Dock Bishop’s body shot through the hole, jerked tight on the end of the rope several feet below. There was the sound of a sharp crack as the bones of neck snapped, and swinging slowly in the ghastly circle, Dock Bishop’s body “hung by the neck until he was dead, dead, DEAD.”
When his body was finally cut down, and placed in the coffin, there stepped up to the sheriff a comely woman, who made request that she be given the rope which had taken Bishop’s life. “I was the wife of Detective W.A. Wise,” she said, and these men are my brothers.” She was given the rope, and took it back to her home in Texas.
I was born on January 6, 1886. Dock Bishop was hung on July 4, of that same year. I was, therefore, only six months old, and the things I tell you are, of course, only those that were told to me when I was a little boy. But I have never forgotten them, and there are many, many people yet living in Calhoun County today who will remember as I have this terrible tragedy and its shocking sequel. Jim Bishop was finally found not guilty. Bob Lamar, another one of those implicated, was kept in jail for months and years and finally the case against him was nolle prossed. W.A. Wise’s body lies today in the old cemetery at Sarepta far from those who loved him, while Bishop was buried I know not were.
And so ends the story of the man who in his day was Calhoun County’s “Charles Chapman” while “time marches on.”