William Jackson Marion

Hanging of Jack Marion (Photo: Gage County Historical Society)

Hanging of Jack Marion (Photo: Gage County Historical Society)

Mistaken identity of a corpse led to his mistaken execution

William Jackson Marion and John Cameron, who boarded together in Clay County, Kansas, journeyed in May 1872 to Gage County, Nebraska, to visit John and Rachel Warren, Marion's in-laws. The day before they left Kansas, Marion purportedly signed a contract to purchase a team of horses from Cameron for $315, paying $30 down. It was agreed that Cameron would keep the horses until Marion paid the balance. Marion and Cameron left the Warren place in mid-May, saying they were heading west to work on the railroad. A few days later, Marion returned alone to Gage County.

Eleven years later, a body was found on a former Otoe and Missouri Indian Reservation dressed in clothing that witnesses identified as Cameron's. Marion was indicted, convicted, and sentenced to death for murder. However, the Nebraska Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial because Marion had been sentenced by a judge rather than a jury. At the time of the crime, the law required jury sentencing, although by the time of the trial the law had been changed to allow sentencing by a judge. Marion v. Nebraska, 16 Neb. 349 (1884).

Marion was promptly retried, convicted, and sentenced to death, this time by a jury — a result that the state high court affirmed. Marion v. Nebraska, 20 Neb. 233 (1886). He went to the gallows on March 25, 1887, proclaiming — as he had from the beginning — that he was innocent.

Four years later, Cameron turned up alive. He explained that he had absconded to Mexico in 1872 to avoid a shotgun wedding in Kansas. On the centennial of Marion's execution — March 25, 1987 — Nebraska Governor Bob Kerrey granted William Jackson Marion, posthumously, a full pardon based on innocence.

— Rob Warden