THE LAST EXECUTION IN GASCONADE COUNTY
by Randolph E. Puchta
The January, 1989 execution of George “Tiny” Mercer at the Missouri State Penitentiary has revived in Missouri the controversy surrounding the death penalty. This has brought to the author’s attention and curiosity the subject of the last execution carried out in Gasconade County.
The last legal execution by hanging occurred in Gasconade County on April 12, 1935. I recall the event, not from having been an observer, but from being an inquisitive seven-year-old and hearing my parents and elders discussing the event. Later, however, I became personally acquainted with all of the Gasconade County officials involved in the trial of the condemned and his execution, as well as seven members of the jury.
The official records are found in the office of the circuit clerk in the Gasconade County courthouse in the case of State of Missouri vs. Willie Roland. [Note: Those records are now housed at the GCHS Archives & Records Center. 9/08] The evidence was that, in or near St. Louis, Willie Roland and three companions hopped a Rock Island freight train bound for Kansas City, with the intent of robbing one of the freight cars. The defendant, Willie Roland, carried a small grip or satchel which contained some burglary tools. He was armed with a revolver. Enroute the four men broke into a freight car by forcing a door on top of one of the freight cars and stole from the car 60 white shirts, 43 blue shirts, 104 pairs of ladies’ silk hose, two unionalls, 17 men’s undergarments, and 18 pairs of shoes.
While the train was engaged in switching operations at Bland, Missouri, two Rock Island railroad detectives, one on top of the freight cars and one on the ground, spied the Defendant Roland and his companions. Detective J. W. Whitted, on top of the cars, approached the defendant and his companions and asked the defendant what he had in the satchel but received no reply. As he reached down to pick up the satchel, the defendant shot him twice. The detective collapsed and died. Detective E. C. Shane, just a few feet away on the ground, pulled his gun but was immediately shot once by the defendant and, as he staggered away down an embankment, was shot a second time. He was later found dead at the foot of the embankment. The four men fled the train at Bland but were later taken into custody. The killings were not discovered until after the train arrived in Eldon, Missouri, when the body of Detective Whitted was found still on top of the freight car. The Defendant Roland, having done the shooting, was charged with first degree murder. The defendant confessed to the killings and his companions the only eye witnesses, also testified against him at the trial, as did a ballistics expert.
--Gasconade County Historical Society Newsletter
Volume 2, Number 3, Spring 1989