FULL NAME: William “Bill” Sketoe, Sr.
BORN: June 8th, 1818
DEATH: December 3rd, 1864
William “Bill” Sketoe, Sr. was born in Madrid, Spain on June 8th, 1818. During his childhood, he moved to Dale County, Alabama with his father, residing in the town of Newton. As he grew into adulthood, he became a minister, first serving as a circuit rider (a minister who travels from town to town preaching to settlers).
While in the Winegrass area from his circuit rider job, Bill Sketoe met and married Sarah Clemmons. Together, they had a total of eight children. Though there are no records in government archives, he allegedly served in the Confederate Army during the Civi War until Fall, 1864, having received word that his wife was ill. The story goes that he was able to return home until after his wife had recovered.
At some point, Sketoe had come into some trouble with the Newton Home Guard, which was commanded by Joseph Breare, leading to his lynching. Dale County was almost entirely lawless during the Civil War; the pine forests in the area usually housed deserters and Unionists that would come out of the woods to terrorize the citizens.
Home Guard units were formed by the angry citizens who wanted to defend their county against these people. One of the guard groups – the Newton Home Guard (locally referred to as “the Buttermilk Rangers”) – was led by Captain Joseph Breare, a lawyer who had moved into the county during the 1850s from England. It was his goal to hunt down and punish all deserters, and he had already hanged two men believed of committing treason.
The reason of Sketoe’s lynching is not certain, though there are two possible reasons for it. One version states that although Bill Sketoe had offered papers that indicated he had found a substitute to serve in his place in the army, the Home Guard did not believe him, leading Breare to hang him as a deserter. This theory has mostly been disproven, as the Confederacy had repealed its substitution laws in early 1864.
The other theory was that Sketoe was suspected of helping pro-Union guerrilla and deserter band leader John Ward. Only two months earlier, Ward had ambushed a Confederate ammunition transport in Dale County, which subsequently killed an officer. In Ozark County, he had killed one of Breare’s men. Captain Breare had already made attempts to hang three men who supposedly were part of the attack, but a Confederate officer stopped him due to the lack of evidence.
Bill Sketoe was never formally charged, and he was not charged for his work with John Ward. Even despite the lack of evidence publicly produced to support Breare’s allegations of treason, Sketoe was hung anyways.
Legend has it that the Newton Home Guard stopped Sketoe on December 3rd, 1864 as he crossed the bridge over Choctawhatchee River, taking him into the nearby woods to beat him into submission. The men then hauled him into the buggy below the oak branch they were to hang him from.
Before the hanging, a friend of Sketoe’s tried to convince the Home Guard not to kill Sketoe, which proved to be in vain. He ran into Newton to get help. Breare was anxious to get on with the lynching, so he asked if Sketoe had any last words; he asked if he could pray instead.
To the shock of the Home Guard, he prayed for them instead of himself, only infuriating Breare and his men. The captain then whipped the horse that was leading the buggy, which left Sketoe hanging from the tree limb. However, he was tall, and his weight bent the branch in such a way that it allowed his feet to touch the ground; this mistake was made in the haste to execute him.
In order to correct the error, one of the men dug a whole beneath Sketoe’s feet, allowing him to strangle to death before the friend could return to his aid.
William Sketoe’s body was buried in the nearby Mt. Carmel Cemetery, where his epitaph reads: “Gone, but Not Forgotten”. A monument in his honor was crafted by the Newton historical society with a marker that features the romantic version of the story. This has caused some controversy among historians. The city museum contains Sarah Clemmons Sketoe’s cloak. Every member of the Newton Home Guard involved in Sketoe’s lynching died unnatural deaths, according to local histories. One such death was of Breare, who was struck and killed by the limb of a Post Oak tree – the same kind that Sketoe was hung from.
The locals say that the hole that the guard dug below Sketoe can never be filled, as it will empty itself of its soil. No matter how many times the hole is filled up, it somehow manages to return. In 1979, the hole became partially covered by a bride and some rocks, but it remains a local attraction. It is known as the Sketoe Hanging Hole.
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