Elis Lawton was born and bred in Scott County, Virginia. Adulthood took him elsewhere. He worked in Colorado mine owned by a man named Baxter Pate, in 1905. Lawton had worked there for 10 years. He wasn’t old enough to recall the execution of McDaniel Rhea, but often heard about it growing up. One day, Pate and Lawton shared a drink and Pate made a shocking confession.
McDaniel Rhea worked as a laborer in Scott County. He was originally from Ashe County, North Carolina. His friend, John Luttrell, came from Sullivan County, Tennessee.
McDaniel Rhea and John Luttrell shared a second story room in what would eventually be known as the “Compton Hotel.” This old building is believed to have been across from Quillen Hardware in downtown Gate City. It’s the Scott County Courthouse parking lot today.
The two were caught up in a game of cards and Luttrell was on a winning streak. He ended up winning $750 from Rhea. The two men laughed about it, until Rhea asked for some of the money back. It was all he had.
Luttrell refused, despite their friendship. The two eventually fought. Rhea grabbed a gun and shot Luttrell dead. Rhea fled Gate City, but the authorities caught him and brought him back. His trial began on May 17, 1858. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang on June 25.
Lawton already knew most of the tale, but Pate continued to talk. Rhea had a wealthy family in North Carolina. His stepbrothers, named Mason, came to visit him in jail. One brother smuggled a tiny steel piece into Rhea’s cell the day before the execution. The frame-like hinge had several hooks designed to bear the force of hanging and protect Rhea’s neck.
When it was over, a doctor examined the body and declared him dead. The attending physician disappeared after the execution. Some rumors said Rhea’s family paid him off, while others said they just killed him.
The Mason brothers brought a casket for Rhea’s body. Two county officials traveled with the brothers to verify the body was buried in Yancey County, North Carolina. A few days later, those officials returned and said the Masons had threatened their lives if they didn’t leave North Carolina. It was assumed the matter was over and, buried or not, justice had prevailed.
Rhea’s family freed him as soon as the county men left. He first fled to Texas, where he made his initial fortune in mining. Lawton was shocked when Pate revealed that he was none other than Rhea, himself. “McDaniel Rhea,” was actually an assumed name, yet it is on official record in Scott County.
No one knows precisely who was to blame for the fake hanging. Did the family organize it? The guards? Or the Sheriff, who was also surnamed Mason? The jailer, who “executed” Rhea, declared on his deathbed the hanging was a ruse. How far did the officials’ involvement go? It remains a mystery.
No efforts were made to re-arrest Pate, alias Rhea. The story is often erroneously reported to have occurred in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and several cities in Kentucky. In the incorrect versions, the hotel is usually listed as the “Central Hotel.” Several false articles also state detectives from West Virginia visited Colorado, but none ever captured or detained Pate.