Noah Fulton’s execution remains one of the most controversial instances of capital punishment in Virginia. The 21-year-old was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in 1907. One of the most tragic aspects of the trial and sentence came towards the end of Fulton’s life.
Noah Fulton and John Johnson were life-long friends. Fulton worked at the lumber mill, while Johnson farmed, but the two spent a month working in West Virginia that March. They then returned to their native Abingdon. Several erroneous reports stated Fulton was “colored,” but he wasn’t.
The constant friendship hit a bad patch when the two young men quarreled. Some sources stated Johnson insulted Fulton. Others suggested Fulton had become a hired gun, and someone else paid him to kill Johnson. Fulton told authorities that Johnson had threatened his life on the day of his capture. Several sources declared they were rival suitors for the same young woman. Johnson was only 23-years-old when he died.
Numerous accounts linked Johnson and Fulton with a 17-year-old girl named Dorah Breedvole. In this account, the young men dueled after a month of arguing. They quarreled in West Virginia and the conflict faded. When the young men returned to Abingdon, their anger was rekindled, and they dueled. They met on April 28, just after church. Breedvole was crushed by the series of events.
The Crime Comes Home
Both men met at 2 o’clock that afternoon, in Greendale, near Abingdon. Fulton shot Johnson five times, but only one bullet was fatal. Johnson bled to death when a single bullet severed an artery.
Fulton fled to Tennessee. The authorities remained close behind with bloodhounds. He purchased a ticket for Indianapolis at the station in Bluff City, Tennessee. The authorities apprehended him in Jonesboro, Tennessee, on the 29th.
Fulton was incarcerated in the Abingdon jail. He was convicted of first-degree murder on June 10, 1907. His lawyer made a motion for a new trial, but the initial request was denied on June 11. The judge sentenced him to be hanged on July 12.
His counsel began proceedings to have the death sentence commuted to life in prison. His youth prompted public outcry and numerous petitions for clemency. For a long time, he and his family maintained hope. On July 2, he was given a respite to allow time for an appeal. The execution day was postponed to September 13, 1907. News came again on September 9, this time his death was postponed to October 11. On October 7, the sentence was again set up for November 15. On November 14, it was extended to December 13, 1907.
Virginia Governor Claude A. Swanson poured over the case for months. Several reports of new evidence came out in Fulton’s favor, but unfortunately it was never enough to convince Swanson to issue a commute. In November, he formally stated he would not intervene. The Supreme Court denied an appeal. Swanson said he wouldn’t go against the rulings of the lower court, as well as the Attorney for the Commonwealth.
Fulton issued a statement in December, just before his execution. He claimed he carried a secret that would’ve gotten someone hung in his place. Fulton believed he couldn’t be forgiven because he hadn’t talked earlier. Many ministers tried to visit him and console him, but he refused to see them. This was when rumors of paid assassination gained momentum.
Fulton was hanged on December 13. From existing records, the death was not humane. Fulton hung for 27 minutes before he was strangled to death. His neck did not break. He was left hanging for a total of 31 minutes before authorities cut him down and the attending physician pronounced him dead.
This still wasn’t the end of his name in the papers. Rumors circulated the last week of December, which claimed Fulton had miraculously survived the hanging. According to these reports, his neck didn’t break and he was being nursed by relatives. The story was formally confuted by December 29, when officials revealed details about his burial.