|The Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1908|
Arkansas has had its share of eccentrics, including Elijah Skaggs, a preacher who asked the state to execute him so he could rise again from the grave and save the world.
Skaggs grew up in Logan County, Arkansas, near Paris. After a rather unremarkable childhood, he moved to Dallas, Texas, around 1893. While there, he began preaching and gathered a loyal following. Using Dallas as his base, he started making trips back to Arkansas around 1905. Skaggs held tent revivals in Crawford County, Arkansas, where he expanded his following. His message was simple: Skaggs was a prophet and the savior of the world. His followers referred to him as “King of the Gentiles,” and he declared he would be sacrificed for the salvation of mankind. His martyrdom was to take place in Fort Smith, Skaggs said.
Skaggs and his followers arrived in Fort Smith in 1908 and had dinner at their hotel. Afterward, follower Margaret Irene Taylor wanted to go to the city park outside of town with Skaggs. On the way back to Fort Smith, after the park visit, Taylor and Skaggs did not sit together on the streetcar. Once they arrived in the city, Taylor ran to city hall and demanded to see the mayor. She told the mayor she had been raped by Skaggs. The mayor told her he had no power to arrest Skaggs and sent her to the justice of the peace, who then arrested Skaggs.
During his arraignment, Skaggs pleaded guilty to rape and declared he was also guilty of murder. Astonished, the judge asked him how he could be guilty of murder when no murder was reported. Skaggs responded he was guilty of murder because he had “taken that woman’s honor,” and pointed at Irene Taylor. A grand jury indicted Skaggs for rape.
Skaggs asked the prosecutor to seek the death penalty, but the prosecutor declined. Skaggs seemed disappointed.
Meanwhile, Taylor began visiting Skaggs in jail. The visits lasted hours.
When Skaggs’ trial began the next month, the prosecutor called Taylor to the stand. Taylor’s answer to the prosecutor’s first question threw the court into turmoil. “Do you know Skaggs?” asked the prosecutor. Taylor sat back in her chair on the witness stand and declared, “I don’t know Skaggs, but I know the King,” and then looked lovingly at Skaggs. Asked if Skaggs had raped her, Taylor said he had not. Why did she claim he raped her during the grand jury investigation? Taylor answered Skaggs had committed a “spiritual rape,” not a physical one. The prosecutor asked Taylor why she had staged the scene of a physical attack, but she refused to answer. The judge ordered Taylor to answer, but she leaped from her seat and declared, “Put me in jail and keep me there as long as you want to, you mutt!” Seeing little progress could be made with Taylor, the prosecutor charged her with perjury of her grand jury testimony and ordered her to jail.
What caused her sudden change of testimony? Observers claimed Skaggs had a hypnotic control over his followers, and Taylor had fallen under his sway. When brought back into the courtroom to finish her testimony, Taylor claimed it was all a part of a divine plan Skaggs was using to save humanity. According to Taylor, Skaggs had ordered her to claim rape against him so he would be arrested, tried and sentenced to death. Rape was a capital offense punishable by death in 1908.
On the third day of his death, Skaggs said he would rise again triumphantly. When the prosecutor chose not to seek the death penalty, it sent Skaggs’ plan into disarray. Skaggs then ordered Taylor to change her testimony to keep himself out of prison.
However, the jury was not convinced of Taylor’s sudden change of story. On the morning of Saturday, June 13, 1908, the jury announced it had reached a verdict. Deputies brought Skaggs into the courtroom. As he waited for the verdict, Skaggs nervously mopped the sweat off of his face. The jury found him guilty of assault with intent to rape and sentenced him to 21 years in the penitentiary. As he was being led away, several of his supporters, including a farmer who offered the note on his farm, attempted to bribe law enforcement to hang him on the spot, so he could demonstrate his divinity.
After being taken to the penitentiary, Skaggs convinced his fellow prisoners to hang him. They bound him to a chair and placed it at the top of a cage. They fixed a noose around his neck and pushed him off, but the rope snapped in two. Skaggs plummeted to the ground, breaking his jaw in the process. His plan had failed again.
Because law enforcement refused to execute him and his fellow prisoners were not effective executioners, Skaggs appealed his sentence. His followers paid his bond so he could remain a free man while the case was on appeal.
In September 1908, Skaggs moved to Warren, Arkansas, where he hoped to gain more followers. That plan also failed, after Tom Baker, a nearby farmer, refused to have anything to do with the prophet. Almost immediately, Baker received anonymous letters that threatened to harm him if “he would not bow to their king.” Outraged, Warren townspeople gathered to find Skaggs. On the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 7, a mob took Skaggs into the woods, where they whipped him with straps taken from the harness of a buggy. The mob then put him on a train and demanded he never return to Warren.
At the end of October, Skaggs returned to court in Fort Smith to learn his fate. The court ruled against Skaggs’ appeal, and he went to the penitentiary to begin his sentence. While there, Skaggs failed to convert any of the other prisoners into followers. His fellow prisoners referred to him as “Skaggsy.”
Gov. X.O. Pindall pardoned Skaggs at the end of 1908. Skaggs’ followers were able to convince the governor Skaggs was “feeble minded” and should be released. After leaving prison, Skaggs left Arkansas and declared the world would end in 1912.
In the meantime, he traveled to Buffalo, New York and Los Angeles, California. Skaggs disappeared from the historical record after his 1912 prediction failed to come true. Today, Skaggs’ story is nearly forgotten, captured only in old newspaper articles, but for a time, he and his followers made quite a mark on Arkansas history.
For more information about Arkansas history, visit the Arkansas State Archives at archives.arkansas.gov, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 501-682-6900.