Barney Fleming murders Bobella Butler in Seattle on October 15, 1935.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 11/13/2012
  • Essay 10054
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On October 15, 1935, two Seattle police officers, investigating the report of a domestic disturbance in a rooming house, discover the dead body of Bobella Butler (1903-1935). Barney Fleming, (1906-1936), asleep in an adjoining room, is arrested and held for questioning. Fleming initially denies being involved in Butler’s death, but eventually confesses to homicide detectives that he killed her after the two argued because she planned to leave him. During a two-day trial in November 1935, Fleming is convicted of first-degree murder in King County Superior Court and sentenced to death. A motion for a new trial is denied and his attorney does not file an appeal with the Washington State Supreme Court within the statutory time limit. When Fleming appears in superior court for sentencing on March 4, 1936, he asks the judge to have him executed without delay so that his spiritual advisor, who will be leaving for Europe in April, can be with him. A plea to the governor’s office for executive clemency is denied and Fleming is hanged at the Washington State Penitentiary on April 3, 1936.

Not a Happy Home

At 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, October 15, 1935, Seattle police officers Charles Seavers and Charles A. Overholt were dispatched to a rooming house at 1617 S Lane Street in Rainier Valley to investigate reports of a violent domestic disturbance. When police officers entered the apartment from which screams had been emanating, they found Bobella Butler (1903-1935) a black female, age 32, dead on the kitchen floor. She had been beaten and her throat cut.

Officers Seavers and Overholt found a black male, identified as Barney Fleming, a 29-year-old junk dealer, asleep in the adjoining bedroom. He said he knew nothing about Butler’s death, claiming a man, wearing a mask and gloves, had broken into the apartment and forced him to drink some moonshine which put him to sleep. Fleming was held for questioning and transported to Seattle Police headquarters, located in the Public Safety Building (now the Yesler Building), 4th Avenue and Yesler Way.

On Wednesday, October 16, 1935, Fleming confessed to Detective Captain Ernest W. Yoris that he killed Butler. The couple had been cohabiting for several month when she suddenly decided to leave him. After arguing violently about it for two days, Fleming fed her rat poison, struck her numerous times with a stove shaker (a heavy iron handle used to shake the ashes off the grate in the firebox of a cook stove) and cut her throat with a straightedge razor. Afterward, he drank a bottle of moonshine whiskey and fell asleep in the bedroom.

The Trial

On Thursday, October 17, 1935, Prosecutor Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) charged Barney Fleming in King County Superior Court with first-degree murder. Judge Malcolm Douglas (1888-1968) appointed Seattle attorney Andrew L. Ulvestad (1906-1967) as his defense counsel. At his arraignment on Thursday, October 31, Fleming pleaded not guilty by reason of mental irresponsibility (not criminally responsible for the murder because of mental illness or a mental defect). The trial was set to begin on Thursday, November 14, 1935.

The murder trial proceeded at a rapid pace and was concluded in just one and-a-half days of testimony. Prosecutor Magnuson’s simple strategy was to prove that the death of Bobella Butler was a premeditated act, thereby qualifying the defendant for the death penalty. Captain Yoris read Fleming’s confession, in which he admitted the murder, into the record. Testifying in his own defense, Fleming reverted to his original story that a stranger had barged into the apartment with a gun, forced him to drink moonshine whiskey, rendering him unconscious, and then wantonly killed Butler. In closing, Defense Attorney Ulvestad argued that the defendant was mentally irresponsible and, although he may have killed Butler, could not be held criminally liable for the murder and therefore was not eligible for the death penalty.

The case went to the jury at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, November 16, 1935. Although a quick verdict had been anticipated, the jury, consisting of seven men and five women, did not return a verdict until 9:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Fleming was found guilty of first-degree murder and the jury voted for the death penalty. Attorney Ulvestad immediately filed a motion for a new trial and an arrest of judgment. For Judge Douglas, it was the first time in his 11 years on the bench that a jury had returned a death penalty verdict for a defendant in his court.

Post-Trial Motions

On Friday, November 29, Judge Douglas denied Fleming’s motion for a new trial, and sentenced him to be executed at the Washington State Penitentiary on Friday, January 10, 1936. The execution date was stayed, however, when Attorney Ulvestad notified the court of his intention to appeal the verdict to the Washington State Supreme Court on behalf of the defendant based on judicial error and jury prejudice.

When Fleming’s attorney failed to perfect the appeal within the statutory time limit, Prosecutor Magnuson filed a motion with the state Supreme Court to have it dismissed. Meanwhile, Reverend Arvid C. Ohrnell (1891-1963), pastor of the Scandinavian Pentecostal Tabernacle in Seattle, was proceeding with plans to petition Governor Clarence D. Martin (1887-1955) to commute Fleming’s death sentence to life imprisonment.

The prosecution’s motion to dismiss was heard in Olympia on Saturday, February 28, 1936. Attorney Ulvestad told the court that lack of finances had prevented the perfection of Fleming’s appeal. If he was to be executed, Fleming wanted it to be done before his spiritual advisor and “only friend,” Reverend Ohrnell, left on April 7 on an extended trip to Europe. Chief Justice William J. Millard (1883-1970) obliged and, instead of waiting the customary 30 days, signed an order sending the case back to Judge Douglas immediately for sentencing.

On Tuesday morning, March 3, 1936, Barney Fleming appeared in King County Superior Court before Judge Douglas. He was accompanied by Reverend Ohrnell and Attorney Ulvestad, who were prepared to argue Fleming’s request for an early execution date. Judge Douglas had no objection, however, and sentenced him to be hanged on April 3. After court adjourned, King County Sheriff William B. Severyns (1887-1944) and two armed deputies left with the condemned prisoner for the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

Barney Fleming's Execution

During the week preceding the execution, Governor Martin’s office in Olympia was besieged with petitions to commute Fleming’s death sentence to life imprisonment. He was on a trip to the East Coast, however, so the decision ultimately became the responsibility of Lieutenant Governor Victor A. Meyers (1897-1991), acting on Governor Martin’s behalf. After carefully studying the case, Meyers announced he had found nothing to justify interfering with Fleming’s execution. He told Warden James M. McCauley (1890-1940) to keep telephone lines open, however, in the event of a last-minute reprieve.

Before beginning his death march, Fleming asked Reverend Ohrnell to warn “all youngsters to avoid drink, women and jealousy” ("Slayer Hangs After Giving Youth Advice"). At 9:45 p.m. on Friday, April 3, 1936, he was taken from his cell on death-row and walked to the gallows accompanied by two prison guards and Reverend Ohrnell. Warden McCauley read the death warrant aloud before 75 witnesses and then the state executioner pulled a black, cloth hood over Fleming’s head, followed by the hangman’s noose. The trap was sprung at 9:59 p.m. and he was pronounced dead by a prison physician at 10:14 p.m.

Barney Fleming was the 38th prisoner, the ninth sent to death-row from King County, and the third African American to be executed at the Washington State Penitentiary since 1904.


"Flemming Doomed to Hang," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 17, 1935, p. 3; "Negro Held for Questioning in Death of Woman," The Seattle Times, October 16, 1935, p. 7; "Junkman Admits Slaying Woman," Ibid., October 17, 1935, p. 4; "Plea Entered in Slaying," Ibid., October 31, 1935, p. 21; "Wife-Slayer’s Death Ordered," Ibid., November 16, 1935, p. 3; "Jurors Vote Hanging for Wife-Slayer," Ibid., November 17, 1935, p. 3; "Doomed Slayer Anxious to Get Execution 'Over,'" Ibid., February 9, 1936, p. 7; "Convicted Man Cuts Life Span to Have Pastor," Ibid., March 1, 1936, p. 10; "Slayer in Death Cell," Ibid., March 6, 1936, p. 11; "Meyers Holds Fate of Negro Wife Slayer," Ibid., April 2, 1936, p. 23; "Meyers Studies Hanging Case," Ibid., April 3, 1936, p. 15; "Slayer Hangs After Giving Youth Advice," Ibid., April 4, 1936, p. 13.

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