Lawmakers seek posthumous pardon for Georgia woman executed in 1873

Georgia’s Capitol
Georgia’s Capitol

Nearly 150 years after she was hanged for murder, Georgia legislators want the state to pardon Susan Eberhart.

Eberhart was 19 when she was convicted of killing Sarah Spann in 1873 and sentenced to death. House Resolution 1008 asks the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant Eberhart a pardon more than seven decades later.

Eberhart had worked as a housekeeper in Webster County for Spann and her husband, Enoch Spann. In May 1872, Sarah Spann was strangled. Eberhart and Enoch Spann were both charged and convicted in the killing, but a recent book argues that Spann was solely responsible for his wife’s death and forced Eberhart into helping him.

At the time, Eberhart was cast by the public as Spann’s mistress helping to get a troublesome wife out of the way. But Fay Stapleton Burnettt’s 2018 book “The Hanging of Susan Eberhart” describes Eberhart as a quiet, obedient young woman with little life experience, living in the unhappy and volatile Spann household and repeatedly rejecting Enoch Spann’s unwanted sexual advances. Eberhart cooperated with Spann in fear for her own life and was convicted based on false testimony from his friends, according to the book.

Rep. Gerald Greene, R-Cuthbert, has led the effort to get Eberhart a pardon; both Sarah Spann's killing and Eberhart's hanging occurred in his district. He recruited colleagues to support the resolution by sharing Eberhart's story through the book. Greene was not available for comment because he was in the hospital awaiting surgery.

Rep. Mack Jackson, D-Sandersville, a co-sponsor of the resolution, said: "I started reading the book and I saw she really didn't know what was going on. According to the book, she was completely innocent."

Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville, became a co-sponsor to the resoltion in part because she was reminded of a similar "injustice" from her community.

Army Lt. Henry O. Flipper was born a slave in Thomasville and became the first African American to graduate from West Point. He was court-martialed in 1881 on allegations he had embezzled $2,000 in government funds, charges he denied. Flipper was dismissed from the Army, which was comparable to a modern dishonorable discharge. Flipper maintained his innocence through the remainder of his life; the Army granted him an honorable discharge in 1976. In 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Flipper almost 60 years after his death.

While posthumous pardons are mostly symbolic, they can be significant for the descendants of the accused, Taylor said. The record must be corrected, even if it happens more than a century after the fact, she said.

“It was a great injustice,” Taylor said. “We have to learn from our past and our mistakes.”