A Controversial Pardon: Governor Poynter and John Benwell Kearns

Governor William A. Poynter. NSHS 2413.PHO-3

One of the most controversial official acts of Nebraska Governor William A. Poynter was the pardon of John Benwell Kearns (aka John Benwell). When Kearns was released from the Nebraska State Penitentiary on May 23, 1899, he disappeared quickly from the state but not from the minds of Nebraskans. Convicted of the November 1, 1893, killing of a Cass County farmer, Mattes (or Matthew) Akeson, near Utica. and an assault on Akeson’s son and several others, Kearns was sentenced to life in prison. An accomplice, Harry Hill, was sentenced to death, and was executed by hanging on March 1, 1895. The news that Governor Poynter had pardoned Kearns because he was supposedly dying of tuberculosis, was greeted with dismay in many parts of the state, especially in Cass County, where it was suspected that wealthy relatives had helped to secure his release.  

In the fall of 1900 A. B. Taylor of Plattsmouth tracked Kearns to Canada, where he was reported to be in good health, living with his parents in Ottawa, and working as a bookkeeper. Taylor, who had served as court bailiff at Plattsmouth, where Kearns was tried, interviewed Kearns in Ottawa and found him “tall, erect and in fine physical proportion. Nothing is known here of his history in Nebraska.” Kearns told Taylor that he was in the penitentiary hospital when his pardon was granted and credited the warden and prison physician with helping him secure it.  

Nebraska State Penitentiary, 1901. NSHS RG2158.PH30-30

According to the Kearney Daily Hub, October 28, 1900, Kearns told Taylor, “I was released late in the afternoon and was taken to the depot in a carriage. They bought me a ticket through to Ottawa and I lost no time in getting away. . . . If there was such a thing as money used to get it [the pardon] it was without my knowledge.” Kearns refused to discuss “the Cass county affair,” saying, “I am a free man, and hope to get along as if nothing of the kind had ever happened. I will forget it, whether other people do or not.”  

Kearns may have succeeded in forgetting, but Nebraskans did not. The Hub said on October 31, 1900, “It may be that Governor Poynter will be pardoned for the pardon of murderer Kearns but the pardon will come too late to save his gubernatorial bacon.” Whatever merit the pardon may have had, Poynter was defeated at the polls that November by challenger Charles H. Dietrich of Adams County. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor/Publications

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