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The Life and Death of a Choctaw Witch Killer

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Posted 11.09.12

At the turn of the 20th century, in Holdenville, Indian Territory, Solomon Hotema, a local tribal leader, was tried and convicted of murdering three Choctaws, for which he pleaded insanity. Below are press accounts of the events. Some of the spelling has been cleaned up for purposes of clarity, but certain inconsistencies in names and place names have been preserved. Courtesy the Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma.


WITCH CRAFT AND SOLOMON HOTEMA

April 11, 1901 edition of the Holdenville Times, I.W. Singleton, editor.

Solomon Hotema and Sam Frye, full blood Choctaw Indians, known as the “Witch Killers,” were arraigned in the federal court here this afternoon on the charge of murder. Sam Tarnatubby, jointly indicted with them as an accessory, was granted severance. The defendants are charged with the killing of two women and a man, all full bloods. The tragedy was enacted April 14, 1899, in the Choctaw nation.

The prisoners are represented by able counsel. When arraigned they pleaded not guilty, although admitting the killing. They claim emotional insanity at the time of committing the offense. A large number of physicians have been summonsed to give expert testimony on insanity and the city is teeming with Choctaws summoned as witnesses.

The indications are that the trial will last four or five days. Great bitterness of feeling towards the defendants is manifested by witnesses from the scene of the killing, especially toward Hotema. The plea of insanity is expected to bring out some interesting facts and arguments concerning the race proclivities, religious fanaticism, etc., prompting the deed. This afternoon proceedings were devoted to the naked facts of the killing.

The crime of murder for which the prisoners, Solomon Hotema, Sam Frye and Sam Tarnatubby, were arraigned, is attributable to a belief in witchcraft, which has possession of the more superstitious full blood Choctaws as completely today as it had 100 years ago. The tragedy was enacted in the vicinity of Cold Springs church, six miles northwest of Grant. There had been a number of sudden deaths in the community from spinal meningitis. A little son of Solomon Hotema was among the number. Hotema was the pastor of the church and was the head and leader among his people, as well as their spiritual advisor.

The Choctaws were greatly disturbed by the sudden deaths, for which they were unable to account. The manner in which the disease worked upon the victims caused them to attribute the malady to the evil charm of witches. Meetings were held at the church to discuss the matter and to devise means of staying the plague. Sam Tarnatubby who lived 15 miles east of Grant, had the fame among the full-bloods of being a great witch doctor. He was sent for. His diagnosis of the patients confirmed the suspicion that they had been bewitched. By the occult methods of the witch doctor he located the witches and declared that the only way the plague could be stopped and the patients relieved was to kill them. Some of the supposed witches were relatives of the defendants and had sat up with sick members of their families.

Tarnatubby having declared that the witches must be killed to stop to plague, Hotema, as the chief man in the community, summoned Tobias Williams and Sam Frye, young full-bloods, to his assistance. They got in Hotema’s buggy, armed with a Winchester rifle and a shotgun, and started on their death-dealing mission. They first called at the home of Vina Coleman, the sister- in-law of Hotema, and shot her down without compunction while she was holding a little child in her arms. The babe was wounded, but not killed. An older child attempted to run away when the shooting began and was shot in the back.

They next went to the home of Hull Greenwood, who came out to meet them. They inquired where his wife was, informing him that she was a witch and that they had come to kill her. Greenwood began to plead for her life, Hotema bade him be still or they would kill him and for him to be sure to be on hand. They then killed his wife before his eyes.

The last victim was Alfred Morris who was deliberately shot down without any kind of warning.  

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LETTER OF SOLOMAN HOTEMA TO CAPT. J.P. GRADY    

Printed in the April 25, 1901 edition of the South McAlester Capital, W.G.D. Hinds and B.F. Jobe, proprietors. 

My Dear Friend:

I beg your pardon for interrupting your mind and intruding upon your precious time in looking after the moral interest of the lost and ruin humanity, for after reflecting the kindness you had shown me while under your care in bondage, I can not rest until I assure you of my gratefulness, therefore, please accept my humble thanks for your courteous and a religious sympathy extended me, for this is all I can do in return, and shall ever respect and honor you as an officer ordained of God, for there is no power but of God, the powers that be are ordained of God. May He sustain you in discharging your duties and in addition thereto will reveal cause of my condition, first will say, (tho compassed with infirmity) that I as a man worship the true and infinite God both in private as well as in public believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets, believing the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus, and believing the resurrection of the dead and the reward of the just and the unjust, and have always respected the law of the land, knowing that the law of all nations were based upon the moral law laid down in the Bible, and have always conscience void of offence toward God and toward men, known my manner of life from my youth among my own nation to be a defender and a supporter for the right cause, but as the scriptures saith, “For men also knoweth not his time; as the fishes that are taken in an evil net; and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time when it falleth suddenly upon them” therefore I know not the hour wherein I stand before the world charged with a grievous complaint, as a treason, and to be tried by God’s chosen Nation, a peculiar people, an Holy Nation and who know not the groaning of my people and a heavy burden of the diabolical oppression, and who do not believe in the cause of which I have been offended and stumble over, tho the Bible speaks of it from lid to lid, and the history of sixteen and seventeen centuries gives an account of our ancestors stumbled over in the similar cause and that in different nations and more than that a Professor of Muskogee school visited me in Aug. 1899 at Atoka jail said, the three Muskogee ladies stumbled over in the similar cause and were jailed, and on Sept. 6th, 1900, I received a letter from one of the Missionaries in Arizona, stating that the Indians out there practiced the very similar things and many of their lives were made miserable through it, therefore it is the evident facts that evil doers are still practiced among the different nations on earth, and it is the greatest evil or treason ever sprung upon the human race, and are untimely end innocent lives without respect of mercy, they are treasons yet they are beyond the reach of the law of justice or another word they stand under the shadow of the law and doing all these evils upon the innocent lives—this practice is not a late thing and not only existed in the neighborhood where I stumbled, but as far as I can hear they are in every location and they would bush-whacked them now and then, yet they are increasing. Many a full-blood will substantuate these facts and the particulars of the diabolical powers may seem to be preposterous and to be wholly incredible to the minds of the people, yet it is a fact. The jurors should have made a thorough investigation in the case and see the evil thereof and make some steps to check them, if possible, but no they shut their eyes to such and cried, it is all superstition, denying the word of truth. There were no one knew the bitter depths of sorrow I had for the poor innocent children, my actions or deeds was not defying the law of justice nor daring the officers, for the scripture saith, “whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God,” etc. etc.

I employed the attorneys not that I am trying to defeat and evade the law of justice, but that they might assist me to reveal the very cause or what caused my fall to the minds of the people so that they may pass judgment intelligently in the light of their own minds, and hoped to have my trial at coming court, but Col. Hodges said, the case will not be tried for the court will be in session but for a short time and I would like very much to get out on bond till next court time, that is in the spring but I know not when I will ever got out. I am your friend,

S. E. HOTEMA.

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EDITORIAL ON SOLOMON HOTEMA    

Thursday, April 25, 1901 edition of the South McAlester Capital.

The trial of Solomon Hotema and his accomplices in the now famous witch killing case, which has been in progress in the Federal court at Paris, Texas, for the past week have awakened a great deal of interest in the prisoners and their crimes all over the country and much is being written about the case. Hotema has been acquitted on one case on the plea of insanity, and is now on trial for the murder of the Coleman woman but will probably be acquitted in that also. The story of the crime briefly told is, that believing an epidemic of sickness in the neighborhood was the result of witch craft which belief was fostered by an Indian Doctor called Tomatubby, who was called and who pronounced the sickness as being the result of witch craft and that unless the witches were killed they would all die. Hotema as the chief man in the community, summoned Tobias Williams and Sam Frye, young full-bloods, to his assistance. They got into Hotema’s buggy armed with a Winchester rifle and a shotgun and started on their death- dealing mission. They first called at the home of Vina Coleman, the sister-in-law of Hotema, and shot her down without compunction, while she was holding a little child in her arms. The babe was wounded but not killed. Another child attempted to run away when the shooting began and was shot in the back. They next went to the home of Hall Greenwood, who came to meet them. They inquired where his wife was, informing him that she was a witch and that they had come to kill her. Greenwood began to plead for her life. Hotema bade him be still or they would kill him, but that if he would keep quiet they would not kill him until the next day. After he got his wife buried he said they would kill him and for him to be sure to be on hand. They then killed his wife before his eyes.

The last victim was Alfred Morris, who was deliberately shot down without any warning. From the house of Alfred Morris they drove to the house of Easman Mississippi, who was away. A little boy living with him saw them coming and fled.

This occurred two years ago and since that time until now the prisoners have remained in jail. Hotema is a man of more than average intelligence and was a Presbyterian preacher. Quite recently while in jail at Paris he wrote a letter to Marshal Grady which we give herewith as a curiosity in literature. It is written in a firm, clear hand with a lead pencil and gives one a pretty good insight to the character of the remarkable criminal.

* * *

NOTICE OF THE DEATH OF SOLOMON HOTEMA

June 13, 1907 edition of the Coalgate Courier.

Hugo—Solomon Hotema, for many years one of the most picturesque figures in the Choctaw nation, died recently at Atlanta, Ga., where he was serving a life sentence for murder. Solomon belonged to the century that preceded him. He was one of the best educated men of his section and was extremely religious.

Hotema believed himself to be a witch killer. One Sunday morning he had preached an able sermon to some of his neighbors and returning to his home, he took the lives of three Indians whom he met, claiming that they were witches and had caused the death of three of his children a short time before. It was believed at the time that he was temporarily insane as a result of religious frenzy. For this murder he was tried in the federal court and convicted, without mercy. The government later, however, requested that the sentence be changed to life imprisonment, as there was apparently no malice in Hotema’s deed. He was sent to the federal prison at Atlanta where he died.

His wife and son live at Cole Springs, in the Choctaw nation, and the body of the noted old Indian will be taken to that place for interment.

* * *

WITCHCRAFT

Sunday, January 8, 1928 edition of The Daily Oklahoman, E.K. Gaylord, editor. This story was reported in and picked up from the Kansas City Star.

The tragedy of Solomon Hotema emphasizes the potency of witchcraft among the Choctaw Indians. Some aged Indians, it is reported, still cling to their belief in witches.

Hotema, a fullblood Choctaw, born in 1851, was educated in Virginia and became a Presbyterian minister with a family. He preached at a church known as Cold Springs, near Grant, Okla. One Sunday in 1903 he exhorted his congregation to rededicate their lives to Christianity. The sermon, prepared so zealously, did not have a noticeable effect, and Hotema was dejected. Discussing the sermon with a man known as a witch doctor, the Indian minister was told that his preaching would be ineffective as long as there were witches in the congregation.

It was not the first Hotema had heard of witches. They had killed a child, he believed, and he had prayed for their extermination. At night mysterious lights glowed in his neighborhood. These, he imagined, guided the witches who worked evil.

He decided to end this alleged antagonism. He fired a double-barreled shotgun at Amos Morris, Mrs. Lucy Greenwood and Mrs. Viney Coleman in April, 1903, killing them.

Evidence revealed that Hotema accused the whole Coleman family of witchery. Tom Coleman, a boy was wounded as he ran away. Hotema told witnesses that he was neither drunk nor crazy, but was engaged in the Lord’s work.

The defense claimed that Hotema labored under an “insane delusion” and therefore was not guilty of murder. Many neighbors and physicians testified as to the Indian’s sanity, the first trial ended in an acquittal on the grounds of insanity.

Hotema remained in jail pending his second trial. He was convicted and sentenced to be hanged. The president, however, lessened the sentence to life imprisonment. Hotema went to the federal penitentiary at Atlanta, Ga., where he later died.


Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 20. Oct. 15, 2012.