On this date in 1872, a faltering John Presswood Jr., “nearly 18 years old,” was publicly hanged in Smithville, Tenn., for a still-infamous crime there. He’s the last person to suffer that fate in DeKalb County.
This image (click for a larger version) of the Presswood hanging — in which the gallows practically disappear into the scenery — comes from the Library of Congress.
It was all the way back in late 1870 that Presswood murdered 36-year-old Rachel Fowler Billings, a Civil War widow remarried to a man who unfortunately was away rafting the Caney Fork River. Presswood savagely axed the woman to death in her house, in the presence of her three children — and bashed 11-year-old Inez, the oldest of them, with the axe as well.
Inez survived, but hadn’t seen the attacker. Her three-year-old (!) half-sister provided the identification: “It was Bill Presswood.” While the assailant calmly cleaned himself up with the family water bucket, the traumatized kids comforted each other around the butchered corpse of their mother. (Later, other women of the community would shrink from the neighborly job of tidying up poor Rachel for burial — so horribly had she been mauled.) In the end, the badly injured Inez had to hoof it half a mile to the nearest neighbor to summon help.
An estimated 8,000 people crowded Smithville’s courthouse square for the execution. The sheriff charged with conducting it made sure to give them a pulse-pounding, excruciating (especially for Presswood!) show.
Immediately following the sermon and reading of the confession, Sheriff Henry Blackburn put a hood over Presswood’s head, attached the rope tightly and stood back.
With his hand on the trip bar, he intoned, “Presswood, you have five minutes to Live.”
The crowd surged forward, and then relaxed.
Again Sheriff Blackburn said, “Presswood, you have four minutes to live.”
Beside the lonely figure in the hood, Sheriff Blackburn stood out in sharp contrast. He was a handsome figure, tall, well proportioned and filled with the dignity of his office. He was “High Sheriff” of Dekalb County.
After seemingly hours Sheriff Blackburn announced, “Presswood, you have three minutes to live.”
Occasionally a sob as if a heart were being torn from a body was heard, but there was no outburst from the crowd. The stillness of the May morning was again broken by the commanding voice of Sheriff Blackburn, “Presswood, you have two minutes to live.”
By now several persons in the crowd, no doubt from a pang of conscience, were shifting from one foot to another. Neighbors look guilty at neighbors and the calmest man of all was Sheriff Blackburn as he announced, “Presswood, you have one minute to live.”
Brave members of the crowd gazed intently, wonderingly as the still form with the hood on his head stood torically on the scaffold just a few feet above their heads.
Suddenly Sheriff Blackburn shouted, “Presswood, you die” and sprung the trap. The body jerked at the end of the rope, quivered slightly, and was still.