Julius was the Matthews family’s only slave and was apparently mentally disabled; Rebecca said he had “but half sense” and John said he “had just sense enough to be a good negro.”
Both John and Rebecca emphasized that Julius was docile, obedient and apparently quite attached to his owners, who had three small children. They were baffled when he brutally assault Rebecca and tried to kill her.
On the day of the attack, John was absent. Julius went out corn-shucking with Littlebury Fallin and his uncle William Fallin, both of them white men. He came home at 6:00 p.m., drunk, did some household chores and made a large fire in the fireplace.
At 7:00, Rebecca heard some whistles outside the house and asked Julius what was going on. He said he didn’t know. He went outside and returned with an ax, saying he would use it to defend Rebecca if they were attacked. Rebecca locked the doors and windows, then sat at her spinning wheel for awhile.
When she bent over to pick something up, Julius grabbed her by the throat and said he was going to kill her, take all the money in the house and run away to a free state. He tried to throw her into the fireplace, saying he’d made the fire to burn her body.
There followed a fierce struggle and Rebecca put up a good fight. She was able to wrestle the ax away from her attacker, unlock the door and run outside. Julius tried to brain her with a large rock but he dropped it when she grabbed his arm. He then tried to stab her with a pocketknife but wound up accidentally cutting his own throat instead. Rebecca wrapped her hands around his neck and choked him until she felt him lapse into unconsciousness.
Then she grabbed her youngest daughter, age three, and legged it for a neighbor’s house. As she ran she noticed Littlebury and William Fallin right behind her.
In the state of Tennessee, even a slave was entitled to a lawyer at a criminal trial. John Matthews refused to appoint counsel for Julius, so the state appointed two lawyers to defend him. (One of them, Alfred O. P. Nicholson, would later serve two terms in the Senate and, after that, on the Tennessee Supreme Court.)
Julius expressed great remorse for his crime, saying he would never have done it sober and he wished Rebecca had killed him. At his trial, he confessed everything and implicated the Fallins, saying that they’d gotten him drunk during the corn-shucking and urged him to rob and kill his mistress.
William, who lived in Kentucky, promised to help him get to a free state. The whistles, Julius explained, had been signals from the Fallins that they were outside the cabin waiting for him to kill Rebecca.
Littlebury testified and denied everything. William did not testify. Neither man ever faced charges for their alleged role in the crime.
The jury convicted Julius after deliberating overnight, but they recommended mercy on account of his youth, his prior good character and the suspicion that he had been lead astray by others. Nevertheless, the sentence was death.
As Julius was awaiting his execution date, help came from an unlikely source: John Matthews, his owner and the husband of the victim. He wrote to the governor, Newton Cannon, asking that the errant slave be pardoned so Matthews could sell him. He listed the following reasons:
The negro is shown to have had a most excellent character.
He was quite young.
He was proved to have but a very limited portion of intellect.
He was shown to be in liquor and the circumstances raised a strong presumption that he was induced by white men to drink for the very purpose of being instigated to commit the murder.
The circumstances rendered it certain that he was instigated by white men, and with his limited
sense, and in liquor, that he was almost a passive instrument in their hands.
He was the only slave of his master.
That last might have been the nub of it. Matthews emphasized that if Julius were hanged and his owners got no compensation — and the state of Tennessee never compensated an executed slave’s owner for the economic loss — the family would suffer greatly. This created an odd confluence of interest between the condemned slave and the one-slave family whose matron he had attempted.
John Matthews expressed confidence that Julius “was not himself when he did the act” and added that it seemed unreasonable “to take away a life when no murder had been committed.”
Going against Matthews’s letter was a petition from the citizens of Maury County, asking that justice take its course and Julius be executed. Julius had had a fair trial, the petition said. Sparing his life and merely selling him on would not only endanger public safety but would also set a bad example for other slaves: “For what is to restrain the slave from imbuing his hands on his masters’ blood, with whom he is incensed, if he had good reason to believe that his punishment, if caught, is to only be a change of masters, and a chance that the may be for the better?”
The governor ignored John Matthews’s plea and upheld the rule of law: Julius was hanged at 2:30 p.m. on March 1, and his master was not reimbursed. On the scaffold, the young slave “confessed his guilt, and deplored his error; spoke of his mistress with much tenderness and warned the colored persons present to remember his fate.”
The desertion rate for American soldiers in the War of 1812 was 12.7%, according to available service records. Desertion was especially common in 1814, when enlistment bonuses were increased from $16 to $124, inducing many men to desert one unit and enlist in another to get two bonuses.
We’re not sure how well these eight got paid off in life … only that they collected their last check in lead.
Nathaniel Chester, age unknown, a member of the Corp of Artillery.
Benjamin Harris, 38, a private in the 44th Regiment. Born in Virginia and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, he enlisted on March 26, 1814 and deserted on July 1.
John Jones, 33, a private in the 2nd Rifle Regiment. He’d enlisted for a five-year stint on July 25, 1814 in Farquier, Virginia. The date he deserted has not been recorded.
Jacob King, 20, a private in the 1st U.S. Artillery. He was born in Pennsylvania and enlisted on March 28, 1814 for five years. He deserted on July 12.
James McBride, 21, a native of Virginia. Records about his military service are unclear: some reports are that he enlisted on April 20, 1813, and other accounts give the date as July 22, 1814. It’s possible he deserted twice; this was a common practice, as noted above.
William Myers, 19, a private from Georgia. He enlisted on March 27, 1814; it’s unknown when he deserted.
Drury Puckett, 36, a member of the 2nd Infantry. (Almost certainly the son and namesake of this Drury Puckett.) Like Harris and McBride, he was from Virginia and he had enlisted there for five years on September 24, 1814. The record says he deserted on December 31, but this is surely in error, because by then he had already been sentenced to die.
John Young, age unknown, from Winchester, Virginia. He enlisted on October 3, 1814 and deserted after a mere five days.
General (and future President) Andrew Jackson affirmed their sentences on January 28, pardoning five others at the same time. This was twenty days after Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans, the final major conflict in the war. This day’s event was the largest mass execution in Tennessee history.
On this day in 1928, a lawman was electrocuted in Nashville, Tennessee for the drunken double murder he’d committed nearly a year earlier. He walked resolutely to the death chair and even helped the guards adjust the straps before they pulled the switch.
Deputy Sheriff Ben “Two Gun” Fowler possessed three main qualifications for Prohibition-era law enforcement:
He was enormous in size.
He had a menacing demeanor.
He was a World War I veteran. (Although, it’s true, most of his service time had been spent in the hospital battling the Spanish Flu.)
His main duty seems to have been busting up whiskey distilleries; he claimed he had destroyed 200 of them during his three years of service in Scott County, Tennessee.
Not being a wasteful man, he consumed much of the confiscated booze himself. He was thus fortified with moonshine on the night of his crime: March 5, 1927.
The town of Robbins lacked a theater, so its residents regularly screened films in the school auditorium. A large crowd came to see a comedy that fateful March night, Fowler among them. He was armed with his usual two pistols, and also wearing a bullet-proof vest.
Supposedly, he planned to serve a civil warrant on someone whom he thought would also be attending the movie.
But shortly after the film began, Fowler became annoyed by some noisy children and ordered them to keep quiet or he would arrest them. This prompted laughter from others in the crowd, including Dr. Wylie W. Foust. Fowler ordered him to shut up and threatened to arrest him, and Foust replied calmly, “You won’t do that.”
Foust was right: Fowler didn’t do that. Instead he struck him in the face with one of his pistols then shot him two or three times in the head. The doctor fell dead on the spot. If this sounds familiar, it’s because armed moviegoers are still to this day known to demand polite moviegoers.
Dr. Foust’s adult son was sitting behind him, and he was also armed. He pulled out his own pistol and shot at his father’s killer, but the bullets were ineffective against Fowler’s bullet-proof vest.
Fowler returned fire. At least two bystanders were shot in the melee. One of them, 53-year-old John Wesley West, also a deputy sheriff, was fatally wounded and died at the hospital.
For some time after the shootings, the drunken deputy stalked the auditorium, brandishing his pistols. He kept all the filmgoers in a state of terror, and ordered the Widow Foust to stop crying. Finally more level-headed armed men arrived and Fowler was put under arrest.
Justice moved swiftly: the murders happened Saturday night, Fowler was indicted on Monday, his trial started on Thursday, and the jury got the case the following Monday. Fowler’s defense was intoxication: he claimed he was too sauced to know what he was doing, which reduced his crimes to second-degree murder, a non-capital offense.
Although most witnesses agreed “Two Gun” was under the influence at the time of his senseless outburst, they couldn’t agree just how drunk he was, and no one could testify as to how much alcohol he’d actually consumed prior to the shootings. The jury took only two minutes to convict.
It should be noted that this wasn’t Fowler’s only brush with the wrong side of the law, either: he and another deputy had previously been charged with killing two moonshiners, but both men were acquitted in that case.
Fowler, a Kentucky native, was the only Scott County residence to die in the electric chair in Nashville. He was 35 years old when he attained that distinction.
On this date in 1869, a man named William German was lynched by the newly formed Ku Klux Klan.
German, a white man, had been hanged for killing a black man, Bill Cullum.
Yes, you read that right.
Bill Cullum was a former slave; William German, a former soldier in the Confederate Army. German was living on a farm he’d rented from a white plantation owner, Alvin Cullum, who had been Bill’s owner.
German was ordered to clear off the land so the ex-slave could live there instead. Furious, German put on KKK robes and, with another man, tracked down Bill Cullum and shot him several times. The dying man was able to crawl to a nearby house and name his attacker before he expired.
The local KKK chapter was outraged. William German had committed his act wearing their garb, but without their authorization and against their rules.
What happened next was recounted in the Memphis Daily Appeal (now called The Commercial Appeal):
The Union and American of Saturday says: “By a private letter from a trustworthy gentleman residing at Cookville in Putnam County, we give some further information in regard to the recent execution near Livingston, in Overton County, by a body of supposed Ku-Klux, of the young man Wm. German, an account of which we published Thursday morning. “He says that a few days before the execution, German shot and badly wounded, and supposed he had killed, a Negro man living in his neighborhood. The shooting took place in a public road, and the Negro managed to crawl to the house of his employer, where he told who had shot him. The Negro had the character of being a quiet, peaceable man, and as there had been no previous trouble between him and German, it was supposed the crime was perpetrated in pure wantonness.
It is thought that the persons by whom German was killed were members of a secret organization, to which he belonged — but whether Ku-Klux or not, nobody in the neighborhood appears to know. The body of men concerned in the execution numbered about 200, and none of them were identified by citizens who witnessed their appearance and departure. Accounts reported Bill German was found hanged in a nearby barn; a sign posted there declared: Hung for shooting a Negro, Bill Cullum, and violating the laws of Ku Klux.”
These days, this story has been used by the KKK as evidence that they are a peaceable organization and not at all racist, honest, pinky-swear.
An aside: executions ran in the German family. William German’s brother, Columbus C. “Lum” German, had also served in the Confederate Army and also met his death at the end of a rope, in 1866.
November 25, 1881, was the day after Thanksgiving. And that date was a true “Black Friday” on the American gallows: four distinct murderers, all African-American men, were hanged in four different cities on this date in 1881.
We’re cadging entirely from the New York Herald of Nov. 26, and all quotes (as well as the pictured headline) source to that journal.
Richard James (South Carolina)
Richard James hanged in Marion, South Carolina for the previous year’s murder of a local shopkeep, David M. Harrell.
James insisted on his innocence, and even “turned upon the preacher with indignation” at in his cell on his last day when importuned to unburden himself of his sin. He “swore by all that was holy that he knew nothing of the crime, and was ready to face his Maker with this oath on his lips.”
James, “a light colored negro about thirty two years old” who “looked capable of committing any crime” and had a bad reputation in town, had been tried with his two brothers, Benjamin and Lewis for having waylaid the Harrell on his way home from closing the store.
A mixed-race jury (nine whites, three blacks) convicted the first two but acquitted Lewis. Benjamin had already been executed some weeks previously.
Henry Johnson (South Carolina)
Shortly afternoon that same day, Henry Johnson hanged in the jail in Sumter while “the housetops and fences near the jailyard were crowded with negroes, who heightened the scene by melancholy exclamations.”
Johnson, who converted to Catholicism the week before his death, occupied his last morning writing to a sweetheart in Port Royal, S.C. (He sent her some wooden buttons to remember him by, and demanded that she never marry.)
While he went mildly, his crime was “one of the most cold-blooded and unparalleled murders ever known in South Carolina.” (Of course, newspapers say this about every crime.)
John Davis, a good and hard working colored man was going through Hope Swamp on his way to the forest, where he was employed to cut cross ties for the railroad [but] he was followed by one Henry Johnson, also colored, who shrouded himself from view by the thick undergrowth. Thus, Indian like, he thirsted for his victim’s blood, and followed David step for step with the greed of a hungry panther until they arrived at a point where the depth and loneliness of the swamp was best suited for the tragedy that was enacted. The desired spot having been reached, Johnson, without uttering a word, raised his gun and fired, shooting John Davis in the middle of the back. Davis dropped dead in his tracks instantly. Johnson then caught him by his heels and dragged him to a hollow log, in which he placed Davis and then covered the log all over with … straw and leaves.
And then Johnson went to Davis’s house, where he knew he would get a good reception since Davis’s wife fancied him.
Explaining that Davis had had to go into town on business and would not be back for a day or three, Johnson made himself “not only lord of Davis’ house, but his much beloved wife.” He tried to lay the blame on a local fellow named Orange Isaacs whom Johnson by all appearances sincerely believed to be a sorcerer.
Joseph Harris (Tennesee)
In Rogersville, Tenn., Joseph Harris hanged for slaying two men in November 1880 in a crime that aroused so much local hatred that he was stashed away in Nashville until two days prior to the execution to prevent the appearance of lynch law.
Unlike the South Carolina condemned, Harris’s hanging was fully public, and a fair concourse of onlookers braved freezing temperatures to satisfy themselves with the course of justice.
Harris had targeted the outgoing proprietor of a country farm called Marble Hall. John Brown, having sold the estate, had sent his family on to their next lodgings in Bristol while he remained at Marble Hall with a 17-year-old stable hand named Heck to sell off the remaining livestock and close up affairs.
Those affairs were closed for good on November 23, when the room that Brown and Heck occupied was discovered on fire, its inhabitants having had their brains bashed in. $500 Brown had recently pocketed from the sale of his hogs was missing.
Sang Armor (Georgia)
Sang Armor not only had the most unusual name of November 25′s grim harvest, but was distinguished as the first-ever public execution (or execution of any kind) in Taliaferro county, Georgia. Taliaferro is currently (circa 2010 census) the least populous county east of the Mississippi with a population of just 1,717.
Armor was egged on by the crowd at his gallows to give up the names of accomplices whom he had previously implied had aided him in the murder of an elderly white man, but he remained “sullenly silent on the subject and talked only on religious matters.” The scaffold was erected in Ellington meadow, on the land of his victim, Amos Ellington.
“The feeling against Armor was very strong,” concludes the report, “especially among the colored men, several of whom he tried to implicate in the crime.”
Not Squire Clark (South Carolina)
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Squire Clark, who was supposed to hang in Lexington, S.C., was respited until December 23.
Clark, sentenced to be die in a strange case where a body was found on a railroad tracks, mutilated by passing trains, had been convicted circumstantially for having killed the fellow before dumping his remains on the tracks. Convicted, overturned on appeal, convicted again, and ultimately commuted to a penal sentence, Clark never made it into the executioners annals.
The estate of his victim later sued the railroad for negligence in having run over the remains of W.S. Hook no fewer than three times.
On this day in 1864, Private George Nelson of Company F of the 13th United States Colored Troops was hanged for rape in Nashville, Tennessee.
He committed his crime on November 13, 1863. Nelson and two other men were on Nashville Pike outside of the town of Dickson when they encountered an unmarried white woman named, no lie, Indiana Jones.
They asked her where she lived and she said her house was about a mile away. The men claimed they’d been fighting with some rebels near her house and said she must go with them.
Miss Jones refused, and Nelson threatened to shoot her if she did not comply. She went with him for about 250 yards, begging him to release her. Private Nelson put a bayonet to her side and told her to come into the woods with him or he would run her through. Miss Jones started crying then, and he threatened to strangle her with a rope if she did not shut up. They went into the woods together while the other two men held the horse.
As Miss Jones later testified, “I again begged of him to let me go, when he cocked his gun and said if I did not be still he would blow my brains out. He then took hold of me, threw me down, and committed a rape on my person.”
When he was done he robbed her of $1.50, but the other soldiers made him give the money back. Then they let her go.
George Nelson’s accomplices were tried separately, and on cross-examination the victim was asked, “Did you use your utmost endeavors to prevent him from executing his desires, or did you simply cry out, thus yielding a tacit consent?”
As if she could have done anything else with a gun trained on her!
The three defendants were all court-martialed. President Lincoln approved the death sentence for Nelson in August 1864 and he hanged the following month. His partners-in-crime got twelve and ten years in prison respectively.
On this date in 1897, a 23-year-old black man named Harvey DeBerry was hanged for sexually assaulting his employer’s daughter.
His offense, this sexual assault, was a new one under the Tennessee statutes, different from the crimes of rape and attempted rape, and DeBerry was the first person in Shelby County to be convicted of it.
DeBerry was a live-in laborer on the Eigiman farm in Frayser Station, Tennessee, and his wife was the farm’s cook. Mr. and Mrs. Eigiman had three children aged seven, five and two. It was the oldest child, Elenora, that DeBerry assaulted on October 8, 1896.
At the time of the crime, Mr. Eigiman was in the hospital in Memphis recuperating from a fractured skull and a broken leg. Mrs. Eigiman went to see him that day, leaving her children in the care of the DeBerrys. She left Elenora in bed in her nightgown, because the little girl said she wasn’t feeling well.
When Mrs. Eigiman returned at the end of the day, Elenora was still in bed, crying and acting as if she was in pain. She refused to tell her mother what was wrong, and cried and moaned all night.
The next morning, her mother stripped the bed and found blood on the sheets. Mrs. Eigiman confronted her daughter, and Elenora said Harvey DeBerry had come into her room, lain on top of her and hurt her. That same day, a doctor was called to examine the victim. His findings, according to court documents, were as follows:
He found the child highly excited, nervous, and trembling; that the person of the child was swollen, and very tender to the touch; that the parts showed acute inflammation and swelling; that he found a purulent discharge, and a slight rupture of the hymen; that penetration had been partial, but not complete; that the acute inflammation, purulent discharge, and swelling indicated that the injury was recent. During the course of the examination the physician asked the child who hurt her, and she replied that ‘Harvey hurt her.’ The mother was not present when the child made this statement.
Harvey DeBerry fled when Mrs. Eigiman and Elenora confronted him with their accusations.
He turned up soon enough, though, living in Arkansas under the alias Frank Berry, and was extradited to Tennessee for trial. He was represented by a father-and-son team of black lawyers and offered two witnesses in his defense: a washerwoman who said there was no blood on Elenora’s clothing, and someone who said he and DeBerry were harvesting corn together at the time of the crime.
However, the prosecution was able to prove that DeBerry’s alibi witness was mistaken about the date, and the washerwoman had laundered Elenora’ clothing a full month before she was attacked.
Elenora testified about her experience at the trial, saying the reason she hadn’t immediately told her mother about the attack was that Harvey had threatened to kill her if she breathed a word about what he had done. The defense tried to convince the court that another man had abused the little girl, but Elenora denied this on the stand.
A jury acquitted DeBerry of two counts of rape, but convicted him of “assault and battery upon a female under ten years of age, with intent to unlawfully and carnally know her.” What exactly constituted “rape” when there was scant to no penetration was a grey area in Anglo jurisprudence, but with the sexual assault law it was six of one and a half-dozen of the other: both rape and sexual assault were capital offenses.
On the scaffold DeBerry was sobbing and appeared terrified.
A newspaper said later that his last words were “the ravings of a madman. There was no connection of coherency in what he said.”
When he stood on the trap and the sheriff pulled the lever, nothing happened. After an agonizing moment, a deputy stepped forward and pulled it a second time. This time the trap worked and DeBerry fell, cleanly breaking his neck. He was pronounced dead within twelve minutes.
As to whether he confessed before he died, the sheriff and the minister refused to say.
For a bit of period context, the same date that DeBerry hung lawfully saw the summary lynching of an unknown tramp in Manheim, Illinois, outside Chicago. That man attempted to outrage a farmer’s wife but was fought off by the “muscular German woman,” then led a desperate chase through woods and cornfields for half an hour until one of the pursuing posse finally plunked him with a gunshot.
The wounded assailant was searched for identity papers (none turned up), then instantly strung up on the nearest sturdy tree. (Source: The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), Aug. 20, 1897)
On August 9, 1786, in the state of Franklin (in what is now eastern Tennessee), a black slave named Tom was hanged for murder.
Tom had poisoned John Fuller Lain, a white man. The circumstances of the murder and Tom’s motive for it have been lost to history; all we know is that Lain was not his owner. Tom’s owner, William Evans, actually hired counsel to defend him, but the court refused to hear it.
Tom was imprisoned in July of that year, tried and convicted on August 8 and put to death the next day.
Aptly for a man of Franklin, Evans was concerned about the Benjamins. He filed a lawsuit against the sheriff for wrongful destruction of his personal property, but this was dismissed. Doggedly, on May 2, 1799 — nearly thirteen years after Tom’s death — Evans petitioned the General Assembly asking to be reimbursed for the value of the dead man, whom he described as “faithful, industrious, healthy slave … in the prime of life.”
Edwards reckoned Tom was worth £100. A hundred people signed the petition, but the General Assembly — by now the Tennessee General Assembly, since “Franklin” had failed as an independent entity — refused to cough up the funds.
Close to midnight on this date in 1890, four convicted murderers — three of them black and one white — were hanged on the gallows inside the Shelby County Jail in Tennessee. They were Edward Carr, 28, Parker Harris, 30, Hardy Ballard, 45, and Frank Brenish, 36.
Carr, who was half-black, had murdered his estranged wife Sallie in broad daylight on the street in Memphis on November 9, 1889. Edward Carr wanted to move to Mississippi and Sallie did not, and she had left him and moved in with a woman friend. When Edward saw his wife and her friend walking down the street, he said, “Sallie, I am going to kill you,” and then shot her.
She ran away, but he chased after her and shot her three more times. Sallie Carr died in her friend’s arms.
Edward surrendered to the police three days later, and his lawyer had to persuade him not to plead guilty to murder.
At his trial he said, “I do not know why I killed her. It was not because she offended me. We had lived happily together … I loved her so well, and she would not go with me.” Offering no defense, he was accordingly convicted on December 17, six weeks after his crime.
Harris had also killed his wife, Letha “Lettie” Harris, on the street in front of witnesses. Lettie was an “octoroon”, a now-outdated term for someone who is of mixed race and one-eighth black, seven-eighths white.
Like the Carrs, the Harrises were estranged and Lettie was living apart from her husband. On August 18, 1889, said husband encountered her riding in a buggy with several women and asked her to come home; Lettie replied that she never wanted to speak to him again.
In response, Parker Harris slashed her throat, then his own. He was able to run from the scene but collapsed several blocks away, weak from blood loss. He recovered sufficiently from his wounds to face trial; he too was easily convicted.
Hardy Ballard had killed a streetcar driver, G. Emmett Pinkston, on Christmas Day 1889 after an argument over the nickel fare. Ballard insisted he had paid; Pinkston said he hadn’t, and kicked him off the car. Both parties were armed in the ensuing fight, Ballard with a knife and Pinkston with an iron hook, and Ballard got the better of the streetcar driver and stabbed him to death.
His plea of self-defense at trial was not believed by the jury.
The sole white man, Frank Brenish, was a wife killer just like two of his co-condemned. Mary, his wife of two years, had left him because of his drinking and his failure to support her and his two stepchildren. Frank threatened to kill his wife if she didn’t come back to him, and Mary took these threats seriously enough to report them to the police. The cops had a talk with Frank and he promised to leave his wife alone.
Mary remained fearful, however, and when she went out she took her fourteen-year-old daughter, her sister and another man to protect her in case she encountered her husband. They were with her the night the murder was committed: they saw the whole thing.
Frank Brenish’s crime was so similar to Parker Harris’s that there was some speculation the two might have a joint trial: on July 5, 1889 he jumped out of a dark alley and slashed Mary’s throat, nearly decapitating her. Then he cut his own throat. Against the odds, a doctor was able to save Frank’s life, but Mary was beyond help: she had died almost instantly.
All four of the condemned were given copious amounts of alcohol while awaiting their execution, and Brenish got morphine as well. The wound on his throat hadn’t healed and it leaked from time to time. The night before his executed, he made a halfhearted attempt at suicide by slashing his wrist with a makeshift knife.
This was the era of racial apartheid in America, however, and even when men died together, they perhaps might not die together.
The gallows in this instance was built for two, so the natural idea was to hang the four men as two pairs.
Brenish, however, refused to suffer the indignity of being hanged alongside a Negro.
His jailers — and one hardly needs to mention their racial identity — honored his request for a segregated execution and modified the gallows so three people could be hanged at once.
The three black prisoners went first. Brenish died alone, fifteen minutes later. Harris, Ballard and Carr had “clean” hangings and died quickly, after making the usual final statements about their sins and their hope for redemption in Heaven.
When the time came for his racially unsullied death, Brenish was either so drunk or so scared he could barely stand, and he took several more swallows of whiskey while standing on the scaffold. He had severed his trachea when he slashed his throat and could only barely speak above a whisper. When he was asked for a final statement, the best he could come up with was, “They oughtn’t to hang a man when he ain’t in his right mind.”
The officers had difficulty in placing the handcuffs because of his bandaged wrist. Blood trickled down his white gloves. With the noose and cap placed, he swayed to and fro and had to be held. When the lever was pulled and he dropped there was a pop (his neck was broken) and a hissing sound. The drop had opened the hole in his throat from the attempted suicide on the night of the killing. The hole was large enough to hold a cigar. As he hung, his wrist wound bled profusely.
Gruesome as his death may have appeared, though, Brenish didn’t suffer long. His heart stopped in less than a minute.
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, excrutiating (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.