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.
On this date in 1900, Sonnie (or Sonny) Crain and William “Bill” Brown, both 40, and John Watson, 59, were hanged side by side a quarter-mile from the Warren County Jail in McMinnville, Tennessee.
This was an integrated execution: Brown and Watson were white, and Crain was black.
From the April 27, 1900 American Citizen (Kansas City, Mo.)
The gallows was contained in a 30-by-30-foot enclosure and had been built especially for this day’s event. There were twenty official witnesses. A crowd of about two thousand waited outside the fence, hoping to catch a glimpse of the execution, but their view was obscured by a canvas curtain drawn hanging from the top of the gallows.
Watson, a Civil War veteran who’d fought at Shiloh, had committed his crime on December 21, 1898. He shot a neighbor, 40-year-old James Hillis, white, after an argument about some corn and some fence rails.
Hillis walked away from the fight. Watson fetched his shotgun, waited for his chance then shot Hillis on the road that evening, in front of the victim’s daughter. Hillis lived for a few hours after the shooting and named Watson as his attacker.
The killer had a reputation for violence; he’d allegedly shot and seriously wounded a black man in a drunken rage in 1893, but was acquitted at trial. He had also served a term in federal prison for making and selling moonshine, and he was stone drunk on his own apple brandy at the time of Hillis’s murder.
His defense, one of temporary insanity caused by alcohol, didn’t fly with the jury.
Bill Brown was an illiterate tenant farmer; his victim was his wife of ten years, Mary Fults Brown. Bill was tired of his wife and attempted to leave her, but everywhere he went she just followed him. He and his brother, John “Bud” Brown, decided she had to die.
On May 5, 1898, In accordance with the plan, Bill invited a friend, Bill Rogers, to spend the night. Bill made sure to leave the door unlocked, and while Mary and the guest were sleeping, Bud Brown sneaked into the house, shot his sister-in-law and fled. Bill then woke up Rogers, crying, “Lordy, lordy, someone’s shot Mary!”
Bill told Rogers the shooter had fired through the open window, but this didn’t make sense because Mary had been asleep beside her husband and Bill was lying between her and the window. He claimed he didn’t own a gun, but a search of the house turned up a recently fired pistol hidden in a trunk.
It didn’t take long for Bill to crack. He confessed to his role in Mary’s death and implicated his brother Bud (who, incidentally, had a prior record for beastiality with a mare).
The brothers were to be tried separately and Bill went first. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but his conviction was appealed on the grounds that one of the jurors had mistakenly believed he was sitting at the trial of Bud Brown, not Bill Brown. (Like Sauron and Saruman, they’re easily confused.)
The appeals court judge couldn’t believe it when Bill’s attorney made this ludicrous assertion, and threatened to hold him in contempt for making a mockery of the proceedings and wasting the court’s time. Then Bill’s attorney brought in the juror in question, who admitted his error. (The confusion arose in part because Bill and Bud, neither of whom testified at the trial, were sitting next to each other at the defendant’s table.)
While Bud Brown was awaiting his first trial, Bill was waiting his second trial, and John Watson was awaiting the outcome of his appeal, they were all housed in a jail cell with Sonnie Crain.
Crain had been convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Will Snellings in a dispute over a craps game, and was sentenced to ten years in prison. He was housed in the jail while his case was under appeal.
On May 22, 1899, as the Brown brothers slept, Crain bludgeoned them both in the head with a piece of his bed, killing Bud and critically injuring Bill. He later said the brothers had threatened him and he’d acted in self-defense, but the authorities had another theory as to motive.
The jailer was away at the time of the murder and had placed his wife in charge, and there was some evidence that Watson and Crain had conspired together to murder their cellmates in order to create a diversion so they could escape when the jailer’s wife came to get Crain.
Crain (who denied any plan to escape from jail and insisted to his dying breath that he’d acted in self-defense) was convicted of Bud Brown’s murder and sentenced to death. Although Bill Brown’s wounds were very serious and he was not expected to live, he recovered from his injuries in time to be hanged alongside the man who’d tried to kill him and the other man who’d possibly conspired in his attempted murder.
So now that no one is confused … the three ultimately set to die in this labyrinthine affair were hanged at 11:50 a.m. on April 25, attended by two black ministers and two white ones. Crain and Brown were stoic, but Watson’s nerves failed him on the scaffold and he cried and shook as the noose was placed around his neck.
It was the last public(ish) hanging ever in McMinnville.
Christopher Alexander (“Alex”) Haun was perhaps the finest potter in antebellum Tennessee. He never had the chance to become the finest in post-bellum Tennessee because he was hanged in Knoxville this date in 1861 as an incendiarist.
While Tennessee seceded with the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War, East Tennessee was a Union stronghold. This was the native soil of pro-Union “War Democrat” (and future U.S. President) Andrew Johnson.
Besides being good fun, the conspiracy promised an effectual blow against the Confederacy inasmuch as the East Tennessee & Virginia and East Tennessee & Georgia lines constituted the South’s most reliable rail and telegraph link between its capital at Richmond, Va., and the Deep South. This plan’s author, Rev. William Carter, went to Washington and had his scheme personally approved by President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and Gen. George McClellan.
The rest of the plan called for the Union army to invade East Tennessee on the heels of the bridge-burnings and occupy the area. Just a few months before, McClellan’s troops had similarly occupied the pro-Union western mountains of secessionist Virginia, which is why there’s a state of West Virginia today.
But there’s no state of East Tennessee, is there?
The bridge-burning conspiracy would go down as one of the great, failed guerrilla operations of the war.
Burning Your Bridges
With authorization straight from the top, the conspirators got going. A Captain David Fry** was tasked with targeting the Lick Creek bridge, located in northeastern Tennessee† near the settlement of Pottertown, so named for the ceramics craftsmen attracted to the area’s excellent clay.
After dark fell on Nov. 8, 1861, the local Union sympathizers recruited to the plot — Christopher Haun among them — gathered at the house of a local landowner, Jacob Harmon, Jr. There they took a dramatic lantern-lit oath on the Union flag, each to “do what was ordered of him that night and to never disclose what he had done.”
Then a party of some 40 to 60 mounted raiders stole out for the Lick Creek bridge two miles distant.
Around 2 a.m., they overpowered the small Confederate sentry detail assigned to Lick Creek, and forced the sentries to watch as they fired the bridge. That same night, several other parties elsewhere along the line all the way down to Alabama also burned, or tried to burn railroad bridges and cut telegraph lines.
These “deep-laid schemes … by an organization of Lincolnite traitors” (as the Knoxville Register accounted matters) brought a predictably furious Confederate response — and the audacious saboteurs would discover only after the fact that the planned East Tennessee invasion had been aborted by William T. Sherman without alerting his pyrotechnic fifth-column allies.
A Bridge Too Far
Within three days of the “treason,” East Tennessee had been clapped under martial law. A number of bridge-burners were also arrested (although many others escaped), and here the Lick Creek men would pay dearly for their recklessly humane decision to release their captured sentries. (pdf) As a result, several of them were captured in the days following their attack.
I now proceed to give you the desired instruction in relation to the prisoners of war taken by you among the traitors of East Tennessee.
First. All such as can be identified in having been engaged in bridge-burning are to be tried summarily by drum-head court-martial, and, if found guilty, executed on the spot by hanging. It would be well to leave their bodies hanging in the vicinity of the burned bridges. [emphasis added]
Second. All such as have not been so engaged are to be treated as prisoners of war, and sent with an armed guard to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, there to be kept imprisoned at the depot selected by the Government for prisoners of war.
Two men, William Hinshaw (often called “Hensie” in the period’s reports) and Henry Fry, were condemned by such a tribunal on Nov. 30 and immediately hanged — their bodies left exposed at the Greeneville Station for a day or more, until the stench became overpowering.
The court-martial has sentenced A.C. Haun [sic], bridgeburner, to be hung. Sentence approved. Ordered To be executed at 12 o’clock tomorrow. Requires the approval of the President. Please telegraph.
Benjamin replied within hours, telling Carroll to make with the noosing.
Execute the sentence of your court-martial on the bridge-burners. The law does not require any approval by the President, but he entirely approves my order to hang every bridge-burner you can catch and convict.
Haun takes leave of his pregnant wife and four children before execution. Illustration from this 1862 propaganda volume by the Unionist publisher of the Knoxville Whig.
Six days after Haun hanged at Knoxville, the landowner who hosted the conspirators, Jacob Harmon, also went to the gallows, along with his son Henry. It seems someone in the incendiary party had carelessly dropped the name “Harmon” in conversation while the bridge sentries were in custody within earshot.
All the hanged incendiarists were posthumously enrolled in Company F of the 2nd Tennessee by Congress in 1862, a gesture of appreciation which also conferred on their heirs the right to survivors’ benefits.
In addition to the resources linked here, see Donahue Bible’s “Shattered like earthen vessels,” Civil War Times, Dec. 1997.
**The intrepid Captain Fry would escape immediate capture, gather a few hundred Unionists as a guerrilla band, and eventually get caught, sent to Georgia, and condemned to death as a spy. Fry escaped by breaking out on the eve of his Oct. 15 hanging, in the company of some of the men arrested for the Great Locomotive Chase. He rejoined Union forces, was captured again, and survived the war, finally dying in 1872 … when he was hit by a train.
† The other bridges successfully torched by the conspiracy included two over the Chickamauga in southeastern Tennessee, and the theme of Civil War bridge-burning in that sector can’t help but suggest Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. (The other details are nothing alike, so Bierce’s story clearly isn’t about this incident.)
Unfortunately, this valuable asset was placed in the temporary stewardship of an inexperienced “under keeper” whom the circus had had to scoop up at a recent stop to cover staff turnover. Between shows on September 12, that fellow somehow (accounts conflict) enraged Mary, and (again according to one version among several) she
“collided its trunk vice-like [sic] about [the under keeper's] body, lifted him 10 feet in the air, then dashed him with fury to the ground … and with the full force of her biestly [sic] fury is said to have sunk her giant tusks entirely through his body. The animal then trampled the dying form of Eldridge as if seeking a murderous triumph, then with a sudden … swing of her massive foot hurled his body into the crowd.”
It’s apparent in this report that the facts of an already-sensational event almost instantly began disappearing into its spectacle. See the largest land animal on earth! See it maul its handler to death! But what happened next lifted Mary all the way to legend.
The owners knew they had to euthanize the “mankiller,” or if they didn’t know they were soon persuaded by mushrooming press attention and towns threatening to ban the Sparks circus.
But how? They couldn’t shoot Mary to death — she apparently survived gunshots from the vengeful crowd in the immediate aftermath of the trampling; firearms just didn’t pack the wallop to put down a pachyderm in 1916. The area didn’t have the sort of electrical juice available that Thomas Edison had once used to drop a circus elephant during his weird campaign for the electric chair.
The choice for the baleful logistical task of killing a 10,000-pound evildoer was hanging, selected over “crushing it between railroad cars.”
And for stringing up “Murderous Mary”, you need no ordinary gallows. No, for this job, you’re using the hoist on a train derrick and an industrial-strength chain for a noose.
The actual train derrick that hanged Mary the elephant. The leftmost man, seated on the machine, is the “executioner” who worked the controls, according toThe Day They Hung the Elephant.
The railroad was game for the operation, provided the circus would come to it. So on this date, the circus train cars loaded up for the nearest usable train derrickscaffold at Erwin, Tennessee.
There, a procession of all five Sparks elephants — the routine was supposed to keep Mary compliant, and it did the trick even though some observers later remembered the condemned creature behaving unusually skittishly — marched to the railyard.
There Mary was noosed with a 7/8″ chain and hoisted up. The chain broke, and the animal shattered its hip crashing to the ground; another, still larger, chain, did the trick on the second try.
There’s something about this event abidingly piteous, even shameful. It may be for that reason that it’s also abidingly mysterious. The particulars about what happened on the day they hanged the elephant and what became of the body (a steamshovel dug a grave, but the exact location was never marked and there’s a wild story that it was dug up later for ivory) are the topics of conflicting, nth-hand rumors. Some in Erwin don’t to this day want to discuss the matter. Others, just the opposite.
I saw a site today that made me feel mity Bad I saw a man shot for deserting there was twenty fore Guns shot at him thay shot him all to pease … he went home and thay Brote him Back and then he went home again and so they shot him for that Martha it was one site that I did hate to see it But I could not helpe my self I had to do Jest as thay sed for me to doo.
As Wiley points out, our letter-writer Private Warrick was himself planning to do just that.
Bragg’s little salutary bloodbath evidently had its effect, because he didn’t go AWOL. Wiley quotes Warrick, now in a more Joe Friday mode than when he had promised to “come home Eny how”, writing his parents in 1864,
I would be glad to see you all now but I recon that I have bin home my last time till this war closes.