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.
On January 8, 1864, young David Owen Dodd was hanged in Little Rock for spying on federal troops … and cavalryman Ephraim Dodd (no known relation) suffered the same fate for the same crime in Knoxville.
Knoxville worthies rallied to save him and Ephraim Dodd insisted upon his innocence, but not so vociferously that he displayed any terror of his fate.
Do not grieve for me, my dear parents, for I am leaving a world full of crime and sin for one of perfect bliss.
The hanging itself wasn’t bliss, exactly, despite a well-planned soundtrack.
From the “Death March” the music gradually slid into “Mary’s Dream,” and then we were carried back by the magic of the plaintive notes to juvenile days; to visions of “Sandy far at Sea,” and to the sad cadence of that fading refrain,
“When, soft and low, a voice she heard
Saying, Mary, weep no more for me.”
The solemn march, the wailing notes of the fife, and perhaps above all the calm, unmoved, manly bearing of the prisoner — so we thought — produced a mournful impression upon the spectators.
Points earned on artistic merit, however, were deducted for technique.
At a signal the bolt was now withdrawn, the culprit fell, but the cotton rope broke by the sudden tension, and the man lay stretched and stunned upon the frozen ground below. A mummer of horror, mingled with expressions of pity, ran through the assembled crowd. Recovering for an instant from the shock — for his neck was not broken — he said — perhaps incoherently: “Release me quick, if you please.” For some ten minutes the unfortunate man lay thus upon his back, without moving a muscle. Meantime the officers and men, whose painful duty it was to see to the execution of the law, adjusted this time two parts of the same rope instead of one, and the half-conscious man was borne up the fatal steps a second time, being partly supported upon the drop until the double noose had been adjusted. Not a word or sign of suffering all this time escaped his lips. In another moment the drop fell, and prisoner’s form now hung by the neck — the knot behind the head. Death finally ensued by strangulation. In ten minutes, Dr. Cogswell, the officiating surgeon, pronounced life extinct, and the body was taken down and buried.
David Owen Dodd
A few hours later and 500 miles down the way, the entirely unrelated hanging of David Owen Dodd proceeded in Little Rock, Ark.
Only 17 at his hanging and not physically robust enough to get his brains blown out at Gettysburg, Dodd was sent by his father on a business trip across Union lines — everything legit, and carrying a pass — but got busted with morse code notations of Union troop strength in the city.
Unlike Ephraim, who was basically a normal soldier thrust into incriminating-looking circumstances by the chance of war, young David Dodd was rightly accused.
He didn’t bother protesting his innocence, but he also kept mum about his contacts. (Suggestively, a teenage girl and her father were whisked out of town and kept under guard in Vermont for the rest of the war.) That proud silence has won him quite a reputation in Arkansas as the Boy Hero of the Confederacy.
But similarities between the condemned men extended beyond their names. David’s parting filial reassurance could pass for a paraphrase of Ephraim’s.
[D]o not weep for me for I will be better off in heaven. I will soon be out of this world of sorrow and trouble.
And the hanging itself, conducted in a tense atmosphere, was likewise a botched job. In this case, the slight young man didn’t fall hard enough to break his neck, but did fall far enough to get his tiptoes on the ground, initiating an agonizingly protracted strangulation which the soldiers on detail expedited by (accounts differ) pulling on David Dodd’s legs and/or pulling up on the rope.
[The South's] white population combined with its preferred form of agriculture to create a potential pool of men who could hardly be called disposable … To find the Southern soldier one must go down the food chain into that vast sea of men referred to as yeomen and poor whites. These men and their sons would form the backbone of the Southern army, an army of farmers, men whose lives were as governed by the seasons as the lives of their fathers and grandfathers before them. These men could not be spared in the same way as their Northern counterparts without affecting the quality of their families’ lives — and often those families’ very survival.
Under less urgent circumstances, Lewis would be the poster child for the guy who would sort of deserve to slide for the odd spell of French leave.
He’d fought with distinction, earning decorations and promotions, and his mother and sisters were reportedly starving without his help. He was only being kept in the army after his term of engagement by the 19th-century equivalent of a stop-loss policy.
But Lewis had the bad fortune to go AWOL — it seems he did intend to return — right when the urgency of the army-wide desertion situation was becoming apparent to Confederate brass … and while serving under the general who Weitz says took it most seriously.
Gen. Braxton Bragg had issued an amnesty earlier that fall to clear the decks, and then declared pitiless treatment of desertion going forward.
Bragg understood something that his superiors, peers, and colleagues did not: the Confederacy had an army of farmers … Bragg knew that these men were fighting at home, that they would [sic] were being drawn back there, and that he had to take immediate steps to close off the avenues of departure.
Bragg tightened the screws on soldiers who straggled on the march (a common strategy to slink away), on grunts seeking medical furloughs (already establishing themselves as a halfway house towards a discharge), and on Confederate prisoners obtained by exchange for Union POWs (who were no longer paroled back home, but kept with the army).
Asa Lewis was hardly the only man shot under the policy. But construing mere French leave as capitally punishable “desertion” gave the general a chance to put the fear of a Confederate firing squad into other potential stragglers and malingerers — and the Kentuckian campaign to obtain clemency for the poor kid probably only helped Bragg’s purpose.
[A]midst a drenching rain-storm, Asa Lewis, member of Captain Page’s company, Sixth Kentucky regiment, was shot by a file of men. He was executed upon a charge of desertion, which was fully proven against him. The scene was one of great impressiveness and solemnity. The several regiments of Hanson’s brigade were drawn up in a hollow square, while Generals Breckinridge and Hanson, with their staffs, were present to witness the execution. The prisoner was conveyed from jail to the brigade drill-ground on an open wagon, under the escort of a file of ten men, commanded by Major Morse and Lieut. George B. Brumley. Lewis’s hands were tied behind him, a few words were said to him by Generals Brekinridge and Hanson, and word fire was given, and all was over. The unfortunate man conducted himself with great coolness and composure. He was said to have been a brave soldier, and distinguished himself at the battle of Shiloh.
Official journos may have been approving — Weitz says a contemporary newspaper report approvingly claimed that “when Bragg saw his army melting away from desertion he began shooting every man convicted by a court-martial, and that as a result his army had become ‘well disciplined’” — but less charitable interpretations of Bragg would hew more to the line that the man was simply being a petty, vindictive tyrant.
The aforementioned execution witness Breckinridge, for instance, was a Kentuckian himself and hated Bragg’s guts. (A week later, Bragg would waste 10,000 Confederate lives at the Battle of Stones River, and the rift became irreparable.)
Had the Confederate cause prevailed, he probably would have been a hero. Since history is written by the winners … here he is instead.
For reasons that lie in the uncertain junction between personal enmity and sectional loyalty, the war’s start saw Ferguson terrorizing Union supporters in the Kentucky-Tennessee borderlands, operating primarily around Sparta, Tenn.
These were not only state borders, but borders between the rival federal and Confederate territories. Civil War borders, obviously, were hazy and violently contested affairs: Kentucky was northern-controlled but claimed by both sides (it had rival governments); Tennessee seceded only after Fort Sumter.
Loyalties within Kentucky and Tennessee were divided as well. Ferguson’s own brother died fighting for the Union, and his cousin was killed by Ferguson’s own men. But the main battles were fought far away, leaving the conflict to play out locally.
In many cases … guerrillas identifying with the Confederacy operated well outside Confederate lines and Confederate control, leading to a certain ambiguity in official attitudes, since they did have their uses.
Guerrilla activity was … a feature of those up-country or back-country areas of states like North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, in which there were significant internal divisions in terms of sympathy for Confederacy or Union … guerrilla conflict was the only direct face of war experienced by many in Tennessee and Kentucky, since the movements of the main armies remained distant from them throughout. Unionist guerrillas, for example, controlled many of the counties of eastern Tennessee, while Confederate guerrillas disputed Union control of western Kentucky and middle Tennessee. One of the ironies of the situation in the Appalachians, the Cumberlands and the Ozarks was that, while these areas of rugged terrain were favoured by Confederate guerrillas, they were also the very areas within the Confederacy which most Union sympathisers inhabited
That was Ferguson — a “legendary Confederate partisan and guerrilla” or little better than a bandit, depending on your point of view. Either way, he was feared by area Unionists and renowned for killing prisoners. Stories of his savagery — severing heads and the like — made the rounds. Ferguson would argue (and did) that he did nothing his enemies weren’t also doing. (The New York Times printed a lengthy account (.pdf) of Ferguson’s versions of the many killings he was accused of — disputing some, frankly acknowledging many.)
That brings us back to winners and losers.
Ferguson, of course, got the losers’ treatment after the war; while vendettas against rank and file Confederate officers were not on the agenda, Ferguson’s irregular status and unbecoming reputation set him up for a war crimes trial. All attempts to claim wartime protections were rejected.
The Times account of his hanging this day — witnessed by his wife and 16-year-old daughter; their alleged rape is sometimes given as the reason for Ferguson’s campaign — is picturesque. (.pdf)
He stood composedly on the drop some twenty minutes, while the charges, specifications and sentence were read by Col. Shafter. He nodded recognition to several persons in the crowd, and shifted his position in an impatient manner while the sentence was being read. To some specifications he inclined his head in assent. To others he shook his head. That about Elam Huddleston caused him to say, “I can tell it better than that.” When the speaker read, “To all of which the prisoner pleads not guilty,” he said, “I don’t now.”
An 1865 Harper’s illustration of the hanging. See the way the troops surround the scaffold? There’s a bit of folklore that the military did that in order to fake the hanging and cut him down still alive.
Along with Henry Wirz, commandant of the notorious Confederate prison Andersonville, Ferguson was the only Confederate executed for Civil War “war crimes.”