From the Morristown (Tenn.) Gazette, September 11, 1878:
EXECUTION OF HOWELL
THE CONFESSION OF THE GUILTY WRETCH
From the Knoxville Chronicle
Yesterday Greeneville was astir with the bustle of unusual excitement consequent upon preparations for the execution of the negro George Howell for the murder of Joseph Martin, near Fullen’s station, December 28th, 1877.
A strong police force was sworn in by the town authorities, and Sheriff A.J. Frazier had summoned a large guard to preserve on the occasion. There were no anticipations of attempted rescue of the prisoner, though frequent rumors to that effect had reached the officials, but it was deemed best to be prepared for any emergency, and though the crowd was large, yet no serious disturbance arose.
Some time after sentence of death was passed on him, the prisoner, Howell, made a full confession of the crime and its antecedents to Mr. J.R. Self, proprietor of the Journal, which, if true, put the family of the deceased in the worst possible light, he having declared in the plainest language that the widow and children of the murdered man, by bribes and threats, instigated him to do the deed.
Your reporter, accompanied by several others, visited the prisoner the day before his expected execution, Aug. 9th, expecting to see a burly black ruffian, but entering the cell, beheld confined in the cage, a negro lad, with a remarkably good countenance, holding a book in his hand. In one corner was a small pallet on which he slept, which was the only furniture it contained.
The prisoner seemed gratified at the entrance of visitors and answered all questions freely, even the frivolous one of whether Martin’s ghost ever appeared to him in the still hours of the night, to which he replied in the negative.
The unfortunate boy, George Howell, was born in La Grange, Ga., in October, 1861, his owner being Mr. Arch. Howell, who subsequently operated a steam furniture manufactory. His father’s name was Ephraim and his mother’s Mary, the former of whom is living, but the latter died when the prisoner was five years old. His father was a painter, and after his mother’s death both made their home in Atlanta, Ga., for six or seven years, the former pursuing his avocation of painting, while the boy waited on stores, confectioneries, etc. From thence they afterwards removed to Smyrna, Ga., where the prisoner remained a year in the employ of a Dr. Bell. He went from there to Cartersville, Ga., and by that time having become imbued with the spirit of unrest, visited Dalton and proceeded thence to Cleveland and Knoxville, and drifting as far east as Christiansburg, Va. But not liking the Old Dominion he returned to Bristol the day before the Presidential election in November, 1876. A few days after he entered the employ of J.B. Fitzgerald, near Fullen’s Depot, and remained there about seven months. He then worked a short time for Wm. Durman, perhaps two weeks, when he received a better offer and began working for Joseph Martin on the 19th of June, 1877.
The prisoner, in his interview, reiterated the confession previously made to Mr. Self and others regarding the complicity of Martin’s family with the murder, and avowed his intention, he said:
I had been at Martin’s for some time, perhaps a month, before I discovered any misunderstanding between Martin and his family and this occurred between him and his daughter Tennie. She upbraided him for his staying away from home so late; he kicked her over and struck her with a chair.
The next difficulty occurred between Martin and his wife, she accused him of visiting a house of ill fame near by, he went to his trunk, took out a pistol, and swore he would shoot her.
These wranglings and domestic quarrels continued all along through the summer, I remember of one, which at the time I thought would result seriously; it occurred some time in the fall, and late at night, I was asleep in the barn, little Bob woke me up, I went to the house and found Martin in a terrible rage, he said to me that his wife had refused to occupy his bed, that she had taken a separate room and that he would kill her, or any woman, bearing the name of wife, that would treat him in this manner. Bob and I set up the entire night.
THE BLOODY BARGAIN.
The following narrative of events immediately preceding the tragedy seems almost too horrible for relief, because if not the phatasmagoria [sic] of a disordered brain, the prisoner was but the hired tool of an unnatural wife and children. In this connection it should be stated that an attempt was made two days before the executions, by a member of Martin’s family, to induce Mr. Self, the publisher of the “confession,” to suppress the same, which, however, he declined doing. Continuing, the prisoner said:
Some two months before Christmas the family were all in the sitting room — perhaps some of the smaller children were in bed — when Mrs. Martin commenced abusing her husband (Mr. Martin was away from that night, I think he was at his mother’s or brother’s.) The girls, Margaret and Tennie and their brother Bob, all joined with their mother in denouncing the deceased. Mrs. Martin said that ‘Joe had threatened to kill you, (me) twice, and if I was you (me) I would kill him,’ she said that ‘Joe had followed you (me) one day in the railroad cut with the intention of killing you (me) and that if I did not kill him he would certainly murder me, and, if I would kill him she would bake me some cakes for Christmas.’ Bob spoke up and said that he ‘would give me two calves and a pig if I would kill his father.’ I do not remember my reply, but from that time on it was well-understood in the family that Mr. Martin was to be killed, and that I was to do it, and the family were to swear me out of it.
Mrs. Martin baked the cakes for the prisoner on Christmas, he said, reproaching him at the same time for his failure to perform his promise. Three days later, however, he endeavored to do so, and a runaway team, which diverted his attention, was the means of prolonging Martin’s life a few hours. The same evening after being informed that the gun, with which the fatal deed was committed (an Enfield rifle) was loaded, the prisoner made a new ramrod for it the iron rod being too short, and while cutting it the right length at the wood pile, according to his statement, Bob, a son of Martin’s about thirteen years old, brought him the gun, and told him to go around the house and shoot his father. Bob then went into the house, and the prisoner thus describes the
I went round in front and looked through the window, and saw Mag sitting on one side of the fire-place, Tennie on the opposite, Mr. Martin out in front and Bob sitting away back next the back door. They were all out of range. I stepped up to a plank at the edge of the portico took aim at Martin’s ear and fired. I then ran out at the front gate, next the railroad, poured some powder in the gun, put on a cap as I run, went into the barnyard. At this time I saw Martin and his son in the meadow. I fired my gun into the air, shouting to them that there were some robbers going through the field. I did this for the purpose o making Martin think he had been attacked by ‘tramps.’
I then went to Martin and kept with him until he reached the ‘Ridge’ road, some four hundred yards from his house, and at this point, Mr. Thomas stokes, having heard the firing and Martin’s cries for help, come to us. Mr. Stokes took Martin home with him, and deceased, not having at this time, the slightest suspicion that I was the one who shot him, requested me to go back to his house and see what had become of his children. I did so, little Bobby accompanying me. We returned to the house. I went in the large front room, and from there into a small bed-room and set my gun down and came back in the large room, when Miss Mag. gave me a clean shirt and told me I had better leave the country; that it would be all over the country by next morning, that her father was killed, and I would be in danger.
Howell told how he combatted Miss Maggie’s advice, saying “if they stuck to him he would be in no danger,” and acting on that idea the results was disastrous, for the next morning, he was arrested near Fullen’s depot by James F. Dobson and taken before the jury of inquest, where he denied all knowledge of the deed, but under cross-examination his answers were contradictory and he was arrested and taken to Rheatown, where he was examined before Justice G.A. Shoun. On the way the prisoner made a full confession to D.C. Dukes and Wm. T. Mitchell.
He was lodged in jail at Greeneville, Dec. 29th ult., and the case came up before the February term, 1878, of the Circuit Court, but the trial was postponed till the June following, when a verdict of guilty was rendered.
In his “appendix,” the publisher says:
The ‘confession,’ proper, was written at the suggestion of the prisoner, Howell, and after some hesitation we undertook the task: … The language is our own, but we have adhered strictly to the substance of the matter as detailed by him.
During his imprisonment, Howell has been visited frequently by clergyman [sic] and others who have conversed and prayed with him, but apparently with out producing any impression to the last. Many think him obdurate, though others more leniently think he could not comprehend the gravity of his situation. He appeared resigned to his fater and expressed deep regret for the crime.
Our reporter visited Howell in his cell yesterday morning, accompanied by Messrs. Dukes and Self. He was reading the 4th chapter of John, and in response to the question, said that he hoped he was prepared to die. He also said that he derived great pleasure from reading the Scriptures, especially a chapter in Revelations regarding the Great Wonder in Heaven.
The statement having been made by Messrs. Frank and Sevier Martin, brothers of the murdered man, that Howell had been prevente4d by Messrs. Dukes and Self from recanting his charges against the Martin family for complicity in the crime, Mr. D. asked the prisoner to state if such was the fact, who replied that it was not, and so far from it that both these gentlemen had repeatedly urged him to make a clean breast of it, and tell the truth.
Howell’s health has been very bad for some time, and last week his life was considered in danger. He stated that he wished to see the Martin family at the scaffold, where, if they came, he would charge them with having brought him. Howell requested that his body should be given to Dr. J.R. Boyd, who wished to make some slight surgical examination, though he objected to out-and-out dissection.
The crowd in attendance was small as compared with that which assembled on the 9th of August. There is, too, considerable change of public sentiment in regard to the complicity of Martin’s family in his murder.
As is generally known, Howell was respited on the 9th of August last, the day first designated for his execution, by Gov. Porter, through the exertions of W.F. Yardley, Esq., who afterwards unavailingly attempted to procure a commutation of the death penalty to imprisonment for life.
Was erected one mile west of Greeneville, on the Knoxville road, and is the first one on which a “drop” has been used in East Tennessee for many years, and was constructed at Howell’s own request, he not wishing to die by strangulation.
A little after 12 o’clock the black cap and shroud were placed on the prisoner in his cell, and the procession left the jail at 12:40, p.m., reaching the gallows, near the fair ground, at 1:10, p.m. Silence was requested when Howell made a rambling, incoherent talk of thirteen minutes, exhorting the young people against bad advisers. He charged the Martin family with being the cause of his death to the last. He acknowledged his guilt, and the justice of his sentence, and forgave the court, jury and officers.
The devotional exercises were conducted by Judge A.W. Woward.
At 1:49 p.m. the black cap was drawn and the prisoner stepped on the trap. One minute after the cord was cut, and he
FELL FOUR FEET.
In forty-seven minutes he was dead, and, the body being cut down, was given over to Dr. Boyd to partially dissect. The crowd was very orderly during the execution.
Sheriff A.J. Frazier was assisted in the performance of his unpleasant duties by ex-Sheriff W.S. White. Having been in office only four days, this was of course, his first execution, but he evinced a coolness throughout.
The last man hung by civil process in Greeneville was Archibald Brown, for the murder of Malinda Hinkle, about twenty-six years ago. But the beginning of the war, there were two victims of drum-head court martial executions, Hinchey and Fry, well known Union men, for the alleged crime of bridge burning.