On this date in 1912, George Shelton and his brother-in-law John Bailey were executed in Nashville, Tennessee for the murders of Ben Pettigrew and his two children. One of them can be identified as a daughter named Pearl. The other child’s identity is unclear; it may be another, unnamed daughter, or a son named Fred.
This is an unusual case because, in the Jim Crow South, these two white men had faced the death penalty for killing black victims, and their crime was characterized by many as a lynching.
Ben Pettigrew was a successful cotton farmer from Clifton, Tennessee. He had a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness, “unequaled among the colored population of this section of the country.” In fact, he was “regarded as highly as any member of his race in the south.”
Philadelphia Inquirer, July 27, 1912
On December 5, 1911, Ben and his two children were taking a load of seed cotton to a cotton gin in Savannah, Tennessee when their wagon was ambushed on the road by four white men.
Accounts about the murder differ as to what exactly occurred: one story is that Ben was shot and his two children hanged, and their bodies put on top of the wagon and set on fire with the cotton. Another has it that all three victims were tied, alive, on top of the load of cotton and then it was set on fire.
Also unclear is the motive for the crime, if there was any motive at all. According to some stories, the killers may have been white land tenants angry that blacks were occupying their former homes. It’s possible that they were jealous of the Pettigrew family’s respectability and economic success.
Other farmers in the area saw the fire and hurried to extinguish it, arriving just in time to see the four suspects run off into the woods. A posse assembled to hunt down the killers; it started out with 50 men and quickly grew to over 300 volunteers, with bloodhounds. In due course two people were captured; the others got away.
Little is known about Shelton and Bailey, farmhands described by the NAACP as “friendless, ignorant white boys” — a label borne out by the garbled written confession they made:
To the, Publick, and the, honer, cort, of decaturville, Tenn; we was assoated with Mr. J.M. Hill he read the Bible, to us, and talked to us, about our soles, and, all so Read To Us in St. Mathews the 10th Chapter and the, 26 Verce, that thire was nothing covered but, what would, be uncovered and nothing hid what would, be knowen and, he talked to us about telling the truth at the blessed Jesues, said that to tell the truth and, bleave the truth and it would make us, free and we do know that we did a great rong but god has forvie us, as Mr, Hill, had us us to go to god and, he has forgive us, and now we with up stretched, ormes, ask the clemences, and mercies, of, the, People, and, the, cort, to do all the cane, for, us, as we, air both maried boyes and, i Georg Shelton aire onley 18 yares, old. and, never, Had, the, chence, to go to school and raised up by a Good Fother. And, Oh, My, Der, ole, Mother, and my, Wife, and, Little, Baby! If, i, Had Onley of, Knowen at the start what all this would of, cause, me, i would Not, of done, it, for aney amount, of, Money, But, Mr, Lige Scott, tole, me to; That ole Ben ort to be, Killed, and got, out, of, the neighborhood. And John Bailey, is, A Brothernlaw of, George Shelton, and, is 24, yares, old, and His Parints, Died, when he was a Little Boy, and, he, was raised up heare and, yonder, and, kik from Piller, to Post and, we Both, have, no Egacation, and never relised what a black Path, of, sin we have been travling, till Mr. J.M. Hill, Read, the Bible to us, And Praid, for and with us, and then we begin to Relise what we had done.
Six Thousand People Present at the Execution of Sandy Mathews.
MEMPHIS, Tenn., June 2 — Sandy Mathews, colored, who murdered Essick Polk, colored, twele miles north of this city last October, was hanged in the county-jail yard this afternoon at 1 o’clock. The execution was witnessed by fully 6,000 people, a majority of whom were colored. The condemned man made a speech from the gallows, in which he confessed the killing, and implored his hearers to repent of their sins and go with him to Heaven. His neck was broken by the fall.
had been erected in the southern portion of the jail-yard and was built high enough to give a full view to the ccrowd that jammed the streets running parallel with the jail. Matthews [sic] slept well last night, and partook of a hearty breakfast this morning. He bade farewell to his wife about 11 o’clock, and began making preparations for the hanging. A few weeks ago he embraced Catholicism, and was attended in his cell by the Rev. Father Lucius, of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. He called for his dinner at noon, and ate heartily, and afterwards smoked a cigar. At half-past 12 o’clock he was brought from his cell and conveyed to the scaffold, where he addressed the crowd for twenty minutes in
A DISCONNECTED SPEECH,
confessing to having killed Polk, and at the same time imploring his hearers to repent of their sins ere too late, and be forgiven, as he had done. He then knelt and repeated the Lord’s Prayer, after which the Rev. Father Lucius said the prayers for the dying. The condemned man was handcuffed, and his arms, and legs, and ankles strapped. The black cap was adjusted, and, as he uttered the words
“FAREWELL FRIENDS, FAREWELL WORLD,”
the drop was sprung, and his body shot down. His neck was broken by the fall, and ther was but very slight convulsions of the body. During the speech many of the colored people responded to his implorations by shouting, “Bless the Lord, Amen.” Sandy Mathews killed Essick Polk for having enticed his wife from him. He struck him three blows with an ax. Several hours afterwards he took the dead remains and buried them in a field near his house. The hole not being large enough, he chopped the dead body in pieces, and thus buried them. The crime was kept concealed for five months, but revealed by a stepdaughter of Mathews, who was the only witness to the killing, and upon whose testimony he was convicted. Gov. Hawkins was appealed to, but declined to interfere with the sentence of the lower court, which was afterwards confirmed by the Supreme Court.
LEBANON, Tenn., March 27. — Mack Francis and James Turney, negroes, were hanged at 12.23 this afternoon for the murder of Lew Martin last summer. They showed a great deal of bravado and confessed their guilt after ascending the scaffold. Francis struggled much, but Turney died instantly, his neck being broken. The execution was private, but a large number of people stood around the gallows.
Lew Martin was a half-witted, inoffensive negro. On the evening of the murder he went to church, having $7* in his possession. This he imprudently displayed, and the two men who were to-day hanged saw it. They planned the murder while sitting behind the church, and shot their victim as he was on his way home. In his confession Francis said:
We waited outside the door of the church till the crowd came out, and when Martin was about one hundred yards down the road we followed him. When we caught up with him he was walking with some of the people from the church and we fell back and waited till he got by himself. Then we caught up with him again and walked along, one of us on each side of him. Then Jim drew his pistol and shot him twice. Lew’s head fell forward and he said ‘Jim.’ Jim then turned to me and said threateningly, ‘Shoot; why don’t you shoot.’ I then shot twice, and hit Lew in the body, and Jim shot three more times, when Lew fell. We went through his pockets and found seven dollars, and Jim took four dollars and I took three. When we killed him we thought he had more money, but when we left the church I had no idea of killing him.
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 28, 1889.
* The equivalent of about $175 in 2014 dollars. (via)
If present-day electoral politics strike you as disreputable, take comfort in the knowledge that the Republic has survived its share of low-down, brass-knuckle campaigns in the past. The presidential election of 1828 might have been the very dirtiest.
This race pitted incumbent John Quincy Adams, the silver-spoon New Englander and son of Federalist founding father John Adams, against Andrew Jackson, the uncouth self-made westerner of Scotch peasant stock. Jackson was [in]famous for his duels, and his willingness to push the envelope on acceptable use of the military forces he commanded. Some foes saw him as an American Napoleon; some supporters, likewise.
One of the juiciest gobs of slung mud in that 1828 campaign involved Jackson’s actions as a Major General during the War of 1812, and specifically right around the Battle of New Orleans.
Karl Rove would have approved of this tactical attack on the strength of a candidate, for it was to this service that Jackson owed his national repute. De Tocqueville, who considered Jackson “a man of violent temper and very moderate talents,” said that he “was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained there, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained, twenty years ago, under the walls of New Orleans.”*
At any rate, back in 1815, when army regulars were engaged on the east coast (or in the quixotic attempt to invade Canada), battle in the south and west pitted shaky American militia against British-allied Indian tribes in dirty, bloody ethnic cleansing.
Immediately prior to New Orleans, Jackson, west Tennessee’s biggest landowner and therefore its militia commander, took his forces south to Alabama, combined them with other militia, and routed the Creek, ending the Creek War subplot to the War of 1812. ‘Twas this conquest gave Jackson his “Old Hickory” nickname for controlling the Muscogee Creeks of Hickory Ground.
Cool beans for A.J., but not everyone on his team was equally excited.
After the Creek surrendered at the newly-raised Fort Jackson — vanity, vanity, all is vanity! — a number of soldiers stationed there with the 1st Regiment West Tennessee Militia started agitating to pack up and leave, even with the British navy still lurking. Come September, some even went so far as to demonstratively tramp out of Fort Jackson, vowing to return to hearth and home.
These were not enlisted soldiers of a standing army, so they did not necessarily conceive themselves bound to fight the British in Louisiana or the Creeks in Alabama: rights and obligations and loyalties were still being sorted out in the young Republic. These deserters had, however, been mustered that June for an announced six-month term, and September was only three months later. Moreover, these weren’t the only rumblings of desertion in Jackson’s ambit, and since he was potentially facing the prospect of defending the whole Gulf Coast against the world’s preeminent military power using nothing but a motley collection of farmers, Indian allies, pirates, and what-have-you, Old Hickory was not inclined to countenance anything that could erode his forces’ tenuous unity. Like George Washington before him, Jackson shot some malcontents today to pre-empt trouble tomorrow.
On November 21, 1814, Jackson ordered the six deserters/mutineers to court-martial. The next day, he departed to New Orleans where he would cover himself with glory.
After winning that battle, Jackson adjudicated a message from the Alabama court-martial, announcing six men condemned who had not been recommended for leniency.
As is well-known, the War of 1812 had officially been settled by treaty for weeks at this point, but it took approximately f.o.r.e.v.e.r for word to get around in these pre-telegraph days. Jackson didn’t know the war was over: he did know that British ships were still lurking around in the Gulf. (They also didn’t know the war was over.)
So Jackson behaved just as if he had a going conflict on his hands and sent back confirmation of the sentences. His six mutineers were shot kneeling on their coffins before 1,500 troops in Mobile, Ala. on February 21, 1815. Only after that did everybody (British included) find out that there wasn’t anything left to fight for.
But when Andrew Jackson eventually ran for U.S. President in 1828, the poor militiamen were exhumed (only metaphorically!) to traduce the general, whose reputation already ran to the bloodthirsty. This was a country where a great many of the men casting ballots would be, actually or potentially, subject to militia duty: the prospect of a frontier Queeg actually executing militia was calculated to impair Jackson’s famous appeal to the common man and raise the specter of the president as a potential strongman.
Propaganda pamphlets circulated this execution story widely that year, the swiftboating of the 19th century.
Their inevitable inclusion of six coffin-shaped blocks to symbolize the dead men this date eventually gave to anti-Jackson broadsides the name “Coffin Handbills” — a term that eventually extended to the entire genre of political libels. This linguistic relic is surely due for a bicentennial resurrection.
Sordid campaigning over Jackson’s questionable military freelancing was somewhat ironic in 1828, since Jackson also had that reputation from his extra-legal Florida incursions, after the War of 1812. Those adventures rankled many within the Monroe administration, but were stoutly defended by Monroe’s Secretary of State — none other than John Quincy Adams. (Adams’s own signature graces the 1819 treaty with Spain which ceded Florida; it was largely secured by Jackson’s depredations.)
Irony or no, the attacks had to be dealt with.
Jackson’s partisans responded with equal vigor. For instance, newspapers (the excerpt below comes from the May 1, 1828 Maryland Gazette) carried a lengthy vindication penned by a Jackson partisan and fellow-Tennessean then sitting his first term in Congress … but destined in time to follow Jackson to the White House.**
I had supposed it scarcely possible that any candid, intelligent man, could for a moment doubt the correctness of General Jackson’s conduct, in relation to this subject … No man has ever been more misrepresented and slandered by his political adversaries than Gen. Jackson, and upon no subject more than that in relation to the execution of the ‘six militia men.’ …
The corps to which the ‘six militiamen’ belonged, was stationed at Fort Jackson. Between the 10th and 20th of September 1814, before the period even of three months, much less six months, had expired, an alarming mutiny, such as was seldom ever witnessed in any army, took place in the camp, of which these ‘six militia men’ were the ringleaders. Harris who seems to have been the principal, several days before the mutiny broke out, carried about a subscription paper thro’ the camp, obtaining the signatures of all who would agree to go home. In defiance of their officers commanding the post, they on the 19th of September 1814, violently and tumultuously assembled together, to the number of near two hundred, broke open the public stores, took out provisions, demolished the bake house, shot down breves, and in the face of authority, left the camp on the next morning ‘at the end of revielle beat;’ yelling and firing scattering guns as they departed, proclaiming to all who would, to follow them.
Th proceedings of the court martial were forwarded to General Jackson then at New Orleans, for his approval. The six ringleaders were not recommended to mercy by the court martial. No palliating circumstances existed in their case, known to him. He knew they had been tried by a court martial composed of their fellow citizens and neighbours at home. The news of peace had not then arrived. The enemy’s forces were still in our waters and on our border. When an attack might be made was unknown, and the militia under General Winchester‘s command at Mobile, were ‘threatening to mutiny.’ … General Jackson saw that the salvation of the country was still in jeopardy, if subordination was not preserved in the army. He approved the sentence, and these six unfortunate, tho’ guilty men, were executed. This approval of the sentence of the court martial was made at New Orleans on the 22d of January, 1815. The first intimation which the General had of the news of peace even by rumour, was received on the 18th or 19th of February, 1815 … Col. G.C. Russell, who commanded on the day the sentence of the court martial was carried into execution, states in a letter of the 29th of July, 1827, that ‘we had no knowledge of a treaty of peace having been signed at Ghent, till more than a month after the approval of the sentence, and fifteen or twenty days after its execution.’ The official news of peace did not reach General Jackson until the 18th of March, 1815, and on the 19th of the same month, the British commander received the official intelligence from his government. It was not until after this period that the British forces left their position on that border of the union.
The effect which the execution of these men produced in the army was most salutary. Not a whisper was afterwards heard of the mutiny which had threatened General Winchester’s command. Subordination was restored, and all the troops in the service were willing, and did without a murmur perform their duty. Mutiny and desertion were no longer heard of in that part of the military service.
it is impossible to conceive how censure can attach to General Jackson. At the time he approved the sentence of the six ringleaders, he pardoned all those who had been recommended to mercy by the court martial that tried them. At the time of the execution all acquiesced in its justice. Every officer in the army responded to the importance of the example, for the good of the service. At that time the whole country was satisfied. Not a whisper of censure was heard against the commanding General, or any member of the court martial in reference to it.
Polk, indeed, advised his friend Jackson closely during the latter’s 1828 campaign, and specifically counseled an active campaign to rebut the “six militiamen” attacks.
Polk’s energetic response and others like it must have worked well enough: Jackson crushed John Quincy Adams as handily as he had once done the Creeks, and wound up with his hatchet face on the American $20 bill.
* The De Tocqueville quote in the text is the part germane to this post, but it disdainfully goes on to pronounce New Orleans “a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare. Now the people who are thus carried away by the illusions of glory are unquestionably the most cold and calculating, the most unmilitary, if I may so speak, and the most prosaic of all the nations of the earth.” Sniff.
** And to follow Jackson’s policy of dubious southerly land-grabs.
On this date in 1917, 24-year-old black farmhand Lation (or Ligon) Scott died a horrible death in Dyersburg, Tennessee.
For the two years prior to his extrajudicial “execution” by a lynch mob, Scott had worked as a farmhand for a white family, doing the farm chores while the husband worked at his job in Dyersburg.
He got on well with the family and was fond of the two children. He seemed like an ordinary enough man and a good worker, according to the NAACP journal The Crisis:
Accounts as to his intelligence vary widely. One report asserts that he was almost half-witted. Others attribute to him the intelligence of the average country Negro… He had the reputation of being a splendid hand at doing general housework, or “spring-cleaning,” and…had done this sort of work for a prominent woman of Dyersburg. She states that she was alone in the house with him for two days.
No trouble resulted.
In addition to farming and the doing of odd jobs, he was a preacher. On November 22, 1917, however, he allegedly raped the farmer’s wife while her husband was at work. He threatened to kill her if she reported what he had done. He then fled, leaving his victim bound and gagged inside the farmhouse.
The woman was able to free herself and identify her attacker, and the community took swift action, searching extensively for Scott and offering a $200 reward for his apprehension. Scott was able to elude capture for ten days, though, making his way fifty miles to Madison County. There, a railroad worker recognized him and he was arrested.
The sheriff’s deputy for Dyer County, along with some other men (including, presciently, an undertaker), picked up the accused man and started off back to Dyersburg by car in the wee hours of the morning. They didn’t bother taking an indirect route for the purpose of their journey.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people gathered along the road and waited for their quarry.
And when he appeared, they forced the car off the road and made the officers turn over their prisoner.
These people were not typical of the average lynch mob: rather than stringing him up on the spot, they drew up a list of twelve “jurors” and, at noon, after church let out, drove Scott to the county courthouse for a “trial.”
Scott was ordered to stand up and asked, “Are you guilty or not guilty?”
Scott admitted he was guilty, and the “jury” voted for conviction.
Although one “prominent citizen” asked the people not to be barbaric, because it was Sunday and because “the reputation of the county was at stake,” both the rape victim and her husband wanted Scott to be burned alive rather than merely hanged.
The Crisis‘s description of what happened is not for the faint-hearted.
The Negro was seated on the ground and a buggy-axle driven into the ground between his legs. His feet were chained together, with logging chains, and he was tied with wire. A fire was built. Pokers and flat-irons were procured and heated in the fire… Reports of the torturing, which have been generally accepted and have not been contradicted, are that the Negro’s clothes and skin were ripped from his body simultaneously with a knife. His self-appointed executioners burned his eye-balls with red-hot irons. When he opened his mouth to cry for mercy a red-hot poker was rammed down his gullet. In the same subtle way he was robbed of his sexual organs. Red-hot irons were placed on his feet, back and body, until a hideous stench of burning flesh filled the Sabbath air of Dyersburg, Tenn.
Thousands of people witnessed this scene. They had to be pushed back from the stake to which the Negro was chained. Roof-tops, second-story windows, and porch-tops were filled with spectators. Children were lifted to shoulders, that they might behold the agony of the victim.
It took three and a half hours for the man to die.
This spectacle of horror took place in broad daylight, and no one in the mob wore masks.
Nevertheless, no one was ever prosecuted.
According to The Crisis,
Public opinion in Dyersburg and Dyer County seems to be divided into two groups. One group considers that the Negro got what he deserved. The other group feels that he should have had a “decent lynching.”
A “decent lynching” was defined as “a quick, quiet hanging, with no display or torturing.”
One local citizen remarked that he thought the people who tortured and killed Lation Scott were no better than the rapist himself. Another simply commented, “It was the biggest thing since the Ringling Brothers’ Circus came to town.”
Lation Scott’s was the last lynching in Dyer County history.
Wire report in the Salt Lake Telegram, Dec. 3, 1917.
Daryl Holton went to the Tennessee electric chair.
Holton was an depressive Gulf War veteran with an acrid relationship with his ex-wife Crystle.
Bitter at being kept from his children for weeks on end, Holton picked up his three kids and their half-sister on November 30, 1997 and told them they’d be going Christmas shopping.
According to the confession that he gave when he turned himself in later that night, he instead drove them to an auto repair shop in Shelbyville, where he shot them in two pairs by having first Stephen and Brent (aged 12 and 10) and then Eric and Kayla (aged 6 and 4) stand front-to-back facing away from him, then efficiently shot them unawares through the back with an SKS. (Eric and Kayla played elsewhere while the older boys were murdered. Eric was hearing-impaired.)
“They didn’t suffer,” Holton would tell his shocked interrogators that night. “There was no enjoyment to it at all.”
The original plan was to complete a family hecatomb by proceeding to murder Crystle and her boyfriend, and then commit suicide. But on the drive over, Holton lost his zest for the enterprise, smoked a joint, and just went straight to the police where he announced that he was there to report “homicide times four.”
Holton had a light trial defense focused on disputing his rationality and competence at the time of the murders — a theme that appellate lawyers would attempt to return to, hindered significantly by Holton’s refusal to aid them or to participate in legal maneuvers that would prevent his execution. A spiritual advisor reported him at peace with his impending death: “He’s very clear, very focused.”
Holton’s was Tennesee’s first electrocution in 47 years and, as of this writing, its last. The Volunteer State subsequently removed electrocution from its statutes altogether — but in 2014 it re-adopted the electric chair as a backup option in view of the nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs.
On Tuesday, the 23rd inst., Harriet, slave of JAMES H. SHEPPERD, JR., aged about 13 years, was convicted of the murder, by drowning, of a son of ALEXANDER McKENZIE, Esq., of Hardeman county; she was sentenced to be hung on the 23rd of August. The boy deceased, was aged about 5 years, and was drowned in a common flour barrel fixed in a spring near the residence of his father. (Source)
On this date in 1833, a thirteen-year-old slave girl was hanged for murder in Bolivar, Tennessee.
The teenager, called Harriet, belonged to James H. Shepperd, Jr. On some unspecified date, she drowned a five-year-old boy, the son of Alexander McKenzie, in a flour barrel near his home in Hardeman County.
A local news account noted, “The circumstances as detailed by the witnesses on the trial, show the transaction to have been one of the most wanton and aggravated murders, perhaps ever committed by a female so young, and created considerable excitement in the minds of a virtuous community.” Harriet was convicted on July 23 and executed exactly a month later.
Harriet was the youngest female ever legally executed in Tennessee. She was not, however, the youngest person in the state to meet with that fate. That honor goes to twelve-year-old Jesse Ward, also a slave, who was hanged for arson in Knoxville in 1809. He burned down his master’s house and several barns because he was angry at being whipped.
These brothers (their eldest sibling Jim Brassell wisely bowed out of the scheme) and two other buddies got into the whiskey moonshine from the Brassells’ own home still, and decided to knock over a nearby lodging where two guests thought to be heavy with cash were staying.
So the quartet blacked up faces and turned clothes inside out by way of disguise and around midnight tromped up to the Allison Stand Inn wielding pistols.
“Don’t worry!” Russell Allison called to his guests, recognizing his onetime schoolmates. “It’s the Brassell boys!”
Nothing daunted by their identities outed, the moonshine party invaded the log residence. A bedroom melee ensued, and in the course of it Teek Russell shot Russell Allison fatally in the gut; another shot only narrowly missed Mrs. Isbell, the wife of the tax collector W.J. Isbell whom the party was trying to target in the first place.** Isbell wasn’t there at all, and the whole band fled the house not a penny richer, but about to be wanted men.
The next day as Allison lay expiring from his painful wound, the Allison family rounded up its own posse and descended on the Brassell residence. Again, Teek gut-shot an Allison — Russell’s brother Joe — and killed him, too. But the rest of the posse detained the desperados and they were soon hailed to Cookeville Jail. The murder became extremely notorious in the area and the Brassells boys were easily condemned, albeit after nearly two years’ worth of legal continuances.†
We’ve liberally included these youths in our arsenic themed set. Of course, these young men worked their mayhem with firearms and not philters, but in a sense their case underscores the ubiquity of that poison for 19th century crime. Desperate to escape, even the brutally direct Brassell boys turned like dissatisfied housewives and furtive insurance adjusters to inheritance powder: in their case, they managed to have some smuggled to them in jail, which they planned to insinuate into some apples they would share with their guards while being moved between Nashville and Cookville.
As it transpired, the guards caught wind of this scheme and foiled it, along with several other jailbreak attempts. But that was the great thing about that innocuous dust: everywhere someone would profit from some other fellow dropping unexpectedly dead, the first thought was invariably arsenic!
Frustrated of this and all other exits from their grim condition, the Brassell boys at last had to face the hemp. It would be the only judicial hanging in the history of Putnam County, Tennessee, and it would not want for ceremony. The execution itself occurred on a Wednesday; on the Sabbath preceding, the local Sunday school’s curriculum included (pdf) a visit to the condemned cells, where prisoners and children sang “Let us cross over the river”.
On hanging-day itself, the boys were up early for press interviews in the jailhouse. Shortly after 11 a.m., they piled into a wagon, grabbed seats on their own coffins, and were taken under guard to the double gallows specially built for them on Billy Goat Hill. Their sister Amanda trailed the wagon, but after a farewell hug she complied with Joe and Teek’s request to leave without seeing them hang.
Amanda had plenty of time to comply. The hanging wasn’t until 1:30!
The Brassells passed their last two hours or so of life on the scaffold. As they sat under their hanging-nooses, a crowd of thousands — some estimates put it as high as 20,000; old folks in the early 20th century would still say that it was the largest crowd Cookeville had ever seen — imbibed a series of preachers and religious songs, the warnings of the condemned duo themselves, and a scene where their intended target Mr. Isbell climbed up on the platform himself and pressed the two for a confession. Joe admitted his guilt. Teek refused until the very end to do so.‡ To cap off the drama, the sheriff, hatchet in hand to chop the fatal rope, counted down the last five minutes.
It seems this whole event, from the murder to the hanging, still survives in Cookeville folklore. There’s a lengthy ballad about the Brassell boys’ crime and execution, available here (pdf). Also see this fantastically detailed web page about the crime, including a blurry restored photograph of the hanging, and this pdf roundup.
A fragment of the Brassell boys’ joint headstone can still be seen at a family plot adjacent to Upperman High School in the small town of Baxter, just outside Cookeville.
* Teek had “George Andrew” on his birth certificate.
** William Jefferson Isbell was a tax collector carrying his proceeds; he had fallen ill that day and had to stop elsewhere. The Isbells and Allisons were related through marriage.
† “Justice, when most severe to him who has offended, is always most mercifully to him who would offend,” the Supreme Court most severely ruled — admonishing the young men not to entertain any hope of reprieve. (Quoted in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 28, 1878)
‡ Teek’s obstinacy on claiming innocence when the evidence against him seemed to overwhelming led to some later speculation that he might have semi-willingly taken the rap for a different Brassell — maybe Jim, the one who supposedly bowed out of the raid, or maybe even Amanda.
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 already-impaired 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.