1866: The Nashville murderers of William Hefferman

Add comment January 26th, 2020 Headsman

Blood accumulates upon us. Verily, it does seem that the reins of justice have been loosely thrown to the devil, and that we are all driving at breakneck speed in the same direction.

-Nashville Banner (via)

On this date in 1866, four youths employed as teamsters in the Army corrals of Union-occupied Nashville were hanged for a brutal highway robbery/murder.

The victim was William Hefferman, a wealthy railway contractor. His assailants were George Crabb/Craft, James Lysaught, Thomas Perry/Ferry, and James Knight; Knight at 20 was the only one out of his teens. On the night of November 22, 1865, they held up Hefferman’s carriage. The situation turned deadly when Hefferman’s son-in-law, attempting to protect the old man from the blows of the assailants when he refused to give them any money, fired a shot that wounded Crabb — which led to a return shot that mortally wounded Hefferman. He succumbed to the wound a few days later.

This was the immediate, unsettled aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, occasion for a robust crime wave that held Middle Tennessee in terror. “Nashville is infested by bands of robbers and murderers,” complained the Ohio newspaper The Spirit of Democracy (Dec. 6, 1865). Hefferman’s murder would be one of the signal crimes of that interim and draw nationwide outrage — all of which helped the killers’ associates to shop them very speedily. The army’s drumhead court-martial was gaveled in within a week and the hoodlums were lucky to get that far. “Great excitement exists in the city,” a dispatch to the Daily Ohio Statesman (Nov. 28, 1865) reported. “The streets are thronged with men vowing vengeance and threatening lynch law. Tonight meetings are being held in each ward to form a citizen patrol. A spark may incite the crowd to mob law.”

As it was a military trial, the appeal went up the chain of command to U.S. President Andrew Johnson,* who denied it. However, such a proceeding would not have been licit under the imminent (April 1866) U.S. Supreme Court holding in Ex Parte Milligan — which held that military courts cannot try civilians wherever civilian courts are open.

It is their youth, their boyishness, that leaps off the page in the accounts of their last hours — such as this from the Cleveland Daily Leader of January 29:

The four Heffernan [sic] murderers were hung to-day, at thirteen minutes past twelve o’clock. Their real names are James Knight, Thomas Perry, George Crab and James Lysaught. Two had been in the rebel army.

Yesterday several orthodox ministers called, conversed and prayed with the prisoners, who exhibited some emotion. Afterward, Father Begrath, of the Catholic Church, was with them. They all professed the Roman Catholic faith. Knight and Perry were baptised. The other two had been baptised in infancy. The prisoners had previously shown great hardihood, singing such pieces as “Bold Jack Dunaho” and “Bingen on the Rhine.” The past two days had tamed them down, but they were still stolid, frivolous and careless, joking about their doom.

This morning, Perry’s brother brought him clothing. The parting scene between them was heart-rending, Perry giving way to tears and sobs. Colonel Innis provided the others with clothing. Lysaught said, at first, that he didn’t want any pants, as those he had on were good as gold to hang in. Crab was asked to tell who shot Hefferman. He replied, “That is not a fair question; I’ll never tell that in this world.”

Father Begrath came about ten o’clock to attend them in their last moments. Lysaught said he felt as gay as a lay. He said he had been badly treated, else he would be with his parents now. Father Begrath read a touching letter from Lysaught’s parents to the Bishop, asking him to have James’ grave marked that some day they might take the body away. He was earnestly exhorted to repentance, but he remained almost stolid. Some one in the room having a looking-glass, he jumped up, exclaiming, “By golly, I must look at my face once more.” Then turning to Crab, he remarked, “Look at yours — it is your last chance.”

Crab replied, “It aint any use.” Lysaught asked, laughingly, “afraid you’ll break the glass?” when all four seemed much tickled. Crab having eased Lysaught’s handkerchief, the latter playfully snatched it away, saying, “let me smell it everlasting.” Then, turning to Crab, said, “you’re enough to make a monkey grin.”

Perry was asked if he feared to die. He replied “I don’t dread it a bit. It’s best to take it easy, it’s got to come.”

Crab indicted the following letter to Byron Heston, Oswego, New York:

George Crab, the boy who used to run on the packet with you, in 1861, is about to be hung. He requests to be remembered, kindly, to yourself and family.

Perry took his brother aside at parting, and advised him never to indulge in sinful, lazy ways, never to swear, and to let alone whisky, cards and bad houses, “for the like of this has brought me to the gallows. I want you to take my body home and let mother see me. I am sorry she did not see me before I was hung. Tell her to meet me in a better world, as I am prepared to die. God bless you! Good-bye!”

When the priest left them for a few moments they began to chat and joke about the ropes that would hang them, the feeling of contrition being evanescent.

An immense crowd, numbering fifteen thousand persons, were on the ground. At twenty minutes past eleven, the prisoners were brought to the gallows, which they mounted with a firm step, and stood gazing around for nineteen minutes, while the charges and specifications and sentence were read. Perry composedly leaned against one of the uprights, and surveyed the crowd. Crabb took hold of the noose before him, and viewed it with a comic look, testing its strength with his thumb, and rubbing his head against the rope.

Knight buttoned his coat, chewing his cud of tobacco violently and showing nervousness. As his arms were bound he quivered a moment. During the prayer he knelt, bowing his head and holding his handkerchief to his nose, which was bleeding. His last words were: “I have no hard feelings against any one. I am going to a better world.” Lysaught took a farewell chew of tobacco, saying “Pretty rough, ain’t it?” He asked forgiveness of all whom he had injured, adding, “I am glad we had time for repentance; I am glad we were removed from the jail to the Penitentiary. If I had stayed at the jail I would have starved to death.” Crab also asked forgiveness for his misdeeds, and thanked Mr. Johnson, keeper of the Penitentiary, for his kindness. Just before the drop fell, he shrugged his shoulders and exclaimed, “It’s kind o’ cold.” A chum called on him on the platform, and was affectionately kissed by Knight and Crab; as he went down the steps, the former called out, “Take warning by this.”

Just before the drop fell, Perry held out his hat and said, “Jim Johnson give my brother that.”

At thirteen minutes after 12 o’clock the rope was cut, and the four bodies fell with a heavy thump. Lysaught’s neck was broken. The knot slipped with Knight and Crab, who died with many struggles and convulsive writhings. Perry died by strangulation, but did not move much.

After hanging twenty minutes the bodies were cut down and placed in common pauper coffins.

An early attempt was made to erect whisky, candy and apple stands among the crowd of spectators, but the military promptly interfered.

The bearing of the condemned showed that they had agreed to brave it out. Their highest estimation of conduct on such occasions seems to have been to die game. They certainly met death with as little show of fear as it possible to imagine in youths not out of their teens.

* By coincidence, Johnson had been the military governor of Tennessee during the war.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Tennessee,U.S. Military,USA

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1815: Eight deserters by order of Andrew Jackson

8 comments February 17th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1815, eight young men condemned for desertion during the War of 1812 were executed by firing squad in Nashville, Tennessee.

They were brought out to be shot one by one, as there weren’t enough people available to form a firing squad large enough for the group of them.

Desertion was rife during this inglorious conflict, according to Wikipedia:

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.

  1. Nathaniel Chester, age unknown, a member of the Corp of Artillery.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. William Myers, 19, a private from Georgia. He enlisted on March 27, 1814; it’s unknown when he deserted.
  7. 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.
  8. John Young, age unknown, from Winchester, Virginia. He enlisted on October 3, 1814 and deserted after a mere five days.

General (and future President) Andrew Jackson affirmed their sentences on January 28, pardoning five others at the same time. This was twenty days after Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans, the final major conflict in the war. This day’s event was the largest mass execution in Tennessee history.

On this day..

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1928: Ben “Two Gun” Fowler, cinema shooter

1 comment January 25th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1928, a lawman was electrocuted in Nashville, Tennessee for the drunken double murder he’d committed nearly a year earlier. He walked resolutely to the death chair and even helped the guards adjust the straps before they pulled the switch.

Deputy Sheriff Ben “Two Gun” Fowler possessed three main qualifications for Prohibition-era law enforcement:

  1. He was enormous in size.
  2. He had a menacing demeanor.
  3. He was a World War I veteran. (Although, it’s true, most of his service time had been spent in the hospital battling the Spanish Flu.)

His main duty seems to have been busting up whiskey distilleries; he claimed he had destroyed 200 of them during his three years of service in Scott County, Tennessee.

Not being a wasteful man, he consumed much of the confiscated booze himself. He was thus fortified with moonshine on the night of his crime: March 5, 1927.

The town of Robbins lacked a theater, so its residents regularly screened films in the school auditorium. A large crowd came to see a comedy that fateful March night, Fowler among them. He was armed with his usual two pistols, and also wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Supposedly, he planned to serve a civil warrant on someone whom he thought would also be attending the movie.

But shortly after the film began, Fowler became annoyed by some noisy children and ordered them to keep quiet or he would arrest them. This prompted laughter from others in the crowd, including Dr. Wylie W. Foust. Fowler ordered him to shut up and threatened to arrest him, and Foust replied calmly, “You won’t do that.”

Foust was right: Fowler didn’t do that. Instead he struck him in the face with one of his pistols then shot him two or three times in the head. The doctor fell dead on the spot. If this sounds familiar, it’s because armed moviegoers are still to this day known to demand polite moviegoers.

Dr. Foust’s adult son was sitting behind him, and he was also armed. He pulled out his own pistol and shot at his father’s killer, but the bullets were ineffective against Fowler’s bullet-proof vest.

Fowler returned fire. At least two bystanders were shot in the melee. One of them, 53-year-old John Wesley West, also a deputy sheriff, was fatally wounded and died at the hospital.

For some time after the shootings, the drunken deputy stalked the auditorium, brandishing his pistols. He kept all the filmgoers in a state of terror, and ordered the Widow Foust to stop crying. Finally more level-headed armed men arrived and Fowler was put under arrest.

Justice moved swiftly: the murders happened Saturday night, Fowler was indicted on Monday, his trial started on Thursday, and the jury got the case the following Monday. Fowler’s defense was intoxication: he claimed he was too sauced to know what he was doing, which reduced his crimes to second-degree murder, a non-capital offense.

Although most witnesses agreed “Two Gun” was under the influence at the time of his senseless outburst, they couldn’t agree just how drunk he was, and no one could testify as to how much alcohol he’d actually consumed prior to the shootings. The jury took only two minutes to convict.

It should be noted that this wasn’t Fowler’s only brush with the wrong side of the law, either: he and another deputy had previously been charged with killing two moonshiners, but both men were acquitted in that case.

Fowler, a Kentucky native, was the only Scott County residence to die in the electric chair in Nashville. He was 35 years old when he attained that distinction.

On this day..

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1864: George Nelson, Indiana Jones rapist

2 comments September 12th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

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 day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Other Voices,Public Executions,Rape,Sex,Soldiers,Tennessee,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1865: Champ Ferguson, Confederate guerrilla

6 comments October 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Champ Ferguson was controversially hanged at Nashville for the “murders” he committed as a Confederate guerrilla.

There seems to be some slight difference of opinion (and do click that link) over Champ‘s role in the War Between the States.

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

-Ian Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies

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.”

Arguably somewhat neglected as a Civil War figure, Ferguson still has a few books detailing his life. An interview with the a author of the newly-published Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson’s Civil War is here.

A few books about Champ Ferguson

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Soldiers,Tennessee,Terrorists,USA,War Crimes

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