Posts filed under 'Tennessee'

1892: The People’s Grocery Lynchings of Memphis

Add comment March 9th, 2020 Ida Wells

(Thanks to the nails-tough journalist Ida Wells for the guest post on the March 9, 1892 triple lynching in Memphis, Tennessee, of African American grocers Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart. Born a slave in Mississippi, Wells was in Memphis at this point running the black newspaper Free Press, which figures in the story; the victims, too, were personal friends of hers, particularly Tommie Moss to whose daughter Ida Wells stood godmother. The event is known as the Peoples’s Grocery Lynchings or the Lynchings at the Curve, and as will be seen from Wells’s piece it’s a rich cross-section of American pathologies. It’s also one that reshaped Wells’s entire life: she became the nation’s most ferocious anti-lynching crusader. This text is excerpted from a long address Wells delivered in Boston on February 13, 1893 titled “Lynch Law in All its Phases” — which was also the title of an anti-lynching pamphlet she was circulating. (Find the address and much more in this Ida Wells document archive.) She never returned to Memphis. -ed.)

We had nice homes, representatives in almost every branch of business and profession, and refined society. We had learned that helping each other helped all, and every well-conducted business by Afro-Americans prospered. With all our proscription in theatres, hotels and on railroads, we had never had a lynching* and did not believe we could have one. There had been lynchings and brutal outrages of all sorts in our own state and those adjoining us, but we had confidence and pride in our city and the majesty of its laws. So far in advance of other Southern cities was ours, we were content to endure the evils we had, to labor and wait.

But there was a rude awakening. On the morning of March 9, the bodies of three of our best young men were found in an old field horribly shot to pieces. These young men had owned and operated the People’s Grocery, situated at what was known as the Curve — a suburb made up almost entirely of colored people — about a mile from city limits. Thomas Moss, one of the oldest letter-carriers in the city, was president of the company, Calvin McDowell was manager and Will Stewart was a clerk. There were about ten other stockholders, all colored men. The young men were well known and popular and their business flourished, and that of Barrett, a white grocer who kept store there before the “People’s Grocery” was established, went down. One day an officer came to the “People’s Grocery” and inquired for a colored man who lived in the neighborhood, and for whom the officer had a warrant. Barrett was with him and when McDowell said he knew nothing as to the whereabouts of the man for whom they were searching, Barrett, not the officer, then accused McDowell of harboring the man, and McDowell gave the lie. Barrett drew his pistol and struck McDowell with it; thereupon McDowell, who was a tall, fine-looking six-footer, took Barrett’s pistol from him, knocked him down and gave him a good thrashing, while Will Stewart, the clerk, kept the special officer at bay. Barrett went to town, swore out a warrant for their arrest on a charge of assault and battery. McDowell went before the Criminal Court, immediately gave bond and returned to his store. Barrett then threatened (to use his own words) that he was going to clean out the whole store. Knowing how anxious he was to destroy their business, these young men consulted a lawyer who told them they were justified in defending themselves if attacked, as they were a mile beyond city limits and police protection. They accordingly armed several of their friends — not to assail, but to resist the threatened Saturday night attack.

When they saw Barrett enter the front door and a half dozen men at the rear door at 11 o’clock that night, they supposed the attack was on and immediately fired into the crowd wounding three men. These men, dressed in citizens’ clothes, turned out to be deputies who claimed to be hunting another man for whom they had a warrant, and whom any one of them could have arrested without trouble. When these men found they had fired upon officers of the law, they threw away their firearms and submitted to arrest, confident they should establish their innocence of intent to fire upon officers of the law. The daily papers in flaming headlines roused the evil passions of the whites, denounced these poor boys in unmeasured terms, nor permitted them a word in their own defense.


Headline and excerpt from the Appeal-Avalanche of March 9, 1892.

The neighborhood of the Curve was searched next day, and about thirty persons were thrown into jail, charged with conspiracy. No communication was to be had with friends any of the three days these men were in jail; bail was refused and Thomas Moss was not allowed to eat the food his wife prepared for him. The judge is reported to have said, “Any one can see them after three days.” They were seen after three days, but they were no longer able to respond to the greeting of friends. On Tuesday following the shooting at the grocery, the papers which had made much of the sufferings of the wounded deputies, and promised it would go hard with those who did the shooting, if they died, announced that the officers were all out of danger, and would recover. The friends of the prisoners breathed more easily and relaxed their vigilance. They felt that as the officers would not die, there was no danger that in the heat of passion the prisoners would meet violent death at the hands of the mob. Besides, we had such confidence in the law. But the law did not provide capital punishment for shooting which did not kill. So the mob did what the law could not be made to do, as a lesson to the Afro-American that he must not shoot a white man, — no matter what the provocation. The same night after the announcement was made in the papers that the officers would get well, the mob, in obedience to a plan known to every prominent white man in the city, went to the jail between two and three o’clock in the morning, dragged out these young men, hatless and shoeless, put them on the yard engine of the railroad which was in waiting just behind the jail, carried them a mile north of city limits and horribly shot them to death while the locomotive at a given signal let off steam and blew the whistle to deaden the sound of the firing.

“It was done by unknown men,” said the jury, yet the Appeal-Avalanche, which goes to press at 3 a.m., had a two-column account of the lynching. The papers also told how McDowell got hold of the guns of the mob, and as his grasp could not be loosened, his hand was shattered with a pistol ball and all the lower part of his face was torn away. There were four pools of blood found and only three bodies. It was whispered that he, McDowell, killed one of the lynchers with his gun, and it is well known that a policeman who was seen on the street a few days previous to the lynching, died very suddenly the next day after.

“It was done by unknown parties,” said the jury, yet the papers told how Tom Moss begged for his life, for the sake of his wife, his little daughter and his unborn infant. They also told us that his last words were, “If you will kill us, turn our faces to the West.”

All this we learned too late to save these men, even if the law had not been in the hands of their murderers. When the colored people realized that the flower of our young manhood had been stolen away at night and murdered, there was a rush for firearms to avenge the wrong, but no house would sell a colored man a gun; the armory of the Tennessee Rifles, our only colored military company, and of which McDowell was a member, was broken into by order of the Criminal Court judge, and its guns taken. One hundred men and irresponsible boys from fifteen years and up were armed by order of the authorities and rushed out to the Curve, where it was reported that the colored people were massing, and the point of the bayonet dispersed these men who could do nothing but talk. The cigars, wines, etc., of the grocery stock were freely used by the mob, who possessed the place on pretence of dispersing the conspiracy. The money drawer was broken into and contents taken. The trunk of Calvin McDowell, who had a room in the store, was broken open, and his clothing, which was not good enough to take away, was thrown out and trampled on the floor.

These men were murdered, their stock was attached by creditors and sold for less than one-eighth of its cost to that same man Barrett, who is to-day running his grocery in the same place. He had indeed kept his word, and by aid of the authorities destroyed the People’s Grocery Company root and branch. The relatives of Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell are bereft of their protectors. The baby daughter of Tom Moss, too young to express how she misses her father, toddles to the wardrobe, seizes the legs of the trousers of his letter-carrier uniform, hugs and kisses them with evident delight and stretches up her little hands to be taken up into the arms which will nevermore clasp his daughter’s form. His wife holds Thomas Moss, Jr., in her arms, upon whose unconscious baby face the tears fall thick and fast when she is thinking of the sad fate of the father he will never see, and of the two helpless children who cling to her for the support she cannot give. Although these men were peaceable, law-abiding citizens of this country, we are told there can be no punishment for their murderers nor indemnity for their relatives.

I have no power to describe the feeling of horror that possessed every member of the race in Memphis when the truth dawned upon us that the protection of the law which we had so long enjoyed was no longer ours; all this had been destroyed in a night, and the barriers of the law had been thrown down, and the guardians of the public peace and confidence scoffed away into the shadows, and all authority given into the hands of the mob, and innocent men cut down as if they were brutes — the first feeling was one of utter dismay, then intense indignation. Vengeance was whispered from ear to ear, but sober reflection brought the conviction that it would be extreme folly to seek vengeance when such action meant certain death for the men, and horrible slaughter for the women and children, as one of the evening papers took care to remind us. The power of the State, country and city, the civil authorities and the strong arm of the military power were all on the side of the mob and of lawlessness. Few of our men possessed firearms, our only company’s guns were confiscated, and the only white man who would sell a colored man a gun, was himself jailed, and his store closed. We were helpless in our great strength. It was our first object lesson in the doctrine of white supremacy; an illustration of the South’s cardinal principle that no matter what the attainments, character or standing of an Afro-American, the laws of the South will not protect him against a white man.

There was only one thing we could do, and a great determination seized upon the people to follow the advice of the martyred Moss, and “turn our faces to the West,”** whose laws protect all alike. The Free Speech supported by our ministers and leading business men advised the people to leave a community whose laws did not protect them. Hundreds left on foot to walk four hundred miles between Memphis and Oklahoma. A Baptist minister went to the territory, built a church, and took his entire congregation out in less than a month. Another minister sold his church and took his flock to California, and still another has settled in Kansas. In two months, six thousand persons had left the city and every branch of [white] business began to feel this silent resentment of the outrage, and failure of the authorities to punish the lynchers. There were a number of business failures and blocks of houses were for rent. The superintendent and treasurer of the street railway company called at the office of the Free Speech, to have us urge the colored people to ride again on the street cars. A real estate dealer said to a colored man who returned some property he had been buying on the installment plan: “I don’t see what you ‘niggers’ are cutting up about. You got off light. We first intended to kill every one of those thirty-one ‘niggers’ in jail, but concluded to let all go but the ‘leaders.'” They did let all go to the penitentiary. These so-called rioters have since been tried in the Criminal Court for the conspiracy of defending their property, and are now serving terms of three, eight, and fifteen years each in the Tennessee State prison.

To restore the equilibrium and put a stop to the great financial loss, the next move was to get rid of the Free Speech, — the disturbing element which kept the waters troubled; which would not let the people forget, and in obedience to whose advice nearly six thousand persons had left the city. In casting about for an excuse, the mob found it in the following editorial which appeared in the Memphis Free Speech, — May 21, 1892:

Eight negroes lynched in one week. Since last issue of the Free Speech one was lynched at Little Rock, Ark., where the citizens broke into the penitentiary and got their man; three near Anniston, Ala., and one in New Orleans, all on the same charge, the new alarm of assaulting white women — and three near Clarksville, Ga., for killing a white man. The same program of hanging — then shooting bullets into the lifeless bodies was carried out to the letter. Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will overreach themselves, and public sentiment will have a reaction. A conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.

Commenting on this, The Daily Commercial of Wednesday following said:

Those negroes who are attempting to make lynching of individuals of their race a means for arousing the worst passions of their kind, are playing with a dangerous sentiment. The negroes may as well understand that there is no mercy for the negro rapist, and little patience with his defenders. A negro organ printed in this city in a recent issue publishes the following atrocious paragraph: ‘Nobody in this section believes the old threadbare lie that negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction. A conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.’ The fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of Southern whites. There are some things the Southern white man will not tolerate, and the obscene intimation of the foregoing has brought the writer to the very uttermost limit of public patience. We hope we have said enough.

The Evening Scimitar of the same day copied this leading editorial and added this comment:

Patience under such circumstances is not a virtue. If the negroes themselves do not apply the remedy without delay, it will be the duty of those he has attacked, to tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison streets, brand him in the forehead with a hot iron and —

Such open suggestions by the leading daily papers of the progressive city of Memphis were acted upon by the leading citizens and a meeting was held at the Cotton Exchange that evening. The Commercial two days later had the following account of it:

ATROCIOUS BLACKGUARDISM.

There will be no Lynching and no Repetition of the Offense.

In its issue of Wednesday The Commercial reproduced and commented upon an editorial which appeared a day or two before in a negro organ known as the Free Speech. The article was so insufferable and indecently slanderous that the whole city awoke to a feeling of intense resentment which came within an ace of culminating in one of those occurrences whose details are so eagerly seized and so prominently published by Northern newspapers. Conservative counsels, however, prevailed, and no extreme measures were resorted to. On Wednesday afternoon a meeting of citizens was held. It was not an assemblage of hoodlums or irresponsible fire-eaters, but solid, substantial business men who knew exactly what they were doing and who were far more indignant at the villainous insult to the women of the South than they would have been at any injury done themselves. This meeting appointed a committee to seek the author of the infamous editorial and warn him quietly that upon repetition of the offense he would find some other part of the country a good deal safer and pleasanter place of residence than this. The committee called on a negro preacher named Nightingale, but he disclaimed responsibility and convinced the gentlemen that he had really sold out his paper to a woman named Wells. This woman is not in Memphis at present. It was finally learned that one Fleming, a negro who was driven out of Crittenden Co. [the Arkansas county facing Memphis across the Mississippi River -ed.] during the trouble there a few years ago, wrote the paragraph. He had, however, heard of the meeting, and fled from a fate which he feared was in store for him, and which he knew he deserved. His whereabouts could not be ascertained, and the committee so reported. Later on, a communication from Fleming to a prominent Republican politician, and that politician’s reply were shown to one or two gentlemen. The former was an inquiry as to whether the writer might safely return to Memphis, the latter was an emphatic answer in the negative, and Fleming is still in hiding. Nothing further will be done in the matter. There will be no lynching, and it is very certain there will be no repetition of the outrage. If there should be —

Friday, May 25.

The only reason there was no lynching of Mr. Fleming who was business manager and half owner of the Free Speech, and who did not write the editorial, was because this same white Republican told him the committee was coming, and warned him not to trust them, but get out of the way. The committee scoured the city hunting him, and had to be content with Mr. Nightingale who was dragged to the meeting, shamefully abused (although it was known he had sold out his interest in the paper six months before). He was struck in the face and forced at the pistol’s point to sign a letter which was written by them, in which he denied all knowledge of the editorial, denounced and condemned it as slander on white women. I do not censure Mr. Nightingale for his action because, having never been at the pistol’s point myself, I do not feel that I am competent to sit in judgment on him, or say what I would do under such circumstances.

I had written that editorial with other matter for the week’s paper before leaving home the Friday previous for the General Conference of the A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia. Conference adjourned Tuesday, and Thursday, May 25, at 3 p.m., I landed in New York City for a few days’ stay before returning home, and there learned from the papers that my business manager had been driven away and the paper suspended. Telegraphing for news, I received telegrams and letters in return informing me that the trains were being watched, that I was to be dumped into the river and beaten, if not killed; it had been learned that I wrote the editorial and I was to be hanged in front of the court-house and my face bled if I returned, and I was implored by my friends to remain away. The creditors attacked the office in the meantime and the outfit was sold without more ado, thus destroying effectually that which it had taken years to build. One prominent insurance agent publicly declares he will make it his business to shoot me down on sight if I return to Memphis in twenty years, while a leading white lady had remarked she was opposed to the lynching of those three men in March, but she wished there was some way by which I could be gotten back and lynched. I have been censured for writing that editorial, but when I think of five men who were lynched that week for assault on white women and that not a week passes but some poor soul is violently ushered into eternity on this trumped up charge, knowing the many things I do, and part of which tried to tell in the New York Age of June 25, (and in the pamphlets I have with me) seeing that the whole race in the South was injured in the estimation of the world because of these false reports, I could no longer hold my peace, and I feel, yes, I am sure, that if it had to be done over again (provided no one else was the loser save myself) I would do and say the very same again. The lawlessness here described is not confined to one locality. In the past ten years over a thousand colored men, women and children have been butchered, murdered and burnt in all parts of the South. The details of these terrible outrages seldom reach beyond the narrow world where they occur. Those who commit the murders write the reports, and hence these blots upon the honor of a nation cause but a faint ripple on the outside world. They arouse no great indignation and call forth no adequate demand for justice. The victims were black, and the reports are so written as to make it appear that the helpless creatures deserved the fate which overtook them.

A few books about and by Ida Wells

* Just six months prior to the events described in this post, a labor conflict in Lee County, Arkansas — just down the Mississippi and involving some Memphis workers — had been, in the words of an Arkansas Gazette headline, “Settled with Rope”.

** Many migrated to Oklahoma, which opened formerly reservation land to non-Indian settlement on April 19, 1892.

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Entry Filed under: Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Pelf,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Tennessee,USA

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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.

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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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1856: Six Tennessee slaves, election panic casualties

Add comment December 4th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1856, the white citixens of Dover, Tennessee hanged at least six black slaves in the midst of a regional panic.

They could well sense, as could all Americans, the hollowing authority of slavery in the 1850s with the Civil War looming ahead in 1861. Conflict over the issue had split the country sectionally over the disposition of the huge territory annexed in the Mexican-American War; the matter came to literal blows on the western frontier in the “Bleeding Kansas” bush war.

On the cultural plane, these are the years that germinated the definitive anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); on the legal plane, they produced the the notorious pro-slavery Dred Scott Supreme Court case (1857).

And on the political plane, the slavery issue tore apart the old Whig Party — and so the 1856 presidential election for the first time featured the new anti-slavery Republican Party as the chief opposition. The very first Republican presidential nominee, John Fremont, carried 11 states on November 4, 1856: not enough to capture the White House, but enough to put the Slave Power in fear for its human chattel and catalyze, in the weeks surrounding the vote, paranoid reactions in various southerly locales to the effect that Fremont-inspired blacks would be coming to dispossess all the masters.

Now it only takes a glance at Twitter to evidence the capacity of a presidential ballot to dominate the public mind, so there can hardly be doubt that seditious rumors of liberty fell from black lips which had never been so close to tasting emancipation. “Wait till Fremont is elected, and den I guess as how, missess, you will have to dew de pots yourself,” a Memphis kitchen-slave supposedly told her mistress on the eve of the election. (New York Herald, December 11, 1856) The masters too would have spoken of the same topic, but with trepidation; nobody knew but what the future could hold, and words overheard would have worked their way to and fro across the color line to shape hope, terror, anticipation. The newspapers from the last weeks of 1856 have reports of rumored insurrections and white vigilance committees in Missouri, in Texas, in Arkansas, in Louisiana.

As is usual in slave rising panics no firm evidence exists that black plots consisted in this moment of anything more substantial than whispered hopes. Whites in scattered localities saw Nat Turner everywhere — and nowhere was this more the case than in western Tennessee. There, slaves around the Cumberland River were believed to be organizing a Christmas Day rising* to cut their masters’ throats, run amok, and rendezvous with an imagined army of Fremont liberators. One correspondent described for northern papers how

the credulity of these poor people is such that, in the belief of the whites who excite them, they imagine that Col. Fremont, with a large army is awaiting at the mouth of the river Cumberland … Certain slaves are so greatly imbued with this fable, that I have seen them smile while they are being whipped, and have heard them say that ‘Fremont and his men can bear the blows they receive.’ (via the Barre (Mass.) Gazette, Dec. 19, 1956)

Against such hope — more blows. A truly horrifying and widely republished editorial in the Clarksville (Tenn.) Jeffersonian that Dec. 3 proposed an overwhelming bloodletting to crush this prospective jacquerie.

It is useless to shut our eyes and deny the facts, or sneer at the developments which have been made. Every hour multiplies the proof and corroborates previous discoveries. It is no Titus Oates affair, but a solemn, fearful and startling reality, and must be dealt with accordingly.

The crimes contemplated should be atoned for precisely as though those crimes had been attmpted and consummated. Fearful and terrible examples should be made, and if need be, the fagot and the flame should be brought into requisition to show these deluded maniacs the fierceness and the vigor, the swiftness and completeness of the white man’s vengeance. Let a terrible example be made in every neighborhood where the crime can be established, and if necessary let every tree in the country bend with negro meat. Temporizing in such cases as this is utter madness. We must strike terror, and make a lasting impression, for only in such a course can we find the guaranties of future security …

The path of future safety must be wet with the blood of those who have meditated these awful crimes. Misplaced clemency, and we believe that any clemency would be misplaced, may at no distant day bring upon this people, the horrors and the inexpressible crimes which marked the enfranchisement of St. Domingo. While retributive justice, sternly and unbendingly enforced, will certainly remove the cause of the evils we now suffer and prove our sure protection against their repetition in all time to come.

So far as this writer can establish it is not certain how many people overall in Tennessee and throughout the Slave Power met the guns and nooses of white vigilantes, but some of the best-established are a sextet hanged at Dover on December 4, 1856. This town on the Cumberland was roiled by rumors that slaves from nearby communities intended to march, armed, on Dover itself, an idea that seems not much less fanciful than that of deliverance by Fremont; it became thereby an epicenter of the suppression, and favors us from a sea of unreliable timelines and misstated figures with a concrete eyewitness description.

Tuesday morning [sic — the writer means Thursday, Dec. 4, having narrated Wednesday, Dec. 3 immediately prior], I went to Dover, and arrived there about 2 o’clock. The people had hung four negroes at 11 o’clock that morning, and two more then in town to be hung. I got to the place of execution in time to see the last one go off. Of the six that were hung, three had been preachers. They were all proved to be ring-leaders. I learned that the men at the forge were at work whipping the truth out of their negroes, so I rode out there that night, and was up with them all night. I never had such feelings in my life. I saw a list of negroes that had been whipped, and was told what they all had stated, and then I heard the balance examined — some taking five and six hundred lashes before they would tell the tale … One of the negroes at the forge died from whipping that night, several hours after the operation.

We are at work here to-day. We have one negro in chains, and will hang him I think, certain; if the committee will not the community are determined to do it. I think we will have quite an exciting time here before we get through. I have no doubt but that it is a universal thing all over the Southern States, and that every negro fifteen years old, either knows of it or is into it … (Louisville Daily Courier, Dec. 29, 1856)

Two key academic sources on this affair are:

  • Harvey Wish, “The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856,” The Journal of Southern History, May, 1939
  • Charles Dew, “Black Ironworkers and the Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856,” The Journal of Southern History, August 1975

* Shades of Jamaica.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Summary Executions,Tennessee,Torture,Treason,USA

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1879: Anthony Blair

Add comment September 26th, 2018 Headsman

From the New York Times, September 27, 1879:


ANTHONY BLAIR HANGED
TEN THOUSAND SPECTATORS TO SEE HIM DIE — THE HISTORY OF HIS CRIME.

Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 26. — A Morristown (Tenn.) special to the Banner says: “Your reporter to-day witnessed the execution of Anthony Blair, colored, for the murder of his step-daughter, Maggie Blair, a girl of 16 years, on the 30th of July last. The crime for which he suffered death was looked upon in this community as a most atrocious murder; there was no seeming cause or provocation, no excuse for it. This execution is pronounced by all as just.

Blair was perhaps 30 years of age, an African in every lineament, brutal and sensuous in appearance, and looked to be capable of any crime. At 12 o’clock, Sheriff Loop, with 28 guards, went to the jail, and with your reporter entered Blair’s cell. Blair seemed callous, and without feeling. He submitted quietly to the manacles, and walked with a firm step to the wagon on which he rode to the gallows.

After religious service by the Rev. George Blainer, colored, the prisoner was allowed to talk. His harangue was such as would be expected from such a man. He admitted his guilt, but developed a state of facts leading to the crime which are unfit for publication.

At 1:30 the rope was tied, the black cap arranged, and, at 1:35, the wagon moved from under him. In nine minutes no pulse could be distinguished; in 10 minutes his heart had ceased to act; in 15 minutes he was pronounced dead, and in just 22 minutes after he swung off he was lowered into his coffin. This was the first hanging in Hamblen County, and the crowd present was estimated to number 8,000 to 10,000.

Blair lived in Washington County, near Jonesboro. From some cause Maggie had left his house, and came to this county some time in May last, and when killed was in the service of Esquire William Donaldson, and was represented as a very smart, industrious girl.

Blair, hearing of her whereabouts, came down to Russelville July 29, and immediately made his way to the residence of Esquire Donaldson. He entered the kitchen where the girl and Mrs. Donaldson were engaged in preparing dinner. He asked the girl, looking savagely at her, to come outside the house, that he had something to say to her. The girl refused to go out, telling him that if he had anything to say, he should say it before Mrs. Donaldson.

About this time Esquire Donaldson rode up, and Blair immediately left the house, and was seen no more until Wednesday, July 30. That night the girl, in company with others, went up to the colored church near Russelville to prayer-meeting.

Returning, Blair was met in the road by parties who had been at the prayer-meeting. After some conversation Blair passed on to Russelville, but upon going a short distance, he turned back and took another road, which the young folks, including Maggie Blair, had taken. He overtook the party, and immediately walked up to Maggie, who was walking in the rear by the side of a colored by named Taylor.

Pressing Taylor away, he caught her hand, and said: “You must go home with me on the train to-night to your grandpa,” and pulled her along the road 150 or 200 yards, saying she should go. Maggie struggled to get loose from Blair’s grasp, saying that she would rather die than go, whereupon he drew a pistol and shot her twice, from the effects of which she died the following Saturday.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Tennessee,USA

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1878: George Howell, family arbiter

Add comment September 5th, 2018 Headsman

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.

HOWELL’S CONFESSION.

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.

HIS ANTECEDENTS.

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

MURDEROUS DEED.

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.

IN PRISON.

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.

THE GALLOWS

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.

PREVIOUS EXECUTIONS.

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.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Tennessee,USA

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2006: Sedley Alley

Add comment June 28th, 2018 Headsman

A gentleman with the interesting name of Sedley Alley was executed by lethal injection in Tennessee on this date in 2006, for the positively horrific rape-murder of Lance Corporal Suzanne Marie Collins.

True crime writer John Douglas has explored this case in Journey Into Darkness and Law & Disorder.

The ghastly crime occurred in 1985, when the 19-year-old Collins went for a jog at Millington Air Force Base; her attacker stabbed her about the head with a screwdriver and raped her with a tree branch so violently that the branch tore the young woman’s lung.

Alley’s next-day confession followed by his shifting accounts of the events led him to try a hail-mary insanity defense at trial … a surprising contrast to the innocence claim he floated late in his appeals process.

The generation-long labyrinth of judicial appeals between homicide and execution led Collins’s parents, Jack and Trudy, to become outspoken victims’ rights advocates. “There never will be closure,” Jack Collins once told a filmmaker. “What you get is a modicum of peace. You get a feeling that somebody cares. The state of Tennessee cared enough about our daughter that it carried out an execution on her killer. But no closure until the day we die.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Rape,Tennessee,USA

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1863: Not Nathaniel Pruitt, reprieved deserter

Add comment June 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date 150 years ago, according to Larry Daniel’s Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee, a middle-aged man was all set to be shot for deserting the Army of Tennessee, and the much-resented command of Gen. Braxton Bragg.

In a well-documented incident, a soldier received a reprieve as a result of a dramatic incident. Forty-seven-year-old Nathaniel Pruitt of the Nineteenth Tennessee was found guilty of desertion and on June 10, 1863, was taken to a field beside his regimental camp, his coffin placed beside an open grave. A minister cut a lock of hair to give to Pruitt’s wife. The firing squad was positioned and ordered to take aim, but just then an officer came galloping up with a special order to suspend the sentence. The prisoner began crying. “I was truly glad [of the reprieve], but must say some of the boys were disappointed,” a Mississippi diarist noted. Incredibly, the very next day, Pruitt again deserted and was never heard from again.

One takes the author’s point here about Pruitt’s risk-seeking second flight, but even so it might not really be all that “incredible” that one would desert the company of armed men who had recently shown open disappointment about being prevented from shooting one dead.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Military Crimes,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Shot,Soldiers,Tennessee,USA,Wartime Executions

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1863: Lawrence Williams and Walter Peters, bold CSA spies

Add comment June 9th, 2017 Headsman

From the July 4, 1863 issue of Harper’s, as digitized by sonsofthesouth.net.

THE EXECUTION OF WILLIAMS AND PETERS.

We are indebted to Mr. James K. Magie, of the 78th Illinois Regiment, for the sketch of the execution of the two rebel spies, WILLIAMS and PETERS, who were hanged by General Rosecrans on 9th inst. The following account of the affair is from a letter written by the surgeon of the 85th Indiana:

HEADQUARTERS POST, FRANKLIN, TENNESSEE

Last evening about sundown two strangers rode into camp and called at Colonel Baird’s head-quarters, who presented unusual appearances. They had on citizens’ overcoats, Federal regulation pants and caps. The caps were covered with white flannel havelocks. They wore sidearms, and showed high intelligence. One claimed to be a colonel in the United States Army, and called himself Colonel Austin; the other called himself Major Dunlap, and both representing themselves as Inspector-Generals of the United States Army. They represented that they were now out on an expedition in this department, inspecting the outposts and defenses, and that day before yesterday they had been overhauled by the enemy and lost their coats and purses. They exhibited official papers from General Rosecrans, and also from the War Department at Washington, confirming their rank and business. These were all right to Colonel Bayard, and at first satisfied him of their honesty. They asked the Colonel to loan them $50, as they had no coats and no money to buy them. Colonel Baird loaned them the money, and took Colonel Austin’s note for it. Just at dark they started, saying they were going to Nashville, and took that way. Just so soon as their horses’ heads were turned the thought of their being spies struck Colonel Baird, he says, like a thunder-bolt, and he ordered Colonel Watkins, of the 6th Kentucky cavalry, who was standing by, to arrest them immediately. But they were going at lightning speed. Colonel Watkins had no time to call a guard, and only with his orderly he set out on the chase. He ordered the orderly to unsling his carbine, and if, when he (the Colonel) halted them they showed any suspicious motions, to fire on them without waiting for ano rder. They were overtaken about one-third of a mile from here. Colonel Watkins told them that Colonel Baird wanted to make some further inquiries of them, and asked them to return. This they politely consented to do, after some remonstrance on account of the lateness of the hour and the distance they had to travel, and Colonel Watkins led them to his tent, where he placed a strong guard over them. It was not until one of them attempted to pass the guard at the door that they even suspected they were prisoners. Colonel Watkins immediately brought them to Colonel Baird under strong guard. They at once manifested great uneasiness, and pretended great indignation at being thus treated. Colonel Baird frankly told them that he had his suspicions of their true character, and that they should, if loyal, object to no necessary caution. They were very hard to satisfy, and were in a great hurry to get off. Colonel Baird told them that they were under arrest, and he should hold them prisoners until he was fully satisfied that they were what they puported to be. He immediately telegraphed to General Rosecrans, and received the answer that he knew nothing of any such men, that there were no such men in his employ, or had his pass.

Long before this dispatch was received, however, every one who had an opportunity of hearing their conversation was well satisfied that they were spies. Smart as they were, they gave frequent and distinct evidence of duplicity. After this dispatch came to hand, which it did about 12 o’clock (midnight), a search of their persons was ordered. To this the Major consented without opposition, but the Colonel protested against it, and even put his hand to his arms. But resistance was useless, and both submitted. When the Major’s sword was drawn from the scabbard there were found etched upon it these words, “Lt. W.G. Peter, C.S.A.” At this discovery Colonel Baird remarked, “Gentlemen, you have played this damned well.” “Yes,” said Lieutenant Peter, “and it came near being a perfect success.” They then confessed the whole matter, and upon further search various papers showing their guilt were discovered upon their persons. Lieutenant Peter was found to have on a rebel cap, secreted by the white flannel havelock.

Colonel Baird immediately telegraphed the facts to General Rosecrans and asked what he should do, and in a short time received an order “to try them by a drum-head court-martial, and if found guilty hang them immediately.” The court was convened, and before daylight the case was decided, and the prisoners informed that they must prepare for immediate death by hanging.

At daylight men were detailed to make a scaffold. The prisoners were visited by the Chaplain of the 78th Illinois, who, upon their request, administered the sacrament to them. They also wrote some letters to their friends, and deposited their jewelry, silver cups, and other valuables for transmission to their friends.

The gallows was constructed by a wild cherry-tree not far from the depot, and in a very public place. Two ropes hung dangling from the beam, reaching within eight feet of the ground. A little after nine o’clock A.M. the whole garrison was marshaled around the place of execution in solemn sadness. Two poplar coffins were lying a few feet away. Twenty minutes past nine the guards conducted the prisoners to the scaffold — they walked firm and steady, as if unmindful of the fearful precipice which they were approaching. The guards did them the honor to march with arms reversed.

Arrived at the place of execution they stepped upon the platform of the cart and took their respective places. The Provost Marshal, Captain Alexander, then tied a linen handkerchief over the face of each and adjusted the ropes. They then asked the privilege of bidding last farewell, which being granted, they tenderly embraced each other. This over, the cart moved from under them, and they hung in the air.

What a fearful penalty! They swung off at 9:30 — in two minutes the Lieutenant ceased to struggle. The Colonel caught hold of the rope with both hands and raised himself up at 3 minutes, and ceased to struggle at 5 minutes. At 6 minutes Dr. Forester, Surgeon 6th Kentucky Cavalry, and Dr. Moss, 78th Illinois Infantry, and myself, who had been detailed to examine the bodies, approached them, and found the pulse of both full and strong. At 7 minutes the Colonel shrugged his shoulders. The pulse of each continued to beat 17 minutes, and at 20 minutes all signs of life had ceased. The bodies were cut down at 30 minutes and encoffined in full dress. The Colonel was buried with a gold locket and chain on his neck. The locket contained the portrait and a braid of hair of his intended wife — her portrait was also in his vest pocket — these were buried with him. Both men were buried in the same grave — companions in life, misfortune, and crime, companions in infamy, and now companions in the grave.

I should have stated in another place that the prisoners did not want their punishment delayed; but, well knowing the consequences of their acts, even before their trial, asked to have the sentence, be it by hanging or shooting, quickly decided and executed. But they deprecated the idea of death by hanging, and asked for a communication of the sentence to shooting.

The elder and leader of these unfortunate men was Lawrence Williams, of Georgetown, D.C. He was as fine-looking a man as I have ever seen, about six feet high, and perhaps 30 years old. He was [a] son of Captain Williams, who was killed at the battle of Monterey. He was one of the most intellectual and accomplished men I have ever known. I have never known any one who excelled him as a talker. He was a member of the regular army, with the rank of captain of cavalry, when the rebellion broke out, and at that time was aid-de-camp and private secretary to General Winfield Scott. From this confidence and respect shown him by so distinguished a man may be judged his education and accomplishments. He was a first cousin of General Lee, commanding the Confederate army on the Rappahannock. Soon after the war began he was frank enough to inform General Scott that all his sympathies were with the South, as his friends and interests were there, and that he could not fight against them. As he was privy to all of General Scott’s plans for the campaign, it was not thought proper to turn him loose, hence he was sent to Governor’s Island, where he remained three months. After the first Bull Run battle he was allowed to go South, where he joined the Confederate army, and his subsequent history I have not been able to learn much about. He was a while on General Bragg‘s staff as Chief of Artillery, but at the time of his death was his Inspector-General. When he joined the Confederate army he altered his name, and now signs it thus: “Lawrence W. Orton, Col. City P.A.C.S.A.” — (Provisional Army Confederate States of America). Sometimes he writes his name “Orton,” and sometimes “Anton,” according to the object which he had in view. This we learn from the papers found on him. These facts in relation to the personal history of Colonel Orton I have gathered from the Colonel himself and from Colonel Watkins, who knows him well, they having belonged to the same regiment of the regular army — 2d U.S. Cavalry. Colonel Watkins, however, did not recognize Colonel Orton until after he had made himself known, and now mourns his apostasy and tragic fate.

The other victim of this delusive and reckless daring was Walter G. Peter, a lieutenant in the rebel army, and Colonel Orton’s adjutant. He was a tall, handsome young man, of about twenty-five years, that gave many signs of education and refinement.

Of his history I have been able to gather nothing. He played but a second part. Colonel Orton was the leader, and did all the talking and managing. Such is a succinct account of one of the most daring enterprises that men ever engaged in. Such were the characters and the men who played the awful tragedy.

History will hardly furnish its parallel in the character and standing of the parties, tne boldness and daring of the enterprise, and the swiftness with which discovery and punishment were visited upon them. They came into our camp and went all through it, minutely inspecting our position, works, and forces, with a portion of their traitorous insignia upon them; and the boldness of their conduct made their flimsy subterfuges almost successful.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Soldiers,Spies,Summary Executions,Tennessee,USA,Wartime Executions

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1886: A day in the death penalty around the U.S. South

Add comment June 4th, 2017 Headsman

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 5, 1886.


Execution of Alfred Taylor at Opelousas.

Opelousas, La., June 4. — [Special.] — In accordance with Gov. McEnery‘s proclamation, Alfred Taylor, colored, was executed at 1:30 o’clock, P.M., to-day, by Sheriff Duson, the condemned man dying of strangulation about fifteen minutes after the springing of the trap.

He preserved a very firm and unconcerned mien until he saw the gallows, not seeming to realize or to believe that he would be hanged. He protested his innocence of the crime to the last. Once when the supreme moment arrived, he lost his usual stolidity and called on God to have mercy upon him and begging [sic] the Sheriff not to hang him.

Taylor was 23 years years old, griff in color, of medium height and weighing about 145 pounds. He was tried at the March term of our District Court, and the jury was composed of nine white and three colored men. He was defended by able counsel, and after an impartial trial was found guilty as charged on the indictment.

On Monday, Feb. 8, 1886, at about 11 o’clock in the morning, Taylor called at the residence of Mrs. Latreuille, a white lady, residing on the old Dr. Moore place, near Moundville, some four miles above Washington, and asked if her husband was at home. Not suspecting anything wrong, she replied that he was not. The negro then told her that some one was trying to steal her chickens in the woods near by and that she had better see about it.

The unfortunate woman went to the place to look after her fowls, when the negro followed her, and drawing a pistol threatened to shoot her if she made any outcry. She fainted away through fright, when he accomplished his diabolical purpose. He fled, and a posse was immediately organized and began searching for him. Had he been caught then he would undoubtedly have been lynched. He evaded arrest, however, until the week before his trial and conviction. The evidence adduced at the trial was crushing, and the jury promptly returned a verdict as above.

Since his conviction he has manifested no sighs of contrition, but, on the contrary, has always affected the most stoical indifference, and constantly indulged in the most revolting profanity.


A Double Execution.

Winchester, Va., June 4. — Wes Honesty and Tabby Banks were hanged at 9:22 A.M., for the murder on the night of Nov. 14, 1884, of Joseph McFaul, a youth of 18 years. A large Democratic procession took place here on that night, and the prisoners walked through the streets making threats that they would crack the skull of some Democrat before morning.

McFaul was a slightly built, peaceable young man, while Honesty and Banks were powerfully grown negroes.

They waylaid McFaul at the mouth of an ally on Main street. He had nothing with which to protect himself but a light walking stick. The negroes pressed upon him and he ran from them, ordering them to keep away. They then rushed upon him. Honesty collared him and pushed him against a house at the mouth of the alley, and Banks cried out, “stick it to him.”

McFaul defended himself as best he could with his walking-stick. Honesty was facing McFaul, and Banks got behind him. Honesty drew back and hurled a rock at McFaul, striking him in the left temple. As he reeled and staggered across the street Banks struck him with some weapon he held in his hands. McFaul went to his boarding-house, and was found dead in his bed next morning, with his skull crushed.

As the criminals marched to the scaffold Banks began to tremble violently, but Honesty stood firm on the trap. The Moody hymn, “There is a Light in the Valley,” was sung by request, both joining in loudly.

Honesty said: “I thank God I am converted. I am going to heaven. No man’s blood rests on my soul. I have not to answer for it. I thank all the officers and ministers for their kindness.”

Banks said I am not guilty of what is put on me. I want to meet all my friends in heaven.

Their arms were then pinioned, the black cap drawn over their heads, and in a loud voice, both cried out “good-bye,” “good-bye.” The trap was then sprung.


John Davis Hanged in Assumption.

Napoleonville, La. — [Special.] — At 12:30 o’clock to-day a colored man, named John Davis, was hung at Napoleonville for the murder of his wife, two years ago, on the Jones plantation, three miles above the town. He confessed the crime, and said he was willing to die for what he had done. The execution was without incident.


Launched from Lebanon.

Lebanon, Tenn., June 4. — Jim Baxter, colored, was hanged at 11:32 this morning. His last utterances were: “I did not kill Mrs. Lane. Dat’s the God’s truth.” His neck was not broken. He was dead in fifteen minutes.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Louisiana,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Tennessee,USA,Virginia

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1882: Samuel and Milton Hodge

Add comment November 10th, 2016 Headsman

From the Lebanon Daily News, Nov. 11, 1882:

KNOXVILLE, Tenn., Nov. 10 — Samuel and Milton Hodge, both colored brothers, were hanged here to-day in the presence of about 8,000 persons. The doomed men spoke for about ten minutes, each saying they were prepared to die and were “going home to glory.” They warned those present to beware of their fate. As the black cap was pulled over Milton’s face, he sang in a strong voice “Going Home on da Even’ Train,” and Samuel was singing “Going Home to Die no More,” when he was choked by the rope.

The crime for which the Hodge’s [sic] were hanged was the killing of their brother-in-law, James McFarland, over a year ago.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Tennessee,USA

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