As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, May 1, 2011
By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society
Edward Ward (“Ned”) Carmack, Jr. was heir to a prominent political legacy. He was also a self-proclaimed killer that no one believed and a businessman with a history of repeated failure.
Twenty years after his death in an historic East Main mansion, his estate was still unsettled.
Ned’s father, Edward Ward Carmack Sr., a former US senator and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, was one of the most powerful figures in Tennessee politics in the 1900s. As editor of the Nashville Tennessean, he relentlessly used the newspaper to oppose and diminish his political rivals. Among his targeted opponents was Duncan B. Cooper, a confidant and supporter of Tennessee Gov. Malcolm Patterson, Carmack’s gubernatorial opponent.
Cooper was incensed by the way Carmack was treating his name and reputation in newspaper editorials and let his anger be known. On Nov. 9, 1908, Cooper and his son Robin were walking in front of the State Capitol when they saw Carmack heading for the same corner. Cooper decided to confront Carmack. Fearing Cooper’s anger, Carmack drew a revolver and fired, hitting Robin. The young Cooper was also armed. Although wounded, he drew and fired three rounds. Shot in the head and heart, Carmack was dead before he hit the ground.
The shooting created a political and legal uproar. Robin Cooper was eventually tried for murder and acquitted on a finding of self-defense. Over the next decade, Robin Cooper practiced law in Nashville and served as counsel for several questionable corporate stock offerings. On Aug. 29, 1919, the body of Robin Cooper was found in Richland Creek in west Nashville.
At the time of Cooper’s murder, Ned Carmack was a 20-year-old law student. He was initially a suspect in the murder, but the police investigation and “reliable evidence” established that he had nothing to do with the murder. See The Carmack-Cooper Shooting by James Summerville (1994).
Nevertheless, Ned Carmack repeatedly claimed that he killed Robin Cooper to avenge his father’s death. He even claimed later to have killed Duncan Cooper by sneaking into his bedroom and suffocating him with a pillow. (The elder Cooper actually died peacefully at his home with family at his bedside.)
No one believed Ned’s claims, and no one was ever tried and convicted for the Cooper murder. Ned Carmack eventually was admitted to the Bar but left the practice after a few years to pursue business interests as a speculator during the Florida land boom. When land speculation proved unprofitable, Ned relocated to Rutherford County and went to work as editor of the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal. In this role, he actually showed some of the style and courage that had characterized his father’s career. He challenged the big city political machine, and condemned the lynching of Dick Wilkerson, a black man who had defended his wife and friends against a gang of drunks.
During the early years of the Depression, Ned purchased the Murfreesboro newspaper and all of the related property and assets from Andrew L. Todd, a wealthy and prominent local businessman, farmer and politician. The purchase was financed by Todd and a local bank. Carmack’s name first appeared as “Publisher” in the Oct. 25, 1933 edition.
Within a few years, however, the newspaper was failing and Carmack was pressed by creditors. Carmack’s solution was to transfer all newspaper assets and obligations to a Virginia buyer with himself to receive $150/month for 14 years. The sale was consummated on Feb. 8, 1938.
Within three months, however, Carmack was in court claiming breach of contract and alleging various fraudulent acts in management of the newspaper. All the various stakeholders — the Todd family, two banks, the newspaper corporation and the Virginia owners — were named in the complaint.
When the final court order was entered in January 1939, Carmack received $6,500 from the corporation and A.L. (“Jack”) Todd Jr. was awarded control of the newspaper and all related assets.
While his lawsuit was pending, according to an affidavit filed by his attorney Alfred B. Huddleston, Carmack was “mysteriously and very seriously injured.” Carmack picked up a pair of hitchhikers who beat him senseless and left him permanently disabled in his legs. This incident not only delayed the legal proceedings, but also forced Carmack to withdraw from the 1938 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. Additionally, the disability rendered him unfit for military service, which he earnestly sought to enhance his political career. Carmack ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1942 and in 1946, and withdrew from the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1944.
In 1943 Ned Carmack purchased the historic Palmer Mansion, 434 E. Main St. in Murfreesboro, from the George Beesley
heirs. (Beesley bought the home in 1918 from the heirs of Confederate Gen. Joseph Palmer, who built the mansion in 1869. The property is now the home of Jim and Carty Roberts.) The 1943 deed shows Ned’s wife, Charlotte L. Carmack, as the sole owner of the property. (Ned inherited the property when Charlotte died in 1968.)
After the war, Carmack again tried his hand at real estate speculation. He organized Stones River Homes Inc. to provide homes for military families at Sewart Air Force Base in Smyrna. This venture generated both litigation and income, most of which he lost to an intemperate lifestyle.
During the “uranium fever” of the fifties, Carmack was apparently part of a business venture to mine uranium in Rutherford County. A somewhat breathless news release that appeared in the local paper on April 29, 1956, claimed that “uranium has been found…(and) a drilling bit used in drilling for uranium was delivered here last week and drilling has begun.”
Although the names of the “group of Rutherford County men” participating in the venture were not officially disclosed, it was generally rumored that a prominent local gambler and at least one elected official were in the group with Carmack. “The one thing we are sure of is that there is uranium in Rutherford County and we are trying to determine if there is enough to warrant setting up an extraction plant,” claimed the anonymous spokesman. This venture, like the Florida land and newspaper businesses, was eventually abandoned.
(In 1953 the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission reported that “there are heavy deposits of Chattanooga black shale containing uranium” underlying the Rutherford/Coffee boundary area, but that the low grade of the ore would not justify mining “until other deposits are exhausted.”)
Carmack’s last money-making scheme was probably Space Homes Inc. The plan was to manufacture modular rooms that the homebuilder/buyer could mix and match on site to construct whatever house size and configuration was desired. In 1969 an architect was retained to design the individual room modules. No modules were ever manufactured, and the architect was never paid.
Carmack spent his last few years reading, writing poetry and fantasizing about avenging his father’s death. Dying alone at home on Sept. 18, 1972, he left a rundown mansion filled with history, and a long list of creditors. His handwritten will named 14 beneficiaries to whom he left various sums to be paid annually over a period of 20 years. His personal affairs were in such disarray that his named co-executors declined to serve and the estate administration was entrusted to court-appointed administrators.
In February 1973 the mansion and personal property were sold at auction. Army Lt. Col. James R. Dismukes, a former Green Beret, paid $60,000 for the real estate. The personal property brought an additional $40,000. The final order settling the estate was entered on February 22, 1995.
In his richly annotated study of the violent deaths of E.W. Carmack Sr. and Robin Cooper, James Summerville observes that Ned Carmack “never found his purpose in life … found no place in the world.”
He did, however, leave a bit of history in Rutherford County.
Greg Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.