First Documented Execution was in 1813

As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, July 24, 2011

By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society

In 19th Century Tennessee, the imposition of punishment, including capital punishment, was the responsibility of county authorities.   Common law required the death penalty for first degree murder, and permitted the same for a number of lesser crimes.  Hanging was the usual method, and a public spectacle was expected.

According to an early Tennessee statute, it was the county sheriff’s duty to “inflict” a death sentence.  For each hanging, the sheriff received $12.50.  In Rutherford an additional $5 was usually allocated for construction of the gallows, and another $5 for the coffin.

The first documented execution in Rutherford County was in 1813.  The condemned individual, “a Negro man,” was known simply as “Jess.”  His crime was “house breaking.”  The victim, according to the “Annals of Rutherford County” (John C. Spence, 1873), was B. Ward.  Sheriff Matthew McClanahan conducted the execution.  “It being the first case of the kind since the settlement of the county…The novelty created a great sensation among the people generally.  They came from far and near to see the sight.  Men, women and children in wagons and carts.”

Both Spence and C. C. Henderson (“Story of Murfreesboro,” 1929) note that there was “a superstitious notion” in the 1800s that a piece of hangman’s rope was “a sure antidote against certain afflictions.”  Accordingly, it was considered a prize to secure such rope and “to cut and distribute small bits to those wanting a remedy, paying a fair price for same.”  The Jess rope was likely divided among many households.

Although stocks and whipping posts were permanently placed on the courthouse square when Murfreesboro was first established, gallows were erected only when an execution was scheduled.  State statute required that any execution take place within one mile of the county courthouse.  The earliest site for the gallows in Murfreesboro was north of the courthouse in what is now the 400 block of North Maple (today occupied in part by the Rover terminal and the Murfreesboro Housing Authority).

In 1819 a man named Thurman was convicted of horse stealing and sentenced to hanging.  (Rutherford’s early criminal court records were destroyed during the Civil War.  Surviving second-hand reports often do not include full names of the accused.)  A gallows was built on the Maple Street site.

Henderson gives this account: “On the day set for his execution, Thurman was seated in a cart, on his coffin, and driven to the gallows…Thousands thronged about the place to see the terrible spectacle…The condemned wretch had made an open confession of religion and assured those present that he knew his soul would be saved.

“Just as Sheriff U.S. Cummins had adjusted the noose, and drawn down the black cap to conceal the man’s face, great excitement was created by a man on a foaming horse rushing to the scene frantically waving a paper.  The Sheriff suspended operations when the horseman arrived at the foot of the gallows and announced that he was Daniel Graham, Secretary of State, bearing a reprieve.  When the sheriff removed the noose and cap and repeated the statement by Graham, Thurman seemed dazed by the remarkable turn of affairs and for some moments was stricken speechless.

“Then gazing over the crowd and into the faces of some of his acquaintances (and apparently forgetting his earlier profession of salvation), he said: ‘Boys, they came damn nigh sending my soul to hell,’ and then proceeded to dance a jig on the gallows platform.”

A particularly unfortunate execution occurred in 1837.  The details of the crime are unknown except that a slave, or former slave, Charles Maney, was executed for rape of a white woman.  According to Goodspeed’s History of Rutherford County (1886): “The evidence was wholly circumstantial but seemed pretty clear, and on the strength he was tried, convicted and executed.  There was a strong suspicion at the time that he was not the guilty party.  Later a negro was executed in Mississippi for a similar crime, and while under sentence of death owned to have committed the crime in Rutherford for which Charles was hanged.”

(A 1838 statute authorized Tennessee judges to consider “mitigating circumstances” and give life sentences in lieu of the death penalty in first degree murder cases.  In this respect, Tennessee was far more lenient than other southern states in the mid-1880’s.)

The first and only Rutherford woman to be executed was “Sarah, a slave” in 1848.  The crime was committed on March 16, 1848, in the victim’s Rutherford County home.  Sarah entered the bedchamber of Mrs. Catherine Smith, an elderly widow, during the night and crushed her skull with a hammer.  She then laid the victim’s body on the hearth with the head in the fire.

When the body was discovered, according to newspaper accounts, the head was almost completely consumed.  Sarah was found hiding in the woods near Fall Creek (northeast of Jefferson).  When captured, she had with her items stolen from the Smith home.  Justice was swift.  Within a few days, Sarah was tried and convicted.  She was hanged in Murfreesboro on June 15, 1848.  In addition to the statutory payments for then Sheriff J.M. Thompson, for the gallows and for the coffin, the Quarterly Court minutes show that the county paid $3 for the grave and burial, and seventy-five cents for a shroud.

The relatively few executions in Rutherford County’s first 60 years were quickly equaled and surpassed during the Civil War.  As the base for the Army of Tennessee commanded by Confederate General Braxton Bragg, and subsequently during the Union occupation under General William S. Rosecrans, Rutherford experienced more than its share of “military justice.”

(If Nathan Bedford Forrest had not freed Federal prisoners held in the Rutherford County courthouse jail on July 13, 1862, the number of war-related civilian executions would likely have been substantially greater.  See “Remembering Rutherford” (2010), p. 19.)

In Dec. 26, 1862, Bragg presided over five executions-four Confederate soldiers died by firing squad for desertion, one civilian was hanged for spying.  The military executions were intended to strengthen discipline in the Army of Tennessee.  The fifth execution by hanging was meant as a warning to the civilian population.

Asa Lewis came from Kentucky.  His original term of enlistment had expired and he contested the involuntary extension of his enlistment.  Receiving word that his father had died and his mother needed help with harvesting and caring for family, Lewis sought a furlough which was denied by Bragg.  Lewis left anyway and was captured by a bounty hunter while allegedly returning.

Despite a personal appeal by Kentucky General John C. Breckinridge, Bragg ordered Lewis shot for desertion.  The execution of Lewis created a permanent rift between Bragg and his Kentucky forces, according to an April 26, 1863 Nashville newspaper report.  (At least one historian has speculated that this “rift” may have influenced the outcome of the Battle of Stones River, where Bragg ordered a suicidal charge by the 6th Kentucky Infantry.)

Bragg also ordered William Litterall from North Carolina, Edward P. Norman from Alabama, and Zachariah Phillips from Alabama shot for desertion.  They were executed in a heavy rainstorm at the Confederate camp in Murfreesboro.  (A Tennessee soldier was originally scheduled for execution on the same day for the same offense, but was granted a last minute reprieve.)

According to eyewitness accounts, the executions were done separately, each man arriving on a wagon followed by a hearse.  Each was allowed to shake hands and say good-bye to friends.  Each was blindfolded; some knelt in prayer as they faced the firing squad.  The 15-man firing squad had three shooting blanks.  Lewis died first at precisely noon.

Samuel Gray, the civilian sentenced as a “spy and a traitor and a thief” was hanged on the same day as the military executions.  The gallows stood near the train depot, and was witnessed by a huge crowd of civilians and soldiers.  Defiant to the end, Gray literally jumped from the gallows as soon as the rope was placed. His execution made newspaper headlines in Nashville and Memphis.

The first Union execution in Rutherford involved “desertion under fire during the Battle of Stones River.  Private James Welch, 40th Indiana Infantry, was court-martialed on March 11 and shot on April 4, 1863, at Fort Rosecrans.  According to a Nashville newspaper report, two others, charged with mutiny and desertion, were to be executed but were remitted for lesser punishment.

The occupying army also dealt with civilian crime.  William A. Selkirk, George W. Williams and George Lyles were charged with the brutal torture and murder of Adam Weaver, a local farmer.  The trio believed that Weaver kept a substantial sum at his home.  Frustrated by their inability to find the money, they mutilated and eventually killed the farmer while his daughter and house servant watched.

Tried before a military commission, each of the trio blamed the others.  They were all convicted but escaped before sentencing.  Selkirk was soon recaptured and the other two were apprehended a week later at a local “house of ill fame.”  The Union captors were embarrassed by a second escape, but eventually recaptured the criminals in Wilson County.

The gallows was in an open field near the Murfreesboro encampment about a half mile from town.  According to a newspaper report, Selkirk with his coffin was driven from prison through town on June 4, 1863, “followed by an immense concourse of citizens and soldiers.”  There were at least ten thousand spectators crowded around the gallows.  The victim’s daughter placed the noose around the neck of the condemned.

Williams and Lyles were hanged together on the same gallows on June 18.  Five thousand soldiers witnessed the executions.  (The lurid details of the crime and the executions are recounted in many letters home from Union soldiers.)

A cook for the 9th Kentucky Infantry, William Minix, deserted on the march from Bowling Green to Nashville.  Later captured, he was sentenced and executed by firing squad in Murfreesboro.  Minix declined the wagon ride to the execution field, preferring to walk.  Accompanied by a chaplain, he walked behind the wagon carrying his coffin while a band played the “Dead March.  “He is reported to have said: “I think the walk (around the square) will make me feel better.”

An unnamed Union soldier deserted the Indiana Battery and was captured wearing a Confederate uniform.  A fellow soldier wrote in his diary after witnessing the firing squad execution: “I knew this boy-only about seventeen years of age-he was physically weak, and regarded as rather weak-minded…evident by the fact that he enlisted with the enemy so near to our lines.  He appeared to be incapable of realizing that he had done anything wrong…too bad to shoot the poor fellow.  The mistake was made in enlisting him…”

The only other Rutherford executions recorded during the war years happened in the eastern part of the county.  David Blazer claimed that he had not deserted the 4th Indiana Artillery but just left momentarily “to get some eggs.”  The fact that he had shed his uniform and was wearing farm clothes did not support his explanation.

John Shockman deserted the1st Kentucky Infantry, but later joined the 4th Ohio Infantry.  When recognized and confronted, “he resisted with great violence and escaped.”  Recaptured, he was court-martialed and ordered shot.  Blazer and Shockman faced a firing squad together at the Union camp on Cripple Creek on June 23, 1863.

Greg Tucker can be reached at gregorytucker@bellsouth.net.

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