As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, August 6, 2011
By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society
They thronged to the island event in 1880 to see an execution … and perhaps a resurrection.
For several years beginning in 1878, Rutherford County homes and businesses were victimized by a multi-racial gang of thieves who usually burned the property they robbed. Arson and theft losses were valued at more than $50,000. The gang was described as a “secret society” of 15 or more “career criminals” who terrorized the local population.
On May 16, 1879, John Hall and Burrell Smith, gang members and former slaves, attempted to rob the farm and general store of John S. Pugh near Murfreesboro. Pugh was awakened by a barking dog. When he confronted the thieves in his stable, he was shot and killed.
This murder prompted one gang member to turn against the gang and to identify other members, including Hall and Smith. When the gang was rounded up, a lynch mob gathered. Only a personal appearance and plea by Governor Albert Marks convinced the mob to leave the matter to the court. The arsonists were eventually convicted and given long sentences. Hall and Smith were convicted of first-degree murder and given the death penalty.
The sheriff, however, could not find a suitable place for the executions within a mile of the courthouse, as required by law. Public grounds were deemed inappropriate, and private landowners refused. Finally, a Stones River island was made available by H.H. Kerr, a prosperous landowner. (Kerr owned a large tract extending west from the Nashville Pike. The gallows was in the river near the Tuckertown community, northwest of the courthouse.)
As the gallows was constructed, Kerr built grandstands and concession booths. Meanwhile, local doctors and preachers became involved. Revs. G.D. Olden and Dempsey Childress performed full immersion baptisms on the condemned at the jail with a large congregation and choir attending. Both condemned men gave permission to local doctors to attempt to revive them with electricity after the hanging.
On Feb. 20, 1880, a crowd of some 15,000 gathered to enjoy barbecue, peanuts, lemonade and liquor. Kerr sold tickets for grandstand seating. The condemned arrived by wagon wearing black shrouds. Smith entertained the crowd by requesting some cake from a concessionaire, saying he would die in peace if his request were granted. His lusty eating and expressions of pleasure brought cheers and laughter.
After hymns and prayers led by the reverends, the trap was sprung. The crowd surged forward for a closer look. Portions of the grandstands collapsed. After the criminals were pronounced dead, their bodies were stimulated with electricity without any lasting effect. Nevertheless, it was a memorable event.
Newspapers across the state, however, sharply criticized Rutherford County Sheriff Ed Arnold for the “outrageous public spectacle,” focusing particularly on the “reserved seats and barbecue.”
These Rutherford executions prompted the legislature to change the law on public executions. As of March 22, 1883, the public would be allowed to see and hear the last words, the attendant prayers and reading of the death warrant, but the actual drop had to be obscured from public view.
Sheriffs devised several ways to comply with the law. Some continued to build outdoor gallows, but would drape the lower portion so that the condemned would drop from sight when the trap was released. Others simply conducted hangings in the jailhouse.
The “semi-private” hangings continued until the adoption of House Bill No. 72 in 1909. This act provided that “the execution of all persons condemned to death by the courts of this State shall be held within an enclosure of the penitentiary, at Nashville, in privacy and seclusion … no witnesses shall be admitted except a priest or minister of the gospel, the prison physician, the Sheriff of the county in which the crime was committed, and such attendants as are necessary to properly carry out the execution.” The new rule further provided that “members of the family of the condemned prisoner may be present to witness the execution.”
The first execution under the new rule involved a murder committed in Florence, a Rutherford County community located on the railroad between Smyrna and Murfreesboro. William Mitchell was the Florence railroad station agent. He slept in the station, but ate meals at the Vanderford boarding house near the station.
E.S. Vanderford also owned a store and Squire H. William Hindman, another boarding house patron, was the store manager. On April 24, 1908, Mitchell shot and killed Hindman during a store robbery. Mitchell was convicted in a Murfreesboro trial under the felony murder doctrine since the killing occurred in the act of armed robbery. Mitchell claimed that he shot in self-defense.
While jailed in Nashville awaiting execution, Mitchell was baptized in a prison bathtub.
The night before his hanging, according to a Nashville Banner account, Mitchell said: “I have been forgiven of my sins and I am going to Heaven. I feel that I can shake hands with Brother Hindman, and that he will understand. I did not mean to do him any harm.”
Reporting on the Oct. 1, 1909, hanging, local newspapers noted that people were generally pleased with the new procedures “doing away with the curious crowds and undue excitement,” but a few were concerned that private hangings would not “deter others from the commission of crime.”
Legal execution by hanging ended in Tennessee in 1913 when the legislature replaced the old frontier method with new technology. Beginning with a 22-year-old Dyer County rapist in 1916, condemned Tennessee criminals died by electrocution. Among them was Albert “Bantam” Dubois. Executed in 1948, Dubois was the last from Rutherford County to die in “Old Sparky,” the Tennessee electric chair.
The crime was committed on February 20, 1946, in the office of the Deluxe Cab Company, 118 West Vine St., Murfreesboro. The office was in a 9-by-12 foot shed with one door, two chairs, a couch and a telephone. It was known as the “797 office” (the company telephone number was 797). Claude W. Holt and “Rooster” Messick were co-owners. The victim was Albert Willis, a cab driver.
Before stabbing Willis, Dubois, described as a “town bully, morphine addict and bootlegger,” bragged that he had “killed three men, cut twenty-seven, and had never served much time.” (In 1936 Dubois was convicted of manslaughter in the knife slaying of George G. Snow during an argument at the City Café on the Public Square. Sentenced to 10 years, Dubois was paroled after 14 months.)
Believing that Willis had “turned him up” to the police for a minor infraction (for which Dubois received nothing more than a warning), the “Bantam” spent a week brandishing a 10-inch blade and telling of his intent to kill the coward that had “turned him up.” On the day of the killing, Dubois told Messick his plan and spent most of the day with buddies at the barber shop/pool hall on the square drinking and threatening.
That evening Dubois and two of his cronies, Claude Higdon and James “Wren” Miller, went to the “797 office” where Willis, Messick, Buck Climer (another cabbie) and David Smithonson, the dispatcher, were working. Dubois, goaded on by Higdon and Miller, began accusing, threatening and haranguing Willis. According to trial testimony, Willis denied the accusations, remained calm, said he wanted no trouble, and started up from his chair to go home.
As Willis stood to leave, Dubois hacked him on the forehead with the heavy knife, and then stabbed him near the left shoulder. As Dubois fled with Higdon and Miller, Messick and Climer carried Willis to the hospital where he died.
At trial Dubois argued self-defense, alleging Willis had made threatening moves, but eyewitnesses testified otherwise. Defense also argued that Dubois was in a drug- and alcohol-induced “fog” and should not be held responsible for the crime. The jury was not persuaded and gave Dubois the death penalty; Miller and Higdon each got 20 years.
Willis had a twin brother who wanted to be certain that Dubois was prosecuted and punished. To this end he hired John R. Rucker Sr. to assist the prosecutor and to help the victim’s family understand the trial proceedings. Fifty years later Rucker recalled how he was hired for a total of $100 (all the Willis family could offer). “It gave me some good publicity, because the courthouse was filled every day … a lot of good exposure.”
On appeal, attorneys for Dubois argued that it was error to permit the prosecutor to argue that “one who would commit such a crime in such a manner is not worthy to trod the soil of the penitentiary ground. If he is sent to the penitentiary and were to be pardoned or escape, you Gentlemen of the jury and everybody else would be in danger. Even your life and mine would be unsafe.” The Tennessee Supreme Court held that it was not error for the prosecutor to argue for the death penalty.
Just prior to his execution, the Bantam offered a new story attempting to exonerate his cronies. “They had nothing to do with it; I killed Willis in an argument over a cab.”
Crime writers in the 1950s, including Jack Setters and L.D. Miler, attributed an entirely different motive. Rutherford was a dry county and Dubois was allegedly buying liquor in Nashville, and smuggling large quantities into Rutherford for resale. Deliveries were done through the cab company. Willis was a target for intimidation because he refused to be a liquor courier.
Dubois was electrocuted on April 11, 1947. After he was strapped into the chair, an electrical problem delayed the execution. (Bantam apparently holds the record for number of minutes alive in “Old Sparky.”) The newspaper headline on April 12 read: “Faulty Wires Give Dubois 15-Minute Reprieve.”
Jim Haynes remembers when Bantam was returned to Rutherford County. After the execution, the state released the body to the family for burial. “His brother, Bob Dubois, was a tenant on my father’s farm just north of the city limits. They set the open coffin on the dining room table in the tenant house for viewing. I was about 10 years old and had to stand on tiptoe to see him. His head was shaved and he looked all swollen.”
Greg Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.