Remembering Rutherford: Bell lynched despite victim’s plea and sheriff’s efforts
Greg Tucker, the Murfreesboro Post, July 25, 2017 “The ‘law’s delay,’ as exemplified in the courthouse, is the cause of these illegal executions. A reform in court proceedings is badly needed.” Editorial from The Fayetteville Observer (September 12, 1878), regarding a Rutherford County lynching. Abner Dement was born in 1848 in the northeastern region of Rutherford County. His parents were David Dement and Eliza Emmeline Jordan Dement, second generation residents of Rutherford County. Abner’s paternal grandfather (also named Abner) purchased the original Dement home place on the Cainsville Pike from John Donelson in 1817. While serving as Rutherford County sheriff in 1825, the elder Abner was shot and killed by a slave. He was buried in the family cemetery on the home place. Grandson Abner married Sally Barker in 1870 and soon thereafter was elected constable for the 22nd District of Rutherford County, including the Lascassas community. (The position of “constable” in Tennessee was constitutionally established in the 19th century. State constitution amendment in 1978 removed the requirement for election of constables.) On August 19, 1878, a prize horse was stolen from Zachary Haynes. According to news reports, “strong evidence pointed to Pinkney Bell as the thief.” At about 8 p.m. on the evening of the following day, Haynes and Constable Dement found Bell at the home of his uncle George Bell in the northeastern corner of the District. According to the August 22, 1878 edition of Memphis Daily Appeal, upon entering the house, the Constable reportedly said: “‘Pink, you are my prisoner’…Bell retreated…shooting Dement in the abdomen. Haynes then shot at Bell…striking him in the arm and once in the hand.” Bell surrendered and was jailed in Murfreesboro. Gut shot, Dement “lingered in much agony” and local physicians agreed that “there is no hope for his recovery.” As Dement lingered, the media predicted that his death would be quickly avenged. Various news reports described the constable as one of “respectability and high Christian standing…much esteemed” in the Lascassas community. “A large circle of friends and acquaintances…are clamorous for revenge,” noted the Murfreesboro correspondent for Nashville newspaper The Daily American on September 10. In contrast Bell was said to “bear a bad name…a man of damaged character.” An out-of-state journal, Harrisburg Daily Independent, noted, “Bell was a white man, but stood very low in the community.” The Nashville media opined that “the vicious and depraved character of the ill-fated and wicked Bell is universally admitted.” The constable died September 7, 1878, three weeks after being mortally wounded. His funeral was attended by more than three thousand people, many insisting that his murderer, Pink Bell, must die, and by their hands. “The feeling against Bell was very strong, and, notwithstanding the able arguments that were made favoring a respect for and a compliance with the laws of the land, the large majority were for a good rope and a high tree.” (Dement was survived by his wife and four children. The youngest child was born just a few days before the shooting and was given his father’s name. Abner B. Dement, youngest child of the constable, lived in Rutherford County until his death in 1960.) A deathbed request from Constable Dement “urging his friends not to lynch Bell, but to prosecute him according to the law” went unheeded. Bell’s only defense was to claim the shooting was accidental and perhaps by someone else’s hand. “I do not know who fired (the shot). I changed my pants shortly before Haynes and Dement came (to make the arrest). My pistol fell out of my pocket and George Bell’s children picked it up and were playing with it…and were told to put it, as they did, on the bureau.” Foreseeing the inevitable demands for his prisoner, Rutherford County Sheriff Edward Arnold urged respect for the rule of law. (The highly respected sheriff was also a builder and former Confederate captain who had collected and re-interred Confederate remains from around the county in the area’s first Confederate Cemetery.) When all entreaties were ignored, Arnold announced that his prisoner had been transferred to a Nashville cell. Doubting this account, several locals went to Nashville and confirmed that the report was a deception. As a crowd of angry citizens gathered in the Lascassas community, Arnold took Bell to Shelbyville and asked the Bedford County jailer to take custody of the prisoner. The request was refused, and Bell was returned to the Rutherford jail just hours before the demand was made for his release. “About twenty minutes past midnight, over a hundred well-mounted and armed men entered the city by the Hall’s Hill Pike, and rode to the jail. Picketing West Main Street on both east and west sides with about 15 men on each corner, the balance hailed the jailer, read to him a paper reciting the crimes committed by Pinkney Bell against their friend and neighbor, the late Abner Dement, and demanded the keys of the jail, in order that they might give him a swift and sure punishment. “Jailer Murphy remonstrated, but to no effect. They insisted that they meant business and intended to have Bell at all risks. Murphy gave them the keys, whereupon they entered the jail, found Bell’s cell, opened it, bound him securely, returned the keys and quietly retired. Bell made no resistance,” The Daily American recounted September 10. On the morning of September 10, 1878, Bell’s body was recovered from a tree about two miles east of Murfreesboro on the Halls Hill Pike. [ed. approximately present day intersection of Greenaldn Drive and Rutherford Blvd.] Several news accounts noted that the tree was “immediately east of the tree from which Birt Alexander (an accused rapist) was swung last year.” The “action of the mob robbing justice of its victim” was widely and loudly condemned. Tennessee Governor James D. Porter offered $100 for the arrest of any individual involved in the Bell lynching. But the reward and calls for “court reform” were apparently unproductive. ‘Rutherford Reflections’ More of the colorful history and lore of Rutherford County is recounted in the fourth book by Rutherford County Historian Greg Tucker. “Rutherford Reflections” is now available in Murfreesboro at The Country Gourmet, 107 East Main Street; Hooper Farm Supply, 420 S. Front Street; Campus Sub Shop, 1124 Old Lascassas Pike; the Chamber of Commerce gift shop on Medical Center Parkway; and the Oaklands Mansion gift shop, 900 N. Maney Avenue. In Smyrna books are available at Gil’s Ace Hardware, 415 Nissan Drive. Also, please stop the Ransom School House, 717 North Academy Street each Saturday morning between 9AM-noon for ‘Coffee and Conversation’ and pick up your copy of ‘Rutherford Reflections‘. A special thanks for research assistance to Deputy Chief Egon Grissom of Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office.