The Human Fly and other stories from around the Rutherford County Courthouse

Mike West, The Daily News Journal, June 29, 1975

If the old courthouse clock could talk, think of the tales it could tell.

A public hanging, the tragic demise of ‘The Human Fly’, and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s famous raid are only a few of the events the old brass clock has witnessed.

‘The Human Fly’ – his fatal plunge occurred July, 1925, following a pledge to climb to the top of the Courthouse.

He vowed he could climb the outside of the Courthouse, if Murfreesboroans would pay him $50, said Dr. Homer Pittard, local historian.

The ‘Fly’ dressed in a clown outfit complete with face paint. He wore roller skates with outlandishly giant wheels, Pittard stated. However, after working all day to raise the money, ‘The Human Fly’ discovered local residents were only willing to pay $13.50 to see him climb what was then the town’s highest building.

After some consideration, he decided t climb the building anyhow, said Pittard, who serves at MTSU’s director of alumni relations.

The climb began after dark with ‘The Human Fly’ wedging himself between the columns on the porch of the Courthouse. Pittard indicated the fire department assisted in the climb by aiming a powerful spotlight where the ‘Fly’ was climbing.

Inching his way up the columns, over the balustrade and on to the roof, ‘The Human Fly’ climbed his way up to the very top of the Courthouse copula.

In those days, Pittard said, there was a flagpole at the very top of the cupola.

Beginning his decent, ‘The Human Fly’, slipped and fell to the roof below. He was killed instantly.

Somewhat ignobly, the self-proclaimed conquerer of New York’s tallest buildings, dropped to his death while attempting to conquer ‘Old Red’.

No one in town knew the true identity of ‘The Fly’, said Pittard. Consequently, Crafton-Sweeney Funeral Parlor (located approximately at the current site of Brown Shoes and Fred’s Department Store) took his remains and embalmed them.

“The Human Fly’s” body was then placed in the parlor’s window in the hope some passerby would recognize him, Pittard stated. Unfortunately no one did and “The Fly” was buried in a pauper’s grave in Evergreen Cemetery.

The cupola “The Fly” fell from was relatively new at the time of his death. The tin ‘superstructure’ was added to the building after a tornado blew the old brick cupola off said Dr. Pittard (ed. a tornado pass within feet of the Courthouse, March 21, 1913).

This original cupola was quite a bit different from the one that presently adorns the Courthouse. It was made of brick and the clockfaces were smaller, he said. However, its construction was superior and more pleasing to the eye than the current white tin one, commented Pittard.

The tin cupola does house the original Courthouse clock. The clock, installed in 1859, ran for many years. A bell in the top of the building tolled out every half hour, he stated.

The old clock has witnessed several deaths besides the untimely death of “The Fly”.

In 1869, the Courthouse lawn served as site for a public hanging, Pittard said. The hanging followed the conviction of a black man on murder charges.

The clock was in its infancy when Nathan Bedford Forrest’s spectacular raid on Murfreesboro. This raid is perhaps the best remembered of the Courthouses’s various historical events.

Forrest, a colonel at the time of the raid (ed. 13 July, 1862), had been ordered to Murfreesboro to break-up Union supply lines.

His attack succeeded basically because of his brash bluffing, said Pittard.

After silently capturing Union sentries posted in the area of Central Middle School, Forrest’s calvary unit galloped down East Main, he said.

The 4AM raid caught the Union so unaware that Forrest was able to capture Union Brigadier General T.T. Crittenden, in quarters located in the old Spence Hotel (on the southwest corner of the Square).

During his gallop legend states Forrest a comely Murfreesboroan standing on her porch waving at the passing troops, Pittard said.

Admiring the resident’s beauty – she was only wearing her ‘sleeping attire’ – Forrest turned to his aid and commented:

“I wish I could spend a little more time in Murfreesboro.”

However, the Colonel’s was soon swallowed by the rigor of the raid. Only one third of his unit was available for the actual attack on the Courthouse. The other two thirds were attacking Union camps near the present site of Evergreen Cemetery and the National Guard Armory (ed. note: the ‘old’ National Guard Armory was once located on the Old Nashville Hwy. as it crosses the Stones River.)

Union sharpshooters were ringing the second floor of the building making a head-on assault very difficult, remarked Pittard.

Asking for volunteers, Forrest formed two single file lines of troops. The first man in each line was given an ax. Running from the northwest and southeast corners of the Square, the lines headed for the Courthouse door.

As the lead man in each line was dropped, the next man grabbed up the ax and headed for the door. The doors were reached and cut down, he said.

When attempts to run the Union soldiers out of the building failed, a fire was built in the hallway and they were smoked out.

The soldiers were captured and the local citizens imprisoned on ‘Old Red” were freed. About this time, residents began to pour out of their hiding places.

They were all screaming for the capture of the Union garrison’s provost marshal who had reputedly been responsible for terrorizing the town.

He was quickly found hiding between two feather beds in the bedroom of a female Union sympathizer. Dragging him out of the bed, Forrest’s men forced the provost marshal to donkey’s back – wearing just his sleeping dress.

Then much to his embarrassment, he was forced to ride around the Square under the eyes of the gleeful residents and under the ever watchful face of the old Courthouse clock.

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