Michelle Willard, The Murfreesboro Post, October 26, 2008
Inspired by the upcoming holiday, The Murfreesboro Post decided to take a closer look at the darker side of human nature.
We researched the Top 10 (11, because it’s what we do) crimes and punishment in our county’s 205 years of existence.
In the early days of our state, Nashville founder James Robertson commissioned an expedition to rid East and Middle Tennessee of its Native American population.
On Sept. 7, 1794, Maj. Ore came across Cherokee Chief Black Fox near Murfreesboro, where the Nickajack Trail and the Creek War Trace – two historic roads – met. In present day, it’s near Black Fox Elementary School.
Ore wiped out the Native American encampment, sparing no one, not even women and children. But one person was missing from the bloodshed.
As the legend goes Black Fox escaped the massacre by diving into the spring near his camp, only to emerge three miles away at Murfree Spring.
Some, like the late county historian Mabel Pittard, believe Black Fox didn’t make the trip and some bones found behind the present-day Discovery Center are actually his.
The Cherokees last used the camp site of the legendary leader as they were forcibly marched along the Trail of Tears to reservations in Oklahoma.
In the 19th century, there was no penitentiary in Tennessee. All punishment of criminals was in the hands of local government.
Punishment was inflicted by standing in stocks, by the whipping post, the branding iron, imprisonment in jail and sometimes by clipping the ear.
Persons were made infamous by branding the mark indicating the crime of the guilty one, as “T” for thief, “M” for murder, or “HT” for horse thief.
Executions were common practice for a variety of crimes including stealing a horse, rape and murder.
These punishments were looked upon as justice, not as brutality by the court, and, according to Goodspeed’s A History of Tennessee, Rutherford County, “while the lash was being applied to the quivering muscles and the scathing branding iron to the quivering flesh, the court could coolly proceed with business.”
In 1848 Sarah, a slave, was executed by order of the court. Sheriff J. M. Thompson performed the execution for which the court allowed him the sum of $12.50; other allowances, for grave, coffin and gallows, amounted to a total of $26.25.
She was the only woman ever executed in Rutherford County, but the details of her crime were lost to the Civil War.
During the Civil War, Sam Davis wasn’t the only Rutherford countian or Confederate spy executed.
In 1864, local Confederate scout Dewitt Smith Jobe was captured behind Union lines near Triune and Nolensville with important information.
Jobe tore up his dispatch and ate it, rather than hand it over to his Union captors.
The patrol first threatened Jobe and then began to torture him in an effort to get the scout to divulge the content of the dispatch.
The troops first hanged Jobe from a bridle rein and then pistol-whipped him, knocking out some of his teeth.
Then they poked out his eyes and cut out his tongue.
Jobe finally died when the Union patrol dragged him to death behind his own galloping horse.
When news of Jobe’s torture and death reached his cousin, Dee Smith, he vowed revenge, left his regiment near Chattanooga and rode back to Middle Tennessee swearing to kill any Yankee in his path.
Smith’s killing spree lasted for two months and cost the lives of 50 Union soldiers before he was captured in Nolensville and moved to Murfreesboro where he died from bullet wounds.
Smith is said to have used a butcher knife to slit the throats of 14 Union soldiers while they slept in their tents near Tullahoma.
Mob justice was common in the 19th and early 20th century, and angry mobs often resulted in a lynching.
During a nine-month period in 1878, three prisoners were taken from the jail on Main Street by lynch mobs and hanged, according to a New York Times report from 1878.
On Sept. 27, 1878, a mob of 50 white men broke into the city jail and took murder suspect and Black man James Russell from his cell.
The mob rode Russell on horseback down the Salem Turnpike (now State Route 99) and hanged him from a tree.
“Russell met his death on the same tree on which four murderers and criminal assailants of women have met an ignominious death at the hands of mobs,” the Times article said.
In 1880, John Hall and Burrell Smith, were convicted of the murder of Maj. Henry S. Pugh.
The pair of career criminals was executed on an island in the middle of Stones River amid a crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 spectators.
The landowner had built bleachers to hold 1,800 and charged 25 cents admission for the public hanging.
The thousands present ate barbecue from six hogs and drank lemonade.
When the time came, the sheriff swung and missed the tie rope, causing Smith to suffer “a horrible death, his body drawing up and down convulsively for at least five minutes,” according to one contemporary news report.
After the execution, local doctors took the two dead men and tried to revive them using experimental artificial respiration and electric shock.
Hall and Smith were to be the last convicts to be legally executed in Rutherford County in 1880.
New Hope Baptist Church in the Big Springs community near Buchanan, held what was perhaps the best revival in the state in the 1880s.
The Rev. A. J. McNabb, who was known to give fiery sermons of the brimstone type, established the church in 1846.
The particulars have been lost to history, but it is said that during the revival McNabb called down the fires of heaven and the fire actually appeared as a giant barrel fell from the sky.
The crowd was so frightened they ran or hid.
Although it’s not a crime, the reasons behind the heavenly fire may be a punishment from God.
One theory about the fire’s cause was one of the early members of the church had killed a man and stole his money. Afterward, the murderer felt guilty and gave the money to the church, which was used to construct a building. The money was tainted in God’s eyes, so he decided to smite the church.
For years following this event, mysterious things are rumored to have happened at the church, including strange lights and following a Wednesday night meeting the “stars from the sky fell.”
In 1898, the small town of Eagleville was shocked when the town doctor Dr. Charles B. Heimark, was found robbing graves and selling the bodies to medical schools in Nashville and the Northeast.
Eagleville historian Bobbie Sue Shelton wrote the townsfolk also noticed some of the doctor’s patients dying from minor ailments, but no connection was made between murder and the black market sale of bodies.
Heimark was convicted of robbing four graves in the small community and sentenced to a six-month jail term and a $150 fine. At the time, disinterring a body for an unlawful purpose was only a misdemeanor.
During the same time, empty graves were also found in the Chapel Hill and Salem communities.
Heimark relocated to Minnesota where he continued to practice medicine and served in local government there.
Words were exchanged and then bullets between a police chief and deputy sheriff in front of the county jail on Main Street on March 14, 1911.
Chief of Police Joe Arnold and Deputy Sheriff Jep Hall were dropping off prisoners when the duel erupted, resulting in both men emptying their pistols at each other.
“What words or threats preceded the shooting cannot be learned, as Mr. Hall and the jailer, Mr. Helton, who saw the difficulty, decline to talk at present, but whatever they were they must have been brief, because the firing commenced almost immediately after the two men left the jail door,” a contemporary newspaper article said. But the men did have “hard feelings” in the past.
Hall was shot twice, one bullet grazing his ear and another hitting his right knee. Arnold died of blood loss within a half hour of the shooting.
Hall was arrested and claimed the shooting was justified. He later served as Murfreesboro Police Chief in the 1920s.
La Vergne’s Enoch Wrather Jr., died of apparent arsenic poisoning Sept. 6, 1939.
Before his death, Enoch showed classic signs of arsenic poisoning – vomiting, diarrhea and paralyzed hands and feet. He even showed improvement during two stints in St. Thomas Hospital. Arsenic was found in his urine and in his corpse. After his death, his grandfather and uncle were both exhumed and arsenic was found in their graves.
First on the suspect list was his mother Bertie “The Black Widow” Wrather, who was arrested in Oct. 1939 for Enoch’s death along with the deaths of her father-in-law A.J. Wrather and brother-in-law Richard Wrather.
Prosecutors alleged Bertie poisoned her son’s food, as she cooked all his meals. And investigators found a can containing arsenate of lead in the family’s basement. They also asserted three different motives: She was beneficiary on three life insurance policies totaling over $2,000; she wanted the farm, but her husband willed it to Enoch, Jr.; and She objected to her son’s plans to marry his sweetheart.
Bertie was tried three times before being convicted and sentenced to 99 years in jail for her son’s death. Eventually the sentence was overturned on appeal.
Michelle Willard can be contacted at 615-869-0816 or [email protected].