A Mortal Shooting in the Tennessee State Capitol

by Ted Guillaum.

This sad tale of woe involves four principal players: the victim, John W. Kirk, Superintendent of Prisons; Andrew B. Vaughn, Warden of Coal Creek Prison, who fired the fatal shot; O. B. Paxton, a prison guard, whose appointment by Kirk and dismissal by Vaughn made him the center of the controversy; and Paxton’s friend J. T. Davis, Chairman of Marshall County Democratic Executive Committee and intended target of the shooting.

Kirk, the former Warden of Coal Creek, had hired Paxton as a guard there. After Kirk’s promotion to Superintendent, Andrew Vaughn was named to succeed him. Vaughn soon removed Paxton from his position as prison guard for alleged rule violations, but Kirk reassigned Paxton to temporary work at the main prison.

Vaughn came to Nashville on Wednesday, May 29, 1895, to attend his niece’s wedding and then to transport a convict back to Coal Creek. He called on Superintendent Kirk at the Capitol to discuss the Paxton case–namely, who had authority to hire and fire prison guards.

This image of the Tennessee State Capitol was on stationery used by House members in the 1890s.

A conflict erupted when Vaughn encountered Paxton in the crowded first floor corridor and accused him of lying to Kirk. Hurling violent epithets, the two began to fight. Davis, a friend of Paxton, attempted to separate them. Vaughn lashed out with his walking stick, striking Davis twice on the head and causing a large knot over one eye. Vaughn was himself injured after Davis wrenched the stick from his grip.

The men were finally separated. Paxton and Davis were taken to the Governor’s Office, where Governor Peter Turney and his son James were having lunch. The Turneys attempted unsuccessfully to hold on to Davis, who was still in possession of Vaughn’s stick. Warden Vaughn, meanwhile, had been taken to the Treasurer’s Office to calm down but insisted that his stick be returned.

When Davis heard about Vaughn’s demand, he eluded the Governor’s grip and rushed to the Treasurer’s Office at the end of the hallway. Davis and Vaughn began cursing each other again. Senator W.P. Caldwell, who was sitting in the Treasurer’s Office, promptly fled through the nearest window. Vaughn grabbed the stick, but Davis snatched it back and struck his opponent on the head. Enraged, Vaughn pulled a gun from his pocket, firing three shots. The first barely missed Davis, causing powder burns to his face. He pushed past Deputy Insurance Commissioner Ridley Wills and raced into the corridor. Vaughn followed, firing at least two more shots in the main corridor, where Superintendent Kirk crouched near the north wall. The second or third bullet accidentally struck Kirk behind the left ear, lodging in his brain.

Warden Vaughn sidestepped Kirk’s body and continued his pursuit of Davis, who escaped by ducking into the Adjutant General’s Office. Returning to the Treasurer’s Office, Vaughn stated calmly that Superintendent Kirk was the best friend he ever had.

The shooting occurred at 2:10 p.m., shortly before the legislature was to convene in their chambers upstairs. The shots were heard throughout the busy building and out on the streets. The halls quickly filled with curious people after the news was telephoned down into the city.

Kirk was carried to State Treasurer E. B. Craig’s office, and Representative R. E. Maiden attended to him by placing a bundle of pamphlets under his head until Doctors Eve and Briggs arrived. They dressed the wound and transported Kirk to City Hospital, not expecting him to live long. No attempt was made to remove the bullet. Governor Turney telephoned Mrs. Kirk in Henderson, TN, to come at once. She sat by her husband’s bedside as he drifted in and out of consciousness, able to answer “yes” or “no” to some questions. A robust man, he lived from Wednesday afternoon until 12:24 a.m. on Saturday, June 1, 1895.

Vaughn and Davis quietly submitted to arrest when the police arrived. Taken to the station house, neither was placed behind bars. Davis returned to his home on the afternoon train; Vaughn was charged with two counts of assault and released on $5,000 bail. He was later indicted for murder. At the end of his sensational two-week murder trial ending on April 15, 1896, the jury declared Vaughn “not guilty.”

Thus concludes the nearly forgotten tale of the only person killed in the Tennessee State Capitol . . . so far.