Public Executions in Nashville

by Lewis L. Laska.

On January 25, 1866, four young men were hanged in the yard of the Tennessee State Prison, located on Nashville’s Church Street. They were known as the Hefferman (Heffernan in some sources) killers. The oldest was 20, two were 17, and the youngest, who was so small that he bragged his hanging would not succeed, was only 16.

Two officials stand on a gallows.

This is the story of public executions in Nashville. The practice was ended in 1883, for a rather surprising reason. Too many people were being injured by the crowds that attended hangings, which had turned from being solemn religious occasions to festive events that included public drinking. It was Victorian manners, rather than morals, that ended public executions in the state.

Slaves had been hanged for murder in Tennessee from the beginning, but the first white hanging in Nashville took place on December 29, 1801, when Henry Baker was hanged for horse stealing. The highest court in the state, which included Andrew Jackson, affirmed the sentences of three other horse thieves, who were hanged together on June 25, 1802, on Rutledge Hill.

Nashvillians did not see many executions. The next was a dual hanging of Jacob Pickering and Stewart Thornton, murderers, on July 13, 1811. John Lusk, also found guilty of murder, was hanged on June 26, 1820. It was more than two decades later that two more men were executed in Nashville: slaves named Jacob Bedford and Dick Dyer in 1842.

Thousands attended the October 2, 1843, triple hanging of murderers Willis Carroll, Archibald Kirby, and Zebediah Payne. By that time newspapers were widely available, and enough Middle Tennesseans could read to draw a crowd to the event. The hangings were discussed for decades because Kirby, who vigorously protested his innocence, had been convicted of killing a young woman based on circumstantial evidence. And his “innocence” was confirmed to many credulous Victorians after a young woman who witnessed the execution fell into a swoon and died two days later.

By the middle of the 19th century, execution had become a fervent religious occasion. Well-known clergy vied to preach a sermon from the gallows, and the condemned man typically made an impassioned statement exhorting the crowd to live a proper life. The lesson was meant for slaves, as well, for the March 17, 1852, execution of Alec, Jerby, and Bob (their surnames were not published) involved vigorous preaching on the evils of disobeying one’s master, as well as criminal wrongdoing.

No other executions took place in Nashville until October 21, 1865. This was the most famous trial and execution in Nashville history. Confederate guerilla Champ Ferguson boasted he had killed 100 men during the war. A military tribunal convicted him of the wanton killing of eleven. One victim was lying in a hospital bed when Ferguson entered his room and shot him in the head. Ferguson’s hanging took place in the courtyard of the Church Street prison in front of 300 people, who had been given passes to attend.

Crowd at a public hanging (AP photo)

The execution of the Hefferman killers the following year (January 25, 1866) was somewhat related to Ferguson’s. The four teenage thugs had robbed and killed an elderly and well-respected Nashville railroad contractor as he rode home one night in a carriage with his family. Because the killers were civilian employees of the Union Army, their case was decided by a military tribunal and approved by Gen. George H. Thomas, commander of U.S. forces in Tennessee. The swaggering youngsters expected to the end that they would be reprieved, but President Andrew Johnson denied their appeal, and the post-Civil War federal authorities needed to demonstrate that they could serve even-handed justice to all. Fifteen thousand people attended the execution. The military denied applications from whiskey, candy, and apple vendors to sell refreshments to the crowd.

The next public execution took place on May 9, 1874, when African American rapist Bill Kelly was hanged before a crowd of ten thousand people. The Reverend Nelson Merry, the most famous black minister of the time, delivered a homily and a prayer, after which Kelly said, “Jesus is with me. I am ready to be offered up. I am ready to die – hear me: I am prepared to die. I have religion and I don’t fear death. I’m going home.” At the moment the trap sprung, the crowd surged forward, and hundreds were injured (most not seriously), as a 50-member guard fixed bayonets and drew pistols. All of Nashville’s “fallen women,” dressed in their best and seated in lavish carriages, witnessed the execution.

The last truly public execution came on March 28, 1879, when Knox Martin, known as the Bell’s Bend Killer, was executed before a crowd of at least ten thousand, including parents who had taken their children out of school to attend. Martin had become a Catholic in the weeks before his death, and the homily was delivered in Latin before a disappointed crowd. A passing train spooked some of the horses and someone fired a pistol in the excitement. The bullet struck a young woman in the leg, causing another stampede. No one was seriously injured in the melee, although, in a similar incident in Memphis, a carriage turned over, killing a spectator.

It was clear that public executions were becoming too rowdy and dangerous. Part of the blame could be assigned to false science – Knox Martin had given doctors and medical students permission to conduct an experiment that would attempt to bring him back to life. The moment his body was taken from the scaffold, it was hurried to a nearby shed and connected to electrical batteries. The body jerked convulsively but did not come to life. Undeterred, doctors at the University of Nashville Medical School continued the experiments for some time.

Plainly stated, throngs of people were coming to public executions hoping to see both a death and a resurrection. The event had become a circus of death.

After 1883 executions in Tennessee were no longer public. New laws required them to be quasi-private, so gallows were constructed in such a way that the public was barred from seeing the actual drop. The law was amended to require the hanging to take place inside a jail or jail courtyard, viewed by only a select group of witnesses that did not include the victim’s family. Finally, in 1909, all executions were moved to the main prison in Nashville, and in 1916 the mode of execution was changed from the gallows to the electric chair.

Electric chair

Previously published in David C. Rutherford, Bench and Bar II, Nashville Bar Foundation, 1981. Used by permission of the author.

Elbridge Gerry Eastman, 1813-1859

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Renowned Tennessee newsman Elbridge Gerry Eastman was born in Bridgewater, New Hampshire, on February 27, 1813,1 to Timothy and Abigail Eastman. As a young man, he learned the printing trade,2 which would support him throughout his life.

E. G. Eastman’s gravesite in Mt. Olivet cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee.

Young Eastman moved to Boston and then, by 1838, to Washington, D. C., where he worked at the Washington Globe and became a trusted confidant of House Speaker James K. Polk.3   In 1839 Polk brought Eastman and his new wife, Lucy Ann Carr, back to Tennessee, to install the young publisher as editor of the Knoxville Argus.4 Eastman’s incisive writing helped Polk win the governorship that October, while establishing his own reputation as “the leading Democratic editor of East Tennessee”5 – quite a political shift for Eastman, who had published The Abolitionist in New Hampshire only four years earlier.6

While in Knoxville, he also encouraged and published the writings of humorist George Washington Harris, whose works would influence Twain and Faulkner. Harris dedicated Sut Lovingood, Yarns (1867) to Eastman, “the friend whose kindly voice first inspired my timid pen with hope.”7

When Polk became the eleventh U. S. President in 1845, Eastman followed him to Washington.8 However, he was quickly called back to Tennessee by Democratic party leaders, who put him in charge of the Nashville Union (1847).9 Eastman’s newspaper not only showed Polk in the best possible light but also supported other Democratic candidates, including Andrew Johnson, then facing a difficult Congressional reelection campaign. “Take high ground on the slavery question,” Johnson wrote to Eastman in 1849.10

In 1850 the Union changed its name to The Nashville American, with E. G. Eastman and Thomas Boyers as editors. In 1853, in “one of the most important newspaper mergers in the antebellum history of the state,”11 the newspaper became The Nashville Union and American. Eastman was elected clerk of Tennessee’s Democratic House (1849)12 and Senate (1853).13 When Andrew Johnson became governor in 1853, he appointed Eastman to the State Agricultural Bureau. As bureau secretary,14 Eastman instituted Tennessee’s first county, regional, and state fairs.15 Meanwhile, his firm, E. G. Eastman & Co., Public Printers, produced many of the state’s publications, including the House and Senate journals.

Base of E. G. Eastman’s gravestone in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Nashville.

On November 23, 1859, five days after Union and American editor George Poindexter was shot to death by rival editor Allen A. Hall of the Nashville Daily News,16 Elbridge G. Eastman died suddenly at his home from a paralyzing stroke.17 “The most influential political writer in the State,”18 he was only 56. Governor Isham Harris later wrote a friend that he believed Poindexter had been killed deliberately in an effort to break Eastman’s spirit.19 Both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly adjourned that day “in token respect to the memory of E. G. Eastman, the public printer.”20

Lucy Eastman was left with nine children, ages one to eighteenteen.21 She eventually sold her interest in the Union and American to Thomas S. Marr and Leon Trousdale. When the Confederates evacuated Nashville in early 1862, the operations of the paper were suspended.  (2014)


SOURCES:

1  Ancestry.com. New Hampshire, Births and Christenings Index, 1714-1904 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Accessed January 13, 2014.

2  Clayton, W. W.  History of Davidson County, Tennessee. Philadelphia: J. W. Lewis & Co., 1880, 385. 

3 Burt, Jesse C.  The Most Tremendous Democrat: The Editing, Publishing & Public Service Career of Elbridge Gerry Eastman in Tennessee, 1839-1859. Bound, unpaged manuscript in Jesse C. Burt, Jr., Papers, 1920-1981, chapter 1. VI-L-1-2. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

4  Guild, Josephus Conn. Old Times in Tennessee : with Historical, Personal, and Political Scraps and Sketches. Nashville: Tavel, Eastman & Howell, 1878, 142-143.

5  Clayton, 385.

6  Moore, Jacob B. “History of Newspapers in New Hampshire,” in Edwards, B. B., and W. Cogswell, eds. The American Quarterly Register, Vol. XII. Boston: The American Education Society, 1840.

7  Harris, George Washington. High Times and Hard Times: Sketches and Tales. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967.

8  Clayton, 385.

9  Clayton, 385.

10  Graf, LeRoy P., and Ralph W. Haskins, eds. The Papers of Andrew Johnson: Volume 1, 1822-1851. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1967.

11  Burt, Introduction.

12  House Journal (Tennessee), 1849, 8.

13 Senate Journal (Tennessee, 1853-1854, 19.

14  Biennial Report of the State Agricultural Bureau of Tennessee to the Legislature of 1855-56, prepared by E. G. Eastman, Secretary of the Bureau. Nashville: G. C. Torbeit & Co, 1856.

15  Burt, Introduction.

16  “Nashville Union and American.” Library of Congress website. Accessed January 15, 2014. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/essays/322/ 

17  Ancestry.com. U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules, 1850-1885 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Accessed January 13, 2014.

18  Second Report of the Board of Health to the Honorable City Council of the City of Nashville, for the Year ending July 4, 1877. Nashville: Tavel, Eastman & Howell, 1877.

19   Burt, Introduction.

20  House Journal (Tennessee), November 23, 1859, 280; Senate Journal (Tennessee), November 23, 1859, 170.

21 Ancestry.com 1860 United States Federal Census [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Accessed January 14, 2014.

SUGGESTED READING:

Clayton, W. W.  History of Davidson County, Tennessee. Philadelphia: J. W. Lewis & Co., 1880.

Harris, George Washington. High Times and Hard Times: Sketches and Tales. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967.

There is a painting of Eastman on the New Hampshire Historical Society website:  https://www.nhhistory.org/object/142401/painting

The Confederate Twenty-Dollar Irony

by Mike Slate.

From 1862 through 1864 the Confederate States of America printed an estimated ten million twenty-dollar notes featuring an engraving of the Tennessee State Capitol. Today many of these notes survive in the hands of collectors and others, who may not be aware of the historical irony surrounding this currency.

Early Confederate twenty-dollar bills featured representations of a sailing vessel and various classical goddesses as well as a bust of CSA Vice President Alexander H. Stephens. Pursuant to the Confederate Congressional Act of October 13, 1862, the first Tennessee State Capitol notes were soon printed . . . and there the irony begins. This note’s design shows miniscule yet visibly genteel folk strolling the Capitol grounds. However, months earlier, on February 25, 1862, Nashville Mayor R. B. Cheatham had surrendered the panicked city of Nashville to Union General Don Carlos Buell. Long before October 13 Confederate currency was worthless in Nashville.

With the Federal occupation of Nashville came the immediate securing of the statehouse and the hoisting of William Driver‘s famous flag, “Old Glory,” on Capitol Hill. To be sure, no Southerners lolled around the Capitol grounds after February 25.  Iron-fisted military governor Andrew Johnson arrived in Nashville on March 12.  By the time of the October 13 Act, the Capitol was undergoing heavy fortification as Fort Andrew Johnson.                  

It seems likely that, although the “Tennessee Capitol” note was issued twice more (following the Act of March 23, 1863, and the Act of February 17, 1864), many Nashvillians did not see this currency until years after its initial printing. The bill was engraved – and presumably printed – by the firm of Keatinge & Ball in Columbia, South Carolina, a city significantly distant from occupied Nashville. There may be more of these notes in Nashville today than there ever were during the Civil War.

The Tennessee Capitol vignette was engraved probably by Edward Keatinge, who had worked for the American Bank Note Company in New York City. Recruited by the Confederacy for its treasury department, Keatinge teamed with Virginian Thomas A. Ball to form Keatinge & Ball, Bank Note Engravers, in Richmond. Soon the firm removed to Columbia, South Carolina, a strategically safer location. There they produced Confederate currency using equipment and supplies smuggled from Europe through the Federal blockade. General Sherman destroyed the firm’s facilities in February 1865.

Only two other Southern capitol buildings adorned Confederate currency: those of Columbia, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia. Despite the irony of its issuance, the Tennessee Capitol twenty-dollar bill is nevertheless a tribute to an architectural gem, the timeless work of Philadelphia architect William Strickland.