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