Notable Tennessee DP History

Started by heidi salazar, September 22, 2010, 12:33:30 PM

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heidi salazar

September 22, 2010, 12:33:30 PM Last Edit: September 22, 2010, 12:42:12 PM by Heidi
Booker: Public hangings were popular in their day

By the 1880s public hangings of convicted criminals in Knox County had become the ultimate punishment and one of the more popular spectator events. While I have not been able to document any lynchings in this county, I have read about numerous legal hangings by the sheriff. The locations for these executions seemed to depend on the number of spectators they might attract.

The low-profile hangings took place at the Knox County Jail. Those that needed more space to accommodate a larger crowd were held near the end of the Gay Street Bridge in South Knoxville. Those that would attract innumerable masses were held off Western Avenue near the site of today's News Sentinel. It seems that any day in Knox County was a good day for a hanging.

I was not aware of those hangings until I started research on the history of Knoxville College. In a report, the first president of the college, Dr. John McCulloch, said he did not allow students to go to public hangings. He was particularly concerned if the person to be hanged was black. From my readings, I can tell you that the Knox County rope was an equal-opportunity measure that stretched necks until 1908, when the state began using the electric chair.

Our local newspapers were very graphic in describing these executions. They pictured the horrible mistakes made and sometimes painted gory scenes. The hanging methods were not always the same.

Brothers Samuel and Milton Hodge were sentenced to hang for the murder of their brother-in-law, James McFarland. The 22- and 23-year-old men were taken in a wagon on Sept. 9, 1882, to their place of execution at the end of the Gay Street Bridge. There was no scaffold and no trap door to be sprung. There was only a cross beam with two nooses on it. The brothers stood up, had the ropes placed around their necks, and the wagon was driven off with them hanging there.

John McPherson, the last man to die by hanging here, was sentenced on Nov. 4, 1907, for the murder of deputy sheriff William Walker. He appealed to the state Supreme Court in October 1907, but the court affirmed his sentence and set a new execution date of Dec. 11, 1907. Gov. M.R. Patterson then intervened and granted him a 30-day respite.

McPherson received four more respites from the governor before he was hanged on March 4, 1908, in the Knox County Jail. He had requested that the public not be able to review his remains at the jail. Sheriff Reeder honored his last request.

The situation was just the opposite for John Webb, who had been convicted of the murder of Richard T. Reynolds. He was hanged on the Western Avenue site Aug. 13, 1875, with a crowd of 12,000 people witnessing the event. The Knoxville Daily Press And Herald of Aug. 14, 1875, said, "There were whites and blacks, men and women, boys and girls, and infants in arms to witness the spectacle."

The weirdest hanging turned out to be no hanging at all. Ernest Wells, who had been sentenced to hang for the murders of city policemen O.L. Jarnigan and Mike Wren, decided to use a piece of rope to cheat the hangman and hanged himself in his cell.

The jailer found him in time and cut him down. Wells got a new trial, and on March 29, 1907, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on a charge of murder in the second degree. The Knoxville Journal and Tribune reported that "The action of the jury caused no surprise, although it was a distinct disappointment to many."

http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2010/sep/21/public-hangings-were-popular-in-their-day/

v1976ra

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The low-profile hangings took place at the Knox County Jail. Those that needed more space to accommodate a larger crowd were held near the end of the Gay Street Bridge in South Knoxville. Those that would attract innumerable masses were held off Western Avenue near the site of today's News Sentinel. It seems that any day in Knox County was a good day for a hanging.



Totally true. Many Knoxvillians are aware of Gay Street Bridge's history when it comes to hangings. Most were authorized by the court, but more than a few were of the lynch mob variety. Another interesting and ironic fact: this bridge is also a popular jumping spot for suicidal individuals - a disproportionate number of whom have been homosexual. Perhaps because it's near the downtown 'artsy' district, or maybe they were just trying to make a statement by jumping off the Gay Street Bridge? Hard to say, but I couldn't make that up if I tried.  ???

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