During the first 65 years of the county’s history, the death penalty was inflicted upon ten persons. One was a woman and all but one were negroes. In the imperfect records of early days there are no records of the first two. The events were handed down by traditional recollections of old citizens. The records following were compiled by this writer and published in the Hopkinsville Kentuckian, June 26, 1885.
THE FIRST EXECUTION
The first person hanged in the county was a colored girl, the property of Dr. Edward Rumsey. As nearly as we can fix the time by the statements of the oldest citizens, who were told of it when they were children, the hanging was about the year 1812. The girl’s name is not known, but in those days there was a divided opinion on the justice of her execution. She was left to nurse a fretful child and gave it laudanum, from the effects of which it died. One opinion was that she attempted to administer the drug to quiet the babe but gave it too much and killed it. The jury, however, found her guilty of murder and she was publicly hanged on the river bank, not far from where the present county jail stands. She was buried under the scaffold, but subsequently the remains were dug up and removed, because the bones were supposed to be near the vein of water making the Rock Spring, some distance down the river bank, from which the water supply of the town was obtained.
“OLD KEMP” THE SECOND
The second person hanged was a negro man known as “Old Kemp,” who was the property of Joshua Cates, a leading citizen. He was put to death for shooting his master, and the hanging was probably about the year 1820, or a little later. Mr. Cates recovered from the wound and used every exertion to save Old Kemp’s life, but to no avail, and he was hanged near the old Nashville road. He was buried on the spot and “Old Kemp’s grave” was a familiar object to the Hopkinsville boys two generations ago. He was sentenced to death by Judge Benj. Shackelford, who succeeded Judge William Wallace in 1814.
CONVICTED BUT PARDONED
At this point we turn to the records of the court for information, and no longer trust to the “memory of the oldest inhabitant.” Early in the thirties there seems to have been a reign of murder. In 1832, “Edmund, a slave, the property of James Jones,” was tried for the crime of stabbing Brewer Reeves and sentenced to death. He was to be executed November 16, 1832, but on the 12th of the same month a pardon was granted him by Gov. Breathitt, which arrived after the gallows had been erected. The records show that Edmund was valued at $450.
A DOUBLE HANGING—CASSY AND SQUIRE
In 1833, occurred a murder, which was one of the most sensational that ever happened in this county. Mrs. Miller, while standing by a well, was shoved in and drowned by Cassy, a colored girl, the property of Wm. Grey. The girl was arrested and implicated Squire, a young negro man, belonging to Mrs. Rhoda Clark, and they both charged that John Miller instigated them to do the deed. All three were tried at the August term of Circuit Court, separate trials being granted. Cassy was arraigned August 13, 1833, and the trial proceeded without her presence in court, as she was very sick at the time in the jail and could not be brought out. She was defended by Gustavus A. Henry, afterwards known as “The Eagle Orator of Tennessee.” The following jury was empaneled:
John D. Jameson, Benj. Johnson, M. T. Carnahan, Samuel Hays, Jos. Clark, Wm. Palmer, John Bradley, Alex. Arbuckle, Eli Finley, Jos. Williams.
The jury, through their foreman, John D. Jameson, returned a verdict of “guilty,” although the girl was then lying at the point of death and it was thought advisable to take her deposition in the other cases as a witness for the Commonwealth, so critical was her condition. She was brought out sick and weak on the 15th and received the sentence of death. The time was fixed by Judge Shackelford at Wednesday, October 2, 1833, between the hours of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M., and the money value placed upon the girl, the amount to be paid by the State to her owner, was $375.
Her attorney attempted to obtain a new trial, but the motion was overruled and the judgment of the court was subsequently carried out.
“Squire, a slave, the property of Mrs. Rhoda Clark,” was next arraigned. He was charged with being an accessory before the fact, and was defended by David 5. Patton and Wm. W. Fry. Cassy’s evidence was read, as she was too sick to appear in court. The following jury tried the case on the 14th of August: David Lucy, Wm. G. Moore, Wm. Dunnavan, Francis Pennington, Wm. W. McKenzie, Alfred Major, Joseph Sivley, John Cornelius, Thos. G. Edmundson, Wm. Trover, John Luckie, Jas. C. Haden.
The verdict was: “We, the jury, find the defendant guilty as charged. .J. C. Haden, one of the jury.”
Squire’s attorneys made a motion to arrest judgment, but this was overruled. They then attempted to secure a new trial, but their efforts were futile and on August 24th, he, too, was sentenced to be hanged at the same time designated in the case of Cassy.
The judgment of the court was carried out and they were hanged together on October 2, 1833, to the limb of a tree on the Madisonville road, near where Maj. John Stites afterward lived. Deputy Sheriff Pinckney French officiated and the third and fourth hangings in the county were conducted with “neatness and dispatch.”
CONDEMNED BUT ESCAPED
John Miller, the white man indicated as accessory before the fact, as mentioned above, was put on trial August 17th, and was convicted five days later. The jury was composed of the following citizens: Edward Delasier, John Jones, John H. Goode, Jos. Quisenberry, Thos. Hopkins, Nicholas M. Ellis, Richard C. Faulkner, Edmund Meacham, Israel M. Marshall, Thos. Sandford, Wm. C. Scott and Silas Boyd.
On August 24, a motion was made for a new trial and the court took until the next term of court to consider the motion. On the 9th of the following November the motion was overruled and Miller was sentenced to be hanged Friday, December 27, 1833, but escaped from the jail before that time and was never recaptured. Hon. Jos. B. Crockett was the Commonwealth’s Attorney during these times, and it was due to his vigorous prosecution more than to the conclusiveness of the evidence that Miller was convicted. There were always grave doubts in the minds of many as to his guilt and it is not improbable that he was an innocent man. Some of his connections now live in the northern part of the county and are good and useful citizens.
SAM, A SLAVE
It was six years after the double hanging before there was another death sentence. The fifth and next criminal to die at the hands of the law was “Sam, a slave, the property of Thos. B. Wilson.” He was charged with rape, his victim being Frances W. Hill, who appeared in court and testified against him. He was put on trial May 11, 1839, and the following jury sat upon the case: Benj. S. Campbell, Wm. M. Shipp, Austin M. Cason, Dickey Chappell, Richard Durrett, Robt. Dillard, Thos. Gregory, Guy Kinkead, Samuel S. Walker, Joseph Meacham, Jr., David Johnson, Harrison U. Garvin.
Sam was found guilty and sentenced on May 15th, by Judge Shackelford, to be hanged on Friday, June 7, 1839, between the hours of 11 A.M and 2 P.M. The jail was reported unsafe and the jailer authorized to employ three guards, but notwithstanding this precaution Sam broke jail and outraged the wife of a reputable citizen of the county. He was recaptured and executed as directed by law and richly deserved the fate he met. Richard D. Bradley was the sheriff and the hanging took place on the same spot where the last preceding execution was. The limb of the tree previously used having been cut off, a pole was laid in the forks of two trees, to serve as a gallows. The body of the victim was taken by medical students to a cabin in the southeastern suburbs of the city and there dissected.
JESSE, A SLAVE
The next person to play the leading role in an official tragedy was “Jesse, a slave, the property of Dr. Smith.” He was hung for the murder of a white woman, who was traveling through the country alone. He reported the finding of her murdered body in the woods and upon being closely questioned, suspicion was directed towards him as the guilty party and he was arrested and indicted by the grand jury. He was tried August 6, 1842, by the following jury: Benj. C. Garnett, H. P. Owsley, Wm. C. Reeves, Finis E. Henderson, Ira F. Ellis, James Edwards, Geo. Western, James Thompson, Wm. Henderson, Lewis Atkinson, Gabriel Williams and Wiley Robinson.
The jury returned a speedy verdict and Jesse was sentenced the same day to be hanged on Friday, Sept. 2, 1842, between the hours of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M., on a public gallows.
He was hanged near the Princeton Road, on the bank of the dry branch, by Thos. Barnett, who was sheriff at that time. The body passed into the hands of the doctors and was dissected in the interest of science.
The next was Lonz Pennington, the only white man ever executed by law in the county. A detailed account of his execution, May 1, 1846, appears elsewhere.
JOHN, A SLAVE
Seven years after the events narrated just above, the eighth hanging in Christian County took place. The victim was a negro slave, the property of W. B. Mason, named John. He killed Mr. Mason’s overseer, a man named Bard Sherrill, in the year 1853. He was placed on trial October 7th, of the same year, the following gentlemen composing the jury:
Wm. T. Bronaugh, Alex Arbuckle, John M. Boyd, Isham P. Bobbitt, Jesse Fox, Aquilla Long, Wiley Barnes, James Alder, Wm. J. Crabtree, Elijah Armstrong, Gideon Overshiner, Alex Bradshaw. The jury, through their foreman, Gideon Overshiner, returned a verdict of “guilty” and John was, on October 8th, sentenced to be hanged on November 18, 1853, between the hours of 10 A.M., and 2 P.M., in a piece of woodland near the Greenville road, in the suburbs of Hopkinsville. Judge Henry J. Stites was the presiding judge and the sentence was executed by Sheriff John B. Gowen, at the appointed time and place.
JACOB, A SLAVE
Juries had a way of enforcing the law a generation ago, and it was only three years after the hanging of John, before Jacob, a negro man, the property of H. G. Bowling, traveled over the same route. He, too, murdered a white man—Charlie Boyd by name. He killed him with an axe, and although Jacob protested that he killed Boyd in defending his own life, he was convicted and died at the end of a rope. He was arraigned for trial on October 9, 1856, and the jury was composed of the following citizens: Benj. Bradshaw, Elbert Henderson, W. H. Smith, Edward Merriwether, John Bowen, R. S. Gary, Sydney R. Merritt, Robt. McGaughey, Hugh Tomlinson, Jonathan Armstrong, Hardin Jones, Peter Higgins. The verdict of the jury was: “We of the jury find the defendant guilty as charged in the indictment. Benj. Bradshaw, foreman.”
Judge Geo. B. Cook was then on the bench, and on October 17th the court passed sentence of death upon the convicted man, directing Sheriff John B. Gowen to take him on Friday, December 12, 1856, to a piece of woodland near the Greenville road, in the vicinity of the town of Hopkinsville, and hang him by the neck until dead. This sentence was carried out on the same spot where the last preceding hanging took place.
NED, A SLAVE
We now come to the tenth and last hanging in Christian County, from the formation of the county up to a quarter of a century ago. In 1862, “Ned, a slave, the property of John T. Edmunds,” killed a fellow-servant, for which he was indicted for murder. He was put on trial March 18, 1862, and the jury who decided his destiny was as follows: P. N. Anderson, Richard Boyd, W. T. Merritt, D. R. Beard, James Biggerstaff, Ulen Wolfe, Wiley Robinson, Benj. Harrison, W. H. Moore, Thos. Hall, W. S. Mathews and John J. Elliott.
Through the foreman, Wiley Robinson, the jury returned a verdict of “guilty,” and on March 22 Ned was sentenced to death by Judge Thos. C. Dabney, who was then Circuit Judge.
The time fixed was May 16, 1862, and the judgment of the court was carried out by Deputy Sheriff R. T. McDaniel. The hanging, like all others in the county, was public and was witnessed by a great crowd. It took place on the Greenville road near the Fair Grounds.
The next execution after the one in 1862 was that of a negro named Jordan Taylor, for the murder of a woman of his own race, named Sally
Saunders, on the night of October 8, 1884, near Casky. Jealousy was the motive. Taylor and the woman had worked as field hands together that day, and after night she refused to allow him to go with her to her home some distance away on another farm. She left alone. Taylor followed her and split her head with an axe and hid the body. A quarrel with her had been in public and he was suspected. The body was found and Taylor confessed. An old negro named John Lee, a Hoodoo doctor, who had fixed up love powders for Taylor to use on the woman, was indicted with him. Taylor first swore that Lee had advised him to kill the woman when the “conjure” didn’t work. After his conviction and Lee went to trial, Taylor repudiated his first story and exonerated the old man entirely and he was acquitted. This jury tried Taylor March 26: A. M. Cooper, Thos. Brown, James Lacy, Wash Harry, Van Dulin, W. H. Size-more, John W. Courtney, G. W. Clark, Alex Walker, J. S. Forrey, E. D. Boyd and E. F. Morris. He was hanged in an enclosure in the rear of the jail in the presence of only 48 people. John Boyd was the sheriff who performed the duty.
BEVERLEY ADAMS, COLORED
The next legal execution in chronological order was Beverley Adams, who was tried for the murder of another negro at the June term, in 1894, and sentenced to be hanged September 14, 1894. The jury that convicted him was as follows: Jesse Denton, C. N. Edwards, W. H. Butler, M. V. Dulin, J. H. Murphy, Milton Hight, W. T. Bonte, Bayless Parker, Lee Davis, J. W. Carloss, R. L. Boyd, Alex Campbell. Lem R. Davis was sheriff at the time and carried out the sentence of the court in an enclosure in the rear of the county jail, by hanging Adams.
A negro named George Holland was the next to be hanged in the county. On the night of November 14, 1903, a white man whose identity was never established, who was walking through the county, purchased some food in Pembroke and retired to some woods near the town, cooked his meal on a campfire and lay down to sleep by the fire. Some days later his dead body was found in a pile of rails not far away and it showed that his skull had been crushed and his throat cut. The Pembroke officers, Lawrence Moore, a detective, and Town Marshal, Joe E. Jackson, went to work on the case and soon arrested George Holland on suspicion and secured from him a confession in which he implicated eight other negroes. The man had shown some money in making his purchases and one of the negroes saw it. The gang was gotten together and the murder and robbery followed. Judge Thos. P. Cook called a special session of Circuit Court early in January and the following negroes, all of whom had been arrested, were indicted for murder: George Holland, aged 50; Dick Carney, 32; Frank Massie, 72; Charles Finch, 27; Ed Holland, 25; Bill Garrott, 30; Ed Moseley, 19; Frank Merriweather, 22, and Frank Sherman, 22.
Commonwealth’s Attorney, Denny P. Smith, County Attorney, Otho H. Anderson, and C. H. Bush were the prosecuting attorneys. Robert N. Lander, a colored lawyer, appeared for the defense. The Commonwealth elected to try George Holland and Dick Carney first and jointly. The following jury was empaneled and they went on trial January 8, 1904; Dr. John P. Bell, Thos. J. Baynham, Richard Ray, J. F. Boyd, Harvey Hight, Andy Estes, Amos Robinson, W. G. Ward, Travis McCord, Monroe Bullard, John C. White.
Holland’s original story was that Frank Merriweather clubbed the stranger as he slept with a pickhandle. He repudiated his confession and the defense was a story of conflicting denials. The evidence was strong, one of the negroes having dropped a glove, easily identified, at the scene, and the stranger’s money had been spent freely. The jury, without delay, gave both negroes death sentences.
Frank Merriweather and Charles Finch were next tried and given death sentences. The other cases were postponed. Frank Merriweather moved for a new trial and when Court adjourned the other three were sentenced to be hanged April 15, 1905. The negroes all appealed after getting their plans made. The regular court term came on and the others were tried. One sickened and died. One was released for lack of evidence. The rest got prison sentences. Finch and Merriweather and Carney, all in the end got off with prison sentences. Holland’s case was affirmed and he alone was hanged.
FRANK POSTELL ESCAPED BY DYING
In 1916, a negro named Frank Postell, not akin to the local colored family of that name, was indicted for the murder of a white man and was tried June 16, 1916, and given a death sentence by the following jury:
J. C. Davis, Chas. Fowler, Tom King, E. G. Robinson, W. P. Ward, E. 0. Word, J. H. Johnson, P. 0. Martin, W. A. Walker, Geo. B. Bradshaw, J. L. McCulloch. Postell escaped the gallows by dying before the date fixed for his execution.
TOM NICHOLS, COLORED
In the fall of 1922 a negro named Tom Nichols killed B. H. Robey, a white man, a railroad construction foreman, at Gracey, by knocking him in the head with a pick handle or bludgeon. Nichols was tried in Januàry, 1923, by the following jury: J. D. Moseley, T. P. McGee, M. T. Carter, Harold McKinney, Geo. L. Owen, J. H. Duvall, Nile Farmer, J. C. White, Jack Renshaw, D. P. Young, J. W. Courtney and H. G. Kelly. He was given a death sentence January 26, 1923, and, under a new law, was subsequently taken to Eddyville, Ky., and after some delay, his sentence was affirmed and he was electrocuted in the State prison, the first to die in this way, from the county.
SAM (SMOKY) HARRIS, COLORED
The last legal execution was in 1926. A young negro named Sam Harris, known in police circles as “Smoky” Harris, killed his wife and hid her body in the river at the waterworks dam near the city. The couple did not get along well. Harris was a former soldier in the World War and had been in trouble many times. He and his wife were known to be quarrelsome with each other and Harris was very jealous in his disposition. When his wife was found to be missing he was suspected and arrested and a search located the woman’s body weighted down in the water. He was tried and convicted at the June term of Circuit Court, in 1925, by the following jury: W. H. Pugh, W. S. Davison, 0. H. Hamby, F. E. White, J. W. Maddux, J. B. West, John Smith, J. L. Weaver, J. C. Gary, B. F. Watson, R. S. Caine, W. H. Malone.
The usual delays were resorted to by attorneys who defended him, but the case was affirmed by the Court of Appeals and Harris was electrocuted in the prison at Eddyville, in the spring of 1926.
JOHN SKINNER, LYNCHED
So far as records go, there have been but two cases of lynch law in the county. In the summer of 1888, a negro named John Skinner was arrested, put in the county jail, accused of attempting to kill a white man. Excitement was high, but no immediate violence was attempted and the officers were lulled into a feeling that the law would be allowed to take its course. A week later a mob came in quietly one night and took Skinner out two miles from town on the Cadiz road and hanged him to the limb of a tree on the farm of M. P. Meacham, that extended over the fence into the public road. The tree remained standing many years afterwards and came to be known as “Skinner’s Tree.” The owner of the farm finally had it cut down and used it for “barn wood” in the firing of tobacco.
A SECOND LYNCHING
On April 9, 1909, a negro named Booker Brame, who had seized and frightened a young white girl near her home, in the neighborhood of Pee Dee, was captured the next day by a searching party, identified by the girl, and was taken to a point in Flat Lick, just inside the Christian County line, and hanged to a tree. The body hung for forty-four hours, before being taken down by the coroner.
meacham’s HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN COUNTY KENTUCKY by charles m. meacham 1930 CHAPTER XI THE LAWLESS PERIOD …
Historical and Biographical
EDITED BY WILLIAM HENRY PERRIN
F.A. BATTEY PUBLISHING CO.
Chicago and Louisville
LEGISLATIVE ENACTMENTS FOR BUILDING HIGHWAYS—BRIDGES—SOME
OF THE RUDE STRUCTURES OF THE PAST—STONE BRIDGES AND THEIR
COST—TURNPIKES—EFFORTS TO BUILD THEM IN THE COUNTY—THE HOPKINSVILLE & CLARKSVILLE PIKE—RAILROADS—ESTIMATED ADVANTAGES OF THEM—EVANSVILLE, HENDERSON & NASHVILLE—OTHER RAILROADS —AGRICULTURE—ITS RISE AND PROGRESS—INFLUENCE OF NEGRO SLAVERY—GRAIN. MILLS AND STOCK—TOBACCO—ABERNATHY’S SKETCH OF IT—AGRICULTURAL ASSOCIATIONS—LIST OF OFFICERS—THE FAIR GROUNDS, BUILDINGS, ETC., ETC.