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Notable Tennessee Executions
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Thread: Notable Tennessee Executions

  1. #1
    Administrator Heidi's Avatar
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    Oct 2010

    Notable Tennessee Executions

    Maurice Franklin Mays: Died claiming innocence but conviction stands

    He walked to the electric chair on crutches, declaring his innocence with his dying breath.

    Maurice Franklin Mays shook the hand of his executioner and settled into the death seat.

    "I am as innocent," he said, "as the sun that shines. I hope the politicians are satisfied."

    The electric current cut off the condemned man's last words. Four minutes and 2,800 volts later, a prison doctor pronounced him dead at age 35.

    The specter of Mays' death still haunts his home city and Tennessee's judicial system, nearly nine decades after his execution for a crime that drew outrage on a level not seen again until the Chipman Street killings of 2007. Mays took his last steps inside the death house in Nashville that morning of March 15, 1922, but his life effectively ended the moment a white woman called him a killer during a lightning-quick lineup under a North Knoxville streetlight in 1919.

    His name carries that stain to this day.

    Crossing color line

    Mays, a black man, grew up a child of privilege in a shadowy world that straddled the color line of the segregated South. His foster father, a former slave, had raised him from the age of six months, but the name of his true father, a rich white man, was never far from the tongues of local gossips.

    John E. McMillan, head cashier of the Third National Bank and mayor of Knoxville from 1915-1919, never denied the rumor. Newspapers of the day — even the Sentinel — never printed it. But the story survived the decades, and later generations of McMillan's family acknowledged Mays as "Uncle John's bastard son."

    Mays served briefly as a deputy sheriff at the turn of the century but spent more time bending and breaking the law than upholding it. He paid no more regard to the unwritten racial taboos of the time.

    He never wanted for money, for fine clothes or for women — black or white, single or married. His businesses ranged from gambling to bootlegging to running the Stroller's Cafe on East Jackson Avenue in what's now the Old City — then the heart of Knoxville's Bowery or red-light district.

    Details in the dark

    At least one enemy — Andy White, a Knoxville policeman — cursed Mays to his face and, witnesses later testified, threatened to put him in either the penitentiary or the electric chair.

    When an intruder's gunshot killed Bertie Lindsey, a white woman, in the bedroom of her Eighth Avenue home in North Knoxville the morning of Aug. 30, 1919, White was one of the first officers to reach the scene. His next stop was Mays' apartment.

    Mays greeted him, tired from a day of campaigning citywide for McMillan's re-election. White and two other officers later testified Mays' pistol smelled of fresh-burnt gunpowder, while Jim Smith, the only black officer present, swore he didn't smell a thing.

    The ballistics tests that could have resolved that question didn't exist at the time. So officers bundled Mays into the horse-drawn patrol wagon and hauled him to the murder scene.

    They stood him under a streetlight at the corner of Eighth and Gillespie avenues while White fetched the killing's only eyewitness — Lindsey's cousin, Ora Smyth, who had been sharing a bed with Lindsey when the shooting happened less than an hour before.

    The lineup lasted only a few seconds. Smyth, still shaking and crying, pointed to Mays as "the man" and was whisked away. Mays begged her to look again, to no avail.

    "From that moment," he wrote in a letter from prison, "I have never had a chance for my life."

    Pleas in vain

    A failed lynching and the worst racial violence in Knoxville's history followed over the next 24 hours. Mays stood trial for his life less than a month later.

    A dozen jurors, all white, took less than 20 minutes to find Mays guilty. The judge sentenced him to death but ignored a key detail. Tennessee had that year revised its capital punishment law to require that the jury, not the judge, decide the death sentence.

    An appeal, reversal and second conviction by a second all-white jury later, Mays waited in his cell to die. Pleas from across the state and the country had bought him time but failed to save his life.

    Gov. Alf Taylor, an East Tennessee Republican, told the Sentinel and other papers he wouldn't intervene.

    "If any mistake has been made, it has been made by the higher and lower courts and two juries of Tennessee," the governor said. "The responsibility for the fate of Maurice Mays rests with the courts and juries of Tennessee, and not upon me."

    'There can be no mistake'

    A Sentinel reporter stood by as Mays, his head shaven and his health ruined by arthritis and years of confinement, learned his last bid for clemency had failed.

    Mays' final prayer topped that evening's edition of the Sentinel, together with a letter to his accuser begging her to reconsider her testimony.

    Ora Smyth, now married, told the Sentinel she had no regrets.

    "I had only the truth to tell, and I told it," she said. "There can be no mistake."

    Death-penalty opponents cite Mays' case as proof of an innocent man's execution. His name routinely tops lists of the wrongly convicted, whether in popular paperbacks or academic legal treatises.

    Efforts to clear Mays' record have failed three times in the past decade — the most recent last year, when Gov. Bill Haslam again deferred judgment to the juries of the day


  2. #2
    Senior Member CnCP Legend
    Join Date
    Jun 2015
    Bucks County Pennsylvania

    The Hanging of Mary the Elephant

    More than eighty years ago, on September 13, 1916, something happened in Erwin, Tennessee that even today causes disagreement among the natives. Mary the elephant was hanged by a railroad derrick car at the Clinchfield Railroad yard. The hanging of Mary has been referred to in many writings. It was a question on a TV quiz show and even the focus of an article in Playboy magazine.

    A number of Erwinites would like to have the story buried and forgotten and never heard of again. There are also a number of people who are interested in the story and would like to know all of the facts. After all, this actually happened and is part of the history of our town. My friend, Ruth Pieper, who moved to Erwin nine years ago, has been fascinated with the story. She has spent much of her time, effort, and money on tracing the history of the Spark's World Famous Show.

    Charles H. Sparks owned the show and it had a reputation in the entertainment world as being a 100% "Sunday School" Circus. That is, no short change artist-a clean family entertainment. Charles Sparks had been in the circus business since the late 1800's. The circus purchased its first elephant in 1896. That was Mary. She was four years old and four feet high. At that time the show was a horse and wagon show. By 1905, they had grown to railroad transportation with one railroad car. By 1906, they had three rail cars; by 1916, the show had expanded to fifteen rail cars and five elephants.

    The circus went from St. Paul to Kingsport where they played on September 12th. Between shows the elephants were driven to a watering hole. On the way back to the tent, Mary went for a piece of watermelon beside the road. Red prodded her sensitive ear with a bull hook and she became enraged. She grabbed Red with her trunk and threw against a drink stand. Then she stepped on his head until it was flat.

    On Sunday, October 10th or Monday September 11th, Walter "Red" Eldridge was hired as 'under keeper.' Ruth has spent many hours trying to get the background of Red Eldridge. His age was estimated as between 23 and 38 years. He was hired in St. Paul but apparently had no family there. It was learned that he had been working in a hotel in St. Paul before he was hired for the circus. Also, one lead was that he was from Mt. Vernon, Indiana. That was checked out with no results. His death certificate did not give names of parents or birthplace. Ruth would be very interested to learn if anyone knows anything about Red Eldridge.

    Wednesday, September 13th was overcast from several days of rain. The five elephants were moved from the circus lot to the railroad siding where the hanging was to take place. It was about 5 PM. Mary's foot was chained to the track and the derrick chain put on her neck. A witness described the derrick chain breaking as she was lifted. The reason, the ankle chain had not been released. The witness said he could hear the ankle tendons being torn. When the chain broke, Mary fell back on the track and was stunned and not able to get up. They quickly got another chain around her neck and hoisted her into the air once more. Within a few minutes she was dead. Mary was buried on railroad property near where she was hanged. A few people today say they can point to the spot. No one has ever been allowed to dig up her bones


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