Execution in Rutherford County. What a great way to start the day!
In the early 1800s, capital punishment in Tennessee was the
responsibility of the county sheriff. Common law required the death
penalty for first degree murder and other lesser crimes. Hanging was
the usual method. And a public spectacle was expected.
For each hanging, the sheriff received $12.50. In Rutherford County,
an additional $5 was usually allocated for construction of the gallows,
and another $5 for the coffin.
The first documented execution in Rutherford County was in 1813.
The condemned individual, “a Negro man, known simply as ‘Jess’”,
was to be executed for the crime of ‘house breaking.’ The victim,
according to the book “Annals of Rutherford County” by John C.
Spence, (1873), was B. Ward. Sheriff Matthew McClanahan
conducted the execution.
Stocks and whipping posts had a permanent place on the Courthouse
square when Murfreesboro was first established in 1811. Gallows
were erected only when an execution was scheduled. You see, state
statute required that an execution take place within one mile of the
The earliest site for gallows in Rutherford County was north of the
courthouse on today’s North Maple Street, presently the site of the
Rover terminal and Murfreesboro Housing Authority.
In 1819, a man named Thurman was convicted of horse stealing and
sentenced to hang. Since practically all of Rutherford County’s early
criminal court records were destroyed during the Civil War, second-
hand reports will have to do. A gallows was built on the Maple Street
Local historian and author C.C. Henderson mentioned in his book ‘a
Story of Murfreesboro,’ in 1929, “On the day set for his execution,
Thurman was seated in a cart, on his coffin, and driven to the
gallows… Thousands thronged about the place to see the terrible
spectacle… The condemned wretch had made an open confession of
religion and assured those present that he knew his soul would be
“Just as Sheriff U.S. Cummins had adjusted the noose, and drawn
down the black cap to conceal the man’s face, great excitement was
created by a man on a foaming horse rushing to the scene frantically
waving a paper. The Sheriff suspended operations when the
horseman arrived at the foot of the gallows and identified himself as
the Tennessee Secretary of State. And, he was bearing a reprieve…
When the sheriff removed the noose and cap and repeated the
statement by the Secretary of State, Thurman, the condemned man
seemed dazed by the remarkable turn of affairs and for some
moments was stricken speechless.
“Then gazing over the crowd and into the faces of some of his
acquaintances (and apparently forgetting his earlier profession of
salvation), he said: ‘Boys, they came close to sending my soul to hell,’
and then proceeded to dance a jig on the gallows platform.”
The first and only Rutherford County woman to be executed was
“Sarah, a slave” in 1848. On March 16, 1848, Sarah entered the
bedchamber of Mrs. Catherine Smith, an elderly widow, during the
night and crushed her skull with a hammer. She then laid the victim’s
body on the hearth with Mrs. Smith’s head laying in the fire!
When the body was discovered, according to newspaper accounts, the
head was almost completely consumed. Sarah was found hiding in
the woods near Fall Creek, not far from the old town of Jefferson.
When captured, she had with her items stolen from the Smith home.
Justice was swift. Within a few days, Sarah was tried and convicted.
Sarah was hanged in Murfreesboro on June 15, 1848, only three
months after the crime. In addition to the statutory payments for
then Sheriff J.M. Thompson, for the gallows and for the coffin, the
Quarterly Court minutes show that the county paid $3 for the grave
and burial, and seventy-five cents for a shroud.
Enjoy this story and 2,000 other stories concerning Rutherford County
history by visiting www.rutherfordtnhistory.org