New Book is Out: Dixie Witches: 9 True Southern Witch Trials

My new book is out. It is titled Dixie Witches: 9 True Southern Witch Trials. The paperback goes for $6.99. It is also available in ebook format.

The book deals with nine true witch trials conducted in the American Southland occurring from the early 17th century until just before the Civil War. It also provides a brief overview of witch trials in general.

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Friday Factoid: Insurance Discrimination in 1867

On April 9, 1867, the Nashville Union and Dispatch reported that Jewish persons in Nashville had called a meeting to take place on the evening of the April 10. The organizers intended to use the meeting to “give expression to their just indignation” at “certain insurance companies” in New York “who refuse to insure Israelites.”

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With Government, Things Never Change

For some reason, many think that elected officials were once more competent than today. Of course, this is incorrect. Below is an example from Tennessee before the Civil War. It illustrates the incompetence of both the Macon County Court Clerk and the County Court itself.

Jefferson B. Short served as Macon County Court Clerk from 1848 until his death in 1857. Upon his death, the Macon County Court found that “He issued as such clerk, about seven hundred marriage licenses during his term of office, and failed to record them with the return upon them, as it was his duty to do by the statute on that subject. He also failed and neglected to record his settlements with guardians and administrators. For which duties thus neglected, he received the fees allowed by law.”

The County Court contracted with Short’s successor – a man named Price – to perform the duties Short had neglected. The cost of cleaning up the mess Short left was the substantial sum of $206.10.

In order to recover the cost of the correcting the problems their clerk’s incompetence left, the County Court successfully sued Short’s estate for breach of contract in a local court. Famed attorney M. N. Alexander was the administrator of Short’s estate. Alexander appealed the matter to the Tennessee State Supreme Court.

During the December 1859 term of the Supreme Court at Nashville, the Tennessee High Court ruled that there was “no principle upon which” the Macon County Court could collect monies from Short’s estate – but the justices did not stop there. In a curt opinion written by Justice Robert L. Caruthers the court blasted the Macon County Court.

Caruthers wrote, “It was the duty of the County Court to have seen that their clerk performed his duty in this, as well as all other matters pertaining to his office, and visited his failure to do so with such penalties as were appropriate to the case. He should have been removed for nonfeasance, or culpable neglect of duty.”

Caruthers also wrote, “. . . there may be no doubt” that if Short were alive, he “would be liable to criminal prosecution for extortion.”

Caruthers opined that Short’s “duties neglected [were] of importance to the public, and were enjoined both by his bond and his oath . . .” Thus, Caruthers contended that if the County Court had a claim at all, it was against Short’s bond – not his estate. However, the County Court did not make a claim against Short’s bond. Therefore, Caruthers stated that the County Court could not recover monies from Short’s estate to pay “for the labor of another without his request, consent or knowledge.”

Source: Head, John W. (State Reporter). Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Tennessee, During the Years 1859-60 (pages 475-477). Nashville: S. C. Mercer Printer to the State, 1866.

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Friday Factoid: Don’t Bet on a Party seeking a Third Term.

No one should have been surprised when Hillary Clinton’s popular percentage in the 2016 was lower than President Obama’s from 2012. In all 13 elections since 1932 when a political party has sought a third or higher term, that party’s nominee has received a lower popular percentage than the party’s nominee from the previous cycle.  In those 13 elections the nominee of the party in power lost an average of 7.86 percentage points from the previous election. In addition, the party seeking a third or higher term has won only four of those elections while losing nine of them. Below is a recounting of the 13 elections in question:

2016: 48.02% for Hillary Clinton, down from 51.01% for Obama in 2012.

2008: 45.60% for John McCain, down from 50.73% for Bush in 2004.

2000: 48.32% for Al Gore, down from 49.23% for Clinton in 1996.

1992: 37.45% for George Bush, down from 53.37% for Bush in 1988.

1988: 53.37% for George Bush, down from 58.77% for Reagan in 1984.

1976: 48.01% for Gerald Ford, down from 60.67% for Nixon in 1972.

1968: 42.72% for Hubert Humphrey, down from 61.05% for Johnson in 1964.

1960: 49.55% for Richard Nixon, down from 57.37% for Eisenhower in 1956.

1952: 44.33% for Adlai Stevenson, down from 49.55% for Truman in 1948.

1948: 49.55% for Harry Truman, down from 54.72% for Roosevelt in 1944.

1944: 53.39% for Franklin Roosevelt, down from 54.72% for Roosevelt in 1940.

1940: 54.72% for Franklin Roosevelt, down from 60.80% for Roosevelt in 1936.

1932: 39.65% for Herbert Hoover, down from 58.22% for Hoover in 1928.

We can debate the reasons for the third term decline. Voter fatigue, scandal, or even better candidates from the opposition party may be factors, but there is no doubt that the declines occurred. So, don’t bet on a party seeking a third term.

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Friday Factoid: An Execution by Burning in Tennessee

If one asked the citizens of the Volunteer State to name the methods Tennessee has employed to execute persons convicted of capital crimes, it is likely that most would guess hanging, electrocution, and lethal injection – and they’d be right. However, few could name the fourth method – burning!

In August 1801, Tennessee’s capital was located at Knoxville and John Sevier was the Governor. The Governor’s duties included calling and presiding over criminal court in Knoxville. On August 3, 1801, Sevier made the following entry in his private journal:

“Monday 3 . . . called court on negro Jack the property of Stephen Pate for the murder of Sarah Crawford was held & the negro found guilty & sentenced to be burnt on the morrow between the hours of 12 & 4 o’clock.”

Some sources indicate that Jack also raped Sarah Crawford, but Governor Sevier did not state such in his journal.

Evidently, the good citizens of Knoxville were interested in seeing a man burned to death. The day after the trial, Governor Sevier recorded the following entry in his journal:

“Tues. 4 Negro Jack was agreeably to the sentence of yesterday executed in the presence of a great number of spectators.”

I have not been able to locate another record of Tennessee executing anyone by burning. I hope I don’t.

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Friday Factoid: Impeachment Tennessee-Style

Ray Blanton  was a successful politician and he served in the Tennessee legislature, Congress, and as Governor of Tennessee. He served as Governor from 1975 to 1979.

Blanton, a Democrat, was not a very popular Governor, but that was not his real problem – corruption was. His administration began to unravel in 1977 when he fired the Chair of Tennessee’s Board of Pardons and Paroles Marie Ragghianti. She had earned his ire when she refused to release some prisoners because she suspected them of bribing state officials in exchange for obtaining pardons.

Ragghianti did not accept her firing graciously. She informed the FBI of her suspicions. On December 15, 1978, the FBI raided state offices in Nashville and seized documents implicating Blanton’s legal advisor, T. Edward Sisk. Based on what they found, the FBI arrested Sisk and two others. Blanton was also suspected. On December 23, the Governor was compelled to testify before a federal grand jury concerning the matter. He denied any wrongdoing.

Another issue arose when Blanton publically stated that he intended to commute the sentence of Roger Humphreys. Humphreys, the son of a Blanton political crony, was convicted of double murder in 1973. When the media and political leaders – including important Democrats like John Jay Hooker – criticized Blanton for the proposed commutation, the Governor became angry. Then Blanton made a petty move designed to get back at his critics. On January 15, 1979, citing a court order to reduce Tennessee’s prison population, Blanton commuted the sentences of Humphreys and fifty-one other prisoners – twenty of whom were murderers. As Blanton signed the commutation order for Humphreys he said, “This takes guts.” Tennessee Secretary of State Gentry Crowell, who was appalled by Blanton’s flaunting of his power replied, “Some people have more guts than brains.”

[Oddly, years later, Crowell was implicated in an unrelated scandal and he committed suicide in 1989 before being brought to justice.]

The commutations became a national joke. There was even a hit record produced called Pardon Me Ray making fun of the Governor and the pardon scandal.

Blanton’s critics were angry and embarrassed by the commutations. Then United States Attorney Hal Hardin passed on word to lawmakers that the Governor had told him that he planned more commutations – including possibly Martin Luther King’s murderer, James Earl Ray. Armed with this information – and desperate to end the ordeal – Tennessee’s leading elected officials sought some way to head off the Blanton.

Tennessee Senate Speaker (and Lieutenant Governor) John S. Wilder and House Speaker Ned Ray McWherter (both Democrats) reviewed the Tennessee Constitution and found that they could swear in the new Governor, Lamar Alexander (a Republican), before the traditional inauguration date. This being the case, they swore Alexander three days early. A relieved Wilder called the early swearing in “impeachment Tennessee-style.”

Blanton condemned his ouster, but he had more important problems. While federal authorities never charged Blanton in the parole scandal, they did charge and convict him of mail fraud, conspiracy, and extortion for illegally selling liquor licenses. He served 22 months in federal prison.

Sources: “Leonard Ray Blanton.” Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 2009. “ Blanton Demands Convict’s Release.” Indiana Evening Gazette. 23 Jan 1979. Bill Rose, “The Hillbilly Nixon”. St. Petersburg Evening Independent, 23 January 1979. United States v. Blanton , 700 F.2d 298 (6th Cir. 1983).

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My Latest Book is Out

My latest book, Ultimate Penalty II: Executing Sedley Alley is out. This book follows the Sedley Alley case from the night he murdered Suzanne Collins until his execution by lethal injection at Nashville, Tennessee’s Riverbend Prison more than twenty years later. This book presents highlights of Alley’s mammoth court file of more than 50 volumes. It also references many media reports and almost 400 court opinions. The books takes a realistic look at the many defenses Alley adopted – from insanity to innocence – in the twenty-plus years he battled to avoid execution. It also deals bluntly with Tennessee’s current judicial system. However, this book is about more than just a criminal case and the execution of a murderer. It delves into the human factors involved in the Alley affair. It provides a brief account of the short live lived by Suzanne Collins and it relates how her senseless murder deprived her – and humanity – of the many gifts she had to offer. The book also looks at the toll the Alley case took on the family of Suzanne Collins. It details the efforts her family made to obtain justice for their daughter. It also considers the effect Alley’s stubborn refusal to accept responsibility for his crimes had on his own family. Another topic considered in this book is the continuing bitter struggle death penalty advocates and opponents are waging in the Volunteer State. This battle is important, because not only does it shape the public debate over capital punishment, it also bleeds over into courtrooms and affects court decisions. What the book does not do – or attempt to do – is to tell the reader what to think about capital punishment. This book is fair, balanced, and impartial when it comes to the debate over whether or not a state is justified in putting its citizens to death. It allows the reader to form opinions independently without prodding from a biased source.

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Friday Factoid: Reagan and His Jellybeans

As President, Ronald Reagan placed a standing order of 720 bags of Jelly Beans per month (306,070 beans) with the Herman Goelitz Co. The Jelly Beans, which cost $4 per 1 pound bag ($2,880 per month), were “distributed among the White House, Capitol Hill and other federal buildings.” – Source: Time Magazine

Macon County, Tennessee Votes before the Civil War

Since the Civil War, the citizens of Macon County, Tennessee have traditionally voted Republican. In addition, voters in the county consistently opposed the Democrats even before the founding of the GOP. We can find evidence of this in the fact that before the creation of the Republican Party, Macon County citizens generally cast ballots for the Whigs in greater numbers than did Tennessee voters as a whole. See the three examples below:

In the Presidential race of 1852, Whig nominee for President Winfield Scott carried Tennessee with about 51% of the vote. However, Scott defeated Democrat Franklin Pierce in Macon County by a count of 617 (62.2%) to 374 (37.8%).

In the Tennessee Governor’s race of 1853, Democrat Andrew Johnson defeated Whig Gustavus A. Henry in a close race (63,414 to 61,162). Yet, in Macon County Henry outdistanced Johnson by a vote of 553 (61.9%) to 341 (38.1%).

In 1855, Johnson won reelection as Governor over Whig Meredith Gentry in another tight encounter (67,499 to 65,342). However, Macon County voters preferred Gentry to Johnson by a count of 540 (56%) to 424 (44%).

Sources: Bergeron, Paul H. Antebellum Politics in Tennessee. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1982

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Friday Factoid: The Ghost in Wilson County, Tennessee

Each Friday, I will post a very brief factoid on a historical topic. Below is my first offering:

From the Nashville Union and Dispatch, May 12, 1867, under the headline “Ghost in Wilson County”: “They have a ghost in Wilson County which haunts a smokehouse. A witch-doctor from Smith County was sent for, and has been shooting silver bullets at it without effect.”

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