This week in Nashville history: Murder at the courthouse

This week in 1894, a murder-suicide and its aftermath shook elite Nashville to its core.

Davidson County Chancellor Andrew Allison cut a national profile as a legal thinker and jurist. He had been vice-president of the Harvard Law School Alumni Association and served on the executive committee of the American Bar Association. He had served under Stonewall Jackson in the Confederate Army, rising from corporal to 1st lieutenant in Company H, 7th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. His father had been Nashville’s mayor in the 1840s. Allison was a consummate Nashville insider with a reputation of strong integrity.

George K. Whitworth, son of a judge-turned-banker, had served as the county’s trustee and tax collector. He was part-owner of the Nashville Union and American newspaper. In 1884 and again in 1892, he had managed Allison’s successful bids for a seat on the Chancery bench. Allison had named him Clerk and Master, putting him in charge of the administration of the court.

In November 1894, however, Allison announced plans to replace Whitworth with his son, Granville Allison. On November 14th, Whitworth accosted Allison in a corridor at the courthouse. Leveling a shotgun at the judge, Whitworth emptied both barrels into his face and chest. Allison perished immediately. Whitworth then took out a pistol and shot himself twice in the chest. Those bullets missed his heart, and he remained conscious.

Newspapers across the country carried dispatches on the shocking event, initially speculating that Whitworth had acted out of revenge at his dismissal. But as The New York Times reported on November 16th, word soon emerged that Whitworth had serious financial troubles — and that he blamed them on Allison. Whitworth was expected to die soon of his self-inflicted wounds, although he would ultimately linger eight days before passing away.

On the 17th, Knoxville’s Daily Journal let the other shoe drop. It published in full a deathbed statement Whitworth had dictated to his father. The assassin claimed Allison had required him to kick back half of his more than $18,000 in annual salary as a condition for getting the clerkship, and he said he had check stubs to prove it. Whitworth also claimed Allison had taken out thousands of dollars in illegal loans from court funds, money for which Whitworth was on the hook. In all, Whitworth asserted, Allison owed him more than $26,000.

“Allison had bled me from the first and I could bear it no longer,” Whitworth said in the statement. “I did not kill Allison because he hadn’t appointed me clerk and master, but because he was willing to let me be behind in the office on account of the money he had gotten…. To humiliate me this way when I believed I had elected him both times was more than I could bear.”

In Nashville in the 1890s (Vanderbilt University Press, 1970), attorney William Waller writes that the ensuing investigation and litigation revealed more improprieties at the clerk’s office than just the Allison dealings. The funds missing from court accounts “largely exceeded the amount which Whitworth claimed the Chancellor owed him,” Waller states.


16 Nov. 1930: Marmaduke B. Morton’s reminiscences of the 1880s continue in the Nashville Banner. This week’s topics: “Decade of Political Events — ‘Bob’ Taylor’s Star Arises — A Republican Filibuster — Negro Office Holders in Nashville — Many Unusual Incidents.”

With the passage of the Dortch law in the late eighties the Negroes were practically eliminated from politics. Prior to that time they were active and aggressive. They entered into every campaign and their speakers canvassed the town. One of their “rabble rousers” was Henderson Young. He claimed that Hannibal, the Pharaohs, the Queen of Sheba and most of the heroes of antiquity were Negroes. All the older citizens of Nashville will remember him as well as John Cochran, “The Buzzard Orator.” The Negro orators were frequently the targets for eggs and tomatoes, but they paid little attention to such slight interruptions.

[note added 16 Nov. 2010: Further research indicates that the “Buzzard Orator” was named John Cockrill, not Cochran. He stood trial with Joe Banks for the Littleton killing, as Banks allegedly accosted Littleton after hiding in Cockrill’s rented room. Both were acquitted. I would welcome hearing from anyone with further info on the African-American branch of the Nashville Cockrill family.]

About Tom

I'm an old news man, any way you look at me. Not as old in years as some local journos I much admire, but committed to bringing old news from Nashville's deeper past back to life.
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5 Responses to This week in Nashville history: Murder at the courthouse

  1. Chris Wage says:

    What courthouse would that murder have been in? The current TN courthouse was build in the 1920s or so, right? So, some long-gone former courthouse?

    • Tom says:

      Chris, it would have been the last courthouse before the current one was built in the 1930s. If I remember correctly, it was built after the 1855 fire that wiped out much of public square.

  2. Tom says:

    Lewis, I need to get a copy of that first Bench & Bar book. I used the Nashville Room’s copy heavily in writing the centennial history of Nashville School of Law, to be published next month.

    If you’d like to get the article online to accompany this post, scan and send it to me as .pdf or .jpg files. I’ll run it thru OmniPage to turn the image into text and will post it.

  3. Pingback: Nashville School Of Law

  4. Lewis Laska says:

    I wrote about this case in David Rutherford’s first book. It was “caused” by the Panic of 1893. Good luck. Lewis

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