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.]

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This week in Nashville history: Wavelengths, wayfarers and a would-be whuppin’

This week in Old News, the crumbling pages of long-forgotten Nashville newspapers take us back to the origins of an iconic radio show and to the beginnings of modern tourism promotion in what we now call the Music City. They also tell how one local schoolboy evaded a scheduled trip to the woodshed, with a little help from the Union Army.

12 Nov. 1925: The Nashville Evening Tennessean announces the arrival of George Dewey Hay, a/k/a the “Solemn Old Judge,” to take over operations at WSM, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company’s “big broadcasting station.”

This new “Voice of Nashville” needs no introduction to Nashville and Tennessee radio fans. As announcer of WMC, the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s station, he won such wide renown and popularity that last year he was awarded the Radio Digest cup as the most popular announcer in the country. For the past 18 months he has been directing the destinies of WLS, Sears-Roebuck’s Chicago station, with ever increasing popularity….

Among the new ideas which he introduced at WMC was the Mississippi river steamboat whistle, which he used as a “sign-off” He brings to WSM a new signal, this latest being a railroad whistle which is guaranteed to make the lordly whistles of the Dixie Flyer and Pan-American locomotives become shrill with envious anger and the plaintive tootings of the Tennessee Central engines even more mournful.

In his first weeks on the job, Hay would create the Saturday evening program of old-timey tunes that he would later dub the Grand Ole Opry.

9 Nov. 1921: Tourists are money! The growing popularity of motoring vacations is paying off nicely for Nashville, the Banner reports:

As early as 1915, 1,500 touring parties registered at the Nashville Automobile Club headquarters. In 1916 the number increased to 2,500; in 1917, 3,400 registered; in 1918, 4,000 parties were routed by the club; in 1919, 5,200 parties registered at the club; 1920, brought about 9,000, and 1921 promises to bring about 15,000.

Data collected by the Automobile Club shows that at least $500,000 was spent by tourists in Nashville last year.

9 Nov. 1930: Marmaduke B. Morton recalls “Kings of Commerce — Strong Array of Lawyers — Outstanding Physicians — Spectacular Fires” — and the tale of a youngster for whom the rod was spared when Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant came calling.

As recounted in a 2008 history column, Grant’s troops gained control of the Cumberland River in mid-February 1862 when they routed the Confederates at Fort Donelson, near what is now Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. The fall of the fort left Nashville indefensible, and Rebel forces hastily abandoned the city to the Yankees.

Squire George Campbell was a live wire in the eighties. He was active in politics and in the affairs of the county. He had an unusual maxim: “Never do today, what can be put off until tomorrow.” When asked why he had adopted such a dilatory rule of conduct, he said that just before the Civil War he was going to a country school with his brother.

One Saturday afternoon the teacher asked him and his brother to remain after school had been dismissed. He then explained that he knew of some of their misdoings that deserved a whipping, and they were going to get what was coming to them. “But,” said he, “it is Saturday, and if you prefer it I will put it off until Monday.” The brother said he would take his punishment at once, and not have it on his mind all day Sunday. So he got it.

The young Squire-to-be said he preferred to defer the evil day, and would take his licking Monday. Sunday came the news of the fall of Fort Donelson, and there were no more schools in Nashville for three years. And the Squire’s licking will have to be administered in the New Jerusalem, where hickory switches do not grow.

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This week in Nashville history: Turning on the waterworks

This week in 1930, the Nashville Banner‘s resident sage Marmaduke Morton offered up another installment of his memoir about life in Nashville 50 years earlier.

The seventh column in his series “The Colorful Eighties in Nashville” starts off with a disquisition on the competitive military drilling craze of the 1870s and 1880s. It illustrates a sentiment among men too young to have fought in the Late Unpleasantness that roughly parallels recent popular reverence for the “Greatest Generation” of WWII vets — but in all honesty, it’s way more info than most readers will care to take in on the subject.

Don’t give up on the old man, though. Skip to the bottom of page three and check out what he has to say about the 1889 inauguration of the city reservoir that still provides our water from a hill above 8th Ave. South.

1 Nov. 1930: “Military Spirit and May Drills — Porter Rifles and Other Crack Companies — New Waterworks and Bursting Pipes — Hermitage Club Organized”

The pressure from the new reservoir was much greater than that from the old. There was one startling result. The old water pipes had not been constructed to stand this additional pressure, and besides, many were rusty and dilapidated. When the water was turned into them from the new reservoir many of them burst — not all at one time, but from day to day. Geysers spouted at various points over the city. One was especially notable. The main on Seventh Avenue in front of the First Christian Church burst, and the water spouted fifty or sixty feet high, carrying with it rocks, dirt and other wreckage. The church and an adjoining residence were badly damaged. Holes were knocked in the roofs by the falling stones, and the interior of the buildings drenched with water, destroying plastering and furnishings. It was said that a live catfish eighteen inches long was thrown out upon the street. This fish was supposed to have got into the main when a baby.

For a 2007 column dealing with this episode and others in the surprisingly lively history of Nashville’s public plumbing, I spoke with Ron Taylor, resident historian at Metro Water Services. I had to ask his opinion of Marmaduke’s fish story. Ron allowed as how a fish truly might have found its way into the then-uncovered reservoir. But an 18-incher in the water mains? “A bit implausible,” he opined.


Here’s an entertaining little discovery I made over the weekend: a 1907 Nashville society directory that Google has made available through its book-digitization initiative. If you’re familiar with “old Nashville,” you will see a lot of familiar surnames in there.

This pair of ads in the directory particularly jumped out at me:

Lockeland Springs, now an East Nashville neighborhood, had just been incorporated into Nashville’s city limits in 1905, according to this writeup at the neighborhood association’s blog. In Nashville: Yesterday & Today (published earlier this year), my wife Nicki Pendleton Wood described the waters that gave the area its name:

The springs on the Lockeland property were full of dissolved lithium salts. Mineral waters were the wellness fad of the day, and when businessman James Richardson bought the old Lockeland mansion and eight of its acres in 1900, the estate became a business as well as a home. He bottled the lithium water and sold it as a remedy for bladder, kidney, stomach, dyspepsia and rheumatic afflictions, growing very rich as a result.

Stief Jewelry was a well-known presence locally for generations. I asked my friend David A. Fox (co-founder of and former chair of the Metro Nashville Board of Education) to provide the lowdown on his family’s involvement with the business:

B.H. Stief was a repairman of fine watches and retailer of jewelry who started his company in the late 1800s. My great-grandfather, George Fox in Cincinnati, was a supplier of diamonds to his store. When Stief fell far behind on his bills, George Fox bought out the company in 1916 or 1917 and sent his son, Gilbert Fox, to run the company. Since Gilbert didn’t know anything about the business, George took in James Cayce as a partner to run it. It was located then on Union Street, but later moved to the corner of Capitol Boulevard and Church, and then to 6th Avenue. (Mr. Cayce was very involved in city life, served on the State Fair Board, and is the namesake of the James Cayce Homes.) Mr. Cayce died in 1940. Gilbert Fox died in 1942. The wives of the two men briefly ran the company, but Natelle Fox sold her interest to Mrs. Cayce a few years later. In the 1960s, E. Jaccard Jewelry Co. of St. Louis bought the company, renamed it Stief-Jaccard’s and relocated to 100 Oaks. It ceased operating some years later.

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I’m going to start adding a list of online resources for Nashville h

istory to the blog in coming weeks. Part of my inspiration to do so comes from the discovery of a 1907 Nashville society directory that Google has made available through its book-digitization initiative. You’ll see a lot of familiar surnames in there!

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This week in Nashville history: Run out of town on a rail

Above: One of the mule-drawn streetcars in use between the 1860s and 1880s. This photo, from the 1926 newspaper story linked from this post, may be the only existing image of the mule cars. Below: Inauguration of electric streetcar service, 30 April 1889. These cars are at the corner of Broadway and 16th Street (Tennessee State Library and Archives).

Let’s wind up Marmaduke Morton once more and let him spin a yarn. Eighty years ago this week, the Nashville Banner‘s longtime managing editor published part six in his 12-part series on “The Colorful Eighties in Nashville,” recalling the city he had encountered as a young reporter a half-century earlier.

Much of this installment deals with the evolution of Nashville’s public transport system in the 1880s. Morton recalls the mule-drawn streetcars that gave way in 1889 to an electrified urban rail network.

26 October 1930: “Rapid Transit and Old Dummy Lines New Buildings Spring Up Places of Interest A Balloon Ascension.”

In those days most of the street sprinkling was done privately by the property owners along the streets. The sprinkling was the task of the boys of the family. These were warned through the press not to squirt a stream of water on the trolley wire, as the electricity would run down the stream and strike them. It is safe to say all these young sprinklers tried the experiment at least once. Then everybody was told that the electricity in the cars would interfere with the time-keeping qualities of the watches, and that the only preventive was to be very careful and also to have a non-conductor plate put in the watches. The jewelers did a thriving business for a while.

This week in 1926, Nashville celebrated the delivery of new, state-of-the-art streetcar wagons by holding a parade that highlighted the system’s history. As the Tennessean reported on October 28, featured guests included about 25 former mule-car drivers from days of yore.

The story which Friday’s parade will not tell is, that from an humble start obtained in the mule car, the street railway industry here has grown to be such a public servant that it carries approximately 35,000,000 passengers every year [sic — is that possible?] in Nashville, and in 1925 was rated as the nation’s safest street railway system.

Together with passenger rail services from suburbs like Bellevue, the streetcar system provided Nashvillians from all walks of life with efficient transportation to and from downtown for more than a half-century. But internal combustion would win out. In February 1941, just as a dispute between the U.S. and Japan that had much to do with oil and rubber began to take on ominous proportions, gasoline-powered city buses took over the streetcars’ routes.


New to the blogroll this week: The Posterity Project, Gordon Belt’s very active blog on issues involving Tennessee history and archives.

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This week in Nashville history: Steamboats and spirituals

Eighty years ago this week, Nashville Banner Managing Editor Marmaduke Morton continued his 12-part series on “The Colorful Eighties in Nashville,” reflecting on the city he had encountered as a cub reporter a half-century earlier.

19 Oct. 1930: “Last Days of Real Steamboating on the Cumberland”

It was the custom for all the Negro hands to gather on the swinging gangplank as the boats backed out and started on their journey, and sing boat songs and spirituels, while a leader gestulated and led the singing. No one, who has stood on the Woodland Street Bridge as a steamboat passed down stream, and has witnessed the scene described and heard the wonderful chanting of these natural-born musicians, will ever forget the thrill of it.

The New York Times carried this profile of Capt. Tom Ryman, steamboat impresario and tabernacle builder, on 26 December 1892. Note that Morton disputes the tale retold here of a converted Ryman smashing the saloons on all of his vessels and pouring their whiskey into the Cumberland.

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This week in Nashville history: Newshounds of the 1880s

Eighty years ago this week, the Nashville Banner‘s Marmaduke Morton continued his 12-part series on “The Colorful Eighties in Nashville,” reflecting on the city he had encountered as a cub reporter a half-century earlier.

12 Oct. 1930: “Revolution in Newspapers – Col. A.S. Colyar, Albert Roberts, E.W. Carmack and Other Editors”

An event of world-wide importance to newspapers occurred in Nashville in 1885. It was the successful use of the typewriter In taking telegraphic messages. John A. Payne, commonly known as “Johnny Payne,” was the pioneer. Addison C. Thomas, superintendent of the traffic department of the Associated Press, came to Nashville in May of that year, and found Payne, a Western Union operator, taking the press reports on a typewriter. He at once captured Payne and took him on a tour of the Associated Press papers through-out the country, and introduced his innovation everywhere.

Betsy Phillips has more on Payne’s sordid and profitable life after Nashville.

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This week in Nashville history: More of Morton, plus Nixon in ’60

Eighty years ago this week, venerable Nashville Banner scribe Marmaduke Morton continued his 12-part series on “The Colorful Eighties in Nashville,” reflecting on the city he had encountered as a cub reporter a half-century earlier.

5 Oct. 1930: “President Cleveland, Former President Hayes and Other Visitors — Old Theaters and Actors — Bathing Beauties.”

When [women] went to the seashore they were allowed to go into the surf in bathing suits. These suits were of flannel, red or blue, with baggy legs drawn together at the ankle with a puckering string. In one of these bathing suits a girl looked like the devil. A boy was allowed to put his hand under her body after they were in the water, and hold her up while she learned to swim. It generally took her a long time to learn.


6 October 1960: Nixon in Nashville.

My father shot this footage, and it includes my late mother handing a bouquet of yellow roses to Pat Nixon. She and Dad were always highly committed, free-market Republicans, and I recall them as being stalwart defenders of Nixon during Watergate until the bitter end.

Also visible in the film are Mom’s sister, Connie Forehand, shown as part of the welcoming party at the airport, and the late Jimmy Bradford of brokerage house J.C. Bradford & Co., seen near the aircraft. [Addendum, 24 Oct 2010: Aunt Connie IDs other “Nixon Girls” who attended the event with her as Sheila (Mrs. Sydney) Keeble, Dede (Mrs. Jake) Wallace and Carlene Hunt Thym.]

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This week in Nashville, 1930 (and 50 years earlier)

The first installments of Old News will feature a series that ran 80 years ago in the Nashville Banner, from late September through early December 1930. “The Colorful Eighties in Nashville” offered up the reminiscences of Marmaduke B. Morton (1859-1943), longtime managing editor of the paper, who reflected back on the city he encountered as a cub reporter a half-century earlier.

I compiled this material in 2005 as a text for an evening class on local history at Montgomery Bell Academy. (Compilation copyright 2005.)

If you’re not accustomed to reading newspapers from the 1930s and earlier, or even if you are, you may be dismayed by some of the stereotypes and terminology that turn up in the old gentleman’s prose, especially as regards racial matters. I have made no attempt to sanitize his writing of jarring, offensive and occasionally just badly written passages. You will see footnotes, however, to explain some of the more obscure references made in his text.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Mr. Morton:

21 Sept. 1930: ”South’s Reawakening — Confederate Brigadiers in Saddle —The Old Maxwell House — Noted Orators”

The dining room was a specimen of architectural beauty, and there viands fit for the gods were served by a small army of Negro waiters. Men loafed in easy chairs and talked politics, and discussed other subjects, while the impact of billiard balls and the clinking of ice in cut glass tumblers, as the spotless bartender stood behind the speckless counter and poured amber mixtures from decanters, could be heard. Upstairs on what would now be called the mezzanine floor the curly heads and bustled bodies of women, with all the witchery of the Old South, could be seen peeping over the railing into the rotunda to see what their husbands and sweethearts were doing.

28 Sept. 1930: ”Horse Racing and Sportsmen — Scenes During Race Meetings — Old Saloons and Livery Stables”

The livery stable keeper, like the man who dispensed drinks in white collar and immaculate shirt, with hand-painted necktie, was noted for his wisdom. The loafers around the stables referred all disputed points to him. He delivered his dictum with becoming gravity. He looked horsey, and had an unutterable contempt for anyone who did not “know” a horse. He had sleek, blood bays, sorrels, grays, blacks — a dappled black was a star beauty — rich chestnut sorrels and occasionally a star, milk white.

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Who wants yesterday’s papers?

I do. As a journalist working through an era that may see the end of the newspaper as we once knew it, I find myself even more intensely interested in old newspapers. It’s an enthusiasm I have had since childhood, when I was scrounging in my grandfather’s attic and found a Nashville Banner extra with the headline, in type four inches high: “FDR DIES.” I have spent many happy afternoons browsing microfilm of old Nashville papers at the library, and I own a couple of dozen bound volumes of local papers dating from 1884 to the 1930s.

I’m creating this site as a single access point for the many copies, scans and transcriptions of old Nashville news that I have put online in the course of historical reporting for and the Nashville Scene, as well as lots of other images derived from my garage-full of bound volumes, from microfilm I have copied while doing research and from other sources.

I make no promises about what this blog will accomplish, but all who share my love of local history are welcome to peruse it. I hope it will prove interesting and useful to fellow researchers.


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