Wednesday, the 27th of March 1878, dawned as a clear, cold day. Rural Cookeville, Tennessee was bursting at the seams with travelers -- both near and far -- who came to witness the hanging of two brothers for the murder of two brothers. The excitement in the city was palpable.
The week before, the following advertisement appeared in The Carthage Herald:
"Day & Allen will start an omnibusfrom this place to the hanging at Cookeville on Tuesday, the 26th, returning Thursday, the 28th. Fare for the round trip, . Unless there is a full load, . Twenty persons can be accommodated. Fair must be paid in advance or no go."
From Lebanon, The Special Reporter to The Daily Americanstated:
"The Brassell hanging on the 27th, is creating considerable excitement in our little city. A delegation from this place will attend."
And from The Cookeville Chronicle,the following was printed:
". . . [the] execution excited the mind of the public to a greater extent than any like occurrence known in the records of our state. In fact, it is without a parallel, two brothers hanged on the same gallows for the murder of two brothers."
Citizens of Cookeville awoke that morning to find the streets nearly impassable due to the immense crowd. Newspaper reports vary in their estimates of the size of the crowd with conservative reports from 8,000 to 10,000 people and more liberal reports with numbers as high as 20,000 people.
"Since the execution of the Braswell brothers, there has been much talk and conjecturing as to the number of people that witnessed it. Some of our citizens have, for their own satisfaction, put the measure to the space occupied by the crown on that occasion, and their very lowest estimate, after all due allowance is fifteen thousand people."
The hanging had garnered so much attention that even 29 years later, newspapers were still commenting on it.
"Twenty-nine years ago today, March 27, 1878, there was assemble what is said by our older citizens to have been the largest crowd ever seen in Cookeville. The occasion was the hanging of the Braswell brothers, the execution taking place on land now owed by Thos. Finley, in the south part of town. Campbell Bohannon was sheriff at that time, and as such had charge of the hanging."
The Morning of 27 March 1878
In hopes of obtaining a confession from the prisoners, the reporter from The Cookeville Chroniclevisited them in their jail cell early that morning. Rather than confessing their crimes, they instead chose to make the following comments.
- They had been well treated by both the officers and by the people in Cookeville and Nashville.
- They specifically mentioned that Sheriff Bohannon had especially treated them well.
- They had dictated a history of their lives that they hoped would be published at a later date.
- They wanted all young men of the county to read their history and to take warning from their current condition.
Later that morning, more reporters arrived to interview the brothers. Teek had very little to say except to stubbornly assert his innocence. Jo, who had up to this point denied his involvement, revealed he had confessed his guilt to Rev. McFerrin the evening before. Realizing that there was no longer any use in denying it, he summarized the events that occurred the night of the murder as follows:
- While he did not kill Russell Allison, he was indeed with the crowd that went there that night.
- The party consisted of four persons: himself, Dol Bates, Dobson Johnson and another party which he choose not to name. At this point, one of the reporters interrupted him and asked if this person was Teek. Teek promptly declared that was NOTwhat Jo was trying to say. Jo bowed his head and never answered that question.
- Since he was under the influence of liquor, Jo could only remember firing his gun one time. That shot was aimed at Mrs. Isbell.
- He firmly believed that Johnson was the one that killed Russell Allison. Bates had shot at a dog.
- Those people who tried to implicate Jim Brassell were lying. He had nothing to do with the murders.
- After leaving the house, the men stopped a few hundred yards from the house to discuss what they had done. Bates and the other party proposed going back and killing all the witnesses, but Johnson refused to go.
- They did not go to Isbell's that night to murder but only to rob. They had fully expected to get money from Mrs. Isbell.
- When Bates arrived at the Nashville Jail, he was placed in the cell with Jo. Bates begged him not to tell on him. Eventually, Bates confessed that he had allowed himself to be talked into going that night and could not blame anyone but himself for his actions.
While the reporters were interviewing the prisoners, Revs. John P. McFerrin, T. Sumner McFerrin, S. W. Bransford, J. H. Nichols and T. J. Clouse arrived to pray with the men.
One of the Reverends asked Teek how he felt spiritually. He replied that he was alright and had no fears whatsoever about the hereafter.
The ministers then asked the reporters to leave so that they could conduct private services with the brothers. As they were leaving, Jo again confessed that he did not shoot but one time and that it was at Mrs. Isbell as she lay in the bed. He was confident that it was Dobson Johnson who killed Russell Allison. Teek piped up and once again proclaimed his innocent.
TRIP TO THE GALLOWS
A few minutes before 11am, about 200 armed guards lined up along the street from the jail to the public square. They created an impenetrable human barrier through which the prisoners and officials would walk.
Precisely, at 11am, the prisoners, who were escorted from the jail by officials, walked to the square where a wagon, carrying their coffins, was waiting to transport them to the gallows. They climbed into the back of the wagon and sat down on their coffins. In front of the wagon, armed guards stood waiting to clear a path through the hoards of people through which the wagon would travel. Behind the wagon, members of the press gathered. Then Amanda Brassell and one of her brothersfollowed on horseback.
Once the word was given, the armed guards circled the wagon. This solemn procession slowly made its way from the Public Square to an open field located one half mile southwest of town. The Gallows, which had been constructed in a hollow in that open field, was visible to all who came to witness the execution.
After arriving at the scaffold, the guard cleared an opening of 20-30 feet in diameter around the gallows for the family, the reporters, the ministers, and the officers. While officials were readying the scaffold and ropes for the hanging, Amanda dismounted her horse and embraced her brothers. She was crying terribly hard -- as if this was more than her soul could bear. Her brothers gently asked her to leave and to not witness their execution. She, however, did not leave but remained near the scaffold throughout the entire proceedings.
Once preparations were complete, officials ordered Jo and Teek to step up on the scaffold. They very calmly complied. Rev. John P. McFerrin and his brother Rev. T. Sumner McFerrin joined them. The latter opened the religious ceremony by reading Romans Chapter 3. Rev. John McFerrin offered a fervent prayer followed by a short message. He asked what they were there for today? He answered by saying that they were there to witness the verification of the divine law which states "The wages of sin is death." He continued by thanking God for the forgiveness of sin. He stated that he could preach a gospel that would save everybody. A man need not be damned because he is a murderer, drunkard or adulterer. Though our sins are as scarlet, there is an atonement which can make them as white as snow.
Citing the brothers as examples, he warned all the young men present: that if they pursued liquor and bad company, they, too, might find themselves in a predicament similar to that of the Brassells. He announced that the prisoners wished to address the crowd with a message - "a message that would sink deep into the hearts of those who heard them, that they might be deterred from the path of sin."
He concluded his message by saying that he did not wish to take up too much time and then asked Sheriff Bohannon what time were the men to die? Sheriff Bohannon replied that they had asked to be executed at 1pm. The present time was 12:08pm.
Rev. Sumner McFerrin made a few additional remarks. Turning to the men, he concluded by saying that he hoped that they had made their peace with God. He bade them adieu.
Rev. John H. Nichols, of Carthage, addressed the crowd and said "that occasion like this was not brought about by the proceeding of a day, but that little sins were at the foundation, the beginning of those crimes which our law punishes with death." His remarks were mainly addressed to parents of young children, pleading with them to bring them up in the way that they should go. He concluded by bidding the prisoners adieuand commending them to the all prevailing mercy of God.
The three ministers sang an appropriate hymn which was followed with a prayer by Rev. Sumner McFerrin. The ministers then conferred privately with the prisoners, asking if they felt secure. They replied yes. Teek again attempted to assert his innocence.
Officials removed their handcuffs and tied their hands behind their backs with rope. The prisoners rose to their feet, and Jo addressed the crowd:
"Gentleman and Ladies: I will speak a few words to you, if you will give me your attention. I am here to-day, and what is it for? Murder. What were the causes of it? They were whiskey, hard seeking after money, and association with drunken, reckless boys -- and there are hundreds here, to-day, I will give you some advice. Boys, let whisky alone. Above all things have nothing to do with whiskey. Take warning by this. It brought me here in the fix, and you are all liable to be put in this condition by following the same course. Young men, take warning and be good to one another. Be good to one another. Go to meeting and keep the Sabbath holy. I bid you all farewell and want you to meet me in Heaven."
Teek then addressed the crowd: "This is a solemn hour. It is told that I must die. I am ready, waiting, prepared and willing to die."
William J. Isbell, the intended victim, approached the scaffold and asked Jo "Were you not at my house the night the murder was committed?"
Jo responded with "Yes, I was there, and I am guilty." Teek, refusing to confess, proclaimed his innocence. He said he knew nothing about it and cried that his life had been sworn away.
Isbell, again, attempted to get Teek to confess by telling him that there was no hope for him now and imploring him to tell about his involvement. Teek remained resolute.
Deputy Sheriff Joe Bockman read the opinion of the Supreme Court and the death sentence imposed on the Brassell brothers.
Teek arose and cried: "Young men, all of you in my hearing, never touch a drop of whiskey, farewell! I have to die now."
Time was rapidly approaching 1pm - the hour that the Brassells had requested to be executed. Sheriff Bohannon, aided by Sheriff Monroe Flowers Doss of DeKalb County, began preparing the men to meet their destiny. They tied their ankles and placed a white hood over each of their heads. Sheriff Bohannon placed the noose around Teek's neck, and Deputy Sheriff Bockman placed the noose around Jo's neck. The men embraced each other as much as possible in their current circumstances.
About 1:10pm, as the Sheriff was about to let the door drop, the prisoners requested to have their ropes and caps removed and asked if more time would be allowed to them. Sheriff Bohannon granted their request by telling them that he would give them the full time allotted by law, if they wanted it.
Jo surveyed the crowd and said "Boys let this be a warning to you."
John Baker, a cousin of the Brassell brothers, had a brief conversation with them on the scaffold. Jo informed him that he was guilty, but Teek was adamant that he was not guilty.
Isbell, once again, approached the scaffold and implored Teek to tell the whole truth. Teek replied with "I was just getting ready to tell the truth. Hear, you all, I die an innocent man and for what others did."
As the Sheriff began replacing the cap over Jo's head, Isbell turned to Jo and demanded "Was Teek there that night?" Jo simply whispered "Don't press me on that."
Teek spoke again "To all in hearing I have this to say, I am an innocent man. I have got to die for what someone else has done. Understand me; you have got the truth!"
Isbell persisted in his efforts to get Jo to implicate Teek. With cries of disapproval, several in the crowd called out "Don't push him." Isbell turned and left the scaffold.
Teek told Sheriff Bohannon "Let us know when the time is out, and when you go to cut the rope."
Sheriff Bohannon replied: "You have only five minutes." Teek tested the rope by drawing himself down. Both men stooped to see how far they would fall. They told Sheriff Bohannon that they wanted to be sure that they broke their necks.
Sheriff Bohannon ticked off each minute as it passed. At the one minute mark, Jo told the Sheriff: "Farewell, Mr. Bohannon." The Sheriff replied: "Goodbye Jo."
Teek: "Lord have mercy on those who swore my life away."
Jo: "Lord Jesus, be with me. Lord have mercy on my soul. I am ready to die."
At precisely 1:30pm, Sheriff Bohannon said "Look out boys!" With that statement, he cut the rope that supported the two trap doors. The two doors fell open ushering Jo and Teek into eternity - prepared or unprepared.
Within one and half minutes, the bodies ceased twitching - there were no signs of life except a feeble pulse. Drs. Hugh Hill Lansden and Abraham Hassell King pronounced Jo dead six minutes after and Teek dead eleven minutes after.
Their bodies were placed in the coffins and delivered to Amanda Brassell and her brother. They escorted the bodies to the home of their parents. Jo and Teek were buried in the same grave underneath a tree on the Brassell property near the home place. There final resting place was the place requested by them before their execution.
Throughout the entire process, perfect order was maintained. Rumors were rampant that a contingent of armed men would jump out at any minute and rescue the men. However, no such attempt was ever materialized.
In his final hours at the Cookeville Jail, Jo wrote his family the following letter which was delivered after his death:
Cookeville Jail, March 26, 1878
My dea [sic] father, mother, sisters and brother: I wish, as my last testimony, to say to you all that what you did for me in this awful case, you did thinking I was innocent. I have often told you so, and thought I would rather lose my soul than acknowledge it; but my soul is precious, and I cannot go hence with a falsehood an [sic] my lips. I do not want you all to think hard of me for not telling it to you before now. I want to meet my God in peace and can no longer assert my innocence. I expect to go to Heaven. My trust is in Jesus, my Saviour. I hope you all will meet me there. I want you to attend all church, to keep the Sabbath Day holy, and lead new lives from this day. Be friendly with those who swore falsely against us. Forgive, that you may be forgiven. I have no malice or ill will towards any one on earth. Meet me in Heaven, for am doing all I can to go there.
By 2pm, the hanging was over, and the crowds began to dissipate. Cookeville, slowly, returned to normal.
Even though thousands of people witnessed the execution, many people from Putnam and Smith counties firmly believed that Teek eluded the clutches of the grave by being successfully resuscitated by his family and that he lived out the remainder of his life roaming the mountains.
The prevailing theory was that the family refused to believe that a brief struggle in the air would end it all but rather entertained hopes that life could be restored to their bodies. With that in mind, once the bodies were cut down and delivered to Amanda and her brother, they were rushed to the Brassell farm, arriving no more than 30 minutes after the hanging. Upon examination of the bodies, the family found that the noose had been successfully loosened from Teek's neck; but through some strange oversight, they failed to unfasten the noose from Jo's neck. For Jo, life was over. They quickly laid Teek's body on the floor and attempted to breathe air into his mouth. They sprinkled hartshornand camphor in his nostrils. For hours, Teek lingered between life and death as his family worked on his body. Eventually, life finally triumphed over death.
"...now Teek roams the country round, a free man -- one who has paid the extreme penalty of law, and yet lives, a monument to its sometimes lack of efficiency. They say that no one has ever seen Teek but the favored few who swore eternal secrecy, but who, it seems, have 'leaked' in some manner. Teek inhabits the 'desert wild,' so to speak, living in the mountain fastnesses, and never going into the populous districts where he would likely be known."