THE JAIL FIRE

While waiting for his trial to begin, John W. Green was incarcerated at the Cookeville Jail. He shared a cell on the upper floor with William Medley and William Manor. Wade Harpole, who lived at the jail, was in charge of the prisoners.

One day (it is unknown exactly when), the upper story of the jail caught fire. The prisoners frantically rattled their cell doors begging to be freed. Harpole, George Whitaker, Dow Terry, Crock Hill and Robert B. Capshaw raced to help them. When Harpole opened the jail door, the smoke billowed out. The newly freed prisoners raced to the lower floor and out the door.

John, however, was not among them. He sat calmly in his cell staring blankly at the wall as the smoke filtered into his cell. He made no effort to get away from the fire. Harpole dispatched Whitaker and Hill to get him and to bring him to safety.  While Harpole would later testify that Whitaker and Hill carried John down the stairs, Terry and Capshaw would testify that they saw John come down the stairs of his own accord.

THE FIRST TRIAL

The State prosecuted John twice for the murder of Ova Davis. Due to the notoriety of his heinous crime, each trial was plagued with challenges.

The first attempt at trial occurred on 27 February 1888. Since John was unable to participate in his own defense due to recent surgery on his head, this trial was continued until the May Term of court.

The second attempt began Wednesday, 16 May 1888, at the Circuit Court in the Court House in Cookeville. Relatively few details are known about the first trial as the transcripts burned in the Court House fire in 1899. What little is known is given below.

Judge John A. Fite presided over the trial. The Prosecuting Attorneys were Attorney General Alfred Algood, Honorable Henry C. Snodgrass, William T. Smith  Esq. and Leonidas D'Entrecasteaux Smith. The Defense Attorneys were Captain Walton Smith, Honorable George H. Morgan, Alvin W. Boyd Esq., and Jabez G. Watson, Esq.  Deputy Sheriff Ambrose Perry Warren took care of the jury.

Seating a jury proved difficult due to the fact that many had already formed strong opinions about the murder. By Thursday afternoon the following men were seated on the jury:

  • G. F. Bilbrey
  • Myatt Ashburn
  • Henry WisnerThomas Alcorn
  • A. L. Walker
  • Andrew Gore
  • John Neal
  • Eli Neal
  • Samuel W. Johnson
  • Newton Pearson
  • William Shuberg
  • Jacob C. Hyder

The jury heard the evidence Thursday through Sunday. By late Sunday afternoon, the jury retired to deliberate. The next day, they returned with a verdict of Guilty of Murder in the First Degree. After the usual round of defense motions, the judge set aside the verdict. A new trial was granted because authorities discovered that one of the jurors openly expressed the opinion that John was guilty and ought to be hung. Sources never reviewed which juror held this view.

Throughout this trial, John was unable or unwilling to aid in his defense. He showed no interest on the activities that were going on around him. As he sat at the defense table, he constantly begged to go home so that he could sleep. When he was called to testify, he refused to answer any questions asked or to participate in the trial in any manner.

During the course of this trial, newspapers reported that the prosecution presented John’s suicide note as evidence. At the end of the trial, William G. Davis took possession of the letter.

THE SECOND TRIAL

The first attempt of the second trial ended in a continuance to the next term. This attempt was held 12 September 1888 with the same judge and trial lawyers. On 20 September, one of John’s brothers (it was never explicitly stated which one) presented the court with an affidavit that John was not fit to stand trial. (FOOTNOTE) The court then continued the case until the next term.

On 21 January 1889, the second attempt at trial began. Newspapers reported that over 200 men had been examined to serve on the jury. Owing to the notoriety of the murder and the strong opinions formed by the potential jury pool, only two men were seated on the jury before the jurors were dismissed and the case continued to the next term of court. The two jurors chosen were W. B. Gillem and C. J. Martin.

Finally on 13 May 1889, the case State vs John W. Green came to be heard. Fortunately this time, the court was successful in seating a jury of twelve men:

  • Joseph Stephens
  • J. N. Emory
  • Daniel Graham
  • Grant Graham
  • John Palmer
  • Zach Coleman
  • J. M. Welch
  • S. P. Evans
  • Charles Roberson
  • W. R. Neal
  • W. C. Heady
  • James McCloud

Deputy Sheriff Joseph C. Kerr was in charge of the jury.

The Prosecution began its case by calling the following witnesses.

  • William G. Davis testified that he was Ova’s father. He detailed the events on the day of the murder.
  • Joel C. Gabbert testified that he was the Jailor for Putnam County when John was brought to the jail. He described several conversations with John including John’s version of events on the day of the murder and his description of the love pact between himself and Ova. He also described the surgery the doctors performed on John.
  • John C. York described finding the couple on the porch and finding the suicide letter near the bodies.
  • William G. Davis was recalled to the stand. He testified that Mr. Martin had given him a pistol with blood on it, and he gave it to Sheriff Charles Bradford.
  • George M. Moore testified that he was currently the County Sheriff. Charles Bradford was his predecessor. Bradford delivered the murder weapon to him. The weapon was brought before him, and he testified that he believed it to be in the same condition as when he received it.
  • Albert Austin testified that he was William G. Davis’ son-in-law. He described the events on the day that John joined him and Ova’s brothers at the pond. He detailed the conversation that he had with John at the church a week before the murder. He also testified to finding the couple on the porch.
  • Jim Parks testified that he was Ova’s fiancee and described talking to John outside the jail.
  • James M. Stover testified that he was married to John’s sister. He described John’s visit to his house the morning of the murder.
  • James Cameron detailed the conversations at the spring while John’s family was ministering to his wounds.
  • George Parks testified that he was one of the guards that stayed at John’s house just after the shooting. He described John’s account of how he stalked Ova during the week prior to the shooting and how he shot her on the porch.
  • Mat Martin testified that he and John were cousins. The night before the shooting, John had stopped by his house to examine a sick colt. The morning of the shooting John stopped by to inquire about the colt before heading to the Davis home. He described how John often complained with his head and hearing water sloshing around inside. He stated that John also seemed depressed on many occasions.
  • Jim Goff testified that he knew John for a long time. In the winter or spring before the murder, he and John were on a raft together near Nashville. John sent a letter to Mrs. Davis by Mrs. Stover. When Mrs. Davis received the letter, John expected that “it would play Hell.” (FOOTNOTE) He heard John complain often about his head.
  • Sallie Davis testified that she was 16 years old and was home the morning that her sister was killed. She described the events of the morning of the murder. She also stated that Jim Parks and Tom Cameron visited Ova quite often.
  • Dr. Samuel B. Fowler testified that he examined John at the jail and removed a ball from his head. He testified as an expert witness on the Objective symptoms and Subjective symptoms he observed in John’s behavior. Dr. Fowler stated that he did not believe that John was insane.
  • Reverend William Dinges testified that he prayed and sang with John while he was incarcerated.
  • George Cole testified that he had known John since the day he was born. He hauled John and some other boys to Dickson County in his wagon. He stayed about two months, and John stayed about five months working.
  • James A. P. Fancher testified that he had known John since he was a little boy. He talked of an incident that occurred some time before the shooting. He needed some blasting done at his mill. He knew that Green boys had experience dynamite, because they worked with it on Government work on the river. He wrote a letter to John while he was in Dickson County and asked him and his brothers to come work for him. He paid them $1.50 to work in the water and $1.25 to work in the dry. John worked for him about two months and lived with the Fanchers. According to their agreement, Fancher did not have to pay them until they completed a substantial portion of the work. However, John went to Fancher and asked for some money now, since he knew that Fancher was quite wealthy. John explained that he had recently purchased a colt from John Anderson for $45 and was to pay $40 down. Fancher paid him $25. He handed John a $50 bill, of which $20 belonged to Anderson. John was instructed to take the money to Anderson and explain. Sometime later, John asked Fancher if he remembered their conversation about the money. Fancher asked why he was asking. John said that there had been some misunderstanding. Fancher explained the situation to him again. John asked if he would go to Anderson’s store and explain it to him. John knew that he had paid Anderson all of the money. Fancher went to Anderson’s store (which was only a short distance down the road). Anderson said that John had failed to pay him $10 of the money. He also testified that he saw John about midmorning the Friday before the shooting, but he never noticed anything peculiar about him.
    Ned Bozier testified that he was acquainted with John and that he rafted with him on the river in the spring before the shooting. He testified to the conversation he had with John about him purchasing his pistol in Dickson County.
  • Doc Bozarth testified that he had known John for about 20 years and worked with him on the river doing Government work. He testified that about two weeks before the murder, John approached Mr. Davis about working on the river again. Both men were hoping to be hired.
  • John H. Medley (ADDITIONAL INFO) testified that he and John were second cousins and that he had known him since he was a little boy. About ten days before the murder; John and his brother, Jim, told Medley they wanted to see Mr. Davis about getting a job on the Government works. Medley told them that he had gone to Holms Creek to get some boat gunnels, and he would be back the next morning. Medley invited them to stay the night and see Davis in the morning. John and Jim picked up hoes and helped Medley to hoe his corn. Around dusk, Medley and Jim went to see Medley’s son who lived on the adjoining farm. John stayed behind. The Green brothers spent the night with the Medleys. The next day, Medley, John, Jim, and Doc Bozarth went to see Davis. Medley testified that John was of sound mind during his stay at his house.
  • Ammond Martin testified that he and John’s father were half brothers and that he had known John all his life. He saw him the night before when John came by and invited him to go to a “Bee robbing.” When Martin inquired where it was being held, he replied “Down at Uncle K Elrods.” Martin testified that he believed that John was in good health at this time.
  • Dr. James F. Dyer testified that he served as the County Jail Physician. He described the location of the balls in John’s head and the surgery performed to remove the balls. He also relayed the conversations that he had with John when he described how he killed Ova.
  • Dr. Mat Durham testified that he was the doctor that tended to John when he was sick with typho malariad fever in 1881-1882.
  • John Braswell testified that he was the Assistant Jailer in Cookeville. He described the conversations John had with his lawyers and the doctors about removing the balls from his head. He believed that John was of sound mind and knew right from wrong.
  • Robert B. Capshaw testified that he was at the jail when it caught fire. He noticed that John came down the steps rapidly but did not run.
  • Dow Terry testified he was at the jail when it caught fire. He saw John coming down the steps of his own accord.
  • George H. Morgan testified that John’s brothers employed him to assist in his defense. When Captain Smith introduced him to John, Morgan asked him a series of questions to ascertain his mental capacity. To the question as to who killed Ova, John responded “a nigger killed her.” To the question as to John’s understanding of why he was on trial, John responded that “a nigger tried to kill me and I shot him.” For all other questions asked, John gave no intelligent answers. Morgan concluded that John did not understand the gravity of his circumstances. (FOOTNOTE)

At this point the Prosecution rested. The Defense began its rebuttal by calling the following witnesses.

  • Alonzo L. “Lon” Green testified that he was John’s younger brother and that he was 28 years old. He described the events that took place at breakfast the morning of the shooting. He stated that he arrived after the shooting and found John with four bullet holes in his head. He described the conversations at the spring. He was present at Elizabeth’s house when John discussed the shooting in front of George Parks. John’s statements were rambling and disconnected. One minute John would be talking about shooting Ova, and the next he would be talking about being chased by men, snakes and negroes. Lon did not believe that John knew right from wrong. He and his family feared that one day John might kill himself.
  • Elias Green testified that he was John’s older brother and that he lived with the Davises at the time of the shooting. He testified about the fever that he and John suffered years earlier. He talked about John’s complaints with his head and how he heard water sloshing around all the time. He heard his mother cry on multiple occasions tat "he's crazy or going crazy." He and his family felt that one day John would end it all.
  • Elizabeth Vinson testified that she was John’s mother. She described the events that transpired at the Davis house after her arrival. She believed that John was insane and did not know right from wrong on that morning. She also testified that Jesse Barr came by that morning to warn John that he needed to work on the road.
  • Harrison A. Green testified that he was a brother to John. He remembered John’s behavior during his illness with the fever and his strange behavior after his illness subsided. He cited several incidents of odd behavior.
    • John had informed Catherine Myatt (who was now Catherine Lee) that they were married. He demanded to know why she had left him.
    • One afternoon, John and his brother Billy were plowing a field. Without reason, John suddenly veered off path and randomly started plowing another field.
    • Harrison had gone with John to Dickson County to find work chopping wood and working on the river. Often times, John would just wander off by himself. He caught him several times fervently pouring water over his head. John told him that if he did not get any relief that it would kill him.

      Harrison also testified that the last time he had seen Ova, she had invited him to attend church with her that Sunday (the Sunday after she was killed).
  • Newton Dunn testified that he and Thomas Cole were working at Cole’s Crock Kiln when John came came by about a week before the shooting. When he came in, he carried a gun which he set on the counter. He then climbed up on a ladder and hung his head for 15-20 minutes without saying a word. When Newton asked him if he had any tobacco, John replied that he did not. Then he claimed that he had been out hunting cows all day. He came down the ladder and retrieved his gun. He paused a few minutes, returned the gun to its place, and re-climbed the ladder. He hung his head for another 15-20 before coming down the ladder, grabbing his gun and leaving.
  • Thomas Cole testified that he owned Cole’s Crock Kiln. He confirmed Dunn’s testimony.
  • John Morgan Elrod testified that he and John were cousins. He spoke about John’s complaints with his head and with his ill health. On cross examination, he stated that he and William G. Davis were not on speaking terms. Davis had indicted Elrod for burning his woods. Elrod bitterly complained that he was not the guilty party.
  • Chance C. Farley testified that he was a Deputy Sheriff in Putnam County. He had known John since he was a little boy. He refuted George Parks testimony claiming that John only spoke nonsense. He confirmed the accounts where John complained of water sloshing around in his head. In the aftermath of the shooting, Farley stated that he and Davis were not on good terms, but he never expressed the reason for these feelings.
  • Mary Elrod testified that she was John’s aunt and had known him for 20 years. She confirmed his bout with the fever. She also confirmed his strange behavior.
  • K. Elrod testified that he was John’s uncle and that he had known John all his life. He confirmed the story about John plowing the wrong field and hearing water sloshing in his head.
  • William Myatt, Catherine Lee, Rachel Lefevers, Pleas Farley, and Jesse Farley testified that they knew John and testified that they had witnessed his odd behavior.
  • Jesse Barr testified that he was the Overseer of the road. When he came by to tell John that he had to work on the road, John explained that his head was in “such a fix” that he was unable to do so.
  • J. C. Brown testified that he worked with John while they were in Dickson County. On one occasion, he saw John aim his pistol at his head and fire. Other times, he would just shoot at trees.
  • Dr. Samuel B. Fowler was recalled to the stand. Defense objections were overruled. He testified about the operation to remove the balls from John’s head. He testified to John’s Objective and Subjected symptoms. He concluded that his Objective symptoms suggested he was insane while his Subjected symptoms suggested he was sane.
  • Walton Smith testified that he was one of John’s attorneys and that he was present at the jail when the doctors operated on him.
  • Judge John A. Fite testified that he was the Judge at John’s first trial. He talked about Dr. Fowler’s testimony.
  • Alvin W. Boyd and Jabez Watson testified that they were part of John’s Defense team. When they had John examined by Dr. Fowler in his office, Fowler stated that John was bordering on idiocy.
  • Wade Harpole testified that he and the Sheriff were cousins and that he was staying at the jail when it caught fire. He testified to the events of the fire. (FOOTNOTE)

On 25 May 1889, the Defense rested. The Judge gave the jury a lengthy set of instructions, including describing the differences between First Degree and Second Degree Murder and Voluntary and Involuntary Manslaughter. He talked about how the Defense introduced the claim of insanity. He then instructed the jury that they must consider John’s mental condition at the time that he committed the murder. They cannot judge on what they saw before them now. With that, the jury was dismissed to deliberate.

Later that day, both sides were notified that the verdict was in. John W. Green was escorted to Court in the custody of Sheriff Kerr. The jury read the verdict as Guilty of the Murder in the First Degree of the murder of Ova Davis. The Judge announced

“The Jury having found you guilty of the murder of Ova Davis in the First Degree. It is therefore the Judgment of this court that you for such your offense be hanged by the neck until you are dead in the County of Putnam, and that the Sheriff of Putnam County on Friday the 19 July 1889 in the Jail of Putnam County or an enclosure in the jail yard within the hours prescribed by law execute this sentence & that you pay the costs of this prosecution.” (FOOTNOTE)

As the verdict was read, John did not change expression or exhibit any outward signs that he understood what was happening, but rather he stared vacantly at the floor.

The defense requested an appeal before the next term of the Tennessee Supreme Court. To support their request, they presented affidavits from George H. Morgan, Jabez Watson and the Green families.

The Green Family’s affidavits talked about how they felt that John did not understand what was happening to him at the trial. They believed him to be a confirmed lunatic, and they begged for mercy from the court.

The affidavits from the Attorneys Morgan and Watson detailed a little test that they performed on John while they were awaiting the jury’s verdict.

THE TEST

While waiting for the jury to return its verdict, John’s lawyers conspired with the Sheriff to leave John alone in a private room. When the lawyers entered the room, they explained to him that they his lawyers and that he had already been convicted of murder. Since they were his lawyers, nothing that he might say or do could ever be used against him. The lawyers explained that they had tried every means possible to get him acquitted. However, he was going to hang. One of them opened the back door and pointed to a nearby plum thicket in the woods. He claimed that the best thing that John could do for himself was to run away and hide. He continued telling John that they were not his keepers and that there was little they could do if he chose to escape.

John just sat at the table and continued to stare vacantly at the floor. He gave no indication that he either heard or understood what they were saying.

Again, they implored him to make his getaway; saying that if he did not, he would definitely be hung.

John just sat there and began to mutter incoherently to himself.

One of the lawyers told him that he would rather see him get away than to hang in the middle of town like the Brassells had several years earlier. He would surely hang — if he did not get away.

John gazed out the door with clear indifference. When he did choose to speak, he moaned “Take me home to my bed where I can sleep” and “I want to go home.”

Another lawyer told him that it had been proved in court that John would rather die at his own hand than to be hung by officials. The Sheriff, who was in on the ruse, entered the room and announced that it would be better if they just cut his throat right then and there.

Still, John calmly sat muttering about going home while simply gazing out the door.

The lawyers and the Sheriff then discussed among themselves in great detail how they would go about cutting John’s throat. Then they put on a great display of performing the act.

Still, no response.

The Sheriff produced a knife and pretended to draw it across his neck. When that failed to elicit any response, he then made attempts to plunge the knife in John’s throat.

All of these displays of violence failed to elicit a response. John showed no change in color, countenance or expression in any way. He continued to mumble “I want to go home. Take me home so I can go to sleep. I want to lay down in my bed. Let me go to sleep!”

In one final attempt to evoke some sort of emotional response, one of his lawyers handed him a good pocket knife. He took it and played with it as if it were a toy. As he played with the knife, he manifested a silly childish grin — much like a child regarding a pretty new plaything.

When his lawyers were satisfied John was not faking, they left him in care of the Sheriff. Each drafted an affidavit detailing their attempts to get John to escape or to kill himself. George H. Morgan concluded by saying “that he was satisfied that from all these circumstances that the defendant is so demented that he knows nothing about what is transpiring around him.” (FOOTNOTE) Jabez Watson supported Morgan’s statement with his interpretation of these events.

The Defense made a motion for an appeal in the next term of the Supreme Court which would meet in Nashville on the first Monday in December. The appeal was granted, and the case State vs John W. Green would be heard in the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The Murder of Ova Davis - 1887 - Part IV