After his conviction of Murder in the First Degree of Ova Davis, John Green had few legal options left to prevent him from a public hanging within Cookeville. One of these options was to present an appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Fortunately, the Judge of the Circuit Court granted this request at the end of his trial. His original appeal was scheduled for the First Monday in December. However, for reasons never explicitly stated, the appeal was delayed until the March Term of 1890.

While awaiting his appeal, John was transferred to the Nashville Jail by Sheriff George M. Moore and two deputies. Due to the hostile sentiment in Putnam County, officials feared for his safety. Reporters visited him in his cell and reported that he sat all day long in “listless meditation.” At times he reached up and pulled out wads of his hair, rendering him nearly bald. (FOOTNOTE)

As his appeal approached, John looked haggard and disheveled. He had ragged whiskers and long unkempt locks of hair stemming from the few hair patches left on his head. The deputies claimed that he was “a terror to all the negroes in the prison.” (FOOTNOTE) Deputy Jailer Newt Grimes took pity on him and trimmed his hair and beard in an effort to make him more presentable before the Tennessee Supreme Court.


On 1 March 1890, the Tennessee Supreme Court heard the Appeal of John W. Green. The State was represented by William T. Smith and Attorney General George W. Pickle. Attorneys for the Defense were George H. Morgan, Arthur St. Clair Colyar Jr., Walton Smith, Alvin W. Boyd, John S. Denton, and Jabez S. Watson. Colyar argued the case before the court. The sitting Justices on the court were Peter Turney, Walter C. Caldwell, David L. Snodgrass, Horace H. Lurton, and William D. Beard.

Colyar argued that although John did not plead insanity, he was most likely insane at the time of the shooting. He cited examples given in the various testimonies from witnesses who had observed his erratic behavior the morning of the shooting.

On the 6 March, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the Circuit Courts decision and affirmed the death sentence. His date with destiny was set for 3 May 1890. Judge Caldwell delivered the opinion by saying

"The Court and jury were of opinion that [John] was sane when he committed the act, was guilty of murder in the first degree, and should suffer the extreme penalty of the law for his crime, notwithstanding the defense of insanity and the effort to show that, at the time of the homicide, he was demented, and therefore beyond the domain of legal accountability. After a most solicitous and painstaking investigation of the record we were convinced of the correctness of the result reached in the Court below on the issue tendered, and we still having abiding confidence in the soundness of that conclusion." (FOOTNOTE)

Walton Smith addressed the court and pleaded with the Justices to call an expert to examine John to determine his current mental status. The court agreed and ordered Dr. John H. Callender, Superintendent of the Middle Tennessee Insane Asylum, to examine him. This request was sent by the County Health Officer Dr. J. W. McAlister. After careful examination, Dr. Callender pronounced him hopelessly insane and a candidate for executive clemency. He based his decision on the description of John’s demeanor by his jailers. They had described him as a helpless idiot who ever talked to anyone. They claimed that he sat on the floor for hours without ever changing his position, mumbling to himself, and absently twirling his fingers.  (FOOTNOTE) When asked any question, he snapped “I want some tobacco, that’s what’s a matter with me.” (FOOTNOTE)

After reading Dr. Callender’s report, the court sent the recommendation to Governor Robert L. Taylor to commute John’s sentence from death to imprisonment for life in the state insane asylum. The Tennessee Supreme Court effectively upheld the lower court’s decision that John was sane at the time of the shooting but due to his head wounds he was now considered insane.


On March 11, John’s defense team delivered the Tennessee Supreme Court’s recommendation along with a petition for pardon to Governor Taylor. The petition read:

Nashville, Tenn
March 11, 1890

Hon. Robert L. Taylor

Petitioners state that John W. Green, was convicted of Murder in the first degree for the killing of Ova Davis, in the Circuit Court of Putnam County at the June Term 1889, and sentenced to death by hanging, which sentence was affirmed by the Honorable Supreme Court of Tennessee on the 7th March 1890 and the said John W. Green was sentenced to be executed by the Sheriff of Putnam County on the 2nd day of May 1890 at the Jail at Cookeville.

Afterward said Hon’l Supreme Court, caused and examination to be made by Dr. John H. Calendar, Superintendent of the Central Tennessee Hospital for the Insane, of the said John W. Green, in order to ascertain his present mental condition upon his report and upon the appearance and actions of defendant while on trial before the Supreme Court, the Judges come unanimously to the conclusion that said John W. Green is now suffering from, and is the victim of chronic dementia, and that the death penalty ought therefore not to be inflicted.

Petitioners believe that defendant was not mentally responsible at the time of the killing and that the record in the case shows the fact or at least leaves the question much in doubt, and that if asked his opinion upon the matter in the light of the facts disclosed in the record, the imminent Physician upon whose opinion the Supreme Court acted, would unhesitatingly say that he was then insane to such an extent that he was not legally responsible for his acts; but at present, acting for the unfortunate begin who is unable to act for himself and who knows nothing of the fearful penalty hanging over him, though twice pronounced in his presence, we are content now to pray your Excellency for a commutation of the death sentence according to the opinion and order of the Supreme Court undered [?] and entered of record on the 8th day of March, subsequent to the entry of said sentence of death. Petitioners here with present coping duly certified of said supplemental opinion and final order and pray your Excellency’s favorable consideration of the same.
Geo. H. Morgan
Walton Smith
A. W. Boyd
John S. Denton
Jabez S. Watson
A. S. Colyer, Jr
By Geo. H. Morgan (FOOTNOTE)

That same day, Governor Taylor commuted John’s sentence and ordered him to be transferred to the East Tennessee Hospital for the Insane in Knoxville, Tennessee. Before his official transfer, John spent about ten months in the Tennessee State Prison. He entered the prison on 22 April 1890 and was officially transferred to Knoxville by Captain Joe Turney on 11 January 1891. (FOOTNOTE) He remained in that hospital for the rest of his life.


While it is unknown if any family members visited John during his hospitalization, he did receive one visitor from Putnam County — Ernest H. Boyd. Ernest was the son of Alvin W. Boyd, one of John’s defense attorneys. Ernest was only a small boy when the crime was committed. Later in life, he undoubtedly heard details about the shooting and the subsequent trials from his father.

Sometime in the late 1920s, Ernest had business to conduct in Knoxville. After concluding his business, he found that he had a little free time and decided to pay John a visit. He published details of his visit in the 28 May 1953 edition of the Putnam County Herald:

“Prior to the killing of Miss Ova Davis, a favorite diversion of John W. Green was playing the violin, for which he was very gifted, and after the killing and until his death his love of the violin never wanted. Throughout the many years of his confinement in the Hospital for the Insane, he often plays his violin for the hospital dances. He was not only a violin artist, he knows how to make a perfect violin, and he made many violins in his hospital room while he was a patient. His rule was to make at least two violins each year and he had a ready sale, at a fancy price, for each violin that he made.

“For many years, Dr. R. E. L. Smith, of Doyle, White County, was Superintendent of the East Tennessee Hospital for the Insane at Knoxville and he was exceedingly kind to Green and the latter was devoted to Dr. Smith, who allowed him unusual privileges, such as making his violins and at time to go unattended into Knoxville to have dental work done and to make small purchases.

“A few years before Green's death, the writer [Boyd] was in Knoxville on a business trip and, begin well acquainted with Dr. R. E. L. Smith, the Hospital Superintendent, he availed himself of a desired privilege of several years, to see and talk with John Green. With Dr. Smith, he went to Green's Hospital room. Dr. Smith introduced me to Green, telling him where I lived and that my father was one of his attorneys in his murder case and that I was a personal friend of his brother Esq. A. L. (Lon) Green and that from my father and Esq. Green I had learned much concerning him and that I was anxious to see him and talk with him. Green was neatly dressed and very quiet and reserved. He manifested no inclination to hear about his relatives in Putnam County nor Putnam County happenings. He would answer questions in the fewest monosyllables possible but he asked not questions and showed no inclination to inquire or comment about any subject, and he even feigned, as the writer believes, that he could not remember his devoted brother, Esq. A. L. Green, a splendid citizen, nor his attorneys who represented him in his murder case.

“From statements made by Green to different persons, it appears certain that he understood that his escape from the death penalty and commitment to the Hospital for the Insane was because of his "present insanity" and that the Supreme Court had decided that he was mentally accountable at the tie that he killed Miss Davis and that his impaired mental condition was due to his self-inflicted wounds in his head after he had committed the murder, and that if his subsequent mental impairment should be relieved that he would be subject to punishment for the murder of the young lady. The extent of his mental impairment is problematical, but it is certain that, after his commitment to the Hospital for the Insane, his condition was not near as bad as it appeared to be from the killing of Miss Davis until his commitment to the Hospital for the insane." (FOOTNOTE)


John lived at and remained a patient of the East Tennessee Hospital for the Insane from 11 January 1891 until his death on 25 May 1933. [FN]

As the years passed, John made the best of his situation and became a model inmate. He applied for and received permission to become a hospital trusty. This position granted him several privileges that included

  • The ability to go where ever he pleased on the hospital grounds.
  • Permission to occasionally travel to Knoxville unattended.
  • Permission keep his own money.

Fishing became one of his favorite past times. The hospital administrators allowed him to keep a small boat at the wharf located just below the hospital. He could paddle the boat on the Tennessee River whenever he pleased.

On 25 May 1933, John went down to the wharf and boarded his boat. That evening, he failed to return to the hospital. A search party went looking for him. His body was found three days later in the Tennessee River by some fishermen. He had taken some electrical wire and fastened rocks to his neck and waist. After paddling out into the river, he jumped into the water and drown. During the Coroner’s Inquest, Dr. R. E. L. Smith, hospital administrator, reported that John had told several other inmates at the hospital that he wanted to kill himself.  (FOOTNOTE)

At the time of his death, he was about 85 years old and had spent 42 years in the insane asylum. He is buried in an unmarked grave on the grounds near the where the old hospital was located. The Eastern State Hospital for the Insane permanently closed in 2012 and was later torn down. The cemetery is still there.

 The Murder of Ova Davis - 1887 - Epilogue