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The Last Hanging

"The Tomahawk," Mountain City, Johnson Co., TN, Wednesday, 29 Sep 1971 issue

Around Johnson
By Jim Griffitts

(EDITORíS NOTE: I am indebted to our efficient Circuit Court Clerk, Bob Grindstaff for his cooperation and interest in this story. The items of public record were filed in such a manner that the information needed was immediately available. I appreciate the discussions with several old timers in this case.)

Today, with changing ideas and thoughts, the question of capital punishment, whether it is right or wrong, is at the forefront. Efforts to abolish it altogether is pending, and awaiting decisions are many men on death row in our prisons for capital crimes.

The turn of the century and before revealed that a county sheriff carried out the Circuit Court sentences, other than long term prison sentences. The death penalty of hanging was widely used during that early period and it was the sheriff’s responsibility to see that this was carried out.

During the present time in Tennessee the method of capital punishment used is the electric chair and it is done at the state penitentiary only. It is out of the sheriff’s hands.

This is a story of the last official hanging in Johnson County.

The last man to be hung was Finley Preston for the murder of Lillie Shaw.

Finley Preston was a married man, and about 22 years old. He lived about three miles North of Mountain City on what is known as Saw Mill Creek.

Lillie Shaw and her husband Melvin lived in the same area. They had domestic difficulties and separated. He moved to the State of Ohio and she moved in temporarily with Finley Preston and his wife Rachel.

During her stay at the Prestons a man friend would drop by to visit her. This was in the fall of 1903. This had caused domestic problems in his home, also.

In October 1903, the word got out that Lillie Shaw had disappeared. This specifically was on Monday the 19 th of October 1903. The big question was, what could have happened to her.

Search parties were formed and they went out day after day to try to find some trace of her and according to testimony on Sunday following her disappearance on Monday, a comb was found in the woods about one-half mile from Finley Preston’s house.

The friend that had been visiting with Lillie Shaw during her stay at the Preston home, recognized the comb as that of Lillie Shaw. This caused the search to be intensified as at the place where the comb was found, there were also signs of a struggle, mens and womens tracks. Nothing more was found at the location, but on another ridge, the searchers found what appeared to be a grave. This was about one-fourth of a mile from where the comb was found, but nothing was there.

A day or two later, a rail was found on the side of a mountain which was broken about the middle and looked like something heavy had been carried on it; also at about the same time a pole was found.

On a Monday, two weeks after the disappearance of Lillie Shaw, on the opposite side of the mountain, someone(sic) and one-half mile from the home of Preston, at the head of a deep gorge and in a dry branch, a place where there had been a fire, was found.

Upon close examination of the burned place, bones were found, shoe eyelets, hairpins, a ring and some other things. The friend of Lillie Shaw identified the ring as one he had given Lillie Shaw. This friend of hers gathered up what they had found and tied what they had found in a handkerchief and took it to the county court clerk, L.B. Morley for evidence. When the material was examined, and the ring was examined it revealed that the initial of her friend had been scratched in the ring.

Now it was decided that Lillie Shaw had been murdered and burned.

When the news was spread around that Lillie Shad(sic) had been murdered and burned, terror spread around the entire countryside.

Sheriff C.R. Potter and his officers started an investigation and a search for the murderer of Lillie Shaw.

During questioning her friend said he last saw Lillie on Monday morning the 19th of October 1903 and that she was going over to a manís house to sell a gun and rocking chair to get money enough to go to her husband in Ohio. Under questioning, he admitted his wife had filed a bill for divorce against him for allegedly going with Lillie Shaw. He further established his whereabouts on the day Lillie Shaw disappeared. However, it was established that the manís house that Lillie Shaw was going, to sell the gun and rocking chair, was three miles from the Preston home. Finley Preston was in the same vicinity in the woods and as the investigation continued, evidence more and more pointed to Finley Preston.

The evidence found by the searchers and results of the investigation pointed to Finley Preston, yet the broken rail, and the pole also revealed he had an accomplice to help carry her a mile over the mountain, since Lillie Shaw weighed about 130 pounds. Evidence then pointed to his father, Elbert Preston as the accomplice. (Continued next week.)

"The Tomahawk," Mountain City, Johnson Co., TN, Wednesday, 6 Oct 1971 issue

Around Johnson
By Jim Griffitts

The last hanging

Since evidence pointed toward Finley Preston for the murder of Lillie Shaw, the sheriff, on November 2, 1903, went to Finley Prestonís home about 3 miles north of Mountain City and placed him under arrest for the murder. His father, Elbert, was arrested also as an accomplice to the charge of murder.

After Elbert Prestonís arrest there developed a big discussion as to exactly what part he played in the alleged murder.

During the January term of Circuit Court the grand jury ruled that Finley and Elbert Preston would stand trial for the alleged murder of Lillie Shaw.

On January 7, 1904 a sworn statement was made before J.A. Lowe, Circuit Court Clerk, in which Rachel Preston, wife of Finley Preston swore that Elbert Preston did not have any conversation whatever with the defendant Finley Preston about the alleged murder, until two days after the murder, and Rachel Preston informed Elbert as to what had happened. She further swore that Elbert Preston was not with Finley Preston on October 19, 1903.

The trial in the case began January 9, 1904.

The friend that had been visiting Lillie at the home of the Prestons testified that the last time he had seen Lillie was on the morning of October 9, 1903, when she was on her way over to a manís house to sell a fun and rocking chair to get money to go to her husband in Ohio. He further testified that he was a friend of Lillie Shaw and had visited her wuile(sic) she stayed in the Preston home. He further testified that his wife had filed a bill for divorce, due to his going with Lillie Shaw, and that was two weeks prior to the time of her disappearance.

A neighborÖalso living on Sawmill Creek, testified that he had not seen Lillie Shaw since her husband left, and could not say when the rumor got out that she was dead. He said he was in the first search party and found a comb in the woods, a half mile from the Preston home. He further testified that at the place he found the comb there was signs of a struggle, man and womanís tracks. He also testified he was in the search party, about two weeks after the disappearance of Lillie Shaw, on that day there had been a fire. On examination, he testified, the party found hair pins, shoe eyelets, bones, ring and wood that was left from burning. This was one mile from the place where the comb was found. He also was in the group that had found the pole that, possible(sic), she was carried to the place of burning.

L.B. Morley, county court clerk, testified that on November 2, 1903, the friend of Lillies brought him a handkerchief, tied up containing some bones, burned hairpins, shoe eyelets and a ring. The county court clerk said he took some charred bones and ashes out of the ring and that the friend name(sic) of Lillie Shaw was scratched in it.

Sheriff C.R. Potter, then testified that some few days after he had placed Preston under arrest he was at the jail when an attorney was visiting him, and he had told the attorney to tell me (the Sheriff) that he wanted to talk to me.

The attorney left, Finley Preston stated that he had filled(sic) Lillie Shaw by shooting her with a .38 calibre pistol. He further stated that the wife of the friend of Lillie Shaw offered him $100 and two acres of land to kill Lillie.

At the same time there was considerable excitement among the people and threats were made. Sheriff Potter took him to the Jonesboro, Tennessee jail for safety.

Deputy Sheriff J.H. Grayson, and jailer at the time, testified that he heard Prestonís statements to Sheriff Potter. Further he told Deputy Sheriff Grayson where, in a stump in the woods, a bonnet and other articles had been placed. He said he sent some men out to get the articles and they found them as Preston had said.

Dr. J.C. Butler, Mountain City, testified that he had examined the bones, that had been introduced in the case and in his opinion they were human bones. ĎI examined the charred bone taken out of the ring and I think it must have been a part of the first joint of the third finer,í Dr. Butler said.

Dr. T.R. Donnelly, a dentist testified that he had examined the burned teeth in the office of L.B. Morley, the county court clerk, and he said from his experience in examining teeth, he believed they were the teeth of human being and he stated he could not swear to this fact, and gave it only as his opinion.

It was Finley Prestonís opportunity to testify. He stated he was a married man, 22 years old and resided within three miles of Mountain City on what is knows(sic) as Sawmill Creek. He further stated he could not read, nor write, and had never read a chapter in the Bile(sic) in his life.

As he continued his testimony he stated that Melvin Shaw and his wife Lillie had separated and Shaw moved to Ohio and Lillie was making her home with he and his wife. He also named the friend of Lillieís that had been coming by to see her.

Then he told the story of Lillieís friendís wife approaching him and offering him two acres of land; then after ward sold the land and agreed to pay him $100 to kill Lillie Shaw.

ĎI agreed, but at the time of the agreement, I had no idea of carrying it out. His wife was older than me and everytime she would see me should urge me to do the killing. My mind was all torn up and I hardly knew what I was doing.’

Prestonís testimony went on as he referred to the morning of October 19, 1903, ĎI had been out looking for my oxen that was grazing in the woods and met Lilly in the path, after talking a few words with her, I shot her with a .38 calibre pistol and left her body lying by the path.

She stayed at my house the night before and I do not know why I killed her, and can give no reason for it, only I had been urged and hired to do so, my mind was in such a condition, I did not know what I was doing at the time. I had no ill will whatever against her, and had been furnishing her a home for over two weeks.’

on cross examination…
‘I never told her I was going to kill her, and I do not think she knew I was going to kill her, I shot her in the chest and left, but do not know whether she was dead or not.

She never spoke after she was shot. This was Monday morning, October 19, 1903. I next saw the body Tuesday night following. She was dead. This was at the place where I shot her. I never touched the body, nor covered it up. I went back another night, and the body had been moved.

I never saw the body anymore until I saw it on the other side of the mountain, something over a mile from where I had killed her. I never helped move the body across the mountain, nor never moved the body myself, neither did I burn it or help to burn it.’

The concluded the evidence introduced in the case.

The court then charged the jury, the jury retired and returned with a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree, as charged in the indictment.

The defendant moved the court for a new trial.

The court overruled the motion for a new trial and sentenced the defendant to be hanged March 2, 1904. The defendant prayed on appeal, which was granted to the next term of the Supreme Court to be held in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The Supreme Court after study of testimony, granted the new trial.

The new trial was held and again the defense moved to grant a new trail:
           (1) Because the verdict is not supported by evidence in the case.
           (2) Because the jury were not sworn to their Voir Dire, according to law, in that they were not sworn with uplifted hand, nor were they required to kiss the Bible as a seal of confirmation of their engagement.

The court overruled the motion for a new trial and sentenced the defendant to be hanged February 22, 1905.

However, an appeal to the Supreme Court at Knoxville, was made and granted for the September term of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower court and sentenced Finley Preston to be hanged on the 7th day of November 1905, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

During the even year 1904 an election was held and Will Greever was elected Sheriff. It became his responsibility to carry out the orders of the court.

During this tenure of court from beginning to end all the witneses were placed under $1,000 bond.

The judge of the Circuit Court was A.J. Tyler and the Attorney General was S.B. Keefauver.

To carry out the orders of the court there was a lot of activity before the November 7 hanging day. The scaffold was to be built and tested, and many other legal activities to be performed.

Naturally the case caused a lot of pubility(sic) and as the day approached, activity around the courthouse was at a fever pitch.

In looking back over the testimony by Finley Preston, that he held no ill will against her and didnít know what caused him to go ahead and shoot her, seemingly, he was trying to get the charge reduced from first degree murder, and that he had no malice of forethought, but legal minds say his discussion and agreement to murder Lillie Shaw was legally termed aforethought with malice and malice would be the taking of her life.

Preston also testified he did not move the body over the mountain to the gorge, nor did he burn it or help burn it. During the course of the trial one man testified that he heard Finley tell his father that if they had not been in such a hurry, ‘We could have burned everything and there would have been no trace of anything.’ But the prosecutor, judge and jury also the supreme court saw it to be murder in the first degree.

The day of the hanging, the 7th day of November 1905, arrived and there was activity all over town, but at the court house the crowds began to gather, the day was a typical November day, the air had a chill to it, the weather could not in any manner keep the crowd away.

Finley Preston was brought to the scaffold, a big crowd had gathered. He was led up on the scaffold and there was prepared. He did not struggle, nor offer any resistance.

He was dressed in a new blue serge suit, new socks, shoes, shirt and tie.

He was asked if he had anything to say. He looked out over the crowd and said, ‘Well folks, I’ll meet you over on the other side.’ The trap sprung and it was over.

A strange quiet settled over the crowd. One observer noted ‘To see a life suddenly snuffed out, is not a pretty picture.’

This observed related that he could still see that hanging today, and wished he had stayed at home.

The November chill seemed to penetrate more than usual. To see the sight was a sickening feeling of regret.

One hundred dollars, two deaths, and multiple heartaches and sorrows, and many years of memories and nightmares and even time has not healed it all.

(Transcribed from newspaper microfilm by Neva Jane STOUT BRYANT, 7 Oct 2006)

There were three pictures that accompanied the article. The pictures were rather dark anyway -- believe it's just the microfilm). The courtesy line below the photos read "Bobby Madron." Maybe if someone knows that family they can get the pictures for you to put online with the article.

One is a picture of the gallows; the 2nd is "preparing the prisoner" which shows the Sheriff tying a rope around a hooded, noosed Finley's middle (or else untying it) (shows only rear view of Sheriff and prisoner); and the last is a picture of the crowd.

I wonder if anyone on the list would know who her married male friend was and also the name of his wife? To my way of thinking, Mr. Garritt left out the two most important pieces of the puzzle when he omitted their names.

Link to Ballad of Lillie Shaw

Ballad of Lillie Shaw

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