At Asheville [May 1835]
In the following excerpt, Allen Turner Davidson1 describes the events surrounding his trip as a sixteen-year-old to see the hanging in Asheville of James Sneed and James Henry. [footnotes and paragraph breaks added.]
"But when we got on the top of the hill west of the French Broad river, and looked down and saw the splendid river and the long narrow bridge, then known as Smith's bridge,2 I was carried away completely. It was the largest river and the longest bridge I had seen. The bridge was kept by William Irwin3, I think. He lived at the same old house which stood there till recently on the west side of the river. We came straight up the hill to the top, where Melke's4 house stands, and where the old log Baptist church used to stand.
"I then began to see signs of 'town' by that time, and my eyes began to shine. I remember distinctly to have seen the fields about the present station of the railroad. Branan Patton5 lived there then. Aunt Mary Smith6, Dan'l's wife7, lived above on the river, whose house we could not see from that point, but we could see the curling smoke of the evening meal ascending from the habitation. These were pointed out to me by Paxton Cumming8, who had ridden this circuit and knew all the points of interest round about.
"We came on Haywood 'Road,' not 'Street,' and entered Main street passing by the Villa, just north of Patton avenue. The Haywood road came into Main street opposite the front office of the old Buck Hotel, about where West College street not enters it. There was a large sign in front of the hotel of a big buck with a heavy head of horns on it. I remember it distinctly9.
"Here our company parted. All but Mr. Cumming and myself, who put up at the 'Buck,' went down to South Main street to Stanifer Rhodes'10, whose house stood near where Church street now enters South Main. He had married Peter Shook's11 wife's sister, well known as Celia Rhodes, a remarkable and strong woman.12
"Not many people now living know what the old stable bell was like. One of them was attached to the sign post of the Buck, and I remember it well. It was the first I had seen of its class. It was an ordinary bell, but it was attached to one end of a curved steel strip, which when shaken would cause the bell to ring and vibrate for some time after the shake had been given to the strip. I had not been long in the hotel before I was attracted by the ringing of this bell, and the old darky who answered it, coming out to take the horses of the travelers who were constantly arriving to witness the show of the morrow. That darky's name was, I think, Moses, and he was a strong, broad-backed negro who was apparently well fitted for the duties of hostler. It seemed to me that the people would never stop coming, and where they were stored away in that old hotel I cannot now conceive. But no one was turned away.
The Hanging Rehearsed
"The store of James M. Smith13 was just opposite the old Buck, near where Frank O'Donnell's now stands. Its side was on North Main street and its front on Haywood road, now West College street. It was known as the 'Freeze Out' from the fact that 'Old Jimmie' was afraid to allow any fire in the store where the clerks had to sleep at night. I went through that store with eyes as big as saucers. Where in the world did all the money come from to buy all those goods? If only I could get behind the counter and run my hands into the sugar barrels and get my stomach full of the sweet stuff just once in my life, I thought I should be happy ever afterwards.
"Then I went to the jail before it became too dark. It stood about where the present entrance of the Palmetto building now is. The court house was on a knob about twenty feet higher than the present site of the Vance monument. There were many people around the jail. Wiley Jones14 was around looking after things generally. I did not see the prisoners. It was too dark. I still continued my peregrinations about town and went down to John W. Osborn15, who kept the leading merchant tailor shop of the town at the bend of South Main street, where Mrs. Hillard now lives. He was from Haywood, and I was bound to see everyone from that county. I spent about an hour there, and afterwards came up the street and got into a store, which I do not now remember, where I saw a rehearsal of the hanging on a small scale in the tests that were being given to the rope with which the prisoners were to be hanged. The noose was made, the rope thrown over a beam, it was given a sharp jerk by several men hanging to one end of it, and if I am not mistaken Dr. Hardy16 pronounced it sufficient for its purpose.
"I got into the attic of the Buck with Jesse Smith17, a small son of J. M., and slept with him on a pallet on the floor. Mr. Cumming, being a man of distinction, got a better bed. I did not go to sleep before I became convinced that Asheville was a big place--the hub of the universe, in fact--and I have not changed my mind since. It was always a big place for the surrounding country. It was always so far ahead fo anything within sixty miles of it that there was absolutely no comparison. There was always something worth seeing here. It was a funnel through which everything had to pass if it passed the mountains, and everything had to pass the mountains in those days, for the west was being settled. It is so yet, and the railroads all have to come to Asheville.
The Day of the Hanging.
"The next morning, before good light, that stable bell began to ring again, and I woke up. I wasted no time in making my simple toilet, but immediately struck for the street. The whole front and public square were covered with people. It was only just about daylight then. The people had not slept much the previous night. The excitement was intense. People must have been coming in all during the night. The crowd was a mixed one. There were several thoughtful and sober people, but there were also toughs rushing about, drunken men, women and children in their country finery, and a general holiday air everywhere. I saw the Asheville company of militia formed in a hollow square about the jail, on command of Col. Enoch Cunningham18, to keep back the crowd from the jail. The militia had guns only, but the officers wore uniforms. There had been a rumor that there would be an effort from Tennessee friends to rescue the prisoners, hence the militia turnout. No effort was made in that direction however.
"I remember distinctly to have seen the evening before in the parlor of the Buck hotel Gov. David L. Swain19, who was then governor, and who had been pressed to respite the prisoners to look further into the justice of the execution or for a pardon outright, but the governor left in the stage before day that morning and was not present at the hanging. I heard of a petition being circulated by Mrs. Perkins20, a sister of James W. Patton22, for the pardon of the prisoners, and there was one expression in it which I have remembered ever since. It was to the effect that no son of a woman should suffer the death penalty for the foal of an ass. Gov. Swain was censured for leaving when he did by those who wanted a pardon or respite.
"I may have got breakfast but I don't remember it. It was impossible to get near the jail to see the prisoners because of the crowd and the guard. There was noting like a program for the information of the public, hence all that could be done was to listen to the conjectures of the multitude and take care of yourself. The interminable ring of that stable bell for Moses I shall never forget. It rang all day. Moses had to be reinforced; the work was too heavy for one may. I should say without fear of being extravagant that five hundred horses were carried to the stable from that bell during the morning. The crowd was estimated by men of judgment at from 5000 to 8000 people. It must be remembered that there were few wheels in the country then, and most people came on foot or on horseback. Many came from long distances. Though I believe that the prophecy of Zebulon Baird23 had come to pass that the mails should be carried into Asheville on four horse coaches. But there were not many wheeled vehicles and the roads were execrable. It was decidedly the biggest day that Asheville had ever seen, and I don't believe that Bryan day equaled it--certainly not in my young eyes.
Off for the Gallows Field.
"Incredible as it may seem to some, I was timid and bashful then, not at all sure that I might not be run over by some 'critter,' as the horses were then called, and by no means sure that the militia might not conclude to fire on me for fun. So a boy and I went to see the gallows field. We went down North Main street by the old Sam Chunn tanyard24 about where Merrimon avenue25 now comes into North Main street, near where the Woodfin26 stables used to be. The old road then ran directly over the hill to the branch. Then we went down the branch 200 or 300 yards, and turned to the right in the gorge, and there stood the gallows, grim and forbidding. The beam from which the ropes were to dangle was in place and the trap doors were there too, and the steps leading to the platform. There was a double grave half finished on the hill near by. It had not been finished. But only the lowest vaulted place remained to be dug, and this was how it was explained to me that it had not been completed by the time we reached there: Some negroes had been employed to dig it the evening before, and while deep in the excavation, they were suddenly confronted on the brink of the grave by what they took to be the devil himself, who sternly demanded to know what they meant by digging the graves of men who were still alive? The negroes ran and could not be induced to return. The devil was really George Owen27, a harmless and inoffensive old with and joker from Haywood county who had tarred his hair and beard and disfigured himself as much as possible for the purpose of having his fun with the grave diggers.
"We examined everything, and then went back to the Buck, where we got something to eat. The crowd had not left the square. But at about 2 o'clock it started, but I had again gone ahead of it and was advantageously stationed on the slope of the hill about sixty paces from the gallows. Here they came, thousands of eager and excited people and the prisoners seated on their coffins in a wagon surrounded by the military. They drew up at the foot of the gallows, and several people mounted the scaffold with the prisoners. There were two long sermons, one by Rev. Joseph Haskew28, then a young man, and the other by Rev. Thomas Stradley.29 There was praying and excitement of the most intense character.
Spoke From the Scaffold.
"The prisoners were then given an opportunity to make any remarks they desired, and Sneed spoke first. He was a bright-faced, clean shaven fine looking young man, with a clear distinct voice which could be heard at a distance without effort. He said in substance that he had been a wild, wicked young man, and was an adventurer, making money by every turn and was not show to use his profession in tricks at cards to procure money from the ignorant and unsuspecting, but that he had done nothing to deserve death. He said he felt this. He had never taken human life and had never taken any man's property by force. He said it in a clear and ringing voice and attracted general sympathy.
"Henry came on the scene, and was a heavy-bearded thick shouldered strong man. He impressed me by his general look and demeanor as a man capable of committing any crime. He had a heavy down look, and at my distance I could not hear distinctly what he said. I am informed by Pleas Israel, who was one of the guard and near the scaffold, that Henry called for Holcombe the prosecuting witness against him, and that Holcombe came to the stand, and Henry made a statement in his presence as to how he obtained the horse, and asked Holcombe if that was not the way of it? This Holcombe denied, and walked off sulkily without stating how it was. I do not remember seeing anything of the kind. I did not see Holcombe to know him. The general impression was then and has been since that Holcombe was called for but would not fact the men.
"Then the end came. The black caps were drawn over the faces of the two men, the sheriff and his deputy bade the men goodby, and retired from the trap. The signal was given and then happened a thing, just for an instant only, light a flash of light, that I have never forgotten. The trap, which consisted of two doors meeting in the middle, and working from the sides on hinges, fell at first with a great crash, as the trigger was knocked out. But they did not fall clear down, but only part of the way, so that it was possible for a very short space of time, for the men to touch them with their shoes. This they did repeatedly, trying to regain a foothold, but the doors were entirely beyond their reach, and they were fairly suspended. But I can still hear those poor feet in their blind effort to cling a little longer to earth.
"When the trap finally fell clear it was with a loud noise, and it was then that George Owen, who was near me, said with a distinct and bass voice, 'G-o-n-e!'
"Then began the death struggle. They spun round and round. There was a drawing up of the shoulders and of the arms, and both died by strangulation, no doubt, the fall having been broken by the failure of the trap to fall clear. Sneed died first. The tremor of the bodies, the rush of blood to the hands tied behind them. swelling them to abnormal size and making them puffed and red. But at last the bodies were still, and I left before they were cut down.
"And so the scene closed,
'The day is long past, and the scene is afar,
Yet when my head rests on its pillow
Will memory sometime rekindle the star
That blazed on the breast of the billow.'
A. T. Davidson.
Asheville, N. C., Feb 17, 1898.
1Allen Turner Davidson was born 19 May 1819 in Johathan's Creek, Haywood County, North Carolina, and died 24 January 1905 in Asheville, Buncombe County, North Carolina. For a biography and Davidson family information see Davidson Family.
2 Smith's Bridge was located where the modern replacement bridge, of the same name, carries Craven Street across the French Broad River. James McConnell Smith built this bridge in the early 1830s. According to Dr. Richard W. Iobst's The Smith-McDowell House: A History,
it was a simple wooden bridge with wooden railings and a plank floor
resting on stone pilings. Smith charged tolls ranging from 50 cents for a
loaded four-horse wagon to one cent for a hog. (Remember that these are
3 William Irwin has not been identified. However, James McConnell Smith owned the bridge. Perhaps Irwin was paid as "keeper" of the bridge (to, for example, collect tolls).
4 Melke has not been identified.
29 Reverend Thomas Stradley (1798-1891), Baptist clergyman, was born in Woolwich, England, the sixth child of John, a junior constructor of carriages at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, and Sarah Wheeler Stradley. At age fourteen he was apprenticed to a blacksmith in the Royal Arsenal. He married Mary Frances Diblin in 1819. With his wife and five children, Thomas left England for the United States, arriving in Charleston, S.C., in 1828. He settled in Asheville, N.C., where his brother Peter had located in 1823, and established a blacksmith's shop near the later site of the Battery Park Hotel. In 1829 Thomas joined Peter and eleven others in the constitution of a Baptist church. After the new church was admitted to the twenty-three-year-old French Broad Association in 1830, Thomas was ordained to the ministry and immediately became active in the association. He later played a prominent role in the Salem Association, formed in 1838, until his retirement in 1875.
Stradley was the first mountain minister to attend the newly established North Carolina Baptist Convention when that body held its third annual session in 1833. He was one of the original agents of the Biblical Recorder, the journal of the Baptist Convention, and continued that association for several decades. When the convention divided the state into missionary districts, he was entrusted with the Eleventh District, one of two covering western North Carolina. He also was one of forty members of the board of trustees named in the charter of 1833 granted to Wake Forest Institute. Stradley remained on the board-the sole representative of mountain Baptists-until July 1835, when his resignation was announced. When difficulty of travel resulted in the organization of the Western North Carolina Baptist Convention in 1845 as an auxiliary of the state convention, Stradley began to play a vital role in that convention. In 1857 he was elected president and served three terms. During his presidency the Western North Carolina Convention became an independent body, voted to establish a Baptist Female College, and took charge of the Taylorsville Institute. In 1859 he was named to the board of trustees of the Female College. From 1852 until at least 1871, after which there is a gap in the records, he was one of six men who seemed preeminent in the life of the Western North Carolina Convention.
From 1829 to 1875 Stradley was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Asheville. He built a new church, seating 450, and to pay for it mortgaged his own property and traveled to New York and Boston after the Civil War to raise funds. Throughout his ministry he was a stout champion of education, temperance, Sunday schools, and missions. He also served temporarily as pastor of numerous other churches and traveled widely in behalf of Baptist causes.
Stradley was the father of thirteen children, one of whom, the Reverend J. A. Stradley, became a well-known Baptist minister. He was buried in the Beaverdam Baptist Church cemetery, Buncombe County.
This is a great story, with several interesting people mentioned. One is Dr. Hardy:
"Davidson mingled in the crowds, stopped in dry goods and clothing stores, peeked into the jail, and ended up, he said in an 1898 recollection, in a store where he saw 'a rehearsal of the hanging . . . [A] noose was made, the rope thrown over a beam, it was given a sharp jerk by several men hanging to one end of it . . . [and] Dr. Hardy pronounced it sufficient for its purpose.'”
This most likely is much-loved Dr. James Freeman Eppes Hardy, M.D. (1802-1882), who at one time lived in a fine house at the southwest corner of South Main Street (now Biltmore Avenue) and Eagle Street, along with several others in 1841was an incorporator/commissioner of the Town of Asheville, was an officer of Asheville's first bank, was one of the first physicians to advertise Asheville as a health resort. owned part of a Georgia gold mine, owned a hotel at Warm Sulphur Springs, had a Catawba grape named for him, had a mountain peak named for him, and knew Calhoun, Clay, Jackson, and Webster. And there is much more. Wow!
He married, as his first wife, Jane Patton (1804-1838), daughter of James Patton and Hannah Anne Reynolds. This is the James Patton who built the Eagle Hotel in Asheville. Patton Avenue in Asheville is named for a son of James Patton, James Washington Patton (1803-1861).
The story of Dr. Hardy's South Carolina family (Tyger River Hardys), its plantation, and its fine plantation house is chronicled in:
James Everett Kibler. Our Fathers' Fields: A Southern Story (University of South Carolina Press: Columbia, 1998).
When traveler, scholar, and poet James Everett Kibler purchased a dilapidated South Carolina plantation in 1989, he had no idea that the rehabilitation of the property would include the unearthing of a remarkable American saga about Southern land and the people who lived on it. Part epic, part history, part memoir, this superb tale of the Hardy family is richly detailed, providing the reader with a glimpse of agrarian life as it was for two hundred years along the hilly, fertile lands of the Tyger River. Recounting his own efforts to restore the plantation to its former glory, Kibler concludes that only by knowing a place truly well can we guard against its abuse. Our Fathers' Fields is an especially vivid portrayal seen from the inside of the antebellum South, the Civil War, and life after the war. It contains a compelling collection of Civil War letters. While Kibler strengthens his own ties with the county of his birth, the Hardy family becomes his family, as they may well prove to be the reader's, with an ending that is yet to be.
James Everett Kibler. Our Fathers' Fields: A Southern Story (University of South Carolina Press: Columbia, 1998).
Asheville and Buncombe County, F. A. Sondley; Genesis of Buncombe County, Theodore F. Davidson (1922) at 153-154, and 162-163.
And it was Dr. James F. E. Hardy who attended to James McConnell Smith during his final illness.
The Smith-McDowell House: A History, Dr. Richard W. Iobst (1998) at 22.
A History of Buncombe County, North Carolina (Two Volumes in One), F. A. Sondley (1930) at 724.
Tennent, Gaillard S., M.D. "Medicine in Buncombe County Down to 1885; Historical and Biographical Sketches." The Charlotte Medical: Charlotte, N.C. (May 1906).