When death and vaudeville competed for downtown crowds

by Jack Neely

It was only March, and Sheriff Columbus Reeder was already hanging his third murderer of the year. Executions weren't rare in 1908 Knoxville, but some things made this one distinct. For one thing, the convict's defense attorney was John Houk, the former Republican congressman. He'd taken his client's case all the way to the state Supreme Court, to no avail.

What made the condemned man especially different was that he was white. The men the Knox County sheriff routinely executed were black, many of them illiterate desperadoes who'd knifed somebody down in Cripple Creek or the Bowery. This man was, by contrast, a middle-class doctor's son. He'd gotten the death penalty because one of the two people he killed that summer night in 1906 had been a sheriff's deputy.

Sheriff Reeder was likely concerned about crowd control. The last time they'd hanged a white man in Knoxville was over 30 years ago, and over 20,000 came to watch. In a town hardly bigger than that crowd, it had caused problems. But this was a new century. Things were changing fast; Knoxville had proven itself a modern, progressive city by closing its 100 saloons, just four months ago. Knoxville didn't have a working model of that new innovation, the electric chair, yet, but by recent state legislation, executions were now held behind the thick walls of the fortress-like jailhouse, inside, away from the crowd. The public execution was going the way of the saloon and other disorderly leftovers of the 19th century. Still, outside the jail, along Hill and Market Streets, crowds formed, hoping to catch a glimpse of something.

The management of Staub's Theater must have watched enviously. From the ticket window at Gay and Cumberland, they could see part of the crowd, back behind the courthouse. As it happened, that same Monday, the large performance hall, built 35 years ago as an opera house, was taking a chance with a new idea: vaudeville matinees on weekdays. They'd booked a great lineup: comedians, high-wire stunts, cinematographic motion pictures—most of them short, comic black-and-white silents—plus a performance by Clarence Siegel, King of the Mandolin and Banjo. But it was not an auspicious day to launch a new afternoon entertainment in downtown Knoxville. If few showed up for the 3:30 show on that rainy Monday, it may have been due to the unexpected competition, not three blocks away.

John McPherson's photograph had been in the papers. A fresh-faced, blue-eyed young man with his thick dark hair parted in the middle—in the photo, he looked little uncomfortable in his stiff, high, Edwardian collar and tie. His picture didn't tell much of his story. Despite the esteem with which he spoke of his father, Dr. M.A. "Buck" McPherson had a criminal record himself. Convicted of murdering another physician back in '97—a dispute over a female patient, allegedly—Dr. McPherson had been released for good behavior and had somehow recovered his medical career. But he and his son apparently shared a taste for the demimonde, the shadowy underworld of saloons and whorehouses along South Florida Avenue, Knoxville's famous red-light district on the eastern edge of downtown. On July 14, 1906, they found themselves celebrating Bastille Day with a few drinks down there. Father and son were feeling pretty good at about 10:00 on that warm, damp night when the went up to the door of a well-known dance hall and brothel, the establishment of Nettie Hall, near Jackson Avenue. But Nettie disliked something about this pair in her parlor and refused them entrance to her dance hall. The younger McPherson, known for his "high-strung and nervous" temperament, drew his pistol and knocked the madame to the floor with the butt of his fun, accidentally firing it into the ceiling. When Nettie's husband, Grant Smith, appeared to help, McPherson shot him in the gut. It was said Dr. McPherson finished the man off with his scalpel.

The partiers hopped in their buggy and picked up Lizzie, John's live-in sweetheart, to seek refuge with relatives in Sevier County. They were six miles out of town on Sevierville Pike when they collided with a buggy driven by another physician on a late-night house call. Investigating the accident as the McPhersons tried to repair their axle, Knox County deputy William Walker recognized John and attempted to arrest the wanted man. McPherson shot him. For a week as McPherson made his way across county and then state lines, Deputy Walker lay dying. Nearly a year later they caught McPherson hiding in Radford, Virginia, and brought him back to face charges for the two murders. He was convicted in a two-week trial. Killing a deputy was a capital offense, even for a white man.

A lot of people saw something worthwhile about the troubled boy. John Houk organized a petition drive to save him from the death penalty—gathered thousands of signatures. He arranged a meeting between John's long-suffering mother and Governor Patterson; by March, he was sure a pardon was on the way.

McPherson hardly slept the night before, rose early, and declined breakfast. He drank a cup of coffee as family and Baptist clergymen stood in the corridor of the Knox County jail, against the bars, praying and singing hymns like "I'm Going Home to Die No More."

That afternoon, it rained. They canceled the Central High baseball game at Chilhowee Park. Unlike those ugly spectacles of the 1800s, this was to be a modern, humane execution. It was to be private.

Some 2,500 applied to get a seat to see the white man hang. The execution was scheduled for 2:00, but Houk convinced Sheriff Reeder a call from the governor was imminent. At 3:15, Reeder said he could wait no longer. The party left for the scaffold, singing "Other Refuge Have I None." Dr. William Atchley, pastor of the Broadway Baptist Church, read McPherson's statement: "I have very little to say. Talking will not better my condition." He went on to forgive "everybody who has wronged me," and to thank his family and lawyer. He asked forgiveness of "all whom I may have wronged." The sheriff asked McPherson if he had anything to add. McPherson himself spoke—"in a fine voice," they said later—insisting that his father had nothing to do with Deputy Walker's killing. Then he shook hands with everybody present: family, clergy, policemen, reaching down from the scaffold.

"Goodbye, Brother Atchley," he said to the minister.

"We'll meet beyond," Atchley said.

They fit a black hood over his head, and Sheriff Reeder asked, "Are you ready, John?"

McPherson responded, "Wait a minute," and took a deep, clean breath. He didn't say he was ready to die.

The sheriff asked again. McPherson said only, "Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye..." Sheriff Reeder pulled the lever, and the trap door dropped. At 4:17, the medical examiner pronounced John McPherson dead.

Outside, stretching north almost to Main Street, east toward Gay Street, west toward Walnut, was a "great sea of umbrellas." They were 3,000 Knoxvillians, mostly white. None had witnessed any part of the hanging, but they seemed hushed, "curious but not demonstrative," unaccustomed to just being in a place where a white man had just been executed. The sheriff announced there would be no public viewing of the body, by request of the deceased. After his announcement at about 4:30, the crowd began to disperse, looking for other entertainments.

That evening at Staub's Theater, after the vaudeville matinee was over, the famous actor John Drew and his 22-year-old costar drew a big crowd with their Broadway sensation, the domestic comedy My Wife. The young beauty's performance as Beatrice Dupré captivated a Journal critic who called her fascinating. "Billie Burke is a most attractive actress," he wrote. "She grows on the audience." That night in Knoxville, she stole the show from the more-famous Drew.

I wonder how many people who saw Miss Burke on Gay Street that night recognized her 30 years later—when, in a whole new kind of cinematographic picture, a long one with color and sound, she played a character called Glynda, the Good Witch of the North.

In the 90 years since the promising young starlet performed at Staub's, no one has been executed in Knox County. Live theater no longer has that kind of competition.