Author Brian Allison illustrates the darker shades of Nashville's colorful past.
Nashville is known for its bold, progressive flair, but few are aware of the city's malevolent past. A rowdy red-light district called "Smoky Row" spawned several fatal episodes. A murderous temptress with a penchant for poison once strolled the city streets. Legends range from Andrew Jackson's bar fight with Senator Thomas Hart Benton to the macabre 1938 Marrowbone Creek cabin murders. In 1938, a state penitentiary fugitive escape triggered a tragic gunfight.
About the Author
Brian Allison has worked in the public history/museum field for around twenty years. His past experience includes curating, public speaking and creating documentaries. Brian holds a degree from Austin Peay State University in American history. He has also worked as a staff historian for several local museums and served as curator for Travellers Rest Plantation. Brian is co-author of Tennessee State Penitentiary.
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AFFAIRS OF HONOR
Just east of the city stands a museum dedicated to one of its most famous sons. The Hermitage was the home of Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president, whose life defined an era. It is one of the finest museums of its type in the state and does an admirable job interpreting the life of one of the most colorful — and controversial — figures in the nation's history.
He is remembered today for his triumphs, but Jackson had many weaknesses as well, and in many ways they helped define him as much as his strengths. He went far despite an ungovernable temper, a delicate sense of pride and an often uncompromising will. He was, in the end, utterly human.
His strengths and his weaknesses helped bring about the most famous hostile encounter in Tennessee history. On May 30, 1806, Jackson faced off against attorney Charles Dickinson on the banks of the Red River in Kentucky, some forty miles from Nashville. The duel has become famous as one of Jackson's defining moments. But what is less understood is that it was only the culmination of a cycle of violence that had played out over the previous four years and led to the deaths of two men and the wounding of three more.
Nashville was barely twenty years old at the time. The population barely numbered five hundred permanent residents, making it small enough that "big city" crime was not yet a problem. Much of the crime in a place like New York or Philadelphia stemmed from poverty and desperation, but Nashville's first major string of violence was committed by the town's elite. Many of them were members of the legal profession and were quite aware that their actions went against the law they practiced. And many of them had once been close friends.
As Nashville grew, distrust and political differences split these friendships apart. For example, Andrew Jackson had come to Nashville with John McNairy, who had originally been his mentor. It was McNairy who appointed Jackson to his post as prosecuting attorney when the pair lived in Jonesborough in 1788. But during the next decade, Jackson came to disagree with McNairy and twice opposed him when he ran for office. By 1800, the two men were barely on speaking terms. Each of them had come to the fore of two distinct political factions vying for prominence in the town. It was an atmosphere wherein touchy egos and brittle pride would ensure a small quarrel could easily turn deadly.
At that time, gentlemen of standing had only one recourse if they felt themselves insulted or betrayed: a challenge would be issued to meet on the dueling ground. The practice of dueling was supposed to ensure that the two combatants would meet on equal terms. The weapons were to be as identical as possible. Distances were carefully measured and the rules fully explained so that each participant had an equal chance at victory.
All this ritual was meant to separate "gentlemen" — usually defined as wealthy and respectable members of society — from "common folk," who settled their differences with fists, knives or a shot in the back without warning. Dueling was often seen as a way to show courage and a willingness to put one's principles on the line. Anyone who refused a challenge would be branded a coward. In a day when his reputation was crucial to advancement, such a man would find himself outcast by the whole community.
In real life, duels were rarely that cut and dried. Gentlemen frequently bullied unequal opponents into fatal encounters for trivial reasons. And on a number of occasions, the rules meant to ensure fairness would be bent to the breaking point. In Nashville, it appears that the two rival factions used the "field of honor" to thin the ranks of their opponents. There is more than a hint of a gang war in what was about to occur.
Jackson had a sense of honor that was more finely tuned than many and often displayed a willingness to take the part of a friend whom he felt had been wronged somehow. In the summer of 1805, this tendency would lead him into trouble, as he became embroiled in the quandaries of a hotheaded young friend named Thomas Jefferson Overton.
Overton, a lawyer from Kentucky, was a nephew of Jackson's neighbor and close friend General Thomas Overton. The young man appears to have been unusually quarrelsome, even for the time and place. He had already fought one duel that summer, with Nathaniel A. McNairy, the brother of Jackson's old mentor and current enemy John McNairy.
Their duel was fought on July 10, 1805, and reflected badly on Overton's opponent. While the rules were still being explained to both parties, McNairy fumbled, and his pistol suddenly went off. Luckily, he missed his target, and Overton took his own shot. No blood was drawn, and Overton refused a second fire, saying he'd received "satisfaction without [McNairy's] concession" — implying that when his opponent fired early, he had proven himself no gentleman. McNairy was humiliated and maintained that his shot was an accident, but the incident led to considerable whispering on the streets of Nashville.
Just over a week later, Overton was in trouble again, this time with a law clerk named John Dickinson. During an argument, Overton clubbed Dickinson over the head with his cane. Among gentlemen, a blow was considered a mortal insult implying contempt and had to be answered. Dickinson promptly issued a challenge, which was accepted. Overton approached Andrew Jackson and asked him to act as his second.
The second was an important figure. It was he who met with the opponent's representative to set the rules for the fight. As the representative of the challenged party, Jackson asserted his right to name the distance between the combatants. Noting that his man was a poor shot, he proposed a distance of only seven feet — so close that the pistol muzzles would nearly be touching. Such short range was unorthodox but not unheard of, and Jackson was using the tactic to cancel out Dickinson's superior skill. At that range, luck would be the only factor.
Dickinson, understandably shocked, refused. In a break with protocol, he named his own terms and declared he would not fight at a distance of less than twenty-four feet. Jackson was flabbergasted and quite correctly said that the challenger was not allowed to name the distance or object to the proposed terms. The young man refused to budge, and Jackson duly advised Overton that Dickinson was essentially cheating and the challenge could now be safely ignored. He even advised his man to beat Dickinson a second time to show his contempt for him. Overton, though, was angered beyond reason. Against his second's advice, he accepted the duel on his opponent's terms.
Anger proved a poor substitute for skill. The two met on July 19, 1806, somewhere near town. The terms finally agreed on were to stand back to back, twenty-four feet apart; turn at the word "fire"; and "advance or not, and fire when they pleased." The first round resulted in two misses. However, on the second shot, Overton fired quickly and missed. Dickinson, taking full advantage of the rules, "advanced" deliberately up to Overton, pointed his pistol from less than a foot away and fired directly into his opponent's chest. Shot through the body and left arm, Overton was critically wounded.
He eventually recovered and seemed bent on seeking a rematch. His rage is demonstrated in a letter he wrote from his sickbed, describing Dickinson as "the greatest monster of depravity, in the shape of a man, that ever disgraced the animal creation." Despite his evident loathing, he would never get the satisfaction he sought. Overton eventually returned to Kentucky and resumed his law career. He joined the army at the beginning of the War of 1812 and was killed in January 1813 at the Battle of the River Raisin.
For his part, John Dickinson lived peacefully in Nashville for the remainder of his life and by all accounts was well liked by most of his acquaintances — Overton excepted. He fell victim to consumption and outlived his old foe by only two years, dying on July 7, 1815.
Jackson's role in these affairs led to much ridicule from his many enemies in Nashville. The McNairys especially felt no warmth toward him. Still smarting from his own poor performance on the field, Nathaniel later wrote sneeringly of Jackson's arrangements for the Overton-Dickinson affair, chiding him for attempting to "make children fight at six feet distance." Things were only bound to get worse.
As the fall of 1805 wore on, Jackson found himself in a new dispute with another formerly cordial acquaintance. Captain Joseph Erwin was another local planter and landowner who was especially renowned for the fine string of racehorses he raised at his farm, Peach Blossom, on the southern outskirts of Nashville. At the time, Jackson owned Truxton, arguably the finest horse in the state, and Erwin suggested a match between Jackson's horse and his own Ploughboy, a locally famous mount.
However, the anticipated race had to be cancelled when Ploughboy came up lame, and Erwin had to pay an $800 forfeit. The disagreement that followed is Machiavellian and hard to follow, but suffice it to say there was a slight dispute about how the forfeit was paid, which seems to have been of little consequence to either party. However, the rumor mill soon fired up, and it was whispered that both Jackson and Erwin were complaining that the other party had attempted to cheat on the deal. In the end, it was this gossip more than the actual disagreement that lit the fuse in the trouble to come.
Soon, Erwin's son-in-law, Charles Dickinson, had made things incalculably worse. Often cast as the villain of the piece, Dickinson by all accounts was a brilliant young man and well liked by many who knew him. An attorney by trade, he had supposedly met Jackson at a party in his native Maryland and had come to Nashville at the older man's invitation. Affable, charming and witty and married to the beautiful and much-admired Jane Erwin, Dickinson was as polished as Jackson was down to earth. At least, he was when he was sober.
The bottle was his weakness, and it appears he was an ugly drunk. One evening, while carousing in one of Nashville's taverns, he made several crude jokes about the marital fidelity of Jackson's beloved wife, Rachel. For Jackson, this was considered an unforgiveable sin, and he let Erwin know that he'd best curb his son-in-law's behavior.
As this dispute was heating up, things became complicated by a socialclimbing busybody named Thomas Swann, who came barging into the situation uninvited. A recent transplant from Virginia, Swann was attempting to ingratiate himself with Erwin and Dickinson and decided that their quarrel was now also his. He spied on Jackson one day at his store and reported what he said he'd overheard — albeit with some embellishment.
Dickinson confronted Jackson about Swann's tale, and the older man replied that whoever had said such things was a "damned liar." Dickinson smugly told Swann what Jackson had called him, and the young Virginian immediately issued a challenge for "satisfaction." Fatefully, he enlisted none other than Nathaniel McNairy to act as his second.
Jackson considered his real fight to be with Dickinson, not a stand-in. He not only refused the challenge, but he also told McNairy that if Swann persisted in pursuing the matter, he would publicly "cane" him — a public beating that showed he considered Swann to be his social inferior. Duels were only for gentlemen; if challenged by a lesser light, the gentleman was under no other obligation than to beat his enemy up.
McNairy — who really comes across as a flake — once more acted in a less-than-satisfactory manner. He apparently downplayed Jackson's anger and misled young Swann into thinking that his opponent merely wished to talk things over. It was apparently in this good faith that Swann approached Jackson as he sat before the fire at Winn's Tavern on the public square one cold January morning in 1806.
With a thin smile, Jackson rose and greeted the young man with frosty courtesy, then brought his cane down on Swann's head so hard that he himself stumbled and nearly fell into the open fireplace. As Jackson staggered back to his feet, Swann reached his hand behind his coattails, apparently going for a hidden pistol. Bystanders moved to restrain him, but Jackson pulled his own gun and roared, "Let him draw and defend himself!"
As the barflies ran for cover, Swann froze. He withdrew his hand and swore he had no intention of fighting. As Jackson blasted his ears with a torrent of abuse, Swann turned tail and fled through the growing crowd.
Jackson had made his point. Though Swann continued to press for a duel with his tormentor, Jackson sneeringly refused, pointing out that the youngster was no gentleman; after all, he'd been given a chance to fight and had choked. Swann's reputation in Nashville was all but ruined by the affair. Though he remained around town for the next three years and stayed close to Captain Erwin, he was something of a joke, even to his friends and supporters. He eventually pulled up stakes and sought a more receptive climate sometime around 1809.
In the aftermath of Swann's humiliation, Nathaniel McNairy caused more trouble. He proved to have an unfortunate tendency to run his mouth, and in February 1806, he fired off a scathing letter to the Nashville Impartial Review dripping with sarcastic barbs about Jackson's courage. The response was not what he hoped for.
In the article, McNairy haughtily referred to Jackson's friend John Coffee as being a man "not only honorable, but religious." Whether or not this was intended as sarcasm, it was so taken by the rough-and-tumble Coffee. McNairy was now in deep trouble. Ferocious when angered and fiercely loyal to Jackson, Coffee was nobody to fool with and immediately issued a challenge to McNairy. As dueling was illegal in Tennessee, they agreed to meet over the state line in Kentucky to avoid any legal fallout.
On March 1, 1806, Coffee, McNairy and their seconds met near the state line. Coffee's second, Major John Purdy, won the coin toss to determine who would give the command to fire. He explained that the count would be: "One, two, three ... fire!" They could aim during the count and then fire at their leisure after the command. Apparently, with McNairy's earlier performance in mind, Purdy repeatedly warned both men not to fire before the command was given.
When both men were ready, they raised their pistols, and Purdy began to count: "One, two ..." At that moment, there was an explosion, and Coffee staggered backward, shot through the thigh. The impact jogged his hand, and he fired his own shot, which went wide of the mark. McNairy stood wide-eyed, a smoking pistol in his hands; unbelievably, he had fired early once again.
Immediately, Major Purdy approached McNairy with drawn pistol, telling him that he ought to be shot for firing early. Coffee, staggered but not seriously hurt, limped forward on his damaged leg and shouted at his opponent, "Goddamn you, that's twice you've been guilty of the same crime!" McNairy stammered that it was an accident and even went so far as to offer to stand still and let Coffee take a free shot. Purdy, though, refused to expose his friend to any more of McNairy's questionable marksmanship, and everyone left the field. The subsequent newspaper accounts of the duel left McNairy with a severely burnt ego. As far as is known, although he lived a long and successful life in Nashville, the affair with Coffee marked the last time he became caught up in an "affair of honor." One hopes that his experiences left him a wiser man.
During all these feuds, the "main event" at the heart of all the bickering had been postponed, but everyone seemed to know it was coming. As early as December 1805, the probability of a fatal encounter between Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson seemed increasingly likely. At a Christmas gathering at his house, Captain Erwin had said so much to his son-in-law, expressing an apprehension that he might "flinch" if it came to a showdown. Dickinson replied testily that "he expected nothing else, but the dispute would end in a duel — and if that should take place, he was damned if ever he would flinch!" Their war had begun as an obscure squabble about abstract points of honor, but somewhere along the way it had turned personal. By the spring of 1806, it was clear that when they met, one of them would not be walking away.
Work and family matters kept him from pursuing the matter for a while. Dickinson was absent on business in New Orleans for several months early in the year, and when he returned, he found that in his absence Jane had given birth to their first child: a son they named Charles Henry Dickinson. However, fatherhood did little to mellow him. Almost as soon as he was home, he picked up the simmering feud where he left off and penned another letter, even more mocking and inflammatory than his previous efforts. Friends of Jackson intercepted it before it was published and reported the matter to him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder & Mayhem in Nashville"
Copyright © 2016 Brian James Allison.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Affairs of Honor,
2. Gentlemen Behaving Badly,
3. Growing Pains,
4. A Deadly Seduction,
5. Bloody Christmas,
6. Rock City Blues,
7. The Headless Horror,
8. Cop Killer,
9. Seventh Avenue Showdown,
10. Gunfire on the Western Front,
11. Over the Wall,
12. Horror on the Little Marrowbone,
About the Author,