Tag Archives: Chattanooga

Kingston Ferryman Murder

{Robert Bailey – Roane County Historian}

Shortly after the turn of the century, a strange, and somewhat incomprehensible set of circumstances took place in Roane County, several surrounding counties and even another state. One nefarious deed was a brutal murder of a ferry operator at Southwest Point in Kingston on September 28, 1908. His name was John King, and he was found bludgeoned to death by at least six blows with a skiff oar. George Cook was arrested for King’s murder, and he was implicated in the crime by testimony given during a coroner’s jury. King was last seen ferrying Cook across the river at about 7pm on the night of the killing. The two men were alone on the ferry. W.M. Brown, the owner of the ferry, had leased it to King for two years. Brown found the body early in the morning after the murder. Brown testified that he had heard a ‘cry of distress’ early in the evening of the preceding day, but did not investigate. It is known that King and his family were leaving Kingston for North Carolina and his wife stated that he had a large sum of money in his possession.

The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of assassination for the purpose of robbery. When Cook, a native of Chattanooga, was arrested for the crime, he was also under indictment on two charges of disturbing public worship and one for carrying weapons in Roane County. A few weeks before the murder of King, a young man by the name of Will Plemmons was found dead on the riverbank in Chattanooga. Plemmons was shot once behind the ear, execution style. Cook was also accused of this heinous crime, but no evidence worthy of conviction was heard against him, and he was released from custody in Hamilton County. He was then arrested and jailed in Kingston for the murder of King.

Late one evening shortly after Cook’s incarceration in Kingston, a group of about 20 men knocked loudly at the door of the jail, where Sheriff J.L. Johnson resided with his wife and family. The sheriff called down from an upstairs window asking who was there. He was told that Chris Miller was there with a prisoner in custody to be jailed. The sheriff, who was suspicious that the speaker was someone other than Chris Miller, asked him to strike a match so that he could see him but was told that the man had no matches. Johnson went downstairs and opened the door, only to find a mob of men, all masked except two, whom he did not know. The men pushed their way into the room and demanded that he open the door to the cell of George Cook. Sheriff Johnson refused and argued with the men for some time when the mob became more and more threatening, his wife appeared at the top of the stairs and also pleaded with the men. Seeing none of their combined words were having any effect whatsoever on the unruly group of men, she drew a revolver and threatened to shoot the first man who entered the door where Cook was confined. Whereupon, the leader of the mob, drew three sticks of dynamite from his pocket and threw them onto the floor, vowing to blow up the jail if the prisoner was not immediately turned over to them. He said, “If we can’t get him one way, we will get him another.” Mrs. Johnson then asked if they would really blow up the jail, killing her children and everyone else in the building. She was assured that they would do so. Jerked about and jabbed with pistols, the sheriff reluctantly handed over the keys to Cook’s cell. The mob surged forward and were met by Cook who unsuccessfully held the cell door shut from the inside and cried out, “You’ll not take me out alive.” He wielded a razor, which he had apparently secreted on his person, and fought for his life. He slashed one man threw his hat across the head before the lights went out and several shots rang out. Cook fell dead. The sheriff, his wife, his wife’s sister and his daughter all saw the two unmasked men and paid close attention to their appearance so that they could identify them later.

Mrs. Johnson remarked to the men on the night of the killing, “I shall be sure to know you if I ever see you again.” About 30 days later, Sheriff Johnson was in Sweetwater and recognized a man coming out of a church as one of the unmasked men who was present at the jail when Cook was killed. He was James Plemmons, father of the young man who had been murdered in Chattanooga. Plemmons was arrested and charged with being the leader of the mob who entered the jail and murdered Cook. He was given a preliminary trial and released on a $3,000 bond. It is presumed that Plemmons allegedly led the gang to the jail where Cook was killed in retaliation for the death of his son some weeks, earlier. Later, Joe Blanton, Plemmon’s son-in-law, was implicated in the slaying. Some months later, after having sent out a description of Blanton to law enforcement offices across the state, Sheriff Johnson received word from the Memphis Police Department that the man had been arrested in Memphis.

Blanton had left his home in Sweetwater shortly after the killing of Cook and made his way to Arkansas, where two of his brothers resided. He made no secret that he was wanted in Tennessee, but was reportedly not arrested in Arkansas because of a close friendship between his brother and the sheriff. According to a local newspaper, he went on a drinking spree while in Memphis and while inebriated, went to the closest police department and admitted that he was a wanted man. Sheriff Johnson and a deputy left by train as quickly as possible to take custody of Blanton because of information that his brother was on his way to Memphis to secure the release of the prisoner through a writ of habeas corpus. The Roane County officers were successful in arriving ahead of Blanton’s brother, who was reported to be, interestingly enough, a whiskey dealer in Arkansas and a man of some wealth and influence. Blanton was delivered to Kingston, given a preliminary hearing and bound over to the court without bond. Shortly thereafter the sheriff took the prisoner to Knoxville, fearing that Blanton’s friends in the area might attempt to break into the jail and release him if he were allowed to remain in Kingston. During the trial of the two men, held in the historic courthouse in Kingston, the state attempted to prove that Blanton and Plemmons were the leaders of the mob that murdered Cook and that Blanton was wounded in the head by Cook during the fracas. Lawyers for the defense, however, brought forth many witnesses, who testified that both men were seen in Sweetwater at or near the time of the crime. While Blanton did have a scar on his head, he vowed, and testimony was given by a number of men that he received the wound in a bar fight in Marked Tree, Arkansas on Christmas Eve night, 1908. The jury acquitted both men. However, many questions are left unanswered.

Eyewitnesses testimony from Sheriff Johnson, Mrs. Johnson, her sister, Miss Nannie Nicely, and the sheriff’s daughter, Nannie Johnson, all place the two men at the jail the night of the lynching, and both were identified in court. Much was made of a surrey (a horse or mule-drawn carriage) which was rented by Blanton on the afternoon before the crime, and a bloody black hat, which was found the morning after the murder of Cook on the main road leading back to Sweetwater. The hat was identified as the hat Blanton was wearing on the night of the crime. However, many witnesses swore that he had no wound on his head after the night in question and none at all until he returned from Arkansas. In addition, many defense witnesses placed him at the home of his father at about 9 p.m. on the night in question, which was between 20 to 25 miles from Kingston. In those days, it took approximately six hours in a surrey with good mules to travel that distance, making it impossible for him to have been there by 11:30 p.m. These and other discrepancies unquestionably caused reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors, but if not Plemmons and Blanton, who did kill George Cook?

Who told the truth and who lied? The answers to these and other questions have slipped through a crack in time. No one else was ever accused of the lynching. Was George Cook guilty of any crime at all? He was arrested and questioned, but released in the case of Plemmons son’s death due to lack of evidence. Evidence of his part in the killing of Ferryman King was circumstantial, no one witnessed the crime, and he did not live to stand trial. Therefore, nothing was ever proven against him. Did two guilty men go free and an innocent man die for crimes he did not commit?

Originally written for the Roane County Newsletter to the Community, April 2018.

Roane County Rescue Squad

{Robert Bailey – Roane County Historian}

The Roane County Rescue Squad was created and incorporated as a non-profit organization on April 7, 1960, for rescue and relief work of any nature and the promotion of water safety. They also promoted a safety program, including among other programs, rescue and relief, and such allied and similar programs. The incorporators were: Ray Gullett, Chief of Police Harold W. Hart, Carl Henry, M.D. Eugene Evans, G.B. Cross, James C. Hammon. In the “The Tennessee Rescue News”, May-June 1969 is the following article:

“In March of 1959, using Luke’s Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan as a guide, a group of men organized what has become the Roane County Rescue Squad. At first, the squad was only equipped with a desire to serve. Soon after they were formed they were called to recover a body of a boat dock owner, while having to use the operator’s equipment. Then they had a recovery of two children’s bodies, on this trip, they used borrowed vehicles and had three flats within a ten-mile trip. Bystanders, seeing their trouble persuaded the Kingston Steam Plant Employees Association to donate to the squad a boat, motor, and trailer. At the same time squad men, ashamed to be caught like this, went to the bank and borrowed enough money to buy a vehicle to carry their equipment. Thus it started, a donation here, a piece of equipment there, until now we have five vehicles, three boats and motors and $40,000 worth of equipment in a 40 by 110-foot building worth $25,000. We are equipped to recover bodies or equipment from the water, or down a cliff, from a tree, underwater, caves or car wrecks. We provide standby first-aid for gatherings and haul ambulance patients. We practice as often as we can and take as much training as we can. Squad men have just completed a 3-day course on initial emergency care of the injured, held in Chattanooga, TN. We never refuse a call. We have taken a kitten out of a tree, which was our smallest job and an expectant mother with a 150-pound cast on each leg, a total of 450 pounds, our heaviest load, to the hospital.”

Originally written for the Roane County Newsletter to the Community, August 2016.

Mary Love

{Robert Bailey – Roane County Historian}

March is Women’s History Month and we recognize a Roane Countian who made her mark in history. The story of Mary Love (1823-1887) occurs during the Civil War. We know about brother against brother, but what is not often discussed is a sister against brother and her family. That is the story of Mary Love. Mary and her family lived in a house that was located on the main road from Knoxville to Kingston on what is now called Lawnville Road. Her brother, Josiah T. Love was a surgeon in the Confederate army. Even though her family was confederate she carried a dispatch to the Union forces at Knoxville. The following is a report to the Senate of the United States, dated Jan 13, 1873, that was submitted in the following words: “The Committee on Claims, to whom was referred the memorial of the Miss Mary Love, having considered the same, make the following report: During the siege of Knoxville, in November 1863, General Grant desired to send an important dispatch from his headquarters, at Chattanooga, to General Burnside, at Knoxville, through the investing lines of the Confederate forces under General Longstreet. This dispatch was sent to Colonel Robert K. Byrd, commanding at Kingston, Tennessee, with orders from General Grant to get it to General Burnside ‘at any cost and at all hazards.’ Colonel Byrd caused five copies of said dispatch to be made and sent them in different directions. One Charles Francis lost his life in the attempt to get through the confederate lines with one of them. No one of them reached General Burnside except the one of which Miss Love was the bearer. Miss Love was a loyal woman, but she had a brother in the Confederate service and was less exposed to suspicion by the Confederate guards for that reason. She was promised by Colonel Byrd that she should be well paid for her services and the peril she encountered. She traveled alone some twelve miles, but at dark, she procured the Rev. Thomas P. Carter to accompany her, and they passed through the Confederate forces to Louisville, Tennessee, which place they reached about midnight, making thirty-three miles traveled by the complainant. At Louisville, she caused the dispatch to be sewed into the vest of a lad, one John T. Brown, about 13 years of age and sent him successfully to Knoxville, where he delivered the dispatch to General Burnside. It was of a very important character, and probably saved the forces of General Burnside from surrender and East Tennessee to the Union Army. Your committee reports a bill for paying Miss Love the sum of $2,000.” She received the $2,000 in payment for her services to the Union. She is buried in the Love family cemetery off of Lawnville Road with the rest of her family.

General Burnside

General Longstreet

General Grant

Originally written for the Roane County Newsletter to the Community, March 2016.

How Kingston Was Named

{Robert Bailey – Roane County Historian}

Kingston became a town before Roane County became a county. It was created by an act of the Tennessee State Legislature on 23 Oct 1799. It is about the eighth oldest city in Tennessee. It is named after Robert King who gave the land for the creation of the city. When Roane County was created in 1801, as Kingston was the only town in the county, it became the county seat.

In 1807, Kingston became state capital for one day. This was to fulfill the requirements of a treaty with the Indians in which the land around Fort Southwest Point was ceded to the State. The State Legislature met at the home of James Gordon which was located on the corner of Race and Third Street across from the current courthouse. The Roane County Court made many improvements to the house in order that it would be adequate for the state legislature to meet. Unfortunately, after meeting in Kingston for one day, the state legislature voted to return to Knoxville, the former state capital. It is interesting to note that in 1844, Kingston was considered again for the state capital. The Senate voted for Kingston while the House voted for Murfreesboro. As a compromise, Nashville was chosen as the permanent state capital.

Throughout its history, Kingston has had many ups and downs. When the river was king, steamboats traveled from Kingston to Knoxville and Chattanooga. Also, many of the roads leading west passed through Kingston. However, when the railroads became a major part of transportation, the river declined. At least two times in the 1870s and 1880s, the citizens voted to dissolve the city. Rockwood and Harriman had surpassed the importance of Kingston. One of the main reasons that Kingston survived where other towns have disappeared is that Kingston was still the county seat. In the 1890s there was a move to make Harriman the county seat as it was difficult to get to Kingston because of the rivers. At that time the only way to get across was through ferries. In dry weather, one could also ford across the Clinch River. County Court then decided to build a bridge that connected to the other side. With the coming of Oak Ridge and T.V.A., Kingston became a bedroom community. The coming of Interstate 40 also created more traffic in Kingston.

Originally Written for the Roane County Newsletter to the Community, August 2013.

Coca-Cola Bottling Works

{Robert Bailey – Roane County Historian}

If you look on the internet in places like eBay or through bottle dealers, one will find that there are several Coca-Cola bottles which bear the “Rockwood, Tenn.” raised lettering. In the 1890s there were several saloons located in Rockwood. The Swagerty Brothers (Jim A. and Tom F. Swagerty) owned and operated one of these saloons and bottled liquor. When liquor was outlawed in Rockwood in 1902, the Swagerty brothers switched to bottling Coca-Cola. They received their franchise from the Coca-Cola Bottling Works, Chattanooga, on September 1st, 1903. Besides Coca-Cola, they also manufactured all kinds of soda pop. In 1906, the Swagerty brothers sold their business to Walter Howard and H. Fowler. Later Tom Tarwater and T.A. Wright bought into the plant. Then, H. Fowler, Bart Bacon, and Sewell Howard became the owners. The first plant was in a one-room building on South Front Avenue. The bottling equipment consisted of a stove (to heat water), a tub, a water-driven brush, and a foot-power machine. Deliveries were made by a one-horse wagon. In the early days, the commissaries of coal, lumber, and mining companies were the major outlets for their product. The Roane Iron Company and the Brown Mining Co. of Roane County, and also the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company, New River Coal Company and Brown-Hill Colliery were among the places where one could purchase Coca-Cola and other soda pops. In 1916, a new building was constructed on South Wilder Street. An ice plant was installed which provided these retailers with free ice as an incentive to use the Coca-Cola Bottling Works. This building was located across the street from where Molyneux Lumber was located and was used until 1950. About 1919, S.D. Smith purchased the plant, and in 1923 he sold out to J.G. Repsher and C.L. Cole both of Mississippi. Presidents of the company through the years from 1923 included J.G. Repsher, Mellie T. Repsher (his widow), Saramel Rephser Crooks (the daughter of J.G. Repsher). Managers through the years were C.L. Cole, and his sons, S.P. Cole, Charles E. Cole and James T. Cole. A new building was constructed at 220 South Kingston Avenue, and the Coca-Cola Bottling Works was moved there in January 1951. In 1969 it purchased the Dr. Pepper Bottling Plant in Lenoir City, with the franchise to bottle Dr. Pepper. The Rockwood Coca-Cola Works was later sold to Johnston Coca-Cola of Cleveland, Tennessee and it was closed in 1998. Other bottling works were operated in Rockwood by Captain Robert H. Thompson (Thompson & Kelly), A.R. Humes, and Walter Smith in the early days of Rockwood’s history. Bottles have been found with the raised lettering identifying these companies and that they were from Rockwood.

Originally Written for the Roane County Newsletter to the Community, June 2013.