Tag Archives: North Carolina

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.

Pruneface

{Robert Bailey – Roane County Historian}

Pruneface was the character in the 1990 movie “Dick Tracy” which was played by a veteran actor named Robert Golden (R.G.) Armstrong, Jr., who had Roane County roots. After his parents, Robert Golden & Ermyne (Robbins) Armstong, Sr., were married here in 1915, they removed to Birmingham, Alabama where R.G. Jr. was born in 1917. He went to college in North Carolina and became friends with Andy Griffith. He guest starred in almost all of the Western series in the 1950s and 1960s including Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Big Valley, and Maverick among others. Besides appearing in Dick Tracy, he also appeared in two other Warren Beaty films, “Reds” and “Heaven Can Wait.” He appeared with James Earl Jones in “The Great White Hope” and with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Predator” among the over 30 movies that he appeared in. Shortly before his death he came to East Tennessee and made an appearance on the Marshal Andy Show on the Knoxville PBS station.

Robert Golden Armstrong, Jr.

R.G. Armstrong as Pruneface

Originally written for the Roane County Newsletter to the Community, April 2015.

The Beginnings of Oak Ridge & The Secret City

{Robert Bailey – Roane County Historian}

There have been many important events that have occurred throughout the history of Roane County. The coming of industry to create Rockwood, the Temperance movement which brought about Harriman, the Tennessee Valley Authority which brought power to rural areas and many others made dramatic impacts in Roane County. However, the creation of “Oak Ridge” may have had the most impact. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese brought the United States into World War II. Here in Oak Ridge and other plants in the United States, the atomic bomb was developed which were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The development of the atomic bomb had to be kept top secret. The first code name for the project was called the “Kingston Demolition Range” but was later renamed “Clinton Engineer Works” after the city of Clinton. One of the reasons this area was chosen was that the area was isolated. It also had power provided by T.V.A., and there were two railroads. Land acquisition began in the fall of 1942. Approximately 56,200 acres in Roane and Anderson Counties were acquired for the project. An important aspect of the land was the ridges which divided the valleys. A plant was located in each valley. At this time there were only about 1,000 families in the area. The average cost of an acre paid was $45 per acre. However, many families received much less. Among the items located in the Roane County Archives are the maps of the Kingston Demolition Range showing all the owners of the different properties which were acquired by the Federal Government.

Among the acquisitions was the Wheat High School, located near the K-25 plant, which was only one of three High Schools ran by Roane County. The other two were Roane County High and Rockwood High. The Harriman High School was run by the City of Harriman. Most of the homes, barns and other outbuildings were destroyed to discourage people and others from moving into them. Those buildings not torn down were used for storage. Two churches, the George Jones Baptist church near the K-25 plant and the New Bethel Baptist Church near the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (X-10), which was used for storage, were not torn down and are all that remain in the Oak Ridge part of Roane County before the building of the city.

The Gaseous Diffusion Plant (K-25) was the first of the three (K-25, X-10, and Y-12) plants to be built. Construction of the Gaseous Diffusion Plant (K-25) began in 1943 and was built primarily by the J.A. Jones Construction Co., of Charlotte, N.C. at the cost of about $500 million. Carbide and Carbon Chemical Company, later Union Carbide Corporation, became the operating contractor because of its experience in the chemical and metallurgical fields and earlier contributions to the atomic energy program. K-25 was the war code name for the plant “K” representing the Kellex Corporation which designed the plant. In 1945, about 10 percent of all the electric power generated in the United States was required to operate K-25. It consisted of five process buildings—K-25, K-27, K-29, and K-33 and about 70 auxiliary buildings covering about 640 acres. The U-shaped K-25 building was a half-mile long and was the largest building in the world under one roof at that time. Each wing is 2,450 feet long, averages 400 feet in width, and is 60 feet in height. The total area of the building covered 44 acres. Along with K-27, the K-25 process building was shut down in 1964. The plant produced large quantities of enriched uranium-235 from uranium 238 through the gaseous diffusion process to be used either in weapons or to fuel nuclear reactors.

K-25 Footprint

K-25 Aerial View

K-25 Union Carbide Corp USAEC

X10 Reactor Face

X-10


The X-10 (Oak Ridge National Laboratory) plant was built by DuPont for 12 million dollars and completed in October 1943. The letter “X” was used by the University of Chicago in its description of the area. The number 10 had no special significance. It was much smaller than the K-25 and Y-12 plants. During the war, it employed 1,513 people. The primary mission was to build a Graphite Reactor to show that the production of plutonium from uranium in a reactor could fuel an atomic bomb. Its job was to show that plutonium could be extracted from irradiated uranium slugs, and its first major challenge was to produce a self-sustaining chain reaction. And in 1944, chemists produced the world’s first few grams of plutonium. The Graphite Reactor operated from 1943 to 1963. Among the accomplishments through the years at X-10 were:

(1) Production of the first electricity from nuclear energy;
(2) The first reactor was used for studying the nature of matter and the health hazards of radioactivity.
(3) Providing radioisotopes for medicine, agriculture, industry, and other purposes.

The Oak Ridge National Lab is a world-wide known research center for energy, environment, and other things. The Graphite Reactor was declared a registered National Historic Landmark in 1966 and is Roane County’s only such National landmark.

The Y-12 plant was designed and constructed by the Stone and Webster Engineering Corporation of Boston at the cost of about $427, 000. The name of the plant has no special significance. It contained about 170 buildings and was built on 500 acres. The plant was put into use by the operating company, the Tennessee Eastman Corporation of Kingsport, TN, in January 1944. At its peak in 1945, it employed 22,000 people. Its purpose was to separate uranium atoms (U-235 from U-238) using an electromagnetic process developed by Dr. E.O. Lawrence of the University of California. It was the first and only plant of its kind in the world. Y-12 separated the uranium that was used in “Little Boy” the uranium bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. It was the first atomic bomb to be used as a weapon. The other bomb, “Fat Man,” a plutonium bomb, which was developed in Hanford, Washington, was dropped three days later on Nagasaki, Japan. After the war, the plant started manufacturing uranium components for nuclear weapons. The construction of parts for nuclear weapons by the Y-12 plant played an important part in eventually ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Knoxville News-Sentinel Headline

Originally written for the Roane County Newsletter to the Community between June and September 2012.