Ned Walton Hanging
Robertson County's First and Only Legal Hanging
The Execution of Ned Walton
Excerpt from "A Century of Murder; A chronicle of Early Murders in Robertson Co TN, 1810 - 1910" by Dewey Edwards
Contributed by Sharon Smith
As the first rays of daylight broke on the horizon, the old rooster perched on the rotting fence post flapped his wings and crowed, welcoming another clear, crisp August morning. Inside the cozy farmhouse nearby, David J. Walton was already up and about, poking at the logs in the fireplace and sipping on his second cup of coffee. The rest of the family was still asleep, so he moved softly through the house as not to wake them. Peering out the rear kitchen window, he saw no movement or any sign of life at the slave shack where two of his field slaves, Ned and Peter resided. It was going to be one of those days.
David had recently purchased a tract of land from Leonard Dozier, and was in the process of clearing it in preparation for spring planting. It had not gone well at all. First, the ground was a lot rougher and overgrown than he first thought, and it was taking much longer than he had anticipated. This caused him a great deal of concern, as his livelihood depended on a good crop, and to grow a good crop, you had to have fertile fields.
Then his best work horse had gone lame, and another was expected to foal any day, leaving him with only two old mules to get the job done. And then, there were Ned and Peter. They were not as energetic as they had once been. As a matter of fact, they had become just downright lazy and had to be watched over constantly. David personally blamed Ned for the work not getting done on schedule. Peter was somewhat mentally handicapped, and David seemed to favor him over Ned on account of this. Still, David regarded them both as lazy and unreliable.
In addition to the land clearing, as if that alone wasn't enough, David had a large estate to inventory and settle. A few months prior, David's father, Dr. Martin Walton, had died without leaving a Last Will and Testament. David petitioned the court and was granted letters of administration over his father's estate. He had no idea of the amount of paperwork or time consumed in such an undertaking, and in retrospect, he wished he had passed it along to someone else. His farm was all but neglected as he struggled to settle his father's affairs. With all the complicated legal procedures involved, it was not progressing as quickly as he wanted it to.
David sat at the kitchen table and tried to relax, but found it impossible to do so. There was simply too much work to be done. He quickly downed the last swallow of coffee, set the cup on the table, and made a quick exit through the back door. David was already in a foul mood when he pounded on the shack door, and it didn't get any better when he found Ned and Peter still asleep.
A heated argument ensued, resulting in David threatening both slaves with the whip. Knowing their master meant what he said, Ned and Peter quickly hitched the team to the wagon, gathered their tools, and a few minutes later arrived at their destination. Peter climbed down from the wagon and immediately went to work, while Ned just sat there, staring off in the distance with a wild look in his eyes. Peter had seen Ned in one of his foul moods before, and experience had taught him it was best to keep your distance until he cooled down.
In due time, Ned climbed down from the wagon and threw his ax to the ground, cursing with each breath. He then sat down at the base of a large tree and pulled his old wool hat down over his eyes. Soon, he was snoozing in the warm sunlight. Peter kept chopping and digging, trying his best to ignore his lazy companion. He knew what would happen if master David caught them idle, but right now, he was more afraid of Ned! Peter finally gave up, leaned his ax against a sapling and joined Ned under the tree. Soon, he too, was sound asleep.
Later in the morning, David decided to take a break from the paperwork and check on the slaves' progress. As he walked along the winding lane, he listened for the sounds of their axes. Only the sound of birds singing and an occasional dog barking met his ears. He walked faster now, growing angrier with each step. As he entered the clearing and found them asleep under the tree, something inside him snapped! All the anger and rage which had been building over the past few months suddenly boiled over and he could contain himself no longer!
He cracked his whip across the outstretched legs of the sleeping slaves, startling both of them to their feet. The whip cracked again, this time across Ned's back, causing him to scream out in pain. David then focused on Peter, and lashed out in his direction. Fearing for his safety, Peter turned and ran, and David gave chase. He never saw Ned running up from behind. Or the ax he was swinging. The ax found its mark, burying itself in the back of David's head. It was all over in a flash. David collapsed to the ground, and as his life ebbed away, a crimson pool formed beside his twitching body. Ned and Peter ran for their lives. Literally. David's lifeless body was discovered by his close friend and neighbor, Vincent Williams, who sent one of his slaves into Springfield to summon the Sheriff. When Sheriff Green Benton arrived, Williams escorted him to the grisly scene. An inquest was quickly conducted and the only wound found was a deep gash to the back of the head, measuring three inches wide and two inches deep. Pronounced dead at the scene, David's body was then loaded into a wagon and delivered to his home
Sheriff Benton quickly organized a posse and the manhunt for the fugitive slaves got underway. Friends and neighbors participated in the search which lasted well into the night. The search was called off around midnight, but resumed at daybreak the following morning. Ned and Peter were soon discovered in a barn about two miles away, hidden in the fodder. They were placed under arrest and charged with murder in the first degree, and taken under heavy guard to the jail at Springfield. That afternoon, David was laid to rest in the small cemetery on his farm, not far from where he was murdered on that fateful day of August 17th, 1845.
The following month, on October 8th, Vincent Williams and James Woodard appeared before the Grand Jury and based on their testimony, an indictment for murder was returned against the slaves. Ned and Peter were arraigned that same day.
Ned and Peter, bound by shackles and leg irons, stood before Judge Mortimer A. Martin and entered a plea of not guilty, thus allowing them a trial by jury. They were returned to jail while the jury was selected. According to State law at that time, in a case where a slave had assaulted or killed his master, the jury would consist solely of slave owners. Later in the afternoon, the jury was seated and was comprised of the follwing citizens: John S. Harris, Stephen Pepper, George W. Baird, J. Rawls, J. Reynolds, John Foster, James Rawls, William Anderson, Cary A.P. Foster, William H. Haggard, James M. Benton and William J. Harrison. The trial got underway that same day with Alfred Robb as the prosecuting attorney.
The trial lasted two more days, with the jury sequestered each evening. On Friday, October 10th, the defense rested its case and the jury retired to consider the verdict. Deliberation was swift, and that afternoon, the jury foreman announced that they had reached a verdict. With Ned and Peter standing before the court, the jury marched in single file and took their seats. "We find the defendant Peter, not guilty as charged. We find the defendant Ned, guilty of murder in the first degree", a crime punishable by death. The law at that time called for death by hanging in the event a slave was convicted of killing his or her master. Peter was released from custody and ordered to leave the state. He watched in sorrow as his friend was hauled off to jail to await sentencing.
The next morning, Ned again stood shackled before Judge Martin, his head bowed low. He remained silent when asked if he had anything to say before sentence was pronounced, then trembled as he received the sentence. "Ned Walton, you have been found guilty of the murder of David Walton. On Friday, the 31st day of October 1845, upon a gallows to be erected by the Sheriff of Robertson County, within half a mile of the Courthouse in the town of Sprinfield, and there, between the hours of one o'clock and three o'clock in the evening of that day, you shall be hanged by the neck until dead, and the defendant shall pay all costs which may accrue". Ned was marched back to jail through the jeering crowd to await his execution.
At the time, Sheriff Benton was thirty seven years old and was serving his third term as Sheriff of Robertson County. More than likely, he had never even seen a hanging. Now here he was, responsible for the proper execution of Ned Walton. Can you imagine what thoughts must have crossed his mind?
On the morning of October 31, Springfield was bustling with activity. News of the County's first execution had spread like wildfire throughout the neighboring communities. Citizens were streaming into town, some by the wagon load, some on horseback, some walking, all intent on watching the execution. Many brought their own slaves to show them the consequences of such a crime. The streets were lined with men, women, and children, all wanting to get a glimpse of the doomed man. Some sat in wagons along the road, eating their lunch as they watched and waited. The crowd lined both sides of the road, from the square and extending to where the gallows awaited under a large tree just west of town. (The gallows was erected across the street from where the Springfield Middle School now stands).
Inside the small jail, Ned was being served his last meal, consisting of white beans, cornbread, and milk. He ate slowly, knowing this would be his last. As he swallowed the last bite, he heard the squeak of a wagon and loud voices outside his cell. Rising and peering through a crack in the log wall, he stood gaping at the large crowd gathered outside, waiting to watch him die! Sweeping his eyes to the right, he saw the wagon, and inside the wagon was his coffin, waiting for him. He shuddered, then broke down and cried, tears rolling down his cheeks as the leg irons were placed on his ankles and escorted from his cell.
Surrounded by deputies, he was forced to sit atop his coffin wearing a white burial shroud, a striking contrast against his coal black skin. He kept his head bowed, studying the coffin, but he felt all eyes on him as he was paraded down Main Street. As the wagon passed, the crowd fell in behind the wagon, following until it reached its destination.
Ned stood on top of his coffin and closed his eyes as the white cotton hood was placed over his head. Sheriff Benton nervously fitted the noose around Ned's neck as he read aloud the death sentence. A short prayer was offered and the crowd stood silent. Suddenly, the horses lurched forward, dragging Ned's footing from beneath him. He dropped about four feet and the noose tightened, crushing his windpipe. He could not breathe. He kicked and squirmed for what seemed like an eternity, then all was still. The crowd watched in silent awe. They had never seen such a spectacle and what they had witnessed was now permanently etched into their memories. No one would soon forget.
When it was certain that his life had expired, Ned's limp, lifeless body was cut down, laid in his coffin, and given a pauper's burial. His burial location is unknown to this day. Later, Ned was declared insolvent, and the State was ordered to pay the costs: 74 days board in the County jail at .37 cents per day; 16 Guards at $2.00 each, and a payment to Sheriff Green Benton for executing the defendant, a whopping $12.50! Total costs of the execution, $82.90.
The gallows was left standing for a while, as a grim reminder for all to see and to serve as a deterrent to crime. Evidently it worked, at least for a while. Seven years passed before the next murder was committed in Robertson County.
Thursday, July 23, 2009Age and the elements of nature took its toll, and the gallows fell into a state of disrepair. Having served its purpose for the one solitary execution, it was dismantled and removed. This was to be the first and only gallows ever built in Robertson County, Tennessee.
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