Death in Knoxville Part 6: The End of the Story

Need to catch up on an earlier part of the story?

Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5

Tennessee’s Governor Malcolm Patterson occasionally granted reprieves to a condemned prisoner so he could study the case first. But the governor was going to be married December 7, three days before the hanging. Peter’s case didn’t appear to register in his consciousness.

On December 9, Sheriff Reeder prepared for the execution, noting the rope and scaffolding were ready to be used the following day. But late that evening, Governor Patterson granted a reprieve until January 11, 1908.

Tennessee’s Governor Malcolm Patterson

 

Ultimately, the governor agreed with the courts. Turner was guilty of premeditated homicide. On January 10, Peter was notified the he would be hanged the next day at 1:30 p.m.

The next morning, a cold rain was falling.

According to Knoxville’s Journal and Tribune, hundreds of people–”white and black, men and women and children”–stood outside the jail. Sheriff Reeder issued a curt negative to the crowd’s pleas to watch the hanging. Unbeknownst to the public, Peter Turner had attempted suicide again that morning. He’d cut his left wrist and gashed his neck with a pewter spoon that was honed to a sharp point.

Turner had been in jail for nine months and the sheriff had grown to like the young man. Reeder brought his sons to work nearly every day. His two smallest boys, Lum and Ross, were too little to help much and the sheriff allowed them to play with Turner. When he discovered the suicide attempt, Sheriff Reeder turned Peter over to the ministers who were there to pray with the condemned man. Turner cried as they spoke.

At first, the prisoner didn’t see the large man who entered the room silently. When he realized Minnie’s husband was there, he hurried to his side. Will Scott eyed him without moving. “I am sorry,” Turner said. “I’ve begged God and He’s forgiven me. I want you to forgive me.”

Scott stared at him. He probably had not thought of speaking to Turner. He asked, “You think you deserve the death penalty?”

“Yes,” Turner answered.

“Do you think the law should be executed?” Scott persisted.

“Yes,” Turner repeated.

Will bowed his head. “I have to forgive you then.”

Knoxville, TN, circa 1900. The YMCA, Fire Department, and Sheriff’s Office are visible (LOC)

 

At 1:09 p.m., Turner was brought outside, flanked by the preachers, Sheriff Reeder, and Deputy Suffridge. The sheriff’s eldest son Claude stood on the scaffold beside Deputy McClain.

The air was somber as Peter took his stand on the scaffold, over the fatal trap. The ministers led the hymn “Nearer my God to Thee”. Turner joined the singing and afterwards he shook hands with everyone. Sheriff Reeder put a hand on his arm and spoke to him, but Turner shook his head. “I’m going home,” he said.

The last hand he shook belonged to Will Scott. He said again how sorry he was. Turner knelt with the ministers for a final prayer and was given a chance to speak. “I wish to say that I hope everyone before me will meet me in heaven,” Peter said. After a pause, he added, “I’m ready. I’m only going home.”

His legs and arms were strapped when Turner asked to speak again. “Ross,” Turner said, calling the name of the sheriff’s youngest son.

Surprisingly, the child was there. Turner looked at the small boy and said, “Good night, Ross.”

The little boy, perhaps not understanding, answered, “Good night, Pete.”

A hood was placed over the prisoner’s head and a minister commended Peter’s spirit to God. Sheriff Reeder asked if he was ready. Peter replied, “Yes, I am ready. Goodbye, everybody.”

The prisoner’s body dropped through the trap. Blood was visible on the rope around his neck, but it was from the self-injury that morning, not the hanging.

Sheriff Reeder’s refusal to allow the public to attend the hanging was unusual, but he did permit Peter’s body to be placed in the jail lobby for 90 minutes, so 700 men, women, and children, black and white, could pass by in a single file.

Turner wanted his body to be sent to his sister Jennie but he wasn’t sure where she lived. He was laid to rest in the county cemetery.

This story has stuck with me, and my mind has changed about Peter Turner’s guilt more than once. Please share your opinions!

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