Death in Knoxville Part 3: A Season of Retribution

This is Part 3 of Death in Knoxville.

After killing Minnie Scott, Peter Turner fled to the small town of Middlesboro, Kentucky, some 65 miles north of Knoxville, in Bell County. He may have known someone there, but in those days, Kentucky was also known as a lawless place, plagued by feuding and law enforcement from Tennessee were loath to follow a suspect into the mountains. But after only a week, Peter Turner went home to Knoxville.

He was approached almost immediately by Deputy Sheriff Singleton. In a panic, he denied that he was Peter Turner.

The policeman shook his head. Knoxville was not such a large town as to have a lot of lookalikes wandering the streets. Besides, he had known Turner before. Why deny it?

Peter, hopeless, admitted his identity and voluntarily handed over his pistol. It seems he really did just panic when he was confronted. He must have intended to turn himself in because he was carrying a handwritten narrative about his relations with Mrs. Scott; a similar statement in the deceased woman’s handwriting, together with a complete confession of the crime.

Turner was arrested and taken to jail.

Shortly after he was booked, Peter was taken to Sheriff Reeder’s office. Peter admitted he shot Minnie three times, and told the sheriff the two had had a suicide pact. Peter had been ready to go through with it, but when he fired at himself, the pistol snapped.

The prisoner was still wearing his own clothes, and Singleton had made sure he wasn’t carrying any weapons. The sheriff asked Turner to empty his pockets to see what else he was carrying. According to the court records, Peter had a small packet on him that contained “mashed up beans, some match heads broken up and a few dead spiders, all wrapped up together, indicating further preparation to take his life.”

It was, as The Leaf-Chronicle, reported, “a decoction which would kill anything on earth.”

Peter was tried for first-degree murder in April 1907, three weeks after committing the crime. I have noticed this rapid justice in many Tennessee cases. The state did not permit criminal defense attorneys to drag out trials and appeals indefinitely. Accused people generally got between 1-3 weeks to prepare their case. If it was a death penalty offense, they were likely to go through the appeals process, including last-ditch attempts to seek a pardon from the governor, and be hanged, within 6 or 7 months.

Peter’s attorney, Frank Sanders, argued that Turner was insane at the time he committed the act. It was the only possible defense, since Peter admitted he had done it and had given a signed confession. The prisoner’s own narrative proved he was incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, Sanders argued. “The enormity of this act,” Sanders pleaded, “and the absence of any motive reinforces the evidence of insanity.”

But no witness could be produced to testify that Turner had been insane prior to shooting Minnie Scott nor that he was afflicted with hereditary insanity.

Deputy Singleton testified. He described Mrs. Scott’s statement, in which she gave a complete history of her relations with Peter Turner and their plans to die together. Mrs. Scott’s handwritten statement was with the detective who had investigated the crime, but neither he nor the statement were in court at the time Peter Turner was tried.

His own testimony would be Peter’s best defense. Accordingly, he was called to the stand.

Go to Part 4

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