Death in Knoxville Part 6: The End of the Story

This is Part 6–and the conclusion–of Death in Knoxville.

Tennessee’s Governor Malcolm R. Patterson frequently 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 Turner’s case didn’t appear to register in his consciousness and on December 9, Sheriff Reeder was dutifully preparing 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. Whether Peter believed the governor would ultimately come down on his side is not known, but the fact is though Governor Patterson often gave a reprieve of one month so he could study the case, he rarely commuted a death sentence to life imprisonment. On January 10, Peter was notified the he would be hanged the next day at 1:30 p.m.

On the morning of January 11, 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 he had honed to a sharp point.

This wouldn’t necessarily preclude the public from witnessing the hanging, but Peter Turner had been in the sheriff’s jail for nine months and he 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 and stood watching him. When he caught sight of the man and realized Minnie’s husband was there, Peter Turner hurried to his side. Will Scott eyed him without moving. “I am sorry!” Turner cried out to him. “I’ve begged God and He’s forgiven me. I want you to forgive me.”

Scott stared at him. Certainly he had not expected this to happen. He may not have intended to speak to Turner at all. Finally he thought of a question. “You think you deserve the death penalty?”

“Yes,” Peter answered quickly.

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

“Yes,” the condemned prisoner 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 ministers led the hymn “Nearer my God to Thee,” as was the custom. Turner joined the singing and afterwards he shook hands with everyone.

Sheriff Reeder put a sympathetic hand on the condemned man’s arm and spoke to him in a voice too low for anyone else to hear, but Turner attempted to reassure the sheriff. His courage had failed him many times but now he was brave and held his head up high. “I’m going home,” he told Sheriff Reeder calmly.

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. Then he rose and the air became somber as Peter took his stand on the scaffold, over the fatal trap.  and was given a chance to speak his last words. “I wish to say that I hope everyone before me will meet me in heaven,” Peter said. “I’m ready. I’m only going home.”

His legs and arms were strapped when Turner suddenly and unexpectedly spoke again. “Ross,” he called.

This was the name of the sheriff’s youngest son. He had spent many hours entertaining the child in the jail. Surprisingly, Ross Reeder, who was not yet seven years old, was present and he looked up at the man on the scaffold, seemingly baffled by the proceedings. Turner looked at the boy and said, “Good night, Ross.”

The little boy, 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. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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