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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

July 1868 lynchings in Williamson County, Tennessee and the rise of the KKK

On Friday, July 17, 1868, just a few years after the end of the Civil War - William Guthrie, an African American man from Franklin, was lynched by the KKK in retaliation for accusations that he raped a white woman. The newspaper said: "His execution took place on Friday night at midnight, and it was supposed to have been done by the Kuklux, or at least by persons in disguise and unknown to our informants." His murder touched off a series of back-and-forth lynchings and murders that would leave as many as six Williamson County men - both black and white - dead. 

The events are relatively unknown in Williamson County, although they have been written about locally and nationally in part because one of the killings, of Samuel Bierfield, is believed to be the first lynching of a Jewish person in America.  Perhaps the best summary of these events appears in a Jewish publication here.  I will not attempt to provide a comprehensive review of the events that summer, but I think it is worth a review of the timeline and circumstances surrounding them because they provide important insight into life in Williamson County at that tumultuous time - early in Reconstruction as African Americans were working to rebuild lives following slavery and many white Williamson Countians were struggling with the rapidly shifting political, economic and social structures that they had known and relied on.

Timeline of Events

Summer of 1867.  Beyond the scope of this blog post - but certainly worth considering for its context - is the so-called Franklin Riot which occurred the summer before, in July 1867.  A clash between two rival political groups in Franklin resulted in one death and several injuries.  Recently, the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall Foundation has published the best summary of these events to date here. To summarize the situation, as African American men were gaining the right to vote and former Confederates were being disenfranchised, political tensions were fraught. Two opposing political groups formed, drawn largely - but not entirely - on racial lines.  The Loyal League or Union League aligned with the Radical Republicans and was comprised primarily of former federal soldiers - both white and black - and non-veteran black men.  On the other side were the Conservatives who were comprised primarily of former Confederates, pro-secessionists and some African Americans who remained loyal to the Confederates, seeing their political and economic fortunes tied to those who had always - and they believed would continue to be - in power.

To exacerbate matters, that summer the Ku Klux Klan was emerging nearby in Giles County. A Freedmen's Bureau agent described in August how, "The best citizens here declare that no harm shall come to anyone and that the [Loyal] League shall not be interfered with - they say this Kuklux Klan is gotten up by the young men merely for fun and that they never intend to interfere with anyone. This may all be true but I doubt it. It is certainly a very extensive institution for a funny one."

Statement by Freedmen's Bureau Officer, Giles County, Tennessee August 1857

January 1868 Ku Klu Klan Begins to Spread.  Within months, the KKK was spreading throughout middle Tennessee.  In January 1868, a Nashville newspaper was reporting on a chapter forming in that city. Its organization was imputed as a reaction to the creation of all-black companies within the state militia, as well as the large numbers of armed veterans of the US Colored Troops. (These were also key factors in the 1867 incident in Franklin.)

One night in 1868, a Franklin chapter of the KKK was formed in former Confederate John House's dry good's store on the public square in Franklin. House had played a major role in the July 1867 incident.

Statement by George S. Nichols
Describing the formation of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in 1868 in Franklin, TN with an initial membership of John L. House, George Smithson, William Cunningham, J. M. Nichols, Daniel McAlpin, Geo S. Nichols - dated March 11, 1915
 Mary Nichols Britt Collection.
Tennessee State Library and Archives.

March 1868 KKK Was Well-Established in Williamson County. By March 1868 a newspaper correspondent from Thompson's Station in Williamson County was reporting on county-wide elections that had gone overwhelmingly for the Conservatives - perhaps (probably) due to intimidation by the KKK. The writer said, "The negroes have got tired waiting for their 'forty acres' and are getting to realize affairs in their proper aspect. At a meeting of the Rads [Republicans] in this county, a week before the election they were told 'to go to the polls with their arms and ammunition in their pockets and be sure to keep it dry.' . . . The people [presumably he means the white population] are highly pleased with the result of the election. I have heard of only one difficulty on election day, and that happened in Franklin. [The writer then described a conflict between James Bliss (a white former federal officer and member of the Loyal League who had also been involved in the July 1867 incident) and Jeff DeGraffenreid (a white Conservative)] . . . The Ku-Klux or any body of men had anything to do with the election." This last line makes me wonder why the writer included it -- was it a denial?

Meanwhile, the KKK and another organization the "Pale Faces" had gained such popularity in middle Tennessee that they were sponsoring youth baseball teams in Nashville.

Nashville Republican Banner
Sunday Mar_29__1868
Additionally, the KKK seems to have been working to rehabilitate its image from a violent organization into a benevolent one.  That spring, the Franklin chapter of the KKK visited a widow near Fairview whose son had died as a Confederate soldier.  The group delivered a $100 gift. The men were dressed in "long flowing robes of red, bordered with a broad white stripe."


In April of 1868, a police officer in Memphis arrested several members of a KKK den there and took possession of some of their promotional materials.  A seized KKK initiation pamphlet was published in the newspaper and described that the organization required members to "swear that all Radicals and Negroes, who have placed themselves opposite to the interests of the owners of the soil of Tennessee shall forever be my enemy, and that under no circumstance will I have other connection with them, if I can help it other than to 'welcome them with bloody hands to hospitable graves.'"

KKK Becoming Increasingly Violent.  This description of the KKK's objectives as bringing African Americans to their "graves" seems to be a major purpose of the organization.  In June of 1868, a black man was horrifically murdered just north of Thompson's Station. His body was discovered by 18-year-old John Lawson who described how one night:
"two Ku Klux came . . . to the cabin where I was, and came in the cabin, after breaking open the door. They were in the cabin when I slipped out. It being dark, one of them said to the other to come and let us kill this damned negro. They followed me up, and fired four shots at me. I got away and hid. The next morning, I started for Nashville, and within about one-quarter of a mile from where I started, I found a man hanging up by the feet. He had been skinned. His skin was hanging over his neck, and his privates had been cut off and put in his mouth. I did not know who he was."
Particularly at risk of these kinds of violence, were the black men who had joined the US Army to fight during the Civil War. In the book, Good Struck Me Dead, Franklin veteran Freeman Thomas described an experience he had with the KKK during this time:

"After the war, times got worse for a time. The KKK were raising the devil on every hand. They were especially hard on us soldiers. Once a bunch of them caught me out. "Where were you born?" they asked m. "Franklin," I replied. "You are the very Negro we want. You belong to that Union League, and we are going to kill you." "No sir, Mars's, I don't belong to no league, and I am a good man, I work for Ole Mars' and Missus and do whatever they tell me to." "You will have to prove this," they told me. They took me to a man that knew me, and he told them that I was once a soldier. This made them madder than ever. I denied that I had ever been a soldier, and when they tried to make me march I pretended not to know how. One of them stuck a pistol to my nose and asked me what church I belonged to. I said, "None." They told me I had better pray and made me get down on my knees. They had caught and killed a lot of Negroes that htey found out to be old soldiers. I was good and scared. When I wouldn't pray, one of them started to praying for me and said, "Lord have mercy on this poor Negro that is coming home in about five minutes." I jumped up and said, "White folks, I just can't stand it no longer." They jerked me around for a while and made like they were going to kill me, but after a while they let me go. I took off my hat and ran like a deer. It is a wonder I didn't run into a tree and kill myself."

Incidents like this these were becoming so common that the Tennessee State Senate's Committee on Military Affairs convened a commission to investigate the "outrages committed by the Ku Klux klan in middle and west Tennessee."  John Lawson described his harassment to them on August 5, 1868.
Report of evidence taken before the Military committee in relation to outrages committed by the Ku Klux klan in middle and west Tennessee by Tennessee. General assembly. Senate. Committee on military affairs. [page 37, the testimony of John Lawson of Thompson Station, Williamson County]

In early July 1868, General George Judd, of the Freedmen's Bureau wrote to his superiors in Nashville and described how freedmen were fleeing to Nashville for protection from the KKK and that nothing but force would stop them. "Unless something is done by the Governor immediately to protect the colored citizens, this City [Nashville] will be flooded by poor, helpless creatures who will have to be supported by the U.S. Government. ... The Kuklux organization is so extensive and so well organized and armed that it is beyond the power of anyone to exert any moral influence over them. Powder and Ball is the only thing that will put them down."

Statement by Freedmen's Bureau Agent, George Judd - July 7, 1868
Described how freedmen were fleeing to Nashville for protection. "Unless something is done by the Governor immediately to protect the colored citizens, this City will be flooded by poor, helpless creatures who will have to be supported by the U.S. Government. ... The Kuklux organization is so extensive and so well organized and armed that it is beyond the power of anyone to exert any moral influence over them. Powder and Ball is the only thing that will put them down." 

Murder of William Guthrie in July 1868.  Finally, one night in July 1868, these tensions appear to have boiled over in Franklin. William Guthrie, a black man, was accused of raping a white girl from the Ezell family on Carter's Creek Pike on the west side of Franklin. He was captured by her family members the next day near Boyd's Mill and taken to the Franklin jail. 

The Nashville Republican Banner
At midnight that night, 

"the well-known signal of the Kuklux was sounded throughout the town [and] as a body of horsemen, in the uniform of the Klan, apparently three hundred strong rode into the place. The corner of every street was strictly guarded by the sentinels, and no one was allowed to pass out of their lines. A number of the Klan immediately proceeded to the jail, obtained the keys from the reluctant jailer, took out the prisoner, carried him to the Douglass Church, four miles and a half from Franklin on the Lewisburg turnpike, shot him twice through the head and left him lying dead near the road-side. . . . [Guthrie] was found the next morning, and it was discovered that the hogs had commenced eating away his face. The Coroner held an inquest on the body, and the jury returned a verdict that he came to his death by balls from a pistol in the hands of persons unknown."
According to this report, Guthrie was murdered at the Douglass Church which was located where Henpeck Market is today at the intersection of Lewisburg Pike and Henpeck Lane. 

Retaliatory Murder of Jeremiah Ezell.  A newspaper reported that the next night, also at midnight one of the Ezell brothers was shot and killed on Carter's Creek Pike, "by a party of negroes and white men in ambush. The ambush consisted of sixteen negroes and two white men. [Jeremiah] Ezell was shot by the assassins and mortally wounded. A young man named Beasley was also shot through the foot and his horse was badly hurt. . . Ezell died on Sunday night." His body is buried in the Cotton Cemetery in the Southall community.

I wanted to add one more description to these newspaper accounts that has not been widely reported before.  John Campbell was born in Scotland to Irish parents and moved to Franklin as a child.  He wrote a memoir in 1925 that described many events in Franklin before, during and after the Civil War - including the murder of William Guthrie and Jeremiah Ezell.  In his account, he refers to Ezell as "John" Ezell and said that he was the man who killed William Guthrie with a shotgun - and that he was therefore targeted by the ambushing group.  He also described how, following Ezell's murder, the KKK "took the matter up" and killed two black men in addition to targeting a white man who had been with them, Samuel Bierfield. One of the black men was "hung . . . on a locust tree that stood a few yards south of the end of the stone fence [at Widow Bostick's Everbright home on Carter's Creek Pike] and the other one was hung in Maney's front lawn about a mile out on the Nashville pike." The home where the second man was hung is known today as Jasmine Grove in the Myles Manor neighborhood. I have found no other references to the deaths of these two men and do not know their names.

It is not clear if this report was in reference to the Guthrie or Ezell murders, or perhaps the subsequent two murders.
Murders of Samuel Bierfield and Lawrence Bowman. For the next month, tempers simmered as the two factions were in a standoff.  However, Ezell's murder was not forgotten.  On the night of August 17, 1868, Samuel Bierfield sat in the back of his successful dry goods store on Main Street in Franklin with his black clerk Lawrence Bowman and another black man, Henry Morton. A large crowd was near town to see John Robinson's Circus - which promised to be ten shows rolled into one.  A group of men came to Biefield's back door and demanded that he come out. Bierfield shouted for the visitors to go around to the front, "unless they wanted to be shot." The intruders broke down the back door and a group of masked men came into the store.  Bierfield tried to run out of the shop's front door onto Main Street. However, about a dozen men were waiting for him. His hands were bound and he was carried about 100 yards up Indigo Street (today's 2nd Avenue) where he managed to escape and hide in Bostick's Stable. He was soon dragged back onto Main street. According to reports, Bierfield begged for his life - even offering the men money and swearing he would leave town and never return. However, the mob would not negotiate. The newspaper reported that, "at the mouth of Main Street, where Indigo Street crosses between Haines' and Briggs' grocery stores, he was shot and killed. Before his death he denied having had anything to do with the assassination of Ezell." Other reports described how one bullet pierced Bierfield’s hip and the other four entered through the front of his head. The pistols were fired from such close range that gunpowder burned Bierfield’s clothes and skin. Lawrence Bowman, Bierfield's clerk, had been shot once, and was found nearby, mortally wounded. Bierfield's body was sent to Nashville where he was buried in a Jewish cemetery. I have not located the burial location for Bowman.

Advertisement for JG Briggs's Grocery Store
He was also in business with Norton as a cotton merchant.


Mon Aug_24__1868


On August 16, 1868, an inquest jury comprised of eight Franklin men determined that Bierfield was killed by bullets fired by “a person or persons to the jury unknown.” The jury wrote - and then crossed out - an additional statement that “from the evidence, the jury are unable to say whether the deed was done maliciously or feloniously.” I understand why that statement was crossed out -- if left standing I would find it hard to believe. It seems to have been obviously a malicious and felonious act.

The Freedmen's Bureau also conducted an investigation.  Two agents were sent to Franklin to conduct the inquiry however their work was stymied by the uncooperative white residents of the town. 

Some of the community's "best citizens" were assembled in the Courthouse to be interviewed.  After several questions, all with no reply, General Judd of the Freedmen's Bureau wrote in his report: “All looked like a set of whipped curs, as they are.”  The final report was filed on August 20, 1868. No one was ever prosecuted for any of the murders.

Within a week, reports were appearing in Nashville newspapers of freedmen in the city circulating petitions asking the state legislature to take action to stop the KKK and to help those who had fled from them. This situation had been predicted by the Freemen's Bureau a few months before. The Nashville paper claimed that they had fabricated "their tales of Kuklux outrages."

The six murders outlined here are just some of the lynchings of African American men that occurred in Franklin and Williamson County during the Reconstruction period.  Over the next 25 years, at least five more men were murdered by mobs taking the law into their own hands:
  • March 1877, Jim Walker was taken from the courthouse by “masked men” and hung “about a mile from town”. 
  • April 30, 1891 Jim Taylor lynched from the Murfreesboro Bridge by today's Pinkerton Park in Franklin 
This ugly period in America's history, in Franklin and Williamson County's history and in our collective history must not be forgotten.  To learn more, visit The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.


  1. Recognizing the facts established, there remains the reality that the KKK, as it originated in Tennessee was hardly a surprise given the manner in which the Brownlow state Government dealt with the issue of who could vote and who could not. The function of the KKK was the means of terrorizing the black voters not to vote, or to vote "conservative." Within two years Brownlow was gone to Washington and the new administration returned voting rights to the white voters and the KKK disappeared, to be resurrected fifty years later as a national political party. The most interesting question, is why it was the black population of the county left it in the decades after 1870. Where did they go, to Nashville? To the North? Has their progeny come back?

    1. JoeRyan - thank you for reading the blog and for your comment. I have written and researched extensively about African American Williamson Countians who left the area during the post-War period. A good place to start is this post which explores the Exoduster movement in which southern former slaves left for Kansas and other western states. -