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|One of the more intriguing occurrences in the history
of Putnam County involved the arrest, trials, and public execution of Joseph
and George Brassell, on March 27, 1878. It intrigues primarily
because of the coincidences involved. Second, the
mysteries of this violent conspiracy have never been fully answered. And finally, the attitudes of this community toward crime and morality are, perhaps the most vivid aspect of the entire affair.
The public hanging of Joseph (Joe) and George (Teek) Brassell was the consequence of a conspiracy gone bad between Joe and George, and at least three other men which occurred during the evening of 29 November, 1875.
During the process of carrying out their scheme of crime and violence two other innocent men who were brothers were also murdered. The first. Russell Allison was shot during an attempted robbery of the inn where he resided. He died about thirty-six hours later. The second, John Allison, brother to the younger Russell, had been deputized as a posse member to capture and arrest the Brassell, brothers. While attempting to subdue Teek, John was also shot and died of his wounds early the following morning.
The legal proceedings for the Brassell brothers took place over a period of approximately two years. They were kept in the county jail for the period of time and led somewhat colorful lives up until their execution. On 27 March, 1878, after having exhausted every appeal Joe and Teek Brassell were publicly hanged together on the same scaffold within one mile of the courthouse as the death warrant demanded. At 1:30 p.m. the rope which supported a trapdoor upon which the brothers stood, was cut with a hatchet. After eleven minutes Joseph and George Brassell paid their debts to society the State of Tennessee, and the good people of Putnam County, for the crime of murder in the first degree.
Joe and Teek Brassell were born in Kentucky. Joe was born around 1853; Teek, around 1855. The Brassell family moved from Kentucky to Dixon Springs, in Smith County, Tennessee, in the 1850's. During the 1860's the family again relocated to a farm in the Gentry community near what is now the town of Baxter, Tennessee. At that time, Putnam County was of notorious reputation as a haven of lawlessness for every known type of outlaw, murderer, and lawbreaker. The county held this reputation up until the railroad arrived and the town of Baxter was permanently established and settled.
Nine miles west of the city of Cookeville, the Nashville road was intersected by the old Sparta road. Approximately two to three hundred yards from this intersection stood Allison's Stand. Also, about one and one-half to two miles in the direction of Sparta, lived the family of Egbert H____ and Mary P____ Brassell, the parents of nine children including Joe and Teek. This inn was a well known establishment and served many people in the western end of the county as well as many travelers who were making their way through the foothills of the Cumberland mountains. It was here that the murder of Russell Allison occurred.
The story of the murder of Russell and John Allison begins at sundown on the evening of 29 November, 1875. Dobson Johnson and Dol Bates, from DeKalb County, were en route to Putnam County, when, they met Joe Brassell some time between sundown and dark, coming up the Nashville road.
Apparently the men knew one another. Bates and Johnson were instructed to go to Jim Brassell's home (the older brother of Joe and Teek, and the fifth conspirator) who lived near by, and wait. for him to return. After obtaining something to drink from the family still-house Joe also found Teek there and together they made their way to Jim Brassell's house. It was there that Joe and Teek, along with Jim their older brother, Bates, and Johnson, all conspired to commit robbery.
The conspiracy was to rob Allison's Stand of a supposed four thousand dollars, six hundred of which was hidden in a clock. In addition, Mr. William Jefferson Isbell, trustee and tax collector for Putnam County, was expected that night at the inn also. It was common knowledge that Mr. Isbell frequently stayed at the inn when his duties required overnight travel in the western end of the county. It was also generally understood that Mr. Isbellcarried large sums of money on his person. As it happened, however, Mr. Isbell became ill and did not make it to Allison's place that night but stayed the night at Indian creek instead. *
The conspirators agreed to rob the inn and Mr. Isbell. Jim, feeling not quite right about the whole affair, returned home with the excuse that his wife would become suspicious. He did, however, encourage the other four. Joe, Teek, Bates and Johnson proceeded to their father's home where they obtained disguises, blacking to put on their faces, and pistols. The four then made their way to the inn.
Russell Allison, recognizing his former schoolmates outside by voice, let the men in after they caused a great commotion in the yard. When Russell saw the men were armed, he began to scuffle with Joe who was the first through the door. Joe shot Russell in the bowels.
Finding neither the money nor Mr. Isbell, the four men retreated. Bates and Johnson returned to DeKalb County while Joe and Teek returned to the still house. Just after dark on 30 November, 1875, a posse arrived at the still house to arrest the murderers. John Allison, the elder brother of Russell, who had been deputized found Joe lying down. Teek was missing but soon appeared. When Allison confronted the Brassells about killing Russell, a scuffle began and again, just as before John Allison was shot in the bowels within an inch of where his younger brother had been wounded. He died the following day. Ironically John and Russell Allison died exactly one day apart, an hour of each other, having been murdered by two other brothers.
The Brassells were arrested and conveyed by horseback to the jail in Cookeville, Due to the concern for their safety they stayed only one week at Cookeville, after which they were transferred to Nashville for safe keeping until the Grand Jury proceedings commenced on 14 February, l876.
After their indictment for murder, their arraignment followed on 21 February, 1876, at which; time they pleaded not guilty. The trial was continued until the June term of criminal court, 1876. Their trial was continued on three additional occasions. Finally, their case was fully tried during, the June term of 1877.
The entire trial lasted one week. It commenced on Saturday, 23 June, 1877, and ended on, Saturday, 30 June, 1877. At the conclusion, the Brassels were found guilty and were sentenced to death by hanging.
Following their conviction Joe and Teek appealed their case to Supreme Court of Tennessee. Appearing in person in Nashville, their conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court on 2 February, 1878, Their appeal appears in volume 2, Shannon's Tennessee Cases, Brassell vs. State, pages 596-606. They were conveyed back to Cookeville on 23 March, 1878, to await execution.
While awaiting execution in Cookeville, Joe and Teek had over one thousand visitors. They talked at length with a newspaper reporter from the Nashville Daily American, who documented much of their lives and criminal activity. On 17 March, 1878, both Joe and Teek were baptized into the Methodist Church.
Before leaving Nashville, they attempted to poison their guards with arsenic which had been smuggled to them.
Back in the Cookeville jail they sawed the chain to their cell door in half and attempted a jail break. An alert guard foiled their attempt after hearing the chain drop to the floor. Joe and Teek up being discovered in the hallway offered to shake the jailer's hand but he refused. After their ,-escape attempt they were put in twenty-three pound shackles. Even with these precautions Teek was able to use one of the links to pry apart the shackles and attempted to crawl under the floor. He was thwarted, however, when he became hung between the bars protruding underneath the floor in only four and one-half inches of crawl space.
They wrote letters in invisible writing. They even claimed they could weaken any bar in the jail with some homemade remedy composed of sulfur. It is not known whether they ever actually tried this. Thus, Joe and Teek spent their last days in the Cookeville jail until the day of 27 March, 1878.
That day was very chilly in Cookeville. The
streets were crowded with thousands very early who had come from all around
and by every imaginable means to witness the hanging of Joe and Teek. Those
who had nothing to ride walked. Newspaper reports from that day estimate
the crowd in Cookeville at between ten and twenty thousand.
|At 11:00 o'clock Joe and Teek were placed in a wagon containing their coffins, upon which they were seated and were escorted by two hundred armed guards to the scaffold located on Billy Goat Hill close to the present Clover Avenue apartments. Their sister Amanda followed close behind the wagon.|
They were taken from the wagon and allowed to hug their sister. They requested she not witness the execution and she complied. They mounted the scaffold and were seated. Preachers shouted sermons of warning to the crowd. Others sang spiritual hymns, while yet others led prayers.
As 1:00 o'clock approached the men were prepared for death. They were allowed to speak to the crowd, which they did, warning them of the evils of alcohol. Their hands and ankles were tied securely. Hoods, which in this case were white, were placed over their heads. They wanted again .to speak to the crowd for a few minutes. This request was granted and the hoods removed. Again Teek warned the crowd to live uprightly.
About this time Mr. Isbell approached the brothers and begged them to confess their crimes. Joe confessed, but Teek remained obstinate, maintaining his innocence. Mr. Isbell then left the scaffold. Teek never confessed. As 1:30 approached the men were again made ready for death.
Sheriff Campbell J____ Bohannon left the scaffold and assumed his position with hatchet in hand beside the rope which held the trapdoor on which Joe and Teek stood. Both men expressed great anxiety over whether they would fall far enough to break their necks. With only five minutes left Bohannon called out each minute to the brothers as it passed. With only thirty seconds Joe said good-bye to Sheriff Bohannon. The sheriff responded, "Good-bye, Joe."
At precisely 1:30 o'clock Sheriff Bohannon said, "Look out, boys,...". Teek spoke his last words, "Lord, have mercy on those who swore my life away." Joe's last words were, "Lord Jesus, be with me."
When Sheriff Bohannon cut the rope, Joseph Lewis Brassell and George Andrew Brassell fell three feet, their necks being broken. Muscular contraction was minimal and lasted only one and one-half minutes, after which all signs of life were gone except a feeble beat of Joe's pulse. As the weight of the bodies pulled the twisted rope taut, it caused the bodies to spin for a few seconds. When the bodies stopped spinning they came to rest facing each other. After eleven minutes all signs of life were completely gone.
Doctor Lansden of Cookeville and Doctor A____ H____ King of Chestnut Mound, the attending physicians, examined the bodies of the hanged men and pronounced them dead.
At 1:45 o'clock, the bodies of Joe and Teek were cut down and placed in their coffins, and the bodies were then delivered to Amanda Brassell and another brother of Joe and Teek.
The brothers were interred at the Brassell Family Cemetery which is located adjacent to Upperman High School at Baxter, Tennessee. The cemetery is surrounded by a chain-link fence about five feet high. The stone of Joe and Teek is still visible. It sits under a large cedar tree at the front of the cemetery. It is broken off at an angle, yet the partial dates and the word "both" can still be read.
This hanging attracted the attention of the eastern half of the country. The New York Times covered it very closely. Ballads and songs were written about it. For years afterward, people still were enthralled by this execution. At least three major newspapers covered the event.
Although this is a rather dark chapter in our county
history, it occupies a legitimate and distinctive place. In spite
of the unanswered question, the unsolved mysteries, the different ironies
surrounding it, and the distasteful subject matter, it should bind us to
a continued effort to study and learn from our local history.
**Dr. Terry Corrects Brassell Story**
Herald Citizen - December 26, 1979
Dr. Fred Terry, Cookeville physician, has called to give additional information and to correct some information used in previous stories about the hanging of the Brassell brothers in 1878.
Dr. Terry said the man the Brassell brothers were convicted of killing, Russell Allison, was not a tax collector as we reported in a Nov. 25 story but was, in fact, the proprietor of Allison's Stand Inn at Gentry on the old Walton Road.
Dr. Terry said it was generally understood and maybe told by one of the alleged participants in the crime that their intended was not Allison but was the county trustee, William Jefferson Isbell, Dr. Terry's grandfather.
Isbell, according to the doctor, had gone to Buffalo Valley to collect taxes and was scheduled to stop to stay overnight at the Allison Stand on Nov. 29, 1875.
Isbell, riding on horseback, was not feeling so well or some reason and decided to stop and spend the night with a family he knew on Indian Creek.
Isbell, having collected a considerable amount of money on his round, was then the intended victim not to kill but to rob, Dr. Terry said.
He said the men who killed Allison entered the stand with their faces blackened looking for Isbell. In their search for him, they were recognized by Allison who called out their names, "Joe and Teek," and was shot.
Dr. Terry said a woman in the room was shot at but, falling back behind a bed, was assumed killed and left unhurt.
Though she did not know the Brassels, she was able to tell the sheriff the names called out by the slain Allison, giving the sheriff an identification clue.
Dr. Terry said both his mother and father attended the hanging in March 1878 in south Cookeville in the vicinity of Billy Goat Hill.
Isbell owned and operated
the Isbell Hotel on the courthouse
square at about where Mills Furniture Store is located.
Joseph Lewis (Joe) Brassell (also Braswell & Brazel) and his brother George A. (Teek) Brassell murdered John J. & Russell Allison on November 1875 in Putnam Co., Tenn.
Joe & Teek were the sons of Edbert, b. ca. 1816 in N.C. (Edbert
was accused of raping his daughter, Tennessee, but the charges were dropped)
and Mary P. Brassell, b. ca. 1829 in Tenn.
They had children:
Tennessee, F, b. ca. 1848 Tenn.
William, b. ca. 1844, Tenn.
Reuben J. (James/Jim), b. ca. 1845, Tenn.; m. Harriet Z.
Zachariah T., b. ca. 1851, Ky.
Luiza, b. ca. 1853, Ky. (These 2 may have)
Joseph, b. ca. 1853, Ky. ( been twins )
George A. (Teek), b. ca. 1855, Ky.
Amanda, b. ca. 1857, Tenn.
(This was from the 1860 census of Dixon Springs, Smith Co., Tenn.) Samuel (Buck), b. ca. 1862, Tenn.
(From the 1870 census of 7th Civil Dist. (Gentry Community, Baxter), Putnam Co., Tenn.)
It would seem that Joe, Teek, prob. Jim, and another decided to rob
a man carrying a lot of money who was suppose to spend the night at Russell
Allison's step-mother's house. The man didn't get there that night,
but Joe, et. al., came, demanded to be let in and fed. Russell went
to the door, let them in, and was shot. He died the next day claiming
who shot him. His brother, John, went with the posse to capture the
killers, and was himself shot and died 25 hours after Russell. There
was some question about whether Teek really did either of the shootings.
He & Joe were hanged in 1878 - the only public hanging in Putnam County.
Joe admitted to the killing, but Teek died claiming his innocence.
It has been speculated that he took the "rap"
for his sister Amanda, who was at the hanging. Their brother Jim claimed he did the killing when he was dying.
Russell & John were the sons of Joseph Allison, and brothers of
William & Joseph Allison. Joseph, Sr., had married 2nd Angeline
?, and they had a house with a dog trot separating the two sections.
The section not used by the family was often used by travelers. After
Joseph died, Angeline m. James Isbell. His son, W.J. Isbell, was
the Tax Collector for Putnam County and was the man who was carrying so
much money, and who the Brassells had intended to kill.
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