Across the generations, Victorian summers can beckon. You think of big elegant porches, lively baseball games, steamboat excursions, the first soda fountains, saloons with local ales, high-stakes horse races at the fair grounds.
In August, 1875, as some now-familiar buildings of Gay Street and Market Square were being built, two immigrant families competed for the title of Knoxville’s favorite Ice Cream Saloon. On Market Square, German baker Peter Kern declared “delicious cream will be served at all hours by polite waiters.” The Hungarian Spiro Brothers claimed their Gay Street parlor was “the largest and coolest of its kind in the city.”
The era needed its delights, because it also had horrors.
On Friday, Aug. 13, the crowds began gathering early. “From every direction, and every county road and turnpike leading into the city was thronged with men, women, boys, and girls, some riding in wagons, some on horseback, and others walking.” Some families traveled more than a day just to get here. All the passenger trains into town were full that morning, 26 carloads in all. Even a boxcar from Blount County was jammed with people. Many came across from “South America,” the droll nickname for what was later known as South Knoxville, on ferries.
By early morning, thousands were thronging the Hill Avenue jail yard. The southern segment of Prince Street, later known as Market, was “blockaded with human beings.”
To control the crowd, Sheriff Swan had to enlist some extra deputies and coordinate the local militia fraternities, the Dickinson Light Guards and the O’Conner Zouaves, a “posse comitatus” of more than 100 armed law-enforcement officers.
“Thus it was that ere 9:00 in the morning, the streets of Knoxville were crowded with strangers,” went an unsigned article in editor William Rule’s Knoxville Chronicle. They’d come to Knoxville “to see a man hanging in mid-air at the end of a rope, dying.”
At about 10:30, much of the crowd started moving afoot toward the northwestern corner of town, “to get good seats,” some were overheard to urge. They had all come to see the hanging of John C. Webb.
He was not a noted outlaw. The year earlier, the Clinton man was reputedly part of a murky gang that had shot Richard Reynolds in northwestern Knox County. It was, according to some of the participants, a Ku Klux Klan assassination. Reynolds was no typical KKK target. A white man, “an old rebel,” in fact, Reynolds had been accused of murdering the father of another. In a complicated case with many characters, Webb claimed he’d been a reluctant bystander. He started a written account of that night, a labored narrative, but didn’t finish before it was time to be hanged.
That morning, he’d had a hearty breakfast. Priests, Fathers Marron and Welsh, spent some time with Webb in the jail, but failed to get either a conversion or a confession. They also tried to dissuade Webb from the temptation of a bottle of rye left by a friend. Webb drank the rye.
When denied a final shave, Webb protested “with bitter language.” Then the sheriff read him the Death Warrant.
Just around noon, they all left in a sort of parade, led by drummers. At least 50 guards carried double-barreled shotguns.
The procession rolled down Prince Street to Market Square, were it turned left on Union, then right on Walnut, then left on Asylum, down to where the road crossed the train tracks, as if to get barely outside of city limits, likely somewhere along what’s now Dale Avenue.
The “lugubrious cavalcade” proceeded “between files of gaping, curious sightseers.”
By the time they got there, the crowd was 18-20,000 strong, bigger than any recent festival. Twice as many people as lived in Knoxville. Four times as many, some noted, as attended the recent funeral of President Andrew Johnson in Greeneville.
The sheriff himself led Webb to the scaffold. It was an “old-fashioned” scaffold, two uprights holding a cross bar. A wagon would stand in for the platform.
“You’ve got hold of the best old soldier you ever had hold of, you have,” Webb told the sheriff. Swan stood Webb on the seat of the wagon.
Webb had never seen so large a crowd in his life. “Well, I thank you all for coming out to see me hang,” he said. “I forgive all, and I hope God will forgive me. Goodbye. God bless you.” Then he turned to his wife, and said, “I’ll try and meet you in heaven.”
“Without a tremor,” Webb stood, as they pulled a black hood over his head, bound his legs, cuffed his hands behind him.
At 1:20, the horses were shooed, and Webb dropped. A moment later Webb was “a shapeless bundle of clothes, dangling under the beam.... The body swing back and forth two or three times, turned around with the twisting of the rope.”
A hanging death is rarely instant. Three doctors were on hand to count Webb’s pulse, falling from 80. The newspaper reported it. “23, 32, 37, 37, 22, 37...23 and intermittent...22 and feeble.” After nine minutes, it stopped.
The Chronicle weighed in on “the scenes which disgraced our town yesterday.... Every thoughtful man who witnessed the spectacle of John Webb being handed to the gallows, beset by an eager multitude of men, women, and children of all ages, sexes, colors, and conditions, animated by no other motive than an unaccountable morbid curiosity, must agree with us that the influence of the day was evil and only evil.
“The idea that spectacle will inspire the low and vicious with a wholesome fear of punishment that will in the future restrain them from committing murder...is, to our mind, absolutely preposterous.
“In fact it was a gala day, with drums beating, colors flying, accompanies with general demonstrations more like a 4th of July celebration than an execution under the solemn form of the law.
“We trust we may never again have occasion to witness such a spectacle.... In the name of civilization, we protest against public execution.”