The proverbial “axe murderer” is a staple of many urban legends. It’s been the subject of countless works in film and fiction, inspired by very real events like the Villisca Axe Murders and the Axeman of New Orleans. Many people don’t know that Bristol, Tennessee, had its very own axe murderer.
The West State Street community was the scene of a devastating fire on Sunday, November 26, 1922. James Smith’s small grocery store, as well as his attached house, was consumed in flames by 1 am. The fire raged and soon, the entire building was reduced to ash. Authorities never suspected an even more gruesome discovery awaited them.
Investigators sifted through the rubble in an attempt to locate the cause of the blaze. The flames died out and cast a faint glimmer across the ruins. It appeared to be arson, so they cautiously looked for clues or traces of accelerants. Around 4 am, they found the first body. Then another. Then another. The death toll climbed until five bodies were accounted for. The dead were: James Smith, his wife, their 2-year-old daughter Ruby, Smith’s niece Delline Burchfield, and her 13-year-old son Charles.
The charred bodies didn’t draw any unusual suspicion, at first. The fire happened in the small morning hours and sometimes families did die in such circumstances. Then, the authorities examined the corpses and found reason for alarm that far superseded sadness. Every body found had a crushed skull. The body of Charles drew the most disgust as the boy’s brain matter was said to be down in the bare springs of the mattress.
Chief David L. Heaberlin, of the Bristol Tennessee Police, already suspected who the culprit was. Together, with Bristol Virginia Police Chief Crosswhite, they put out a formal alert for the man known as Ben Burchfield, Delline’s estranged husband, and Charles’s stepfather. Heaberlin was known as an “old time” officer who wore two pistols and could fire just as proficiently with one hand as the other.
Ben Burchfield was a 41-year-old restaurant employee who worked at “McMillan’s,” a State Street diner. Burchfield was a troublesome man who had more than one encounter with Chief Heaberlin. He was known for heavy drinking and heavy brawling. He’d had a problematic marriage with Delline and the authorities were already familiar with their family.
The Johnson City authorities found Burchfield around noon. He’d walked almost the entire way into Johnson City. The authorities stated his clothing was bloody and a chunk of brain matter still clung to his collar. He could not explain how his clothing came to be so gruesome or why he walked to Johnson City. They could see by his clothing he’d walked most of the way, even though he claimed someone picked him up and drove him for a while.
Burchfield had psychological issues and Heaberlin knew it. He was illiterate and virtually uneducated, but no one suspected those seemingly harmless issues could result in mass murder.
Burchfield didn’t exactly cover his tracks after the crime, and it’s unclear if he even meant to. Two months before the murder, Heaberlin was called to the Smith home. Burchfield had told both Mrs. Smith and Delline he’d taken poison. A bottle of carbolic acid sat on the table by the bed. He said his wife wanted to leave him and he didn’t want to live without her. They were living with Delline’s uncle and his family by that point.
Heaberlin noticed Burchfield was in unusually good condition for someone who’d taken such a powerful poison. Carbolic acid causes burns in the esophagus and stomach, kidney failure, discolored skin, convulsions, as well as a myriad of other terrible symptoms. He took Burchfield to City Hall, where he confessed he hadn’t actually taken anything. He just wanted to frighten the women. Heaberlin was irritated, but let Burchfield go with the promise that he would leave the area and wouldn’t bother the ladies any longer.
Burchfield consented and went to West Virginia for several weeks. He didn’t stay gone, however, and was back with the Smith family two weeks later. Life continued, but then took another strange turn. Two weeks before the murders, Burchfield demanded Heaberlin arrest Delline because she was going to divorce him. The authorities did not arrest her and again warned Burchfield to leave the Smith family, including Delline, alone.
Both Mrs. Smith and Delline beseeched Heaberlin to keep Burchfield out of the area, but he was unable to pursue the man unless he committed a crime. They told the chief then that Burchfield had threatened to kill them all, but there were no laws against empty threats at the time.
On Saturday, November 25, Oscar Wampler picked Ben Burchfield up from a dance in West Bristol. It was around 11 that night. Burchfield asked the taxi driver to take him to the Smith home. Wampler dropped him off without a great deal of thought. Burchfield told him to return a few hours later because he needed to go to Johnson City.
Wampler didn’t return when scheduled because of an unforeseen delay. Authorities believe Burchfield then set out, on-foot, to Johnson City. No one established reason for his trip so far away, but it was likely to be with his relatives. His family was native to Carter County, but lived in Johnson City.
The Johnson City authorities arrested him without resistance. They then turned Burchfield over to Heaberlin’s department. The victims’ remains had been taken to Sterchi’s undertaking parlor. Heaberlin took Burchfield there to identify the bodies.
Heaberlin paid close attention to Burchfield’s reactions. Despite claiming to have loved his wife and the Smith family, he showed no emotion towards the dead. He slightly trembled when forced to view his wife’s body, but then regained his composure. He did not shed a single tear. The bodies were buried on November 27.
From the undertaking parlor, he was taken on to the Blountville jail. Heaberlin knew they had their man. The preliminary hearing was held on November 28. Burchfield professed his innocence, despite the condition he was in when authorities picked him up. Witnesses then said James Smith had $800 on his person, for the sale of some real estate on Saturday. They suspected Burchfield stole the money before the murders, but as far as can be ascertained, no further information is available on the money.
Burchfield didn’t exactly keep a low profile during the tumultuous marriage. A number of witnesses came forward and shared what they’d seen and heard with authorities. Burchfield had threatened both Delline and the Smith family on a number of occasions. He’d not only whipped Delline, but shot her in the head months earlier. Fortunately, the bullet just grazed her scalp.
Burchfield was obsessed with the idea of his wife with another man. No amount of solace or assurance swayed his overwhelming suspicions. As far as could be researched, there was never any other man in her life beyond her son. Another witness came forward and testified he’d heard Burchfield say he would kill, “the whole bunch of them out there.”
Burchfield’s trial ended on January 25, 1923. Arguments concluded and the case was placed in the hands of the jury at 10 pm. At 9:30 the next morning, the jury returned the verdict. Burchfield was guilty on five counts of first-degree murder, without mitigating circumstances. It was established that Burchfield crept into the home, took an axe to his victims while they slept, and set the home on fire in hopes it would destroy the bodies. By this point, the $800 in question was an afterthought.
The jury was discharged upon reading the verdict. The defense argued for a new trial until 3 pm, but Judge Vines refused and handed down the death sentence. This is the second case where a capital punishment sentence was delivered in Sullivan County, Tennessee. Burchfield was to go to the electric chair on March 17. The convicted murderer was immediately taken to Nashville when the court was adjourned.
Burchfield’s father and sister immediately set out to help their loved one, although it remains unclear as to what they could really do. They were successful. Burchfield got a stay of execution on March 6, and his case went before the Tennessee Supreme Court. He eventually went before a panel of alienists, or psychiatrists, at Nashville’s Central Hospital, where he was mentally evaluated. He was formally diagnosed with a, “low mentality.” The panel found that while he was ignorant of many things, he was completely aware of his behavior and knew what he was doing. He was sane enough to be tried and punished for his crimes.
Amazingly enough, Burchfield continued to get respite after respite. The Tennessee Governor at the time, Gov. Austin Peay, had a record of staying all executions scheduled during his administration. Peay believed an execution would blemish his political record, so he had intervened in all of them thus far. He then got Burchfield’s case.
Peay deliberated the tremendous volume of paperwork associated with the case. He consulted with Burchfield’s loved ones. He labored for a whopping 16 hours before reaching a decision. He decided his political reputation would be stained if he did intervene, so he supported the Sullivan County Court’s decision.
Burchfield was relatively calm as his execution approached. His father continued working to get further respites, but their luck ran out in early 1925. Burchfield was taken to the electric chair on January 14, 1925, and electrocuted at 6:50 am. Burchfield died in the Tennessee State Prison, in Nashville.
His body was returned to Johnson City for burial.