Humanity has long known the dangers of idle gossip. The process of verbal embellishment and fabrication led to countless battles, social exile, and even Inquisition horrors, just in the previous millennium. A few idle words, or a groundless suspicion, can quickly metastasize into a monster. One prime example of the adverse effects of gossip was witnessed in Greeneville, Tennessee. For over a year afterward, the city was ridiculed and mocked for its gossip and “back-biting” by newspapers and publications around the nation.
President Andrew Johnson had a troublesome political career that ended with impeachment. The 17th President of the United States went into office after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. When Johnson tired of politics, he retired to Greeneville, Tennessee. He reopened his old tailor shop that was now next to his library. He lived near his long-time friend and Greeneville postmaster, James Harold. James was married to Emily, their union had been long and prosperous, lasting 40 years.
Everything the Harold family had worked for fractured in late April of 1872. Their standing, their status, and eventually their lives. An anonymous letter came to James. The letter accused Emily of having an affair with Johnson. James dismissed the ridiculous letter and thought nothing more of it. He’d known Johnson for years and would not suspect him of any kind of treachery, particularly with Emily.
Unfortunately, Emily couldn’t forget the letter’s implications. She was so devastated by the fact that someone would accuse her of something she considered so heinous that she grew withdrawn. She stopped making the usual social visits and grew suspicious of everyone. No amount of assurance from James could stop her downward emotional spiral. She didn’t know who could do that to her or her family. Although there was no change between the couple, rumors persisted. Emily noticed people whispering and watching her whenever she left home. She grew so tired of the talk that she didn’t want to go out at all.
It didn’t help matters when she received word that her mother was dying. Their son escorted her to Rhea County to visit her mother. He noticed his mother’s despondency, but assumed she was upset due to her mother’s decline. The assumption was validated when they arrived and Emily’s spirits improved when she spoke with her mother. He didn’t think much more about her emotional state for the rest of the day. He assumed she’d merely been afraid for her mother and grieving over thoughts of her loss.
Emily awoke early the next day. She tended to her mother for a few hours and then went to her son’s room. She hid his pistol in the folds of her dress and walked outside. She said she was simply going for a walk. When she was out of the yard, she put three bullets in her own chest on May 8, 1872. The bullet wounds still smoked by the time her son found her.
James Harold was enraged. Their son was devastated. No one had any anticipation of Emily’s actions. It led to a frenzied investigation to ascertain the culprit responsible for that initial letter. It was August before a suspect was found.
R. C. Harne was suspected due to handwriting similarities. He was brought before three magistrates for a preliminary examination. He denied it at first, but the court’s handwriting experts determined the letter was incriminating.
Harne then admitted it and brought three witnesses into the court to support his suspicions. They had seen Emily go into the tailor shop many times, and they believed it was to carry out an illicit affair with ex-President Johnson. Finally, James told them she had been trying to get his trousers properly adjusted.
Several other facts came out and all three of Harne’s witnesses were arrested for perjury. The witnesses then sued the county for damages. Records of the proceedings ended with Harne hiring four attorneys. The case became so mired in technical and redundant legalities that no further actions were taken.
The shameless rumor mill never fully stopped and it soon circulated that Emily committed suicide, not because of her community’s cruelty, but because Johnson ended the affair and she was so despondent, she killed herself.
James Harold didn’t live to see vengeance for Emily, or her name fully cleared. He died less than a year later, on April 20, 1873.