Lillie Davis

The Tragic Ballad of Lillie Davis

Lillie Davis
A picture of Lillie Davis as it appeared in the newspapers during the trial.

Ack Hale burst into the Bristol police station on the night of March 27, 1907. He told authorities he’d just been near the East Hill Cemetery when a beautiful woman ran in and shot herself. He didn’t know her, but he wanted to help.

Several lawmen ran back to the scene, but Hale remained behind to answer questions. It wasn’t long before things just didn’t add up. As the interrogation grew serious, his story began to change. Soon he admitted Lillie wasn’t really a stranger. She was his ex-fiancée, and he spent the day with her in an attempt to gracefully end their relationship. In the course of events, the couple happened to stroll into the cemetery. She grew despondent and grabbed his gun once they were inside. She shot herself through the heart before he could wrestle the piece away from her.


The Victim

The story didn’t add up for many people. Lillian “Lillie” Davis was a beautiful young lady from the affluent family of J. W. Davis. The 18-year-old was recently engaged to John E. McRoberts, son of a wealthy coalmine owner in Wise County. The authorities found stamped wedding announcements she’d made for her union with McRoberts. Close friends and relatives were well into plans for the service. The immediate family had been as excited as Lillie.

She was found six feet from the state line. M. M. Cloyd was the first person to reach her. She was unconscious, but alive. Everyone hoped the bullet in her chest had missed her heart. Doctors treated her throughout the night. Sadly, she only woke enough to scream and lapsed into a coma. She wore her wedding gown when they buried her, on what was supposed to be her wedding day. The investigation drew such notoriety that Virginia and Tennessee had to resurvey the cemetery to see which officials had jurisdiction.

Authorities found Ack’s gun near the body. The 25-year-old didn’t deny he’d been in the cemetery at some point, but it didn’t appear he’d just been standing outside, either. A graveyard was a macabre place for a young couple to stroll and there were two sets of footprints, in tandem, leading to the scene. The police’s suspicions grew so strong they decided to incarcerate Ack while they constructed the case. They quickly found he and Lillie had a lengthy history together. They courted irregularly for some time. Lillie had returned Ack’s letters and gifts in the days before her death, and informed him she’d chosen to marry McRoberts.

The Theory

The police had a strong theory of what happened. They believed he approached Lillie to offer false congratulations. He persuaded her to take a walk with him. He got her away from her home and began his abuse. He kept her from family and friends all day, and then forced her into the cemetery that evening. He then unleashed a jealous rage.

Ack Hale's photograph as it appeared during trial coverage.
Ack Hale’s photograph as it appeared during trial coverage.

John Bruner, a Bristol farmer, testified that he watched Ack pour whiskey down Lillie’s throat a number of times before they entered the cemetery. A variety of witnesses had seen him hit her. Children were also among witnesses interviewed. Several were playing near the cemetery when he pushed Lillie in. They heard her sob, “If I go in there, I will never come out alive.”

The couple was in the cemetery for around fifteen minutes before a gun was fired.

The First Tactless Trial

It was an unusually slanderous trial. The defense’s primary aim was character assassination. Their approach was far more centered on incriminating Lillie than even repudiating the charges. Ack boasted that they were intimate many times, and brought in a number of women to testify of Lillie’s impurity.

The prosecution brought in their own experts who autopsied the body. Doctors testified they found unmistakable evidence that she’d been raped before the murder. The defense’s tactics began to fall apart. The prosecution, as well as the public, discovered that all the women who’d testified on Lillie’s “dubious” nature were not only prostitutes; they were paid to testify as the defense wanted. They were ladies of the evening in Knoxville and Johnson City. Their testimony was dismissed.

Mrs. Davis, Lillie’s mother, was called to the stand. The court watched anxiously as she testified about her deceased daughter. She abruptly stood, pointed a finger at Ack, and accused him of killing her daughter. The psychological strain was too much and she collapsed. The authorities carried her from the courtroom.

The media circus of the first trial was all for naught. It would soon be declared a mistrial. Jurors couldn’t agree on what to do with him, although most had no doubt of his guilt. Eight jurors wanted him hung, three wanted him imprisoned, and one lone juror wanted an acquittal.

The prosecution was disappointed by the mistrial ruling, but determined to convict Ack. The next trial was to commence in September of 1907. The mistrial was actually a blessing in disguise.

Twisted Trial #2

The next trial didn’t actually begin until January 1908. The prosecution assumed the next trial would be much like the first. A spurned suitor had taken matters into his own hands and committed a crime of passion. Time proved this theory wrong. Ack’s reasons came to be considered even more criminal. It was no longer a crime of passion, but one of calculation. Around that time, there was also infamy around a man named Roy Hale.

The police discovered that Ack and Roy weren’t just related, they were brothers. Roy was Ack’s youngest brother and, ironically, in the middle of a murder trial himself. Irby Davis was Lillie’s youngest brother, who’d also died under mysterious circumstances just weeks before Lillie.

Roy paid a visit to the Davis household to speak with Irby one evening. The two took their conversation outside. Before long, shots were heard. Lillie ran outside, but her little brother was already dying. Roy had disappeared. Roy told authorities that it was a case of suicide and that Irby just didn’t want to live any longer.

The circumstances changed considerably during the second trial. Instead of a jealous rage, Ack’s crimes were committed to eliminate a key witness for his little brother. Prosecutors discovered that Ack had a ticket for Colorado in his belongings. His sole reason for visiting Bristol wasn’t to reminisce, but to get rid of Lillie.

Lillie finally had justice by the end of May, in 1908. Ack was sentenced to 99 years in prison. For a brief time, it looked as if his money was going to buy a favorable ruling in the Court of Appeals. Fortunately, his request for an appeal was denied in December. He would serve his life sentence in the Nashville State Penitentiary.

Now About Roy

Roy was no longer as confident after Ack’s conviction. He stood by the suicide story until his court date approached. It was February of 1908 when Roy came to court. The self-defense claim imploded when he was cross-examined. He admitted he shot Irby Davis, but then it was out of self-defense. He’d insulted Lillie and Irby became enraged.

Medical experts shocked the courtroom when they verified Irby hadn’t died from any self-inflicted wounds or any self-defense wounds. He was shot twice in the back. Guilt was beyond doubt by the time the trial was over. No secondary legal processes were necessary. Roy was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison in Brushy Mountain.

Later On

Ack Hale wasn’t finished seeking media attention, or trying to slither out of his sentence. He eventually got his case to the state supreme court. Judge Bell rehashed all details in the case, and emphasized that Ack could not prove Lillie loved him, any more than he could prove he loved her. The judge affirmed the sentence. Ack showed no emotion during the procedure and even when the sentence was affirmed, he gave no outward display.

In November of 1909, Ack decided he wanted a pardon. He claimed the evidence had been tampered with before it reached the state supreme court and that hurt his chances for an appeal. By this point, no one listened to him.

He made the papers again when he escaped from prison in 1915. He scaled the walls of the prison and disappeared into memory. It is not known if he was ever apprehended, or what happened to him. He doesn’t appear on census records or in the newspapers after this date. He either died during his flight, or changed his name, in which case his whereabouts will never be known.


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