The proverbial “axe murderer” is a staple of urban legend. This villain has been the plot device for countless works of fiction, and with good reason. The Villisca Axe Murders and the Axeman of New Orleans are just two mass murders, who were very real, and never apprehended. Many historians aren’t aware that Bristol had its own axe murderer, and one Tennessee family suffered his wrath.
Ghosts Amid the Rubble
West State Street was the scene of a devastating fire on November 26, 1922. James Smith’s small grocery store, as well as his attached house, was consumed by flames at 1:00 am that Sunday morning. It wasn’t long before the entire building was reduced to ash. Authorities suspected arson was possible, but never imagined an even more gruesome find awaited them.
Investigators sifted through the rubble in an attempt to locate the cause of the blaze. They looked for the typical elements of a house fire, but also for traces of an accelerant. They came across the first body around 4:00 am. Then, they found another. Then another. They found a total of five bodies. 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 originally draw suspicion. The fire happened in the early morning hours, in an era where entire families died in house fires. Primitive heating and lighting equipment was commonly fatal. Sleeping families regularly succumbed to smoke and fumes.
Then they examined the corpses, and found reason for alarm that far superseded simple arson. Each body had a crushed skull. Charles’s body drew the most disgust because remnants of the boy’s brain matter was beaten down into the charred mattress springs.
Chief David L. Heaberlin, of the Bristol Police in Tennessee, already had a suspect. Heaberlin was an “old-time” officer who wore two pistols and could fire as proficiently with one hand as the other. Together, with Bristol Police Chief Crosswhite in Virginia, they issued a formal APB for Ben Burchfield. Burchfield was Delline’s estranged husband and Charles’s stepfather.
Burchfield was an employee at McMillan’s diner on State Street. Heaberlin already had several encounters with was the strange, troublesome man. The 41-year-old was known for heavy drinking and heavy brawling. His marriage with Delline had been troubled for some time. The authorities were likewise familiar with the Smith family.
Johnson City authorities found Burchfield around noon. It was apparent he’d walked the entire way from Bristol. His clothing was sweaty and bloody. A chunk of body matter still clung to his collar. He couldn’t explain why his clothing was so gory, or why he’d walked to Johnson City. He claimed someone picked him up, and drove him a ways, but the authorities remained skeptical.
Heaberlin suspected Burchfield had mental health issues long before he was apprehended. Burchfield was illiterate; a relatively common ailment for the era, but it seemed this common handicap disguised what was a deeply disturbed mind.
The Past Catches Up
Burchfield didn’t cover his tracks after the crime, but it’s unclear if he ever meant to. Heaberlin visited the Smith home two months before the massacre. Burchfield told Delline and her aunt, that he’d swallowed poison. A bottle of carbolic acid sat on the nightstand. Burchfield said his wife wanted to leave him and he didn’t want to live without her. Delline and Charles were living with her uncle, at that time.
Heaberlin noticed Burchfield was unusually calm for someone who’d taken such a powerful poison. Carbolic acid caused burns in the esophagus and stomach, kidney failure, discolored skin, convulsions, and a myriad of horrific 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 family any longer.
Burchfield went to West Virginia for several weeks, but he didn’t stay gone. He came back to harass 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 didn’t arrest her, and again warned Burchfield to leave Delline, and the Smith, family alone.
Delline and her aunt beseeched Heaberlin to run Burchfield out of the area, but Heaberlin was unable to pursue the man unless he committed a crime. They told the chief that Burchfield had threatened to kill them all, but there weren’t any laws against empty threats.
Oscar Wampler picked up Ben Burchfield in the west side of Bristol, on Saturday night, November 25. It was around 11:00 pm. Burchfield asked the taxi driver to take him to the Smith home. Wampler dropped him off, as he did with any other passenger. Burchfield asked him to return in a few hours because he also needed to go to Johnson City.
Wampler couldn’t return because of an unforeseen delay. Authorities believed Burchfield then set out to Johnson City, on foot. No one established his reason for the trip, but it was likely to be with his relatives. The Burchfields were Carter County natives, but most lived in Johnson City.
Johnson City authorities arrested him without resistance. They then turned Burchfield over to Heaberlin’s department. The victims’ remains were taken to Sterchi’s undertaking parlor. Heaberlin escorted Burchfield to identify the bodies.
Heaberlin paid close attention to Burchfield’s reactions. Despite claiming to love his wife, and her family, he showed no emotion towards the bodies. He trembled slightly when forced to view his wife’s body, but regained composure. He didn’t shed a single tear. The bodies were buried on November 27.
From the undertaking parlor, Burchfield went 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.
Several reports emerged that James Smith had $800 on his person from selling some real estate on Saturday. They suspected Burchfield stole the money before the murders.
Burchfield didn’t keep a low profile during his turbulent marriage. A number of witnesses came forward to share what they’d seen and heard. Burchfield had threatened Delline and her family many times. He’d not only physically whipped Delline, but shot her in the head several 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 could sway his overwhelming jealousy. As far as could be found, there was never another man in her life beyond her relatives. Another witness came forward and testified Burchfield said he would, “kill the whole bunch of them out there.”
Burchfield’s trial concluded on January 25, 1923. The case was placed in the hands of the jury at 10:00 pm. The jury returned the verdict at 9:30 the next morning. Burchfield was guilty on five counts of first-degree murder, without mitigating circumstances. The authorities established that Burchfield crept into the home, took an axe to his victims while they slept, and set the home on fire to destroy any evidence.
The jury was discharged after they read the verdict. The defense argued for a new trial until 3:00 pm, but Judge Vines refused. He 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.
Life in Prison
Burchfield’s father and sister immediately set out to help, although there was little they could do. They were somewhat 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, Burchfield received respite after respite. Tennessee’s Governor Austin Peay had a history of staying all executions scheduled during his administration. Peay believed executions blemished his political record, so he 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 an impressive 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.
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, at 6:50 am. He died in the Tennessee State Prison, in Nashville. His body was returned to Johnson City for burial.
H.I. Leyshon, editor for the Knoxville Journal and Tribune, flew to Bristol to cover the Smith-Burchfield case in December of 1922. The plane caught on a telephone wire and crashed on the grounds of the Bristol Country Club. Both Leyshon and the pilot were injured, but none serious. “The Country Club,” is a historic location and, even after 125 years, still operates today.
The Sterchi Brothers undertaking and furniture company was purchased by J. W. Huff (of J. W. Huff Funeral Service, eventually Huff-Cook), in 1923.