Blevins arrested Joe Harris without incident. The authorities searched his belongings and found Charles Brown’s wallet, containing $253. Harris said he’d been out walking the evening before and met up with a stranger. He didn’t know him, but the stranger said he had some business with Brown prior to his leaving. They went to Marble Hall and Harris waited outside. The stranger eventually emerged with a check for $38 and an order for hay.
Harris said, for some reason, the stranger shoved all the documentation beneath the supports of a nearby bridge. The police checked and there weren’t any documents. There was, however, a bag of silver missing worth $38. Most suspected Harris, but also assumed he had accomplices working with him. After all, the silver was never found.
Many reporters struggled to believe the young man was capable of such a crime. He was 5’8″, and around 125 pounds. His small frame and youthful face drew a great deal of pity, at first. The pity soon evolved into abhorrence.
It was just November, but the ground was already frozen. The authorities couldn’t find any tracks lead to or from the home. Harris made numerous confessions, each different from the one before. At times, he knew the mysterious “stranger,” and he didn’t at other times. Authorities also found Harris had Brown’s missing coat.
Most people were shocked that a relatively bright young man, with no criminal history, would become the “Champion Fiend of Hawkins County.” A lynch mob gathered, but Blevins anticipated the threat and secured Harris elsewhere.
No accomplices were ever found. The Rogersville jury deliberated for five days before convicting Harris of first-degree murder. The Hawkins County native was sentenced to hang in February of 1881. At that point, he still hadn’t presented a solid, consistent confession.
Authorities theorized that Harris murdered Brown and Heck to get the money, and then tried to burn the house down to cover the evidence. They believed he used an axe to kill the men. The attempted murder of women and children via arson was more influential with the jury than even the original murders.
February came and there was no hanging. Attorneys worked on an appeal or a commute to a life sentence. He gained a tremendous amount of infamy by this point. Papers in the region began claiming Harris had the “Mark of Cain,” because one of his ears lacked any internal components.
Harris had been illiterate prior to his arrest. While incarcerated, the jailer’s wife, Sarah Cook, taught him to write. An African-American inmate then taught him the alphabet and words. He practiced faithfully, and even began authoring poetry. His work was seemingly for naught.
Confirmation came in October. The state supreme court confirmed his sentence. His execution was scheduled for November 25, in Rogersville.
Harris left a poem for Sarah Cook, as well as a long confession on November 24. It was not to be opened until after he was dead. He handled the situation well until a few hours prior to the hanging. He became deeply despondent. A merciful, yet unnamed person snuck Harris a bottle of whiskey as the marched to the wagon. He was slightly intoxicated by the time they reached the gallows.
On the gallows, he admitted he killed the men, but said he never meant to. He said they first came at him and he just grabbed a piece of wood, not an axe. The Sheriff hushed him or he would’ve continued to talk. He was given the black cap and bound at the elbows and knees. His hands were handcuffed. The sheriff pushed him he was hanged on November 25, 1881. It had been one year and two days since the murder.
It was said to be the perfect execution. Harris didn’t tremble or jerk after the hanging. His pulse ceased around ten minutes after he was first hung. He was declared dead after twenty. Robert Tate, Harris’s cousin, took the body away for burial.
There were gaping holes in the authorities’ theory about what happened that night until after the execution. They were relatively certain there weren’t any accomplices, but the crime was unexpected. It is likely that if Harris had been forthcoming and honest, he might’ve avoided execution. Harris’s confession was far more plausible, particularly considering the circumstances.
According to the confession, Charles asked Harris to come to Bristol and help them with the carriage work. Harris asked for $12 a month instead of his usual $10.50, but Charles initially refused.
Harris helped them clear up the details at Marble Hall over the weekend, and it seemed to remind Charles that he was a good worker. Charles told him he would consider the pay raise. Harris was already making $10 a month from the work he did for the Browns. It is unclear why, but Charles asked Harris if he would take a pistol in lieu of pay for his weekend work. Harris agreed. Charles had a sizable amount on his person from selling the hogs alone. No matter the reason, it was a smart move. Charles then said he would consider his raise.
Harris couldn’t sleep that Monday night. He had to ask Charles if he would get the raise before he left. Once the Browns were in Bristol, they could only communicate via postal mail and that was a feat for anyone who couldn’t read or write.
Harris went to Marble Hall and knocked. Charles came to the door. He and Heck were already in their sleeping clothes, but they asked him in anyway. The three went into the front room and enjoyed some brandy together. One drink led to another, and it wasn’t long before the three were playing cards.
They continued to drink and Harris continued to win. Heck and Charles grew angrier. A few hours later, Charles chased Harris around the room with a hunting knife from the mantle. Harris grabbed a nearby piece of wood that was going to be used in the fire and hit Charles. Charles fell back into the fire. Harris quickly dragged him back out onto his mattress.
Heck was then ready to fight, so Harris hit him, too. He knew he needed to be as far away as possible when they woke. He grabbed a coat and fled. It just so happened he grabbed Charles’s coat on his way out, which contained his wallet and pocketknife.
The End of an Era
Joe Harris was a Hawkins County native with no prior criminal history. He’d worked with the Browns for some time before any discussions of moving arose. That established history does not validate or support what he was accused of in court.
It’s extremely unlikely that Harris actually attempted to burn Marble Hall to the ground. It was a huge home and he had no issues with any occupants outside the front room. He would not personally gain anything from such an attempt. He would’ve also set fire to many more rooms than just the one he was in.
Even considering he tried to hide the evidence, he would’ve at least set the room ablaze. Marble Hall was no regular house. The building had four floors, counting the attic, and was overall a brick structure. A small, smoldering glow in a single room would not have done a great deal of damage without an accelerant. There was no evidence of accelerants.
It is unlikely he murdered to steal the money, as the two men were already well into a bottle of brandy. He merely had to wait until they passed out to take the wallet. Murders during that period equated the death penalty. It is also unlikely he actually meant to murder in a house with so many potential witnesses. Not only was Mrs. Blackley and Mrs. Price in the home, they also had house staff. As it was, Harris was incredibly remorseful about everything that happened. While he stated Charles chased him with a weapon, he stated they were all drunk and that was the only reason they fought.
There was speculation about something the family didn’t want “getting out” and it was likely a contributing factor in giving Harris the death penalty. The men were not only inebriated, they played cards, both activities were considered scandalous by Victorian mentalities. Modern writers have misconstrued that silence to imply a variety of dubious activities, including a homosexual relationship between Charles and Heck.
There is no doubt that Charles and Heck were killed, but this is one situation where the night seems much more logical according to the individual executed.
Joe Harris the Poet
Harris’s literacy didn’t stop with simply learning to read and write. He composed poetry in the months leading up to his execution. One of his poems written for Mrs. Cook was published in the Bristol News on November 29, 1881. It has been formatted and punctuation added. His misspellings are corrected within brackets.
And the lonely prison have been my home
My parents are far away
May the time shortly come
When I will be set free
And reach my little home
My dearest ones to see
I have but a few friends here with me in jale [jail]. I am bound I have but a few more days to stay here and God will carry me home with him, and I have a brother hoos [whose] heart is wounded threw and threw [through and through] to see me bound in jale [jail], and I have a pious, old mother hoos [whose] age and mind is frail to see me in jale [jail].
And her heart is wounded threw and threw [through and through] for me and dear readers if you ever prayed, remember me in your pray, and may God give me of his Grace and lead me in the lonest [honest?] way and I may see my savior’s face.