Sullivan County’s only hanging took place on November 17, 1897. Some rumors state it was actually done inside the courthouse, but there’s little documentation to go by. All we know is the man convicted was lead to the gallows. In fact, what was most intriguing about this case isn’t the crime, but the dubious proceedings afterward. From all available information, it seems that Sullivan County’s first and only hanging was, in fact, that of an innocent man.
Dallas George Massengill was a prominent farmer in 1897, noted for his generosity and kindness, especially with local orphans. It was a shock to the region when his body was found on June 15. He’d been shot in the mouth. Eventually, suspicion fell upon young neighbor William Mays.
Mays was 24. He had a wife and two children. The absence of witnesses, evidence, motive, or even just ill will did not stop the authorities from unleashing the full fury of the legal system on the Mays family. As a matter of fact, the majority of people who knew both men also knew they were on friendly terms. Mays had absolutely no reason whatsoever to do it. The story appears even more outlandish when you factor in the authorities’ statement that he murdered Massengill with his wife and children nearby.
That leads to one of the most striking elements of this case. Not even local newspapers would hazard a guess as to why he did it when he was on trial. There were no published theories or assumptions, in an age of frequent yellow and sensationalistic journalism. The overwhelming majority of coverage, locally and nationally, stated he was convicted, “for reasons known only to the court.” There was little coverage until after he was convicted and sentenced. It was an unusually bizarre instance of silence when there should’ve been information.
The authorities rushed through a trial during the September court term. He was convicted of first-degree murder. His attorney appealed the case before the state supreme court. The state supreme court was also wildly efficient with reaching a decision on May’s case. They reaffirmed the sentence on September 24. The execution day was scheduled for November 17. During this era, both Virginia and Tennessee state supreme courts were incredibly sluggish. Some cases needed years to be considered. Mays’s case just took a week or so.
There was still no confession. There were still no witnesses. The miraculously fast justice system also tried another man named Robert Cole for his role as Mays’s “accomplice” in the mysterious murder, a week after Mays. Cole was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison, which was apparently a stroke of luck considering most people believed he would hang, too. No motive was established in his case, either.
It seemed everything that happened after Massengill’s alleged murder was more distrustful than perhaps the crime itself. After an unbelievably quick trial, and the rapid judgment of the supreme court, the day of execution came. Unfortunately, it still gets even more confusing. The authorities needed Mays to sign a confession, but he was illiterate.
He was taken into the office of “Squire” James A. Cole, chairman of the county court. We are left to wonder how he was related to Robert Cole, as Mays exonerated Robert Cole in each version of the confessions. Later newspapers, which discussed the case, omitted Robert Cole’s name if they mentioned the court chairman.
The first confession was simply, “I killed him.” Mays stated he led Massengill’s horse away to act as a decoy. He murdered him because a third party told him Massengill was going to witness against him in a “tanbark suit.”
If a tanbark suit existed, no amount of research can locate it. Tanbark is nothing more than tannin-enriched tree bark. Tannin is used in a variety of industries as a colorant or preservative. It “tans” wood, leather, and other natural products. There was nothing particularly valuable or dangerous about tanbark. Whatever it meant, there were no such legal proceedings, or pending legal proceedings, at the time of the murder, trial, and execution. The era newspapers had no idea what it meant, either.
Mays then supposed another man offered him 50 acres if he’d murder Massengill, but the authorities didn’t want this included. It was stricken from the record.
The authorities still didn’t believe the confession would convince those who needed convincing. It needed more detail. So, in this next one, Mays said he rode across the ridge when he encountered Massengill. Massengill said he was looking for his horse and asked Mays if he’d seen it. Mays said he hadn’t and then shot Massengill in the mouth. He died almost instantly.
So, if such hostility existed between them, why didn’t Mays shoot him on sight? Unfortunately, we’ll never know.
Essentially, Mays was convicted and sentenced to death based upon the unknown. A gunshot to the mouth would be far more indicative of suicide as opposed to murder.
From available information, Mays had no idea what happened when Massengill died. He couldn’t decide if he actually led his horse away, causing the murder victim to search for it, or if he just happened upon the man atop the ridge. He couldn’t say if he did it because someone mentioned something about a “suit” or because someone else asked him to. The motive cited was tantamount to murdering someone because someone else heard a rumor. Nothing exists to corroborate any motive mentioned.
It is wholly unclear as to why an “accomplice,” also under such suspicious circumstances, would be given 99 years for a murder that no one seemed to know much about. Then, Robert Cole was exonerated by nothing more than Mays declaration he was innocent. It is rare that any court accepts the word of a convicted murderer without proof.
There is also question as to whether or not the state supreme court even looked at his case, as there is no documentation proving it. The Tennessee Supreme Court published their reports on cases presented to them nearly every year. Just as was done when Joshua Phipps built Rotherwood in 1856, and when Anne Phipps presented her case after his death in 1874.
There was no confession until they were taking him to the gallows, and we don’t know just what they told him to coerce him into signing, or if he even knew what the papers said. What we do know is that a man was hanged in Blountville, based on no real evidence, which left a wife and two small children to fend for themselves.
The hanging was a social event. Reports state the audience in attendance numbered anywhere from hundreds to several thousand. The execution was supposed to be private, but like the trial, it seems a few regulations were ever so slightly adjusted.
Mays’s neck broke as soon as the rope snapped. His pulse stopped ten minutes after the hanging and he was declared dead six minutes after that. He was cut down and taken away to be buried.
There were also a few unusual coincidences following his execution. While the wagon carried his body away from the gallows, it crossed the path of another wagon that also conveyed the body of an executed man who died due from suspicious proceedings. The other body was that of Robert Sims, who will be featured on this site later on.
The wagons proceeded down their respective streets, and the carriage hauling Mays had to stop at a rail crossing. The train carrying Sims was taking him to be buried.