The Marble Hall Murder

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Marble Hall

As with many uncommon houses, Marble Hall inevitably gained an uncommon history. A wealthy farmer named John Brown purchased the home after Rice’s debtors sold it. He lived there with several grown children, including a son named Charles. Charles was married and had two children. The whole family lived in the massive estate until 1880. Charles, his twin Alexander, and another brother, decided they wanted to enter the carriage business.


The Switch

Rogersville had been a bustling and influential city through the Civil War, but did not fare well during Reconstruction. As a result, few new people came to the area and even fewer purchased carriages. The Brown family decided Bristol was the place to be.

A family friend, Attorney M. L. Blackley, had an office building in Bristol. He studied law with George Torbett. Blackley grew weary of the city and wanted to take his own family into the peace and tranquility of the countryside. The two families made a bargain. They effectively traded properties in 1880. Blackley built the Browns a fine new building in Bristol, and he assumed ownership of Marble Hall.

It was a feat to consolidate all the Brown’s business interests in Hawkins County. They kept livestock, farmed, and all of details had to be squared away before the family could move. While they finalized the last tasks, the Blackley’s moved in. Mr. Blackley cleared up the few remaining matters in Bristol, and John and Charles cleared up the tasks in Rogersville.

Because the home was so massive, John and Charles remained at Marble Hall as guests. They continued using hired helpers Heck and Harris to help them move their herds to the stockyards. John returned to Bristol during that last week and left Charles to move the remainder of the stock.

On November 18th, Charles took their hogs to Whitesburg to sell. Harris and Heck helped him. The few pigs they didn’t sell were butchered the next day and the meat put on the train for Bristol.


An Unforgettable Night

The weekend slipped by without real event. Joe Harris was seen in Rogersville on Monday as he helped the Browns prepare for the next day. The last sighting of him was near a small quarry around a mile from Marble Hall that afternoon. Charles and Heck planned to leave at daybreak and be in Bristol as soon as possible. Their closest neighbor, William Price, was going to see them off at the station in Rogersville.

Price’s son Jacob remained behind to visit with Heck, as the two were around the same age. Mrs. Price stayed with Mrs. Blackley at Marble Hall. Mr. Blackley had some lingering details to clear up in Bristol. Everyone visited for a time in the main room. Charles and Heck had made their sleeping area in the main room. They planned to leave at daybreak and didn’t want to wake everyone in the process. Both men had a glass of brandy to help them sleep.

William Price awoke the next morning to darkness outside. It was actually only around 1, but he believed it was near dawn. He looked out his bedroom window and saw Marble Hall’s front room alight. He assumed he overslept and that Charles and Heck were already dressing to leave. He quickly rose and dressed himself, he kindled the fires, and woke his daughter to prepare breakfast.

He walked to Marble Hall, but the front door was still locked. He went to the rear of the home where his wife slept in the guest room. He knocked on the window to rouse her. She let him in the home. Mrs. Blackley had descended the steps by that point and spoke with the couple. They suddenly smelled smoke.



Mr. Price went to investigate while the women remained safely behind. The smell came from the closed door of the front room. The ladies caught up with him when they had lit their candles. Everyone knew the two men slept on the floor inside and their bedding was close to the fireplace. They were terrified the bedding had caught on fire while the men slept.

Price entered the smoke-filled room and tried to call to the men. He believed one of them was his son, Jacob. He never received an answer, so he felt his way towards the bedding. He came to the mattress and he felt heat radiate from it. He grabbed the leg of the nearest man and dragged him back out into the foyer. He feared they had suffocated. The ladies had the lamps lit by that point and they could see.

The skin on the body was burned away. The Prices were convinced it was their son. Mr. Price returned to get the second body. He threw the smoldering bedding into the fireplace and dragged the second featherbed out of the room. It also held a body in the same condition. Price summoned his son at home. He prepared to tell him the news of his brother’s demise.

Fortunately, the brother didn’t know what the family was talking about. Jacob had come in hours earlier and was asleep. The Price family was relieved, but not for long. They identified the body on the mattress as Andy Heck. The other body was Charles.

It wasn’t long before they noticed something was wrong with the skulls of both corpses. Brown’s skull was crushed in just above the left ear. Heck laid naturally on the featherbed, but his skull was crushed from his forehead, to the inner point of his left eyebrow, down the left side of the nose.

The remaining flames were doused as daybreak came. Everyone discovered Brown’s overcoat, pants, and pocketknife were all missing. Blackley had two axes on the property and one was missing. Brown carried a sizable amount of money in his coat from selling off the livestock.

Sheriff Blevins looked around and immediately suspected Joe Harris. Harris had helped the family for a long time, particularly in the week before the move, yet he was nowhere in the crowd of visitors.

Blevins began the manhunt for Harris. Just when it seemed he had disappeared, two wagons passed through. They’d come from Hancock County and had seen the man Blevins searched for. Blevins arrested Harris’s brother first so no one could warn the man.

The authorities eventually traced him to a brothel in an area called Pumpkin Valley. It was over 12 miles from the scene of the crime.


The Marble Hall Fiend

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.


The Trial

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.


The Confession

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

Was this what happened? The only people who know what happened that night have been silent for well over a century. We can only go by probabilities and possible motives.

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.


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