Midnight in Tennessee – The untold story of the first Jewish lynching in America
Samuel Bierfield screamed and begged for his life. He swore he would leave town straight away and never return, if they would only let him go. But the men had not come to bargain. They had come for a lynching.
By The Forward and Paul Berger | Dec. 20, 2014 | 4:05 AM
Crime Scene: The city corner where Bierfield’s body was found. Photo by Courtesy of Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County
FRANKLIN, TENNESSEE — Late one summer’s night in Tennessee, in 1868, Samuel Bierfield sat in the back of a dry goods store with his black clerk Lawrence Bowman and another black man, Henry Morton. Fists pounded on the back door. A voice demanded that Bierfield open up. Bierfield shouted for the visitors to go around the front, unless they wanted to be shot. Moments later, the back door crashed open and a handful of masked men burst into the store.
Bierfield tried to make a run for it. He dashed out of his front door onto Main Street, where about a dozen men were waiting for him. He ran past the mob and into a stable. But the men quickly found him and dragged him into the street. Bierfield screamed and begged for his life. He offered the men money. He swore he would leave town straight away and never return, if they would only let him go. But the men had not come to bargain. They had come for a lynching.
The big tent at Robinson’s Circus had not long since closed down for the evening that Saturday night. Although it was almost midnight, many of Franklin’s residents were still awake. The commotion drew people to their windows and into the street. John L. Burch, a magistrate, tried to intervene. But the mob fired pistols into the air. They ordered everyone back indoors and warned them to keep away from their windows.
Bureau Chief: William Carlin ordered a lynching investigation
Moments later, five shots rang out. One bullet pierced Bierfield’s hip. The other four entered through the front of his head. The pistols were fired from such close range that gunpowder burned Bierfield’s clothes and skin. After the mob rode off, the people of Franklin came out of their homes. They found Bierfield’s body lying on the corner of Indigo and Main streets. Bowman, who had been shot once, was found nearby, mortally wounded.
On August 16, 1868, an inquest jury of eight men recorded that the gunshots that killed Bierfield were fired by “a person or persons to the jury unknown.” Incredibly, the jury added that “from the evidence the jury are unable to say whether the deed was done maliciously or feloniously.” Someone must have thought better of that last statement because those lines were later crossed through.
The gravestones of Jeremiah and Nathaniel Ezell.Photo by Paul Berger
No one took evidence from Bowman before he died. Some newspapers claimed that he was shot by accident. Dr. Daniel Cliffe later recalled that Bowman said he was shot on purpose. Morton, who escaped through a neighboring house, was the only one of the three who lived to tell the tale.
This letter, of October 1867, is one of several Samuel Bierfield wrote to his family about his life in Franklin.Photo by The Forward
Several newspapers blamed the murders on a new, rapidly growing organization of disaffected, white Southerners that called itself the Ku Klux Klan. “Lynch Law in Williamson County,” thundered the Nashville Press and Times. “Murderous outrage at Franklin,” reported the New York Times. The Jewish Messenger noted that “living in Tennessee can hardly be recommended.” Even Democratic newspapers admitted grudgingly that though Bierfield was “an earnest Union man, he was quite an inoffensive Gentleman.”
Although we think of lynching today as a person being hung from a tree, a lynching is any extrajudicial murder by a mob. Thousands of blacks were lynched across the South following the Civil War. The lynching of whites was rare and the lynching of Jews rarer still. Partly because of its rarity, the lynching of Leo Frank, in 1915 in Georgia, is famed as an example of the American Jewish dream turned sour. Which is why it is so strange that the lynching of Samuel Bierfield almost 50 years earlier is barely a footnote in American Jewish history. The American Jewish Archives at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center contains no references to Bierfield in its catalog or in its collection. The Institute of Southern Jewish Life refers to Bierfield only briefly in its encyclopedia entry on Nashville. The lengthiest treatment Bierfield has received to date is the three pages historian Morris Schappes devoted to him 60 years ago in his “Documentary History of the Jews in the United States” under the heading “Double-Lynching of a Jew and a Negro.”
The inquest into Bierfield’s death originally stated that there was no sign of malicious intent.Photo by The Forward
If Schappes had wanted to piece together Bierfield’s life when he researched his book in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he would have struggled. In those days, Williamson County’s clerk held some of the county records while other documents were kept separately at the county courthouse. Williamson County’s first archivist, a volunteer, didn’t begin publishing and transcribing county records until the 1970s. The Williamson County Archives, which contains many of the clues to understanding Bierfield’s life and death, wasn’t founded until about 20 years ago.
Up to now, the few who have researched Bierfield’s murder have relied mainly upon newspaper accounts, which portrayed Bierfield as a two-dimensional character, a carpetbagger and a Radical Republican. Absent from these portraits of Bierfield are key details, such as where Bierfield was from and what he was doing in Franklin during the mid to late 1860s. They are the kind of details that are passed down through family histories and hidden away among family papers. The kind you might stumble upon if, say, you were to track down Bierfield’s distant relatives.
Here then, for the first time, is a much fuller picture of Bierfield’s story than has ever been told. It is based upon archival research, interviews with scholars, historians, and family members, on-the-ground reporting, and never before seen documents, including letters written by Bierfield in the last years of his life.
Today, the few Jews who know Bierfield’s name remember him as the first Jew to be lynched by the KKK — a categorization that implies that it was specifically Bierfield’s Jewishness that marked him out for death. But the historical record suggests something much more complex.
Bierfield was murdered during the opening phase of Reconstruction, when the social, political and economic lines of the South were being radically redrawn. The Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination were still fresh in people’s minds. So too was the fact that while blacks could vote for the first time, many former Confederates were banned from voting. Bierfield was lynched one year after Republicans swept to victory in statewide elections in Tennessee on a tide of black votes and as the Republican Ulysses S. Grant looked poised to win the presidential election of 1868.
Yes, Bierfield was a carpetbagger and a Jew. Yes, he treated blacks with more empathy and respect than most whites in Williamson County. But that was not sufficient for the Klan to want Bierfield dead. It would take something more for the people of Franklin to turn on their Jewish neighbor. In the summer of 1868, the South was a racial and a political tinderbox. All that was needed was a spark.
Captain George Judd and Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Gelray must have made quite a sight when they arrived in Franklin on August 18, 1868. The two Union Army veterans each lost an arm during the Civil War. Judd, 30, lost his left arm in 1862 at the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia. Gelray, 31, lost his right arm the following year at Gettysburg.
The two men were dispatched to Franklin by Major General William Carlin, head of the Nashville headquarters of the Freedmen’s Bureau, to investigate the murder of Bierfield. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was established in 1865 to negotiate labor contracts between freedmen and farmers, as well as to ensure former slaves had access to education and healthcare. The Bureau was almost universally reviled by former Confederates who saw its agents as meddlers who usurped the authority planters once enjoyed over slaves. In Tennessee, the Bureau had the added difficulty of maintaining order across the land that gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan.
The Klan was established in Pulaski, Tennessee, about 60 miles south of Franklin, in 1866. The Klan’s reputation today as a virulently anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic organization is a holdover from the second iteration of the Klan, which began in Georgia in 1915. The first Klan, which died out in the 1870s, focused almost exclusively on intimidating and killing blacks as well as whites who supported and helped former slaves.
Klan violence did not begin until the end of 1867. But when it did, it spread rapidly across the South. In June 1868, a Freedmen’s bureau agent in Columbia, 30 miles south of Franklin, warned about the “reign of terror” sweeping Middle and West Tennessee. In an official report, the agent, A. H. Eastman, recounted tales of black residents roused from their homes, being beaten, whipped and lynched. He told of schoolhouses burned to the ground and of white teachers beaten and driven from town. Black and white Union sympathizers lived in perpetual fear. “I have been sleeping for months with a revolver under my pillow, and a double-barreled shot-gun, heavily charged with buck shot at one hand, and a hatchet at the other,” Eastman wrote.
In Franklin, Judd and Gelray focused their investigation on one piece of evidence — a widely publicized letter between two black men that appeared to show that Bierfield was complicit in the earlier fatal shooting of a white Williamson County farmer, Jeremiah Ezell. In the letter, Israel Brown wrote to John Nolan that Bierfield had promised to pay Brown and others for the killing of Ezell. Somehow, the letter found its way into the hands of the Nashville Union and Dispatch, a Democratic newspaper, where it was published on August 17.
As Judd and Gelray began their investigation, the Dispatch published an article declaring that the Brown letter provided ample evidence of Bierfield’s guilt. The newspaper declared that Bierfield’s murder was retaliation for Ezell’s murder and not, as some began to fear, the result of anti-Semitism. “The Radicals in our midst are trying in every manner to prejudice the Israelites in the State to believe it is a war waged against them,” the Dispatch reported. “When they come to consider the facts and the circumstances surrounding the deceased, we think they will readily number him among the very few criminals of their nation.”
But Judd and Gelray concluded that the letter was a forgery. Nolan denied knowing anyone by the name of Israel Brown. And O.J. Kennedy, a white Franklin resident and the last person to see the letter, told Judd that he had lost it. “I told him that it was curious he should lose it, and still it should come out in the [newspaper] on the next day,” Judd wrote in his official report of the investigation.
“[Kennedy] said he could not help it, that he lost valuable private papers at the same time.”
On the second day of their investigation, at 10 a.m., Judd and Gelray strode past the 30-foot-tall columns at the entrance to Franklin’s courthouse. Inside, Williamson County’s sheriff had gathered Franklin’s most prominent citizens at Judd and Gelray’s request. In Judd’s official report of his investigation, published in the Nashville Republican on August 21, he wrote of the townspeople: “Most of them were former rebels to my certain knowledge, and I think more than one concerned in the killing of Bierfield and Bowman, were there.”
Gelray addressed the courtroom, his piercing eyes framed by a sweeping mane of dark hair and a bushy goatee: “Does anyone know of Bierfield’s advising the negroes to organize and fight the whites, Ku Klux Klan, or anything of that description?”
No one answered.
“Does anyone know of Bierfield’s offering to furnish powder and balls to such an organization?”
No one answered.
“Does any man know of Bierfield’s saying that the negroes done right when they killed Ezell?”
No one answered.
“Is there any man here who can say anything against the character of Mr. Bierfield in any way, shape, manner of form?”
No one answered.
Carlin repeated the questions. Still no one answered.
Judd wrote in his report: “All looked like a set of whipped curs, as they are.”
He concluded by noting that Bierfield ran a very successful dry goods store and that business was improving. The motive for the murder, as far as Judd could see, was jealousy on the part of a business rival, or rivals, who were “vexed at his success.”
Toronto, May 1865
Dear Parents, … There is little day to day news from Canada, but in the United States is much confusion. The war is just about over. The Northern President was shot two weeks ago in a theater. The Southern President was captured, and with this, comes the end of the greatest revolution in the world. Canada is not involved in this struggle. Til now, there has not been a way to enter the Southern States since they tried to attack the Northern States via Canada. This was prevented by the cautious Canadian Government. This, also, stopped deportations from Canada. As far as our health is concerned, thank God, we are well. In the papers, we read about illness in the surrounding areas of Riga (pest and typhoid). Sam is well and sends his greetings.
During the second half of the 19th century, tens of thousands of Jews sailed from Central and Eastern Europe to North America, lured by the promise of economic opportunity and religious freedom. After spending time in crowded northern cities, many of these immigrants soon headed south. They started out as itinerant peddlers with the hope of eventually establishing themselves as merchants. In Nashville, in 1860, one-quarter of the city’s 100 Jewish families listed their profession as “peddler.” After the Civil War, even more Jews headed south searching for opportunity. Between 1860 and 1880, the Jewish population of Tennessee roughly doubled from about 2,000 people to about 3,800.
Peddlers were soft targets for robbers. They often traveled alone and carried money and valuables with them. Jewish merchants, ensconced in their stores and homes, were only marginally safer. The 50 years after the end of the Civil War were littered with cases of Jewish peddlers and merchants who were attacked, robbed and in some cases killed. Jacob Simon was robbed and murdered in his store in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, in 1887. Peddler Gustav Loeb and his wife Julia were robbed and murdered in 1895 in Kentucky. Abram Surasky, another peddler, was robbed and killed in 1903 in South Carolina.
Many peddlers and merchants operated on credit and some of the violence, borne of jealousy, debt and frustration, took on a distinctly anti-Semitic tone. In Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, on a Sunday night in March 1887, a masked mob opened fire on the storehouses of two successful Jewish businesses, H. & A. Kahn and Felix Bauer. The mob put up signs telling Jews to leave the county by April 1 or face death. Horrified by the mob’s actions, parishioners denounced the act and Louisiana’s governor offered a reward for the attackers’ arrest.
But money was not the only motive for harassment and murder of Jews. As newcomers to towns and cities, Jews were often seen as outsiders. Because many Jews in the South were willing to trade with blacks, they were also seen as social and political rebels. That was what probably led to the murders in Florida of Samuel Fleishman, in 1869, and of M. H. Lucy, in 1871.
Samuel Bierfield appears to have arrived in Toronto, Canada, in the late 1850s. From his letters, it seems likely that he grew up in or around Riga, which is today the capital of Latvia, but was then a major port city in the Russian empire. In a short letter written to his parents in March 1859, when Bierfield was about 18 years old, he says that he has moved out of his uncle’s home in Toronto and that he goes to school regularly. “I can wright [sic], read and speak English,” he tells them. By 1865, Samuel is listed in Toronto’s city directory as a “salesman” living at 422 Queen West St., a five-minute walk from his brother Benjamin, a grocer, who lives at 254 Queen West St.
The following year, Benjamin Bierfield is still listed at the same address, but Samuel has disappeared. Some time in 1866, Samuel Bierfield moved 750 miles south to Franklin, Tennessee. In a June 12, 1867 letter to his parents, Bierfield says that he is working for a local merchant and earning about $1,000 per year, more than twice what his uncle Morell paid him in Toronto. Still, life is hard. He has lost almost all of his money on two speculative ventures — a billiard room and a cotton deal — that went sour. “My dear kind mother do not I pray scold me so much for I have only made a start in the world since I left my Uncle,” Bierfield writes. He is particularly apologetic because his sister is due to get married soon in the Old Country and he is expected to supply the dowry:
I am very sorry that in your uncivilized and godforsaken land the Young men marry for money. I am sure no man can love his wife if she has to buy him with a few dollars. I am mad to think of it. Pray tell him I will guarantee to pay him in three months from date if God spares me providing that my dear Sister loves him. My dear Kind Mother though I am sitting with my back to you now yet I love you none the less; and what is quite as strange I can see you just as plainly as if I stood peeping in upon you. I did not expect to hear from you so soon or else I would have been prepared but as I was sitting in the counting house my employer brought in your welcome letter and I was happily surprised — You ask me if I want a pretty girl! I can tell you I am overrun with that question weekly. But I will have none but one that I can love and she must have plenty of money to coax me with for I like money better than Matrimony. If there is such a Young Lady in your town tell her I am coming some day.
What drew Samuel Bierfield to this part of Tennessee? The Jewish community in Nashville was established during the 1840s. The community almost tripled during the 1860s as the city swelled with Union veterans and speculators from the North.
Like other Jews across the South, Nashville’s Jews supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. They raised money for wounded Confederate soldiers and, after Nashville’s capture by Union troops, Jacob Bloomstein, a merchant, was arrested and imprisoned for smuggling goods to the Confederacy. After the war, there was a high turnover of Jewish residents as business prospects rose and fell. There were also frequent arguments within and between the city’s congregations. Writing in the Jewish Messenger, in 1870, Mosche Schnurrer noted that “Nashville has four congregations with scarce sufficient numbers to sustain one.” Schnurrer guessed that the discord was caused by “business jealousy and diverse other reasons.” Even so, he said life in Nashville, “delightfully situated on the Cumberland River,” was good. Compared to places like New York City, there was little poverty and rent was cheap.
But Nashville did not appeal to Bierfield. He decided to try his luck 20 miles south in Franklin, a bustling farming town tucked into a bend in the Harpeth River. Williamson County has always been the richest county, per capita, in Tennessee. The rich loam of the countryside surrounding the county seat of Franklin was perfect for growing cotton, corn, wheat and tobacco. During the 1860s, Williamson County produced more wheat than any other county in the state. The railroad, which arrived in Franklin in 1858, allowed goods to be transported quickly and easily to Nashville and beyond. Williamson County was also known for its hog farmers and for its horse breeders who raised trotters for two-wheeled sulkies. The county was mostly dotted with good-sized farms, averaging a couple of hundred acres each. But sprinkled in among them were white subsistence farmers who grew small crops and raised a mule or two.
The Civil War had little physical effect on Franklin. Nashville and Williamson County were controlled by the Union from 1862. The worst fighting during the Battle of Franklin in 1864, which claimed more than 2,000 lives and injured more than 7,000 men, most of them Confederate soldiers, took place on the outskirts of the city. Even today, the antebellum homes and churches are untouched.
But the war did have a great impact on society. In 1860, Williamson County was home to 11,300 whites and 12,200 slaves. After Tennessee seceded from the Union, in 1861, many blacks fled to Nashville or were pressed into service by the Union Army. Almost all of the county’s whites joined the Confederate Army.
As peace settled over the South, Williamson County’s blacks and whites found themselves living in a new reality. Tennessee’s slaves were emancipated in February 1865. Now, in theory at least, blacks were able to negotiate their own labor contracts and work toward a bright, independent future. Meanwhile, many former Confederate soldiers chafed under the leadership of the Radical Republican Governor William Brownlow, who denied them the vote. Tensions between blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans, boiled over in the summer of 1867, a few months before that year’s statewide elections.
On Saturday, July 6, a speech by Joe Williams a black member of the Conservative faction aligned with the Democratic Party, angered many of Franklin’s black Republicans. A group of blacks marched over to Williams and tried to stop him from speaking. John House, a white former colonel in the Confederate Army, strode into the street and accused a leading white Republican and former Union soldier, Jesse Bliss, of inciting the blacks. Bliss called House a liar, so House slapped Bliss across the face.
Black members of the Union League, an organization of former Union soldiers who were standing nearby, fired their guns into the air in protest. The League marched out of town to a grove where they were addressed by white Republicans who urged them to calm down, return to Franklin and go home peacefully. That evening, at dusk, the League marched into Franklin. When they entered the town square to disband, a pistol shot rang out from the corner, just in front of Colonel House’s dry goods store. A group of former Confederate soldiers and Conservative sympathizers, including some blacks, had hidden in the store waiting to ambush the League. Several volleys of gunfire followed. When the skirmish was over, 30 Union League veterans were wounded, most of them shot in the side and back. Eight Conservatives, including three blacks, were wounded and one white Conservative, Michael Cody, Jr., was killed.
Five days later, Bierfield wrote to his sister Sarah that America was a tough country to start a business in. “I am willing God knows to help you and my parents any way possible but you must pray for me to have better luck as I have lost about $500 in six months all that I was worth, in a riot that occurred here the other week between the Black men and the White men.”
The Franklin Riot occurred just a few weeks after Bierfield applied for U.S. citizenship at the Williamson County Courthouse, renouncing his fealty to Tsar Alexander of Russia. Although Bierfield seems to have accepted North America as his new home, he was not tied to Franklin. In October 1867, Bierfield wrote to his parents that he intended to return to Toronto by January the following year. His uncle Morell had offered him a job at more than double the pay he used to earn. Plus, Morell said Bierfield could take over his business when his uncle “goes home.” Bierfield was optimistic:
I am at present keeping a brand store for the same man I used to manage for last year for you must know that I am considered quite a good merchant and invested with all the authority of the House. I am buyer for them and consequently must travel a great deal which I like. I would like to see Russia again and hope I will some day. Then we can talk over old times and all about America the land of Gold as you call it.
Bierfield wrote that he heard his parents had opened a restaurant or a saloon:
Be sure to put plenty of water in the liquor as it will pay and do not give credit ha, ha. I would like to call and see your Garden and see what kind of a host you make. Please remember me to all inquiring friends and acquaintances and tell them I will be home on a visit maybe in a year or two. Then look out you don’t lose some pretty girl in your town. Dear Parents I was quite shocked to find myself twenty-four years old. I thought I was only nineteen. I feel young as ever though and don’t care. I will try to make money now seeing that I am getting old. No news here.
Your affectionate Son,
But instead of moving to Toronto, Bierfield was still in Franklin a few months later and still struggling financially. In a letter of January 12, 1868, to his now married sister, Bierfield says that he has been nominated for a Circuit Court Clerk’s position. If elected, the position paid a salary of $2,000 per year, the equivalent of about $35,000 today. Bierfield adds that he is planning a trip to the South that should pay off handsomely for his employer and for himself.
Soon after, Bierfield raised enough capital to open his own store. Judging by the inventory of goods taken after his death, he focused on clothing and accessories. The inventory included 38 men’s and boys’ hats, 35 pairs of assorted suspenders, 17 business coats, thousands of buttons, hundreds of pairs of boots and shoes, hundreds of yards of denim and muslin, and dozens of hickory and calico shirts. Bierfield also sold gents’ collars, cotton and gingham handkerchiefs, combs, needles, pocket knives, scissors, hair pins, pocket books, bottles of men’s cologne and Galaway’s Magic Oil, cakes of soap, spectacles, and two small mirrors.
His single copy of the Hebrew Bible was probably not for sale.
Despite his run of bad luck, Bierfield struck an upbeat note in his January letter to his sister. He apologized for still not having cobbled together a dowry. Soon though, he hoped his fortune would turn:
Last year I was very unfortunate having lost all I made. But that is the way they do here and I not discouraged. Having a stout heart and a willing hand that never yet forsook me I intend to battle with this life’s discomforts in plain open battle and if victory crowned my efforts which I hope it will, all of you will not then repent of my delay. Let this be your maxim — there is a good time coming wait a little longer.
Mary Ezell was no stranger to tragedy. Her father died before the age of 30, when she was still a little girl. Her brother Nathaniel Ezell was ambushed and killed at the age of 21 by guerilla fighters, known as bushwhackers, during the waning months of the Civil War. Mary later recalled that Nathaniel was buried in a “very common walnut coffin, unlined and roughly made” and that his “shroud was of second hand clothes badly worn.”
On the morning of July 16, 1868, Mary Ezell walked home from her brother-in-law’s house along the Carter’s Creek Turnpike, about five miles south of Franklin. Mary was about 18 at the time. When she was about 600 yards from home, she was attacked and raped by a black man. A group of local white farmers set out to find her attacker. In a nearby field, they found William Guthrie, a farm laborer, who fit the description.
Guthrie was arrested and indicted on July 17 on charges of rape. The indictment said that Guthrie did “ravish and carnally know” the young woman against her will. The Nashville Union and Dispatch reported the same day that this “negro devil” had committed “an infernal outrage on a beautiful young lady in Williamson County.” The newspaper’s editors celebrated Guthrie’s capture: “Let his blackened soul be launched into eternity!”
Mob justice was not uncommon in Williamson County during the late 1800s. In 1888, Amos Miller, a black man accused of raping a white woman, was dragged from court in Franklin and hung from the courthouse railings. Three years later, Jim Taylor, a black man accused of shooting a policeman, was seized by a mob from Williamson County’s sheriff and hung from the Murfreesboro Pike bridge.
Perhaps fearing for Guthrie’s safety, Judge William H. S. Hill ordered that Guthrie be transferred north from the Williamson County Jail to Davidson County “where he will be safely kept till the further order of this Court.” But before the order could be carried out, a group of men showed up at Williamson County’s jailhouse the night of July 17 and took Guthrie from his cell. His body was found the next morning on the Spring Hill Pike. He had been shot.
Before the Civil War, the violence might have ended there. But Williamson County’s blacks were now free men. On Saturday, July 18, Mary Ezell’s brother Jeremiah Ezell rode into Franklin with a handful of men to pick up supplies. As he rode home along the Carter’s Creek Turnpike, he was ambushed by what newspapers later described as a party of more than 50 men. The light was fading, but the Nashville Tri-Weekly Union and Dispatch reported that “a sprinkle of incendiary whites, who are known as the ringleaders of the worst negroes,” were spotted among the ambush party. Two of Ezell’s companions were wounded in the firefight. Ezell was also wounded; he died the following day.
The Nashville Tri-Weekly Union and Dispatch railed against the white instigators of the ambush:
There is an element in the State who are determined, if possible, to first incite the negro to lawlessness and crime of the most hideous character, and then to uphold and sustain them in it; that the innocence and virtue of the white woman may be violently assailed and outraged by the most evil disposed of negroes, and when justice overtakes the fiends, their blood is to be avenged by armed mobs ambushing the high roads and murdering the white men of the neighborhood.
Then, the newspaper’s editors appealed for whites in Williamson County to take action.
We say to the fathers and sons, and brothers of Williamson, protect and defend your wives and mothers and daughters at all hazards, and to the last extremity. The white people of Tennessee will sustain you.
To reach Jeremiah Ezell’s grave you drive south out of Franklin about five miles along the Carter’s Creek Pike, past gently rolling woodland and the occasional, modest two-story home. You make a left onto Mile End Road and then turn right onto a dirt track and ford a creek. From here, you must continue on foot into the woods, heading up a hillside and climbing carefully through a barbed wire fence until you reach a vantage point that looks out over the lowland. There, scattered among the trees, are several dozen gravestones. Some look as though they are about to topple over, others have snapped into pieces. Many of the stones are so worn down by the elements that it is impossible to make out who is buried there. But you can still make out some of the names: the Cottons, the Sweeneys, and Nathaniel and Jeremiah Ezell.
Samuel Bierfield may not have known the Ezells. But he certainly knew their relatives. In March 1867, Bierfield signed a $1,250 marriage bond for the wedding of Henry P. Sweeney to Elizabeth Cotton. A marriage bond was a guarantee that there was no legal impediment to a marriage. Often, though not always, marriage bonds were signed by relatives of the bride and groom. Elizabeth Sweeney, née Cotton, is buried about 20 feet from the Ezell brothers.
Elizabeth Cotton and Henry Sweeney were first cousins. They were also first cousins with Mary and Jeremiah Ezell. Their mothers were sisters, members of the Huggins family. The families were also tied to the Ku Klux Klan. Family lore passed down through the Sweeney side of the family has it that Henry Sweeney’s mother, Sarah Ann Huggins, used to leave bedsheets on the front porch in the evening for the Klan’s nighttime raids. The sheets were returned before dawn and left on the porch to be laundered and made ready for the next night’s activities.
Henry Sweeney’s father, Charles Sweeney, was particularly close with the Ezell family. He became Mary Ezell’s ward after her father died and he remained her guardian even after her mother remarried. Mary Ezell’s brother Nathaniel Ezell lived with his uncle Charles Sweeney from 1860 until his death, apart from stints serving in the Confederate Army and a season growing a crop for his mother.
After Nathaniel Ezell was killed by bushwhackers, his body was carried to Sweeney’s house and Nathaniel was buried in an old suit that belonged one of Sweeney’s sons.
No one picked up on this link between the Ezell family and Samuel Bierfield at the time of the murders or since. If Bierfield was in any way seen as complicit in the murder of Jeremiah Ezell, it is conceivable that the Cottons, the Sweeneys and the Ezells might have decided they had a right and a duty to take matters into their own hands.
The evidence for Bierfield’s complicity in Ezell’s murder seems thin. Historian Stanley F. Horn, in his book on the Ku Klux Klan, published in 1939, said that the white leader of the group that attacked Ezell was spotted riding a white horse and that Bierfield owned the only white horse in Franklin. But no documents from the period or eyewitness testimony support that assertion. Horn goes on to show his bias by describing Bierfield as a carpetbagger who “encouraged the negroes to loaf around his store.” The only other piece of evidence against Bierfield, the letter tying him to Ezell’s murder, was discounted by the Freedmen’s Bureau investigators as a forgery in 1868, and there is no reason to doubt that decision today.
But what if there was a grain of truth in the allegation that Bierfield was a Radical Republican? Nashville’s Jews, whose sympathies lay with the Conservatives, appear to have taken little interest in coming to Bierfield’s posthumous defense.
Franklin’s only other Jewish resident, Louis Kaufman, sprang to the defense of the people of Franklin. Kaufman wrote a letter to the Republican Banner, on August 22, 1868, in which he protested “efforts made in certain quarters to prejudice the Jewishkind against our town by asserting that S.A. Bierfield… was killed because he was a Jew.” Kaufman stated that since he moved to Franklin in 1865, he had suffered no “prejudice or malice” because he was a Jew. “Our town is as quiet and law-abiding as any in the Union and I am certain that every person, whether he is Jew or Gentile, black or white, who behaves himself will be treated kindly by the people,” Kaufman wrote. Was he insinuating that Bierfield did not behave himself and that is why he was killed?
Bierfield’s letters show no trace of Radical Republican activity and no interest in politics in general. The two subjects foremost in his mind seem to have been finding a wife and making money. His murder doesn’t make sense.
It’s possible that Bierfield was framed for Ezell’s murder by a business rival. Colonel House, for example, who owned the dry goods store from which the Union League was ambushed in the riot of 1867, may have felt threatened by Bierfield. Newspaper accounts of Bierfield’s murder all speak of Bierfield owning his own store by the summer of 1868. An account written 60 years later by a local Klan sympathizer, John F. Campbell, places Bierfield’s dry goods store on the same block on Main Street as House’s store. House was among six charter members sworn into the Ku Klux Klan of Williamson County in 1868. The ceremony took place in his store. If Bierfield was doing well, what better way to get rid of him than to fabricate evidence that Bierfield incited blacks to kill Ezell, and then use the Klan to put Bierfield out of business.
John Pogue Jr. was arrested for Bierfield’s murder in September 1868. An eyewitness, Ed Lyle, claimed that he saw Pogue shoot Bierfield. During the few days Pogue spent in the Davidson County Jail, seven people came forward to give Pogue an alibi. On September 28, Judge John Hugh Smith had no option but to release Pogue. The Republican Banner said that Lyle had perjured himself in order to collect a $500 reward offered by Governor Brownlow for information leading to Bierfield’s killers.
After September 1868, Bierfield’s murder became lost among the hundreds of lynchings that plagued the South through the decades that followed. At its peak, between 1880 and 1930, there was an average of one lynching per week. More than 200 people were lynched in Tennessee, most of them black. If anything, Bierfield’s lynching was remarkable because he was white and because he was a Jew. But the most remarkable aspect of all may be that it has been forgotten and ignored for so long.
Contact Paul Berger at email@example.com