Our Back Pages: This Week in Print Over the Years


James C. Napier
  • James C. Napier
Our Back Pages brings you tidbits of Nashville history from near and far, chronologically speaking.

This edition: We remember a Nashville leader who deserves to be known as something other than the namesake of a housing project, look back at the lawless streets of Nashville in the months just after The War, and enjoy cameo appearances by Robert Altman and Dr. Bobedil Smellfungus.

November 16, 1911: A notable visitor

In old Nashville newspapers, what's not said is often as interesting as the actual words on the page. Case in point--a light little blurb published in the Nashville Banner this week in 1911:
J.C. Napier, Register of the United States Treasury, was a visitor at the City Hall to-day, and while in the Mayor's office promised to let Secretary Madison Wells hold a package of money containing a million dollars in his hand--for a few seconds--if he ever came to Washington. Acting Mayor Charles Cohn was also given a similar promise. Secretary Wells said he believed he would make the trip if only to say he had held a million "plunks" in his hand....

While speaking of his work in Washington, the Register gave a very interesting description of the methods employed in destroying $9,000,000 of greenbacks every day and replacing same with new bills. He said that while Washington was a city of many attractions, he never forgot that he lived in Nashville, and at times he and his family grew rather homesick.
Missing from the description of Napier is the customary label found throughout press accounts of this era: "negro." The powerful Washington bureaucrat who had dropped by the mayor's office to engage in friendly banter was a person of color. Nashville readers of the time knew Napier well enough that it would have been superfluous to identify him by race. Today, when most locals have heard of James C. Napier only because a large and perennially troubled housing project bears his name, it's worth recalling who the man was.

In a 1911 memoir, Booker T. Washington called Napier "a man of education, wealth and culture." He had achieved those qualities after having the good fortune to be born into a free family in 1845 and, later, to make a good impression on African-American abolitionist leader John Mercer Langston, the first dean of Howard University's law school. Napier earned his law degree at Howard in 1872 and then married the daughter of Langston, who by that time had become U.S. Ambassador to Haiti.

As fully detailed in his Tennessee Encyclopedia entry, Napier wielded ample influence in Nashville politics and business for the better part of six decades. He was elected to the city council and the school board, and he successfully pushed for the hiring of black teachers and the creation of an African-American fire-engine company. He was a founder of what is now Citizens Savings Bank, head of the Nashville Negro Board of Trade and a successful investor in various businesses. After the legislature funded a teacher-training college for Tennessee's African-Americans in 1909, Napier was among the leaders of the effort to have it located in Nashville. That institution came to be known as Tennessee State University.

Republican President William Howard Taft recognized Napier's political clout by naming him Register of the Treasury in 1911. His signature appeared on U.S. banknotes issued while he was in office. He held that appointment for two years, leaving after Taft lost his re-election bid in 1912. Napier then returned to tend his business interests in Nashville, living to the age of 94. He passed away in 1940.

November 22, 1865: Crime and punishment

A carjacking. A prominent citizen gunned down in front of his wife. Teenaged killers who seem to draw no distinction between right and wrong. "Blood accumulates upon us," laments the newspaper. "Verily, it does seem that the reins of justice have been loosely thrown to the devil, and that we are all driving at breakneck speed in the same direction."

The mayor advocates beefed-up policing. But the real answer to such woes, clearly, is capital punishment. "We doubt whether any agency, except that of hemp, and plenty of it, will bring about the reform we need," a columnist comments.

Retribution won't change the fate of William Hefferman, a well-known contractor "and withal a kind-hearted and amiable gentleman." On the night of the 22nd, Hefferman was driving home with his family after visiting the St. Cecilia Convent when a crowd of young men surrounded his carriage on Jefferson Street.

The assailants would later be identified as George Crabb, James Lysaught, Thomas Perry, and James Knight. All were white; all were teens except Knight, who was 20. They were working for the occupying Union Army as civilians and living in "one of the numerous doggeries"--ramshackle taverns--with which Nashville was "infested," according to the Republican Banner.

Perry, who had served in the Confederate army, grabbed the reins of Hefferman's horse. Crabb, a 17-year-old former Union soldier from New York, dragged Hefferman out and pounded him with a club.

Nashville attorney and historian Lewis L. Laska took up the story in an essay for the Nashville Historical Newsletter:
Hefferman said, "Surely you don't mean to hurt anyone here!" Perry, closest to Hefferman, said, "Yes, goddamned quick, if you don't give up your money!" Hefferman replied, "I am a private citizen, near my own home, just from an evening party and have no money." Crabb seized Hefferman, pulled him to the ground, and beat him with a billy club. Mrs. Hefferman got out to help her injured husband.

At that moment, Mr. Tracy [Hefferman's son-in-law] shot a pistol at Crabb, and the bullet struck a glancing blow at the nipple and exited the chest. Crabb returned fire. His bullet grazed Mrs. Hefferman's face and entered her husband's nose, passing into his skull. The buggy bolted, still carrying the Tracys. By the time Mr. Tracy was able to control it, the killers had escaped. Taken to his home, Hefferman was able to describe both the incident and the killers, although he was bleeding badly and brain matter was coming out his nose. Hefferman died on November 26.

News of the incident stunned the city, and the next day two prostitutes led the town marshal to the injured Crabb, who quickly confessed and implicated the others. Perry had escaped to Murfreesboro, where he was arrested after breaking into a shed.
Tried before a military commission, the four men were convicted within two weeks and condemned to the gallows.

Death-row delays would frustrate the public for almost two months, but on January 26, 1866, the men would face their day of reckoning. A scaffold was constructed on the grounds of the Union Army's Cumberland Hospital, which occupied a 30-acre site between Broadway and what is now Church Street in today's Midtown area. A crowd estimated at 8,000 to 10,000 gathered there to witness the execution. Laska writes:
Throughout the trial and the appeal, the defendants maintained a confident and defiant manner, convinced they would be granted clemency. They broke only briefly, but generally maintained bravado, including joking, up to the moment they were pinioned and taken to the scaffold. Then they began to tremble and sob.

The killers were seated on coffins and taken to the gallows on two wagons, each pulled by four white horses.... Knight exhorted the on-lookers, "I wish to say to all, don't swear, don't visit low houses, don't gamble, don't do anything wrong. If you take warning by me, you will never meet my fate, but I am going to a better world."
At the foot of the scaffold, a woman was seen "eyeing the culprits, and weeping bitterly," the Banner reported. "She was enveloped in a blue veil, but who she was, no one seemed to know."

White caps having been placed over the heads of the condemned, "at seven minutes past 12 o'clock, the ropes are cut, the drop falls, and they are struggling in mid-air," the newspaper narrated. "Perry and Lysaught died first; no perceptible struggles were observed." The other two died slow deaths from strangulation, with Knight writhing for more than eight minutes as the crowd looked on.

November 21, 2006: So long, and thanks for all the hicks

The passing of Robert Altman affords an opportunity to recall the local response to what many consider the masterpiece of his career as a film director, Nashville:
A December 1975 issue of the middlebrow newspaper insert Family Weekly captured the tenor of the city's reaction to the movie that all the "big film critics" were cooing about. By presenting a portrait of "self-indulgence, confusion, hypocrisy, insensitivity, violence and greed," Altman had raised plenty of hackles on Music Row (where such attributes are surely never to be found). Lynn Anderson announced that she was "personally affronted." Minnie Pearl called the film's music "terrible." Webb Pierce said if Altman ever came back to town, he would "get hanged."
November 21, 1820: Health care is a human wrong

Skip down to the second item in this 2007 NashvillePost.com history column from a couple of years ago for an announcement, at once enigmatic and pointless, from Dr. Bobedil Smellfungus, of the newly established Smellfungus & Fluke medical practice:
During the boating season, I will attend at our Dispensary three nights and days in the week, to be designated by the discharge of a blunderbuss at midnight, for the purpose of receiving consultations from a distance and answering the same, making prescriptions, pronouncing necessary incantations, raising ghosts, laying spirits and setting the river on fire, for the benefit of disordered complainants, & will only be induced to leave town on those days by attending a patient in the country. In which latter event, disordered complainants will be turned over to Mister Doctor Fluke, &c. and the apothecary, and may the Lord preserve them say I.

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