Monday, February 18, 2019

Murder in Tennessee

In February 1897, in a crowded court room in Clarksville, Tennessee, David Halliburton (a Confederate Civil War veteran) was found Not Guilty of committing first degree murder. Eight months earlier David had shot his son-in-law three times, killing him instantly.  As sensational as that sounds, it was not the first time that David was on trial for a violent crime.   
David Halliburton and his wife Margaret

One year earlier, David attempted to murder the same man by shooting him in the head, but he survived.  After a short trial, David was declared innocent of attempted murder because of insanity.

So what happened?  Why was a man with a history of violence (and who was both legally insane and legally blind) able to access guns and commit murder?   And get away with it?

One of the reasons I love history is that it provides enduring lessons that remain relevant in spite of the time that has elapsed.  The tragic story of David Halliburton touches on issues that are still quite relevant to this day, including gun violence, gun control, the criminal justice system, care for mental illness, veterans’ issues, access to social services and good old fashioned racism.  

David Halliburton was born into a wealthy and well-respected southern family.  (Yes, the same family behind the infamous Halliburton Corporation). David’s sister Elizabeth was my great-great-great-grandmother. By the time of the events of this article, Elizabeth was long since dead. However her children, including my great-great-grandmother Georgia, lived in the same town and must have been scandalized by their uncle’s murder trial.  I have no idea what they thought about any of this, but this story isn’t about them.

The story of David’s life is interesting, as it helps to provide context and an explanation for what led him to violence.  

Making of a Murderer

David Halliburton was born in 1843 in Montgomery County, Tennessee. He was born and raised in an area of fertile farmland in north-central Tennessee, not far from the border with Kentucky. He was the oldest son of a relatively wealthy plantation owner. The Halliburtons were slave owners and personally profited from the subjugation of other people. In 1860, shortly before the Civil War, David’s family owned 14 people.  
David's daughter Mary. She died of diphtheria in 1878 at the
age of 9, along with all of her siblings.

So at the outbreak of the war, it is no surprise that the Halliburtons supported the Confederacy and by extension the family’s livelihood and source of income. It was also no surprise that David, who was 19, enlisted in the Confederate Army and fought for the South in the Civil War. We already know the rest of that story. The South lost the war and the slaves were emancipated. Yet their freedom was somewhat hollow, as their descendants were subject to widespread discrimination, violence and institutional racism for many years to come.  

The Halliburtons – and David in particular - were a good example of a White family that lost their fortune after the war and were faced with poverty. For some of them, their financial loss and engrained racism was hardened into bitterness and rage. Yet the rest of David’s family was resourceful and they were able to use their ingenuity and skills to pursue successful careers in areas such as store ownership, farming and even photography. David, however, struggled for the rest of his life. In adulthood he made a meager living working as a carpenter.  

David’s skills though as a carpenter were enough to support a family. He married in 1865 and began to raise a family. He and his wife Margaret had eight children. 

His later problems aside, David suffered from resentment and had a difficult time adjusting to his lot in life. He was raised in relative luxury, yet struggled to survive as an adult. It is easy to understand then how David’s resentment boiled over into easy targets, such as Yankees and African-Americans. Yet in time, his rage apparently found its way to anyone and anything around him.  

David served for four years in the Civil War. Because David was often on guard duty while in the war, he was usually able to avoid combat in battle. That changed in July 1864, when he was “severely wounded” at the Battle of Atlanta. During the battle he was shot in the head and in the leg, but survived.  Even though he was close to death, he also tended to his fallen comrades on the same battlefield.  Although the wound to his head was superficial, the wound to his leg caused permanent problems – he was often in pain and had difficulty walking for the rest of his life. It is no big leap then to suggest that he suffered from physical as well as psychological trauma; perhaps he had what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder.  His experience dealing with death and trauma would have lasting psychological impacts on him.  

If the trauma of war was not enough, David’s personal life was also marred by tragedy.  Most adult members of his family suffered from consumption (tuberculosis), a fatal disease.  In fact, his mother, both of his sisters and two of his brothers all succumbed to early deaths from tuberculosis during the 1870s and 1880s.  Although David and his wife escaped the clutches of consumption, deadly disease did not escape their immediate family.  In the summer of 1878, all four of David’s children died within a week of each other from a diphtheria epidemic – Emma (11), Mary (9), David Jr. (5) and Rena (2).  A newspaper article describing their tragic deaths included the profound words “Disease spreads its wings of sorrow and flies over all the land, while death, the grim monster, follows and in its fatal work severs the most affectionate ties by which people can possibly be connected.”  This was devastating to David and his wife.  Tragically they lost three more children to infant ailments.  Only one child survived to adulthood, their daughter Annie.  
Clarksville Weekly Leaf-Chronicle, Aug. 27, 1895

As if the sorrow in his life was not enough, David also became destitute and unable to support his family.  His income as a carpenter required his physical capabilities.  Sadly by 1886 (at the age of 43) he partially lost his eyesight and then in 1888 (at the age of 45) he was injured while working which rendered him incapacitated and partially paralyzed for the rest of his life.  Later in 1888 he underwent an experimental surgery to install artificial pupils in his eyes, which was successful at restoring some of his eyesight.  Even at that time, he was not able to pay for the surgery and relied on charity to fund the operation.

By the 1890s, David was perhaps a shell of a man.  He was plagued with poverty, frequent tragic deaths of his loved ones, untreated wartime trauma, he had been unable to work for 10 years and had to use a cane to walk.  At 50, he was already an angry person who was usually described by other people merely as an “old man”.  Clearly, life had been tough on him and aged him prematurely.  It is easy to understand how at this point he was ready to snap.  

On August 21, 1895, David’s only living child – his 16-year old daughter Annie – ran away from home and married a man against her parents’ wishes.  To add insult to injury, her new husband was twice her age – 33-year old John Hite.  When her parents found out, Margaret was hysterical and David flew into a violent rage.  Although he did not have any weapons himself, David borrowed a gun from a neighbor by telling her that he needed to shoot a stray dog.  When he found where the couple was staying (in the same town), he used diplomacy to implore them to come outside.  He was able to convince them that Annie’s mother was desperately ill and that they needed to come home immediately.  While the three of them were walking home together, David purposefully dropped his cane, and while John was picking it up for him, he shot him in the back of the head.  Luckily the wound was superficial and John began to defend himself and started beating the old man.  At that point, bystanders intervened to break up the fight and both men were arrested.  

John was immediately released.  David was held for a few days and then released on bail.  A week later David was again living at home when he made the newspapers again.  Apparently one morning he was attacked by a “fit of insanity” and became violent, although it is not clear who he was violent to.  After some intervention, it was decided that he should be sent to his brother’s farm in the country to recover from his affliction which was described as “a temporary aberration of the mind”.  

Within a few months, David returned home and his life went somewhat back to normal.  John and Annie continued to live together as husband and wife, while David and Margaret remained across town, unable to do anything about it.  David was charged with assault for the attack and after a quick trial, was acquitted in March 1896 on the grounds of his insanity.  

Then three months later, on June 4th, 1896, David and John passed each other on the street in Clarksville and they got into an argument. David drew a revolver out of his pocket and shot John three times. It was a shot to his stomach that killed him within minutes.

David surrendered to police, where he was held in jail without bail and was charged with first degree murder.  David’s wife Margaret was hysterical – she went to the courthouse to try to have him released, but to no avail.  Meanwhile his daughter Annie was also horrified when she learned that her husband had been murdered by her father.  It was not the best time for her, as she was heavily pregnant with John’s child.  She gave birth to her son Theodore three weeks later.  

David remained in jail for eight months while his case awaited trial.  Then after a 2-day trial and 3 hours of jury deliberations, David was acquitted and was immediately freed.  The reporters acknowledged that although the verdict was a relief to some, it was a somber affair and there was no rejoicing.  At the time, many reporters acknowledged that the real victim in this case was John’s orphaned daughter, 7-year old Ida (daughter by a previous marriage), who was sent   
Clarksville Weekly Leaf-Chronicle, June 5, 1896
away to live with distant relatives.

So what happened?

In both cases, David was acquitted on the grounds of his “mental impairment” or “insanity”.  Yet surviving records make it clear that there was a poor understanding at the time of mental illness.  People involved with the case assumed that it was not caused by any physical trauma or psychological issues, and instead was merely the result of his “grief” about his daughter’s marriage.  All sources assumed that it was temporary in nature. So it was something to blame for his egregious actions, yet because it would go away, it did not require any treatment or attention.

In my opinion, David’s actions were actually quite calculated and do not indicate that he was mentally impaired.   By his own statement in August 1895, he had purposefully acquired a gun for the purpose of shooting his son-in-law and used his own powers of manipulation to persuade his son-in-law to travel with him to a place where he could murder him without witnesses.  He even mentioned in his statement that he didn’t care if his daughter was also killed, because he’d rather see her dead than the wife of this man that he hated.  To me, these aren’t the actions of a crazy man, but the actions of an angry man who was fed up with the world.  Clearly, he was in need of help.  But was he legally responsible for the murder he committed?  It seems like he should have been.      

The reality is that as a wounded Confederate veteran, David had an exalted status in his society.  Even though he had become desperate and pathetic, his contemporaries viewed him with awe and probably would have done anything to protect him.  By this time the Civil War was already 30 years in the past, but it was deeply ingrained in southern culture and there was something almost mythological about it.  To some extent that has persisted to this day, and there continues to be arguments about the appropriateness of lauding monuments to Confederate history, arguably a dark period in American history.     

All that aside, what was this man – who was legally blind, who could barely walk, suffering from acknowledged insanity and who was a known perpetrator of violent crimes - doing with firearms in the first place?  This issue was not acknowledged or addressed by a single source at the time.  Gun ownership was a universal right that probably would have been absurd to challenge in 1897 in Tennessee.  Yet if anyone should have had their guns taken away, it was him.  Perhaps awareness of cases like these, and proper attention to mental illness and provision of social services could have prevented this senseless death and many more in the future.  
Clarksville Weekly Leaf-Chronicle, Feb. 19, 1897

David definitely suffered from hardship and was in need of help.  Yet the concept of social services really did not exist at the time – at least not from a widespread, government perspective.  The expectation was that society would take care of its own and the government was not involved.  There were in fact many community groups that did provide social services, including churches and fraternal organizations.   Yet in large part, access to these services required effort on the part of the individual to join and seek out help, provided they pass whatever criteria required of these groups – many of which were elitist, sexist, racist, etc.  In this case, David was a member of the Masons, the Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) and the Forbes Bivouac (Confederate veteran association).  In August 1895, when David was attacked with his fit of violent insanity, it was the Odd Fellows who intervened and contrived to send him to his brother’s farm, rather than face any more criminal penalties.  

Members of the Forbes Bivouac (Confederate veteran association) in Clarksville, Tennessee.  David is probably in this photo.  Date unknown.  Courtesy University of Tennessee, Knoxville Library
Years later, in 1905, David was working as a night watchman and making $150 a year.  (I hope he wasn't equipped with any weapons on his job - but it wouldn't surprise me if he was). At that time, he finally received a pension for his military service.  He received his pension until his death in 1911.