Blount County [TN] Standard,January 5, 1878
Details of the Crime and Execution Last Saturday
The following is the report of the execution of Jacob Harness, made expressly for the Standard by our special reporter, Mr. T.H. Ford.
The day was one that would have been chosen above any other for a day of execution. Damp and dismal, it was a task even for the light-hearted to bear a cheerful deportment. Every now and then, the sun would shine with a fitful gleam, in mockery of powerless humanity, and the very elements seemed at war.
On the road at every station after leaving Knoxville, a knot of countrymen were assembled, eagerly waiting for the train to bear them to witness the miserable death of a fellow creature.
The occasion was made one of revelry and mirth, and the saddest commentary on humanity is the fact of there being so many of the female sex present, eager and anxious to witness a public execution.
If the day was all that was fitting for the occasion, no better place on earth could have been chosen than Clinton. Scattered about some barren foot-hills, the town, under a leaden sky, was the dreariest and least attractive we ever saw. Mud, mud and mud! Men, women, and little children, wading about and conversing upon the approaching event.
Arrived at the jail, the reporters were introduced to the Sheriff, a nervous and sympathetic gentlemen, who seemed to realize the solemnity of the occasion and the magnitude of his duty. He told us that the condemned was suffering from nervous prostration, and was badly broken up mentally. On being introduced to the prisoner, we were very much surprised to find that the Sheriff was apparently mistaken, and that the doomed man was as unconcerned as any one present.
Gray haired, with evasive eyes sunk in deep caverns, retreating forehead, high cheek bones, small and puckered mouth, receding chin, with large gray goatee, he looked as though he failed to grasp the solemnity of his situation. Being asked if he had any statement to make, he answered that he had nothing to say. “People,” he said, “would not believe anything I might say.” And he had nothing to say in regard to the crime with which he was charged. By direct inquiries we learned that he was the father of seven children, had served in the Mexican War; had lived in Monticello, Wayne County, Ky., for four years after the war; was arrested in Scott County, Tenn., after the war; that John Lovely was the instigator of his arrest; that he had served in the Federal Army; and that he had never had any financial troubles or hard feelings of any kind with the murdered man. Being asked if he had any religious convictions, he answered that he had, but had never been baptized. He stated in conclusion that he did not wish to die.
From his answers and general deportment, it was the impression of the reporters that he had hope and expectation of some effort at a rescue being made by his friends. looking through the barred window, he laughingly remarked to his wife: “They want to see everybody,” alluding to the crowd, among which he, no doubt, recognized many oldfriends and army acquaintances. From them he drew his hope. How it was disappointed, the sequel will show.
At 16 minutes to 12 o’clock, he entered the wagon which was to bear him on his last ride. Twenty armed men surrounded the vehicle, and it rolled through the crowd without the least demonstration being made.
The scaffold was erected in a declivity, with a view to the accomodation of the crowd, which was gathered, to the number of about three thousand, on the surrounding hills, in the form of an amphitheatre. The Rev. Mr. Barrett mounted the wagon and delivered a very earnest prayer, although it was not to the point, nor suited to the occasion. The prisoner evinced no emotion, and showed not a tremor, nor a tear. After the 51st Psalm was sung, the Sheriff asked him if he had anything to say, to which he responded that he had not. He called for a few of his friends to come into the enclosure, to which request they generally responded. He was again asked by the Sheriff to make any statement that he might wish, to which he replied that he had nothing to say; that “the world wouldn’t believe him, and that he was ready to go at any time. God knows what was done.”
Here it was discovered by the Sheriff that he had forgotten the death warrant. The prisoner said: “It doesn’t make any difference.” But the Sheriff answered that it was necessary that he should read the warrant before the execution could proceed. A messenger was then dispatched to the Court House for the warrant. During the interim, the prisoner talked with his friends, among others, Col. W.G. McAdoo, with whom the condemned had served in the Mexican War. After a good deal of earnest solicitation on the part of Col. McAdoo, Harness was induced to address the crowd, which he did in the following words: “ Dan and Edd Vann have sworn a lie. I am not guilty. I look to God.”
Being interrogated as to his hopes of Heaven, he answered that he would not say whether he hoped to meet his friends there or not.
The warrant being brought, the Sheriff read it, reciting his authority for the act about to be consumated. The Sheriff then said: “Now, then, Mr. Harness, get up again, and if you have anything more to say to the crowd, you have the opportunity.” He answered that he had said all he wanted to say. Here the condemned man whispered to the Sheriff, asking him the length of the rope and the distance from the ground. He also requested that he might be notified when the wagon would move, so that he might be able to ease himself off. The Sheriff gave him assurance that he would notify him; and the prisoner further requesting that he would appoint someone to steady him after he had swung off. The Sheriff appointed Mr. Hicks to perform that business.
“Now, Jesse,” said the Sheriff, and off went the wagon, leaving the body of Jacob Harness suspended in the air. The Sheriff had kept his promise and given him notification, and Harness had eased himself off without breaking his neck. Notwithstanding this fact, he struggled but little, only a slight heaving of the chest being perceptible. After hanging twenty-five minutes he was taken down and pronounced dead. At the request of your reporter, Dr. Joel Smith made an examination, and found the usual phenomenon to have occurred.
Thus Jacob Harness expiated a crime committed fourteen years ago. Here is a lesson for the lawless that should last.
The murder was one of the most cold-blooded and deliberately-planned ever committed in this part of the country. Stealing a keg of whiskey from the still-house of his intended victim, he carried it to a secluded spot in the mountains, leaving a well defined trail for the eye of his victim. White pursued the theft, as Harness had anticipated, and his plan proved too successful. Harness, his wife, and a colored girl, were in a field through which White would have to pass, and when he made his appearance, Harness snatched his rifle to dispatch him, but was restrained by his wife with difficulty. Finally shaking her off, with terrible and brutal threats, he took deliberate aim, and wounded White in the breast. After the first shot, White implored Harness to spare his life, but the latter proceeded with his premeditated plans. And after giving White a drink of the whiskey which he had but just stolen, Harness abused his helpless victim in a brutal and heartless manner, and then sent a bullet crashing through his brain. With the help of the negro girl, Harness dragged the body some distance, where he cut off the head and sent it “rolling down the hill, like a d---d old pumpkin,”
as he afterwards confessed. He then secreted the body between two logs, and shortly after removed with his family to Kentucky. Here he lived four years after the war. He then returned to Anderson County, Tenn; and, in 1875, at the March term of the Circuit Court of that county, an indictment was had against him. He was tried at the November term of the same year, and a verdict of murder in the first degree was returned against him. He was sentenced to be hung September 10, 1876, but his counsel appealed to the Supreme Court, and in September last, that Court sustained the action of the lower court, and Harness was again sentenced to be hung on the 29th of December 1877.