Madison County's First Murder Trial, A Vintage Vignette

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Madison County's First Murder Trial
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
May 30, 2011

The November 13, 1812, murder trial of Eli Newman was the first murder case legally tried in Madison County. He was found guilty, but his attorney, John Williams Walker, successfully appealed for a new trial. That second trial occurred on December 1 of the same year, and again Newman was found guilty. On December 5 around noon, he was hanged. According to James Record's book “A Dream Come True” (1970) Volume 1, the hanging occurred on the courthouse square the next year. However, according to other accounts, the hanging was done on the courthouse square within five days of the conclusion of the trial, which would have been the expected result of pioneer justice.

Detailed records of the trial proceedings have not yet been found, but the summary judgment or official court minutes have been examined, along with several historical accounts rendered many years later. From these sources, which contain several points of discrepancy with one another, it appears that Eli Newman was not a citizen of the area. Furthermore, the crime did not even occur in Madison County. It apparently happened near Huntsville, but on Chickasaw Indian lands west of town, perhaps near where the town of Madison is located today. According to the “Sketch of Huntsville” published about 40 years later and written by W. P. Mills for William's Huntsville City Guide and Business Mirror (Volume 1, 1859-60), Eli Newman was part of a flatboat crew from Tennessee. They had finished their journey to New Orleans and were returning home on foot with their pay by way of the Natchez Trace and its extensions along the route that is now Highway 72, which would connect beyond Huntsville to Winchester Road and on to Tennessee. Mills' account states that Newman made an excuse to lag behind with another of the crewmen, who other records show to have been Joseph Tetrick. While Tetrick slept, Newman then cut his throat with a razor on the night of June 6, per the court records.

When Newman, without Tetrick, later caught up with his companions, the other boatmen suspected foul play and took Newman back to where they had parted. There they found Tetrick's body and then found Tetrick's money on Newman. They brought Newman to Huntsville for the authorities to handle the situation, rather than letting “Judge Lynch” mete out justice on the spot. After Newman's appeal, his second trial was held in the Superior Court of Law and Equity. The minutes of that court restated in the indictment that “...a certain Eli Newman, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil, ...with force and arms in the Chickasaw nation within the limits of the Mississippi Territory ...feloniously, willfully, and of his malice aforethought did make an assault with an instrument called a razor, of the value of one dollar, in his right hand upon the throat of Joseph Tetrick, inflicting a mortal wound two inches deep and two inches long in and upon Tetrick's throat.”

Eli again entered a plea of not guilty. The jurors (Isaac Britton; Simon Miller, Junior; John Deblin; Micajah Garrett; John Bryant; Amos French; Edwin Fierned; William Jackson; Lewis Sanderson; John Williams; and Thomas Mullins) did not accept the statement that the crime occurred outside of the court's jurisdiction, nor any of the other twelve points of objection to the proceedings. The court upheld both the indictment and the jury's verdict, stating, “Therefore, the sentence of the court is that you, Eli Newman, be carried hence to the place from whence you came (jail), and that on Saturday next, the fifth day of this instant (month), between the hours of ten in the forenoon and two in the afternoon, you be carried by the proper officer to the place of public execution to be executed in or near the town of Huntsville, and there be hanged by the neck until your body be dead, and the Lord have mercy on your soul.” This first of the murder trials in the county reflects that frontier justice was simple and quick, perhaps only slightly better than justice by “Judge Lynch.”

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