Murder in Madison - 1884: Grocer Nathaniel R. Freeman, A Vintage Vignette

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Murder in Madison - 1884: Grocer Nathaniel R. Freeman
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
March 12, 2008

A couple of weeks before Christmas in historic downtown Madison, probably the most grisly murder to ever occur in the village took place. On Tuesday night, December 9, 1884, elderly Madison grocer Nathaniel R. Freeman was foully murdered in his business establishment along Main Street. His body was discovered the next morning, in his storehouse, with his head split open and his throat cut ear to ear. As Octavia Fletcher Frazier wrote in a biography of her father, Dr. Richard Matthew Fletcher of Madison, the whole village was “electrified”. By Wednesday evening two suspects were arrested and brought back to Madison by train. Word had spread (presumably by telegraph) of the apprehension of two Black men, who implicated another resident of the town during their confessions. Before the train carrying the suspects arrived, Octavia’s family had passed word to the Black families of the area to stay off the roads and out of town until things settled down, as they did not want innocent people to become victimized by a gathering mob. Reports indicated that about 200 men gathered at the depot, but Octavia related that her Uncle Syd Fletcher, an attorney, climbed atop a boxcar and calmed the mob, assuring them that “Mr. Freeman would want due process of law to deal with the culprits.” Newspapers of the day did not mention Syd’s role, but claimed that the sheriff and his deputies faced down the mob with drawn pistols.

At least three local newspapers extensively covered the story, running articles of the murder and arrests, and then the trial in July of 1885. By far the most detailed and well-written articles appeared in the Huntsville Gazette, which advertised itself as “A Negro Owned and Operated Newspaper”. Review of the many articles revealed that the slayer was Charles Townsend, a man from Charlotte, North Carolina, who was living in Brownsboro. He had walked to Madison in November 1884 on his way to find work in Birmingham. An acquaintance told him of work here, so he stayed and became friends with Wallace Neal. Neal told Townsend that grocer Freeman kept about $800 in his storehouse, and they concocted a plan to steal the money. Townsend stole an ax from his boarding house and a knife from another friend. Neal was to stand lookout while Townsend went into Freeman’s storehouse and asked for a nickel’s worth of peanuts. When Freeman bent down to get the peanuts, Townsend hit him 4 times in the head with the ax, then locked the door and came back to slit Freeman’s throat. The ax was thrown into the well, and the knife was dropped into a crack in the floor of Freeman’s storehouse.

Townsend got $1.80 from Freeman’s pockets and another $23 from the store safe. He gave Neal $5 for his services. They figured that if they were caught, then they’d pin the deed on Washington Kavanaugh, the Black owner-operator of a restaurant next door to Freeman’s store. The trial of all three suspects was held in Huntsville, with two Black men on the jury. Townsend was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, which was done on August 28, 1885, at 4:50 a.m. in order to thwart any plans for public rowdiness. Townsend “got religion” before the hanging, and was reported to be truly repentant and calm at his execution. Neal was reported to be elated at his sentence of life in prison for his role. However, the most elation as the trial ended came from Wash Kavanaugh, who was acquitted. Apparently, justice was fairly served by the courts of the day.

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