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John Coleman George and Lincoln County's Most 
Infamous Murder

John Coleman George was born about 1848 near today's Kirkland in Lincoln County, Tennessee. His father was James George who died about 1854, leaving a widow, the former Jane Walker, and three small children. In those days, a widow had a very difficult time surviving. The children often grew up very rough and prone to get into trouble.

It is not likely that John George fought in the Confederate army. He was only thirteen when it began. By 1864, when Tennessee was fully under Union control, John was still only sixteen.

But, John George was a wild sort and it would not be difficult to imagine him as being a member of one of the numerous bushwhacker bands who roamed the countryside at that time. Perhaps, that is where he learned to settle his arguments with a gun.

The years immediately following the War between the States, for the South, were a time of social turmoil, civil chaos and violence. With the breakdown of local authority and the imposition of hated Federal rule, --respect for government and law diminished. Virtually every male old enough to hold a firearm, had seen men die on the battlefield or participated in cavalry, guerrilla or bushwhacking raids. To many of the embittered men of the South, each man was a law unto himself, and the War had taught him how to enforce that law.

It should not be surprising, then, that Lincoln County's best remembered murder took place in those tumultuous days.

In the Fall of 1868, it looked like John George was starting to settle down. On September 30, he married Eliza Dollar, daughter of Duncan C. Dollar and the former Amanda Rachel Jones. Time to think about building a family, responsibilities. But, old habits die hard. And, maybe their was this old thing with that Hosea Towry. Maybe, one day, there would have to be a show down.

Hosea R. Towry was born about 1845, the sixth of twelve children. His father was Martin Jesse Towry, his mother the former Sarah Womack. He was only twenty-three years-old when he died.

Towards the end of the War, Hosea married Martha Ann Gill, daughter of Alexander H. Gill and the former Nancy Lewfwich. Hosea, his wife and two children, Will and Hosea Emmit, lived farther down the old Bass Ford Road on a farm near today's Bellview.

On Friday the 27th, or Saturday the 28th of November, according to the account of the Fayetteville Observer, George and his dog were passing along the road in front of Hosea's house, when a dog appeared and began fighting with George's. George picked up a piece of rail and began beating the other dog to separate them.

Towry was not home at the time, but apparently his wife informed him of everything when he returned. Greatly angered, Towry proclaimed that George would not pass his house again without a sound whipping.

It is not clear how John George heard of the threat, or if he even knew of it. We don't know if the two men had already been carrying on a feud. What we know is that on the afternoon of Sunday, the 29th of November, he was once again in front of Towry's house.

According to Martha Towry's testimony at the trial, George rode up to their gate. Angry words were exchanged. Towry went over to his horse to unsaddle it. George Pulled out his pistol. She begged for her husband's life. George Shot Hosea Towry through the heart.

Did George think Towry was going for a weapon? We don't know what his defense was. Nor do we know why George was at Towry's gate. Was the road in front of the house a shortcut? Did George ride to Towry's specifically for a confrontation, or did he just happen to be passing that way again? We can only guess.

We do know that a young mother was left widowed, two small boys left without a father. We do know that John George did not wait around for the sheriff to call but, quickly left the county. Was he just afraid of vengeance from a large well-connected family? Maybe. But, his flight certainly looked like the action of a man guilty of cold-blooded murder.

John George disappeared for six years, but in 1874 he was captured in Jackson County, Alabama and brought to Fayetteville for trial. Judge Hickerson presided. The Widow Towry and others testified. On Wednesday, July 15, a jury found George guilty of murder in the first degree.

A request was made for a new trial. Perhaps, George's attorneys felt he could not receive a fair trial in Lincoln County. We don't know the reason. However, Hickerson based his decision the following Thursday upon "examining competent authorities, and reviewing the evidence". So, it is probable that the request was made on the admissabilty of evidence or some other technicality.

At any rate the request was denied. Hickerson then asked George if there was anything he had to say by way of asking mercy. George, who appeared quiet and emotionless throughout the trial, simply replied: "nothing", then stood to receive his sentence. At midday on Friday, the 25th of September, he was to be taken from the jail and hung by the neck "until dead, dead, dead".

George's sentence was appealed to the State Supreme Court. The hanging was postponed until a December ruling. But George wasn't about to await that verdict. Thursday Night, October 22, he and fellow prisoner, Gilbert, set in motion a plan to escape.

The Jail, at that time, consisted only of large blocks of stone set with mortar. With a wire they took from the rim of a pan, George and Gilbert began picking the mortar from a large round rock above them. In two hours, the job was done. The two-hundred pound rock was then dragged out and dropped onto their bed. With blankets tied together for a rope, they attached one end to the rock and began letting themselves down through the hole they had made.

Wilson, the jailor was awakened by the sound of the falling rock. Without dressing, he ran to the jail, arriving just as Gilbert was squeezing through the hole and George was running across the rear enclosure. Wilson set his dog after George. Just then, Wilson's son arrived with a pistol and ordered Gilbert to halt. It took a pistol shot to drive Gilbert back in. But, the same shot frightened the dog, allowing George to make good his escape.

In 1874, James Holman Childress was twenty-two, the oldest son of Squire Arthur J. Childress and the former Margaret George, sister of the deceased James George. When Jim's mother died five years earlier, he assumed major responsibilty for raising two brothers and a sister. It is doubtful that his elderly father knew it when Jim's cousin John George showed up at their farm for help.

According to Elmer Childress, his grandfather Jim hid John George in a large hollow chestnut log until the coast was clear, then rode him out of danger on the back of his horse. It is not known in what direction he took George. But, the train stations in Huntsville, Athens and Pulaski were less than a day away.

We next find John George in West Texas or Indian Territory, depending on the source. Elmer Childress referred to "Indian Territory" and I assumed this to mean Oklahoma. But, perhaps, West Texas was also "Indian Territory" at that time. At any rate, George established himself there and made many friends. He probably had not been there long when the bounty-hunter or "man-hunter" Jim Davis was hired to track him down.

Captain Jim Davis was a tough character, a successful lawman. He began his career at the close of the War, chasing horse thieves in South-West Lincoln County. As Federal Marshall, he became the scourge of "wildcatters" all across the State. It did not take him long to find George and take him into custody.

But, John George had friends. And they were not the the shy type. They meant to break him loose. A blacksmith from Kelso, named Nix, overheard some of them plotting in his shop, and told the story when he returned to Lincoln County some time afterwards.

George's friends decided to disguise themselves as Indians, then murder Davis. A simple scheme. But, after getting the drop on Davis, they changed their mind. In exchange for his life, Davis promised to leave and never bother George again.

Jim Davis kept his promise. And we know nothing further of John Coleman George. Did he ever return to visit family in Tennessee? Not likely. What ever became of his wife Eliza? Did he die an outlaw, or peaceful rancher? Further research may tell. All that is certain is that he was the product of a violent era that has passed and, we hope, will never return. 

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