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The only legal hanging in Johnnson County

As dawn broke on November 7, 1905 in Mountain City, a chill may well have been in the air — not just from the late autumn weather, but because of what had been scheduled to take place later in the day. Before that day was done, a man would perform his duty as a public servant and execute, by hanging, a man who had been convicted of murder in the first degree. The convicted man was Finley Preston. The executioner was Johnson County Sheriff Will Greever. Ironically, the Preston case had begun under Sheriff C. R. Potter. Potter had arrested Preston for the murder on November 2, 1903. Greever had succeeded Potter in the election of 1904. At that time county sheriffs were responsible for carrying out circuit court sentences.
A large number of people came to Mountain City on that fateful Tuesday. A large crowd gathered at the courthouse prior to the event. For some people in the crowd maybe it was curiosity that drew them, or for others it could have been a desire to see justice done. Whatever the thoughts of the folks in that crowd, it must have been a sobering experience for them. I have a picture of the crowd that gathered that day.

Finley Preston, who lived about three miles north of Mountain City, had been convicted by a jury of murdering a young woman named Lillie Shaw. He was subsequently sentenced to hang. After appeals were exhausted and the date set for the execution, preparations were made to carry out the sentence. It was the only legal hanging ever carried out in Johnson County, Tennessee.
There were probably many legalities to attend to in regard to the case and a scaffold had to be built and tested. A picture I have of the scaffold shows it to have been built of somewhat rough lumber with the planks nailed vertically around a frame. A door was in the back to admit the prisoner and officials. While they aren’t shown, There obviously were steps leading up to the platform on which the men stood and from which the trapdoor was released. The pictures show that people standing on the platform could be seen from about the waist up.
Other photos I have show Preston and officials on the platform as preparations were made to carry out the sentence. Reportedly, Preston’s last words were: “Well folks, I’ll meet you over on the other side.”
As was often the case when such tragic events happened in that era, a ballad was written about Finley Preston. An LP album by Clint Howard, Fred Price and their sons, Kenneth Price and the late Clarence Howard was released in 1972 that featured “The Ballad of Finley Preston.” I am glad to have bought that album when it became available. I’m not sure if it is available now.
We can only wonder what effects that single event may have had on the people who had official responsibilities in the case. That was 105 years ago. Of course, there are no witnesses to the hanging still living today. But if there were, wouldn’t it be interesting to ask them their thoughts about the time they witnessed the only legal hanging in Johnson County.