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Early Sheriffs of Unicoi County Part 5 – The Tapp Years

Top photo, Sheriff Thomas M. Tapp. Above, Armstrong Hensley Jr. (Photos contributed by Grace K. Bowen)

Writer’s note: Due to the graphic nature of this article, reader discretion is advised.

By Grace K. Bowen

In 1900, 33-year-old Erwin resident, Thomas Marion Tapp, became Unicoi County’s eighth sheriff. He was a young family man with an earnest desire to serve and protect the people of his community. His wife, Mary A. McInturff Tapp, was no stranger to local politics. Mary, affectionately known as Mollie, was a relative to two prior sheriffs, Unicoi County’s first sheriff, John ‘Jackie’ McInturff and Unicoi County’s third sheriff, Prince Wm. ‘Billy’ McInturff. Her family support and encouragement helped pave the way for Tapp’s success in the 1900 election.                                                                   

Tapp’s first year began with regular duties such as: opening court sessions; auctioning off court ordered condemnations of lands and properties; making sure men of good standing were called and ready to serve as jurors; as well as keeping the jail and prisoners secure at all times.

He and his deputies carried out summons and arrests when ordered by the court or when citizens were caught breaking the law red-handed.

In 1900 one of his deputies was 40-year-old John Calvin Rice of Erwin. Another deputy in 1913 was 28-year-old Edgar Ezekiel Gillis of Flag Pond, who was reportedly “fatally stabbed” during an arrest at Devil’s Creek. Gillis survived the attack, but was able to shoot and kill the prisoner and two attackers during the gunfight, all in self-defense.

In 1919 Sheriff Tapp was involved in a gun battle in Erwin when a crowd of men began shooting at the residence of Henry Walter Ammons. During the gun battle, Mr. J.W. Sparks, a Flag Pond merchant, was killed instantly when shot through the head. Tom Buckner, Erwin’s chief of police, was shot through the breast while attempting to apprehend Ammons who had shot Mr. Sparks. Buckner underwent life-saving surgery and survived. Ammons, a local railroad machinist, was shot in the right arm. Mr. J.E. Dier, also a railroad machinist, was shot in the left leg. Sheriff Tapp received a minor bullet wound in the hand. After all the drama was over and the gun smoke subsided, one man was dead and four others were wounded including, Ammons who was arrested and placed in the Erwin jail. The shooting started over blockade whiskey and bootlegging. Unfortunately, this was far from Tapp’s worst crime case …

During Tapp’s years of law enforcement, one particular case is paramount above all the others. This case was so tainted in darkness that it forever haunted the hearts and minds of all involved. This horrific tragedy was reported in newspapers all across the United States, leaving the emotional impact of Unicoi County citizens widespread.

An impact was also felt in the Tapp household. As they sat quietly in their parlor one evening Sheriff Tapp shared this terrible news with his wife whose shocked response was, “Oh my Lord! This is the most evil sinister thing I’ve ever heard of, Tom!” The sheriff agreed as he shook his head in disbelief.

“God help us! I pray Unicoi County never has to face such a thing ever again,” he replied to her. “Amen,” confirmed Mollie.

This dark course started with a wedding that took place in Madison County, North Carolina. The wedding of bachelor Armstrong ‘Armp’ Hensley, Jr. age 31, and a widow named Dorcas Smith, age 39. The couple applied for a license on June 21, 1901. They were married by 35-year-old Spanish War Veteran, Rev. Thomas Jefferson Graham.

Ironically, when Rev. Graham returned to the Marshall Courthouse in August to register all the community weddings he had performed that summer, he did not list the Hensley’s marriage date but instead drew lines through the columns where the date should have been recorded. He did list two witnesses present at the wedding, Joseph R. Ball and Fay Anderson, making it more likely the Hensleys were married within days of June 21. Some believe that Rev. Graham felt it best this unfortunate union be forgotten.

After the vows of Holy Matrimony were made, Armp moved his bride, Dorcas, and step-daughter, Hattie Smith, to the Flag Pond community where he had relatives. He is believed to be either the son of Armstrong and Barbara Higgins Hensley or a nephew-name-sake of “Armstrong, Sr.” (Available historical/family records are unclear on this matter.) Regardless, the newlyweds settled into their new life together in Flag Pond and all was well for over a month when their happy bliss was thrown into a gruesome tragedy that became nationwide news.

The Erwin Weekly Magnet reported the story in their Wednesday, July 31, 1901 edition: “Armp Hensley of Flag Pond was last Friday arrested and placed in jail here, charged with the outrage and murder of his step-daughter, a little girl of only 5 years of age. Hensley, it is said, had been married only about two months, and last Friday he went to the ‘berry patch’ to pick blackberries, taking with him the little girl, and after getting her out in the field, some distance from the house, he committed the dastardly deed, after which he carried the bleeding and lifeless form of the little one upon whom he had committed his heinous crime, back to the house, claiming she had fell from a rock, or cliff, and killed herself. But the child lived long enough to tell what her papa had done, and this, together with a post mortem examination, revealed the fact that she had been outraged, which set the public astir, and Hensley’s arrest was immediately effected. Sheriff Thomas Tapp has decided that Hensley might live longer and a more hopeful life in quarters outside of Unicoi County, and consequently has removed him to the jail at Greeneville for safekeeping.”

This story spread like wildfire to newspapers everywhere making “Armstrong Hensley” a familiar name to hundreds of thousands of captivated readers. Note: Some minor details in the above article are wrong but trial documents will clarify all mistakes.

Following Sheriff Tapp’s orders, Hensley was held in the Greeneville jail until the Unicoi County courts opened their fall term on Monday, Oct. 28, 1901. Two indictments were brought against Hensley by Attorney General Dana Harmon and others and they read as follows:   

“One Indictment against Armstrong Hensley, Jr. for MURDER in the following words and figures to wit:

State of Tennessee

Unicoi County

Circuit Court Term 1901.

The Grand Jurors for the State and County aforesaid upon their oath present and say that Armstrong Hensley, Jr. on the 26th day of July 1901 in the county aforesaid unlawfully, willfully, maliciously, deliberately, premeditatedly, feloniously and of his malice aforethought, did make an assault and battery upon one Hattie Smith with his hands, privates, sharp and blunt instruments used upon her person and her the said Hattie Smith in the peace of the state then and there being unlawfully willfully, maliciously, deliberately, premeditatedly, feloniously and of his malice aforethought, did kill and murder in the first degree by unlawfully and willfully, forcibly, feloniously and violently making an assault and battery upon her and then and there unlawfully willfully, forcibly, and feloniously attempting to have unlawful carnal knowledge of her forcibly and against her will and thereby against the peace and dignity of the state. – Dana Harmon, Attorney General

“One Indictment against Armstrong Hensley, Jr. for RAPE in the following words and figures to wit:

State of Tennessee

Unicoi County

Circuit Court Term 1901.

The Grand Jurors for the State and County aforesaid upon their oath present and say that Armstrong Hensley, Jr. on the 26th day of July 1901 in the county aforesaid unlawfully, willfully, forcibly, feloniously and violently did make an assault and battery upon one Hattie Smith, a female, by forcibly taking hold of her and throwing her down and bruising her and did then and there unlawfully, willfully and feloniously have unlawful carnal knowledge of her forcibly and against her will. Against the peace and dignity of the state. Dana Harmon the Attorney General and the Grand Jurors aforesaid upon their oath aforesaid do further present and say that the said Armstrong Hensley, Jr. on the day and year last aforesaid at to wit in the county aforesaid unlawfully, willfully and violently and feloniously did have unlawful carnal knowledge of one Hattie Smith a female under the age of twelve years against the peace and dignity of the state. – Dana Harmon, Attorney General”

Historical note: Long ago, 12 or 13 were the legal ages of (sexual) consent dating back to the 1880s in most states. This crude law was based on the average age of 19th century female puberty. Tennessee’s age of consent in 1901 was apparently 12. Today’s laws prohibit this type of behavior now known as “pedophilia.”

Presiding over the trial was 41-year-old Judge Henry Tyler Campbell of Bristol, Tennessee. The 12 men summoned by Sheriff Tapp were ready and available to hear the case and witnesses were brought in to testify including Dr. Leroy S. Tilson who testified he examined the corpse of Hattie Smith and determined she had died from traumatic injuries sustained during the attack and brutal rape. Suggesting Hensley attempted to camouflage the actual rape by thereafter penetrating the child with sticks and branches. However, Hensley staunchly denied Dr. Tilson’s findings and instead claimed he and his step-daughter had gone to pick blackberries with the intent of selling them the following day in Erwin. He also claimed Hattie had wandered away from him and while she was attempting to cross a creek on a high log that ran over it, she lost her balance and fell on a snag causing her deadly injuries.

However, this claim of “falling from a log onto a snag” was countered by his neighbors during the initial inquest led by William F. Quinn. Local witnesses testified they had gone to the crime scene and discovered Hensley’s version was not only false but impossible. (Available court records give no further details of Quinn’s or the neighbor’s testimonies.)

Apparently these witnesses cast great doubt on Hensley’s testimony. Another doubt of his innocence came from his own bride, Dorcas S. Hensley. Although available court records of the trial do not list Mrs. Hensley as a witness and make no mention of the victim’s so-called death bed declaration, mentioned in ‘The Erwin Magnet’, there is little doubt the jurors had read the article and it possibly weighed heavily on their minds.

Furthermore, Hensley himself accused his wife of betraying him and what better way for her to do so than to leak her dying daughter’s accusation to the press. Regardless, the 12 jurors – W.N. Buchannon, Daniel Shull, J.N. Nelson, George White, J.P. Miller, J.A. Jones, M.L. Tapp, James Whealy, John Harris, Sherman Burnett, S.B. Patton and James Miller – all listened intently to the witnesses and to Hensley’s testimony.

The circumstantial evidence was overwhelmingly against Hensley. It took only a few minutes for them to return with a verdict of “Guilty in the 1st Degree” on both charges. Judge H.T. Campbell ordered, “The defendant, Armstrong Hensley, Jr., being found guilty of murder and rape in the 1st degree, be on Friday, Dec. 13, 1901, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. by the Sheriff (Tapp) of Unicoi County, hung by the neck until he be dead. This execution is to be held in the jailhouse of said county or in an enclosure adjacent thereunto.” This was to be the first hanging in Unicoi County since its founding.

Immediately following the judge’s ruling, newspapers began reporting preparations for Hensley’s execution. For example, the Knoxville Sentinel reported, “Erwin. Dec. 3 – Sheriff T. M. Tapp of Unicoi County, has just returned from a trip to Bristol, Virginia, where he went to secure plans and specifications for erecting the gallows on which to hang Armstrong Hensley on the 13th of December – Friday of next week. Tapp will have it erected at once in the courthouse yard at this place.” It was also reported that Sheriff Tapp placed James Calvin ‘Cass’ Roberts in charge of building both the coffin and gallows.

A correspondent for the Knoxville Sentinel, who was stationed in Greeneville, requested an interview with Hensley, which he readily gave. The correspondent wrote: “ Hensley claims he is innocent of the crime for which he is so soon to die, and says the reason he was convicted was because he had so many enemies and was given a hurried trial, and did not have time to get up his side of the case. Hensley continues by saying, he and his stepdaughter went out to pick some berries and she was walking across a creek on a high log and fell and struck a snag. He saw she was hurt and immediately picked her up and carried her home where she died a few hours later. Furthermore, Hensley stated, all the evidence against him is purely circumstantial and if he has to die he does not fear death and has already made peace with his God.”

The interview was concluded with a photograph of Hensley posing in the doorway of the Greeneville County Jail where he had been held, at that point, for four months.

In the meantime, Attorney General Dana Harmon had been busy communicating with Tennessee Governor Benton McMillin, as reported on Dec. 11, 1901, in the Nashville American Paper; “The governor yesterday granted a respite, pending on an investigation of the facts, until Jan. 9, 1902 … The indorsement on the respite reads as follows: ‘In this case the attorney-general (Harmon), who prosecuted for the state, has recommended that I commute the sentence from death to life imprisonment. It has been published in the papers that a petition, making the same recommendation, has been prepared for submission to me. I have not yet had the facts of the case before me sufficient to determine what action I should take. The prisoner is confined and the execution is to be at a point remote from a telegraph office, so that I cannot communicate quickly my decision. I therefore grant a respite until Thursday, Jan. 9, 1902’.”

(Sheriff Tapp also received a copy of the above letter from the governor.)

James Franklin Toney, publisher of the Erwin Magnet, was noted as being concerned that a hanging in Erwin would cast a shadow over the county’s good name, especially a crime so disgraceful as this one.

In Toney’s Dec. 4, 1901 issue of the Erwin Magnet he reported: “A petition is being circulated for the commutation of the death sentence of Armstrong Hensley to life imprisonment in the Nashville penitentiary. The petition is meeting with very favorable consideration by the people here, and it is to be hoped that Governor McMillin will grant this request and thereby preserve Unicoi’s fair name.”

Several days later, the Knoxville Sentinel continued Erwin Magnet’s story by stating: “The Erwin Magnet says unless the decision of the last term of the criminal court held here is reversed, Armstrong Hensley will pay the penalty of his crime by hanging here on Friday. … It is said, however, that Hensley’s mind is wrong, and that he does not realize the gravity of the situation wherein he is placed, and taking this as a base, some of his relatives are circulating a petition for the commutation of Hensley’s death sentence to a life imprisonment in the penitentiary. So far, however, only about half the jurors who passed upon the case have signed it and less than 100 out of about 900 of Unicoi County voters have signed it.”

The Knoxville Sentinel continued by saying: “It is thought that with such a small number of signatures on the petition it will not be enough to induce either Judge Campbell or Attorney General Harmon to attach their signatures to the article.” (Indeed this was true, neither the judge nor attorney general signed the family’s petition.)

The article continues by saying: “There is no doubt but an unusually large crowd will be present on the day of the hanging, as is always the case upon such occasions, and Sheriff Thomas M. Tapp, with his deputies and constables, will be in readiness to suppress any disturbance that might arise.”

One well-known newspaper man felt Hensley was not only innocent of the crimes, but also falsely represented by some newspapers. He expressed this in a letter he sent to Governor McMillin after Hensley’s respite. The ‘Journal & Tribune’ in Knoxville printed the letter but did not reveal the writer. “Knoxville, Tenn., Dec. 12, 1901. Your Excellency, Hon. Benton McMillin, Governor: Dear Sir: – As one conversant with the case I desire to express my sincere thanks for your clemency in giving Armstrong Hensley, who was to have been executed at Erwin, Unicoi County, tomorrow, an extension of life. But, I am only one voice from the habitues of the newspaper row of this city, unfortunately, many of my fellow shovers of the wild goose quill, want to protest against your decision to delay Hensley’s execution. Sadly, the newspaper men here have been rising with the crow and retiring with the East Tennesse moonshiner in writing ‘time stories’ of Hensley’s crime. ‘It was the only crime that had ever happened,’ they wrote. And he was even, ‘prominent in his community’ they said. News editors all over the country read them breathlessly and impulsively wired, ‘Story O. K. Wire 500 when Hensley’s executed.’ Visioned pictures of check-laden mail; a grand Xmas was seen. But the Tennessee River will be our holiday punch bowl and we won’t make peace with a Xmas Turkey. The present city campaign against Hensley will have to furnish our Xmas fireworks. But it is all right; Hensley will have a merrier Xmas than he might have had; and we wouldn’t have known what to have done with so much coin. I don’t believe he is guilty. Thanking you again and hoping your Xmas may be merry and that Hensley may live always. I’m Respectfully   ____________.  (Some researchers have speculated if this letter was written by Erwin Magnet’s Publisher, James F. Toney, who was also a Knoxville correspondent. Again, this is only speculation and further evidence is needed.)

Armstrong Hensley, Jr. celebrated Christmas and New Years in the Greeneville County Jail as he nervously awaited word from Governor McMillin. Word came on Jan. 9 that the Governor had still not received the necessary paperwork, thus Hensley received another respite until Feb. 6, 1902. Hensley gave a sigh of relief.

However, on Feb. 5 the final word came that Gov. McMillin had finally reviewed the case and wired the following on the application to commute the sentence to life imprisonment: “After careful examination I have determined that the facts do not justify me in interfering with the execution of the sentence against Armstrong Hensley.”

After learning of this, Hensley, considered by all to be a man of poor intellect, told his attorney that he did not wish to appeal the governor’s decision and would face his demise without question. He was immediately escorted back to Erwin by Sheriff Tapp and Deputy Sheriff George Tompkins.

The day of the execution was reported in many newspapers including the Johnson City ‘Comet’ issue Feb. 6: “The hanging was conducted in an enclosure in the courthouse yard. Shortly before 1 o’clock. Hensley declared he was ready to go and that he had accepted the Savior of mankind as his Savior. There were only a few people admitted into the enclosure to witness the hanging. Rev. A.M. Laughern read the  51st Psalm and had prayer with the condemned man. As Hensley stood on the drop just before the trap was sprung he made a last statement in which he declared his innocence. He blamed his wife, Dr. L.S. Tilson and W.F. Quinn for his position. He also stated that as he was about to face his God there was no need for him to speak anything but the truth, and that, as he was to face his maker, he could do so with his hands free from the stain of human blood. He declared his innocence of the crime with which he was charged, saying he knew nothing of the murder of his step-daughter.”

The drop sprung and Hensley fell to his death to face his eternal judgment. His father and brother reportedly took his body and buried it in an unmarked grave. The location is unknown.

Later that evening, when Sheriff Tapp returned home, he gently embraced his wife and told her that all was done and over with. She responded with, “Thank God above and may He have mercy on the soul of Armstrong Hensley.” “Amen,” replied the Sheriff. 

The Tapps had seven known children including an infant daughter who died in 1913. Sheriff Tapp and Mollie did their part to support growth and development in Unicoi County as proven in various land transactions throughout their lifetimes.

In 1906 Thomas and his brother, Robert Tapp, donated land for the Fishery Church which is now known as the Fishery Community Church. In 1907 Tapp gave a right-of-way to the Southern & Northern Railroad Company. In 1925 the Tapps gave a right-of-way to the Erwin Water Company. And in later years they donated land to expand the Fishery Cemetery.

Thomas and Mollie were married 48 years at the time of Tom’s death in 1937. Tom’s obituary was printed in newspapers throughout the Tri-Cities including the ‘Johnson City Chronicle’: Erwin, Dec. 15, 1937 – Thomas M. Tapp, 69, died at his home here (Erwin) at 9:15 this morning. Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday in the First Christian Church of Erwin, with Rev. S.O. Redcare and Rev. E.H. Yankee in charge. Survivors include wife, Mrs. Mollie Tapp; four sons, Roy (Leroy), Ira and Jeter (Earnest) of Erwin and Harvey of Kingsport; two daughters, Mrs. Virgie Jackson and Miss Lola Tapp of Erwin; a brother, Sam, of Erwin, and 12 grandchildren. Burial will be in the Fishery Cemetery.”

Mollie, age 71, followed him in death four years later on Nov. 30, 1941, and was buried by his side.

Despite several failed campaigns and some tough competitors, Sheriff Thomas ‘Tom’ Tapp came to victory again and again to serve the people of Unicoi County for six terms. He faced one of the cruelest and gruesome crimes of our county’s history and handled it in a professional, cautious and caring manner. May his legacy of law enforcement continue to live on in the history of Unicoi County, Tennessee. Rest in peace oh loyal servant of the people.