Henry and Ephraim Grizzard

April 1892

The climate of race relations in post-reconstruction era Davidson County, Tennessee was one of extreme economic power imbalance with overtones of cultural backlash from political gains of Blacks following reconstruction. Racial pogroms occurred in in Humphreys, Morgan and Polk Counties between 1885 and 1894 and Polk County, banished black residence altogether by threat of violence in 1894. 

In 1892 Ida B. Wells Barnett published her seminal work entitled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases”, detailing the growing practice of lynching and the terror and injustices that were inflicted upon black communities because of it.

Between 1872 and 1896, black men were also increasingly imprisoned and outnumbered white men 2 to 1 in Tennessee prisons. Black convicts were overwhelmingly condemned to the most brutal treatment at the notorious Brushy Mt. State Prison and the prison system began the practice of leasing convicts to mining companies such as at Coal Creek in order to break up organizing laborers, largely pitting white against black workers and resulting in an violent period that in 1893 upended the administration of then Governor John P Buchanan.

Culturally, the concept of “racial purity”, emanating at its epicenter around Richmond, Virginia and Buchanan County, Virginia, was increasingly accepted and laws banning miscegenation were enacted along with laws banning blacks to own property or weapons, making it increasingly difficult for blacks to forge a secure living in most parts of the South. In 1896 the US Supreme Court upheld “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws in the landmark Plessy vs. Ferguson decision.

On April 24th, 1892, the Nashville Banner published an article reporting on an assault “by two negroes” upon two daughters of a Mrs. Lee Bruce, keeper of the Long-Hollow Turnpike toll-gate just east of Goodlettsville, Tennessee. Henry Grizzard, a resident of Goodlettsville, was reportedly apprehended soon after the the incident and confessed, implicating an accomplice by the name of Mack Harper. Because of his confession, Henry Grizzard was hanged at that time near Mansker’s Creek by “a mob composed of the very best citizens”. Very little else was recorded about this event.

Soon afterward, John and Ephraim Grizzard (brothers of Henry), Manuel Jones and Mack Harper were also arrested and held in the jail on suspicion of involvement with the assault on Mollie and Rosina Bruce. John Grizzard and Manuel Jones were soon released for lack of evidence, but evidence found in the Grizzard home and a statement made by Mr. Grizzard’s sister, Ann, were deemed sufficient to hold Ephraim in the jail in Nashville with Mack Harper, even though the victims, Mollie and Rosina Bruce, had failed to positively identify them.

Nothing further was reported until the evening edition of the Nashville Banner on April 30th, 1892, provided a full front page account of the activities of a “mob” outside the Nashville jail. The people gathered were later said to have been among the “best citizens of Goodlettsville, Hendersonville, Madison Station and the surrounding communities” that had come for Ephraim Grizzard who was being held in the jail.

As police and onlookers gathered in anticipation of a possible attack on the jail, Sheriff Hill vowed to protect the jail and its prisoners and stated that he was in communication with Governor Buchanan about the potential need for additional backup.

At approximately 1am members of the mob rushed the iron-barred outer gate in front of the main entrance of the jail. Police reportedly remained quietly resolute, blocking the main entrance, while the mob worked to break down the outer gate. Beyond the line of police, the main jail entrance consisted of three heavily bared doors that still stood between the mob and the prisoners.

After the mob breached the outer gate, a spokesperson demanded the jailer, named Willis, to hand over the keys to the jail corridor but was rebuffed, saying that he had earlier ordered the night watchman to take the keys offsite in order to protect the prisoners. This greatly angered the mob.

By 1:30am, the Governor was at the jail and reportedly urged the mob to respect the legal process and disperse. Military reinforcements, lead by Captain Clack, began to arrive on the scene as well. Meanwhile, a group of about 100 armed men led by Captain Henry Marshall crossed the bridge from East Nashville where they had gathered and made their way up Front street toward the jail and demanded that Capt. Clack hand over the prisoner, Ephraim Grizzard. Upon rebuff, Captain Marshall turned to the mob and, urging them not to harm innocent bystanders in their objective to apprehend Ephraim Grizzard, ordered them to attack the jail.

Elements of the mob fired first at the jail door, but also struck members of the police who were standing resolutely at their post. Under attack, police fired back under orders from Capt. Clack and a gun battle with the mob ensued. A.B. Guthrie, one of the mob, was fatally shot and removed from the scene and Charles Rear, an onlooker standing across the street and resident locksmith, was also shot. Officer Davis, who had apparently shot A.B. Guthrie, had to be escorted under protection by Chief Clack to a rural location under threat of retaliatory attack by the mob.

A lull in the attack on the jail ensued the gun battle, giving Governor Buchanan another opportunity to again make a plea for peace. The Governor stated “that the life of one innocent white man was worth a thousand such as the negro they were trying to get a hold of” and “that the officers of the law were compelled to defend the jail and if the mob persisted, loss of life would be the result.” During the ceasefire, Governor Buchanan and Captain Marshall negotiated a deal in which the attacks would be called off as long as any apprehended men associated with the mob were released.

Upon release of the mob members held at the jail, Capt. Marshall prevailed upon many in the mob to abandon the fight, which many obliged. However, a group of about 500 men remained on the scene determined to complete their mission. The police, led by Sergts Polk and Davis, did there best to disperse the crowd and secure the area in front of the jail by rope.

Meanwhile, Judge D. M. Key issued an order to have Mr. Grizzard transferred to the custom house for guarding until the crowd dispersed. At 5:30am on the morning of April 30th, the nightwatchman returned quietly to the jail with the keys to Willis and a plan was forged to smuggle Mr. Grizzard out of the jail to the custom-house dressed as a woman.

At approximately 1:50pm on that afternoon, just prior to the arrival of the team that was to transport Mr. Grizzard, Dr. Davis of Goodlettsville made a short speech to the mob and then led them back to the jail, again demanding access. Thousands of spectators were present at this time, and at least 1,000 people were reported to be crowded at the entrance of the jail, hanging on the iron bars. Though Jailer Willis refused to give up the keys with his life, the mob seized him and pulled the keys in his back pocket. Using the keys, the mob entered the jail unmolested by police (who had been ordered not to shoot except in self-defense, where they apprehended Mr. Grizzard.

Several thousand people on the square were present when the mob emerged from the jail with Mr. Grizzard and most cheered at the spectacle of the triumphant mob with Mr. Grizzard dressed as a woman. Mr. Grizzard endured taunts, slaps and was even reportedly stabbed in the back with a pocketknife while the mob escorted him to the Woodland Street Bridge to be hanged.

At the halfway point across the bridge on the downriver side, a noose was formed from a ¾ inch thick hemp rope and Mr. Grizzard was gruesomely hanged and his body riddled with gunshot from a distance of about 18 inches where ~100 men stood above the hanging body. The mob reported violently jerked the lifeless body of Mr. Grizzard several times by the rope before leaving it to hang, bloodied and half nude from the waist down, for the remainder of the afternoon. The banner reported “The whole incident took about 15 minutes, and at no time were the police able to withstand the heavy rush of the mob”. By 3:30pm, a “large crowd of curious people were morbidly looking at the horrible spectacle” before it was removed.

Issues of the Nashville Banner from the days immediately following this report are missing from the archive at the Nashville Public library.