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September 26, 1879, Thousands Gather To Watch Public Execution - Today in Crime History

On this day, September 26, in the year 1879, Anthony Blair was publically hanged in Hamblen County, Tennessee, in front of a crowd of eight to ten thousand people.

Historical records indicate that Anthony Blair's sixteen year old step-daughter, Maggie Blair, ran away from the family home in Jonesboro, Tennessee, in May 1879.  Anthony Blair located Maggie in Russellville, Tennessee, in the employment of William Donaldson.  On July 29, 1879, Blair entered the kitchen of the Donaldson residence while Maggie was preparing dinner and demanded that she leave with him.  Maggie, who appeared very afraid of Blair, refused to leave the home and William Donaldson intervened, forcing Blair to leave the residence.

On the evening of July 31, 1879, Maggie went to Russellville to attend a prayer meeting. After the service, she and some of her friends were met by Blair, who grabbed her by the wrist and dragged her along a road a hundred yards or so, saying, “You must come home with me on the train tonight to your grand-papa”.   Maggie struggled to get away, screaming that she would rather die than go back with him. According to witnesses, Anthony became enraged, drew a revolver and fired two shots at point-blank range, striking Maggie.   Anthony Blair was arrested for the shooting that night.  Maggie died two days later on August 1, 1879.

On Monday, August 4th, the Grand Jury of the Circuit Court of Hamblen County indicted Anthony Blair for murder. On Thursday of the same week Blair, without legal counsel, was tried by a jury and found guilty.  One day later day, on August 8, 1879, Blair was sentenced to death - only eight days having lapsed between the murder and the death sentence.  The Judge pronounced that Blair would be executed on September 26, 1879.

By the early morning of September 26, hundreds of people began filling the streets of the town of Morristown in Hamblen County, Tennessee.  By mid-day there were 8,000 to 10,000 spectators of all economic classes, races and ages, gathered where a scaffold and gallows had been built.  At noon the sheriff, accompanied by dozens of law enforcement officers, proceeded to the jail, shackled the condemned man, placed him on his coffin, with the noose around his neck, in a wagon and drove him slowly through the masses of people to the gallows. The pamphlet shown below was issued just prior to the execution and sold for ten cents.

At the gallows, Blair was permitted to sing a song and address the crowd.  His opening words were “It seems this is a solemn day”.  “Thank God I am born to die”.  Blair was permitted to publically ramble for almost 35 minutes, confessing to being guilty of the murder and other crimes.  At 1:35 the black hood was drawn over his face, the rope adjusted and the wagon moved from under him.  A reporter for the New York Times described the events as follows:

Blair was perhaps 30 years of age, an African in every lineament, brutal and sensuous in appearance, and looked to be capable of any crime. At 12 o'clock Sheriff Loup, with 28 guards, went to the jail, and with your reporter entered Blair's cell. Blair seemed callous, and without feeling. He submitted quietly to the manacles, and walked with a firm step to the wagon on which he rode to the gallows. After religious service by the Rev. George Blainer, colored, the prisoner was allowed to talk. His harangue was such as would be expected from such a man. He admitted his guilt, but developed a state of facts heading to the crime which are unfit for publication. At 1:30 the rope was tied, the black cap arranged, and, at 1:35, the wagon moved from under him. In nine minutes no pulse could be distinguished; in 10 minutes his heart had ceased to act; in 15 minutes he was pronounced dead, and in just 22 minutes after he swung off he was lowered into his coffin.

I wish I could tell you that the story ended here, but the truth is that the morbid curiosity with this man’s execution was just getting started. Blair had previously willed local doctors his body after they paid him $15.00, with which he was able keep a supply of tobacco and candy while he was incarcerated awaiting his execution.

After his death, his body was moved to the courthouse where a group of medical students and doctors embalmed the body for preservation.  Blair's heart and brain were removed and kept in glass jars, on display for many years.  The doctors dissected and studied the body for almost a year and then in May 1880, Blair's bones were boiled in a large kettle.  The skeleton was assembled and hung in a back room of a local Drug Store, drawing visitors to the store for years, until a fire destroyed the building.

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