Questions Remain in the Murder of the Kingston Ferryman
by Robert Bailey and Jere Hall
Shortly after the turn of the century, a strange, and somewhat incomprehensible set of circumstances took place in Roane County, several surrounding counties and even another state.
One nefarious deed was a brutal murder of a ferry operator at Southwest Point in Kingston on September 28, 1908. His name was John King, and he was found bludgeoned to death by at least six blows with a skiff oar.
George Cook was arrested for King's murder, and he was implicated in the crime by testimony given during a coroner's jury.
King was last seen ferrying Cook across the river at about 7 p.m. on the night of the killing. The two men were alone on the ferry.
W.M. Brown, owner of the ferry and had leased it to King for two years, found the body early in the morning after the murder. Brown testified that he had heard a 'cry of distress' early in the evening of the preceding day, but did not investigate.
It is known that King and his family were leaving Kingston for North Carolina, and his wife stated that he had a large sum of money in his possession. The coroner's jury returned a verdict of assassination for the purpose of robbery.
When Cook, a native of Chattanooga, was arrested for the crime, he was also under indictment on two charges of disturbing public worship and one for carrying weapons in Roane County.
A few weeks before the murder of King, a young man by the name of Will Plemmons was found dead on the riverbank in Chattanooga. He was shot once behind the ear, execution style. Cook was also accused of this heinous crime, but no evidence worthy of conviction was heard against him, and he was released from custody in Hamilton County then arrested and jailed in Kingston for the murder of King.
Late one evening shortly after Cook's incarceration in Kingston, a group of about 20 men knocked loudly at the door of the jail, where Sheriff J.L. Johnson resided with his wife and family.
The sheriff called down from an upstairs window asking who was there. He was told that Chris Miller was there with a prisoner in custody to be jailed.
The sheriff, who was suspicious that the speaker was someone other than Chris Miller, asked him to strike a match so that he could see him, but was told that the man had no matches.
Johnson went down stairs and opened the door, only to find a mob of men, all masked except two, whom he did not know. The men pushed their way into the room and demanded that he open the door to the cell of George Cook.
Sheriff Johnson refused and argued with the men for some time; and, when the mob became more and more threatening, his wife appeared at the top of the stairs and also pleaded with the men.
Seeing none of their combined words were having any effect whatsoever on the unruly group of men, she drew a revolver and threatened to shoot the first man who entered the door where Cook was confined. Whereupon, the leader of the mob drew three sticks of dynamite from his pocket and threw them onto the floor, vowing to blow up the jail if the prisoner was not immediately turned over to them. He said "If we can't get him one way, we will get him another."
Mrs. Johnson then asked if they would really blow up the jail, killing her children and everyone else in the building. She was assured that they would do so. Jerked about and jabbed with pistols, the sheriff reluctantly handed over the keys to Cook's cell.
The mob surged forward and were met by Cook who unsuccessfully held the cell door shut from the inside and cried out, "You'll not take me out alive." He wielded a razor, which he had apparently secreted on his person, and fought for his life. He slashed one man through his hat across the head before the lights went out and several shots rang out. Cook fell dead.
The sheriff, his wife, his wife's sister and his daughter all saw the two unmasked men and paid close attention to their appearance so that they could identify them later. Mrs. Johnson even remarked to the men on the night of the killing, "I shall be sure to know you if I ever see you again."
About 30 days later, Sheriff Johnson was in Sweetwater and recognized a man coming out of a church as one of the unmasked men who was present at the jail when Cook was killed. He was James Plemmons, father of the young man who had been murdered in Chattanooga.
Plemmons was arrested and charged with being the leader of the mob who entered the jail and murdered Cook. He was given a preliminary trial and released on a $3000 bond.
It is presumed that Plemmons allegedly led the gang to the jail where Cook was killed in retaliation for the death of his son some weeks, earlier.
Later, Joe Blanton, Plemmon's son-in-law, was implicated in the slaying. Some months later, after having sent out a description of Blanton to law enforcement offices across the state, Sheriff Johnson received word from the Memphis Police Department that the man had been arrested in Memphis.
Blanton had left his home in Sweetwater shortly after the killing of Cook and made his way to Arkansas, where two of his brothers resided. He made no secret that he was wanted in Tennessee, but was reportedly not arrested in Arkansas because of a close friendship between his brother and the sheriff. According to a local newspaper, he went on a drinking spree while in Memphis; and, while inebriated, went to the closes police department and admitted that he was a wanted man.
Sheriff Johnson and a deputy left by train as quickly as possible to take custody of Blanton because of information that his brother was on his way to Memphis to secure the release of the prisoner through a writ of habeas corpus.
The Roane County officers were successful in arriving ahead of Blanton's brother, who was reported to be, interestingly enough, a whiskey dealer in Arkansas and a man of some wealth and influence.
Blanton was delivered to Kingston, given a preliminary hearing and bound over to the court without bond. Shortly thereafter, the sheriff took the prisoner to Knoxville, fearing that Blanton's friends in the area might attempt to break into the jail and release him if he were allowed to remain in Kingston.
During the trial of the two men, held in the historic courthouse in Kingston, the state attempted to prove that Blanton and Plemmons were the leaders of the mob that murdered Cook, and that Blanton was wounded in the head by Cook during the fracas. Lawyers for the defense, however, brought forth many witnesses, who testified that both men were seen in Sweetwater at or near the time of the crime.
While Blanton did have a scar on his head, he vowed and testimony was given by a number of men that he received the wound in a bar fight in Marked Tree, Ark. on Christmas Eve night, 1908.
The jury acquitted both men. However, many questions are left unanswered.
Eyewitnesses testimony from Sheriff Johnson, Mrs. Johnson, her sister, Miss Nannie Nicely, and the sheriff's daughter, Nannie Johnson, all place the two men at the jail the night of the lynching, and both were identified in court.
Much was made of a surrey (a horse or mule drawn carriage) which was rented by Blanton on the afternoon before the crime, and a bloody black hat, which was found the morning after the murder of Cook on the main road leading back to Sweetwater. The hat was identified as the hat Blanton was wearing on the night of the crime. However, many witnesses swore that he had no wound on his head after the night in question and none at all until he returned from Arkansas.
In addition, many defense witnesses placed him at the home of his father at about 9 p.m. on the night in question, which was between 20 to 25 miles from Kingston. In those days, it took approximately six hours in a surrey with good mules to travel that distance, making it impossible for him to have been there by 11:30 p.m.
These and other discrepancies unquestionably caused reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors, but if not Plemmons and Blanton, who did kill George Cook? Who told the truth and who lied? The answers to these and other questions have slipped through a crack in time. No one else was ever accused of the lynching.
Was George Cook guilty of any crime at all? He was arrested and questioned, but released in the case of Plemmons son's death due to lack of evidence. Evidence of his part in the killing of Ferryman King was circumstantial, no one witnessed the crime, and he did not live to stand trial. Therefore, nothing was ever proven against him.
Did two guilty men go free and on innocent man die for crimes he did not commit?