Murder & Mayhem Articles index

The Killer Poet

by Jere Hall and Robert L. Bailey

              The hands of justice sometimes moved slowly in the history of Roane County.  One of the best examples is the killing of Thomas GALBREATH in September of 1884.  It took 25 years before anyone was tried for the killing, in spite of the fact that the murder took place in broad daylight in front of several witnesses. 


Willis MABERRY, was Tom GALBREATH's brother-in-law and, according to the records found in the Historic Roane County Courthouse archives, including a transcript of the trial in 1909, the shooting took place in Old Oakdale in Roane County (now renamed Elverton) located between Harriman and Oliver Springs.  Testimony reveals that Thomas GALBREATH was in the front yard of his brother's home with two other men, when Willis shot him with a shotgun hitting him in the left side, on the arm, the back of the neck and through the leg. 

            Lucy GALBREATH was sitting inside the house peeling apples when the shot rang out.  She rushed to the door, saw MABERRY with a gun in his hand pointed at Tom and called him not to shoot any more since he had already killed her pig.  MABERRY offered to pay Lucy for the pig, and did not shoot again.  The pig died instantly and Tom died about 24 hours later.  Some of the shots also went through a fence and Lucy's feather beds which were drying on the fence.

            Witnesses testified that MABERRY shot from an ambush under porch steps of the house across the street.  The musket was found near the steps, and had recently been fired.  Another witness, John STAPLES, testified that MABERRY had told him some months previous to the shooting that he was going to kill GALBREATH "if powder will burn for 'cutting' (stabbing) him.  Other witnesses said the two men were close friends, but deputy sheriff, W.C. LYLES, testified that MABERRY told him he had been "cut" by GALBREATH and was angry about it.

            MABERRY took the stand on his own behalf and denied everything.  He did admit that he left Roane County soon after the killing "but, not until after the funeral" and traveled extensively for about 25 years, working in places as St. Louis, Mo., Baltimore, Md., Cincinnati, Ohio, and Nebraska.  According to relatives, MABERRY came back to Roane County in 1909, after the death of his father to claim part of the family's property and was arrested for the GALBREATH killing.

            He was convicted for the crime in the historic courthouse in Kingston, and sentenced to life imprisonment.  The case was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court and upheld.  He was sent to the state prison in Nashville . . . but the story doesn't end here.

            While still being held in jail in Kingston, he began writing a poignant poem which was entitled "Roane County Prisoner."  He later finished the poem, it was set to music and became quite popular after the turn of the century under the title, "The Hills of Roane County."  May Roane County residents remember hearing it played on the radio in the 1930s and 40s.  The words to the song vary slightly, but the following is believed to be the first rendition:

            In the beautiful hills, in the midst of Roane County, There's where I have roamed, for many long years; There's where my poor heart's been tending most ever, There's where my first steps of misfortune I made.

            I was thirty years old when I courted and married, Amanda GALBREATH was then called my wife.  Her brother stabbed me for some unknown reason; Just three months later, I'd taken Tom's life.

            For twenty years this old world I rambled; I went to old England, Old France, and old Spain.  I thought of my home way back in Roane County; I boarded a steamer and came back again.

            I was captured and tried in the village of Kingston.  Not a man in that county would speak a kind word.  When the jury came in with a lifetime of prison were the words that I heard.

            The train it pulled out; poor Mother stood weeping.  And sister, she sat all alone with a sigh.  The last words I heard were: "Willie, God bless you; Willie, God bless you, God bless you; goodbye."

            The train left the shed at about eleven thirty; The chains they did rattle, the handcuffs were tight When Sonny Gibson took the throttle The engine one-thirty was soon out of sight.

            In the scorching hot sun I've been toiling; Just working and worrying my poof life away.  You can measure my grave on the banks of old Cumberland After I've finished the rest of my days. 

            No matter what happened to me in Roane County; No matter how long my sentence may be, I love my old home way back in Roane County, Way back in the hills of East Tennessee.

            MABERRY became ill while in prison, was released and returned to his home in the hills of Roane County.  Exactly when he was released is not known, but apparently he suffered from poor health the rest of his life.  He lived alone and his GALBREATH kin folks made sure he had care and enough to eat.

            The date of his death is also not known, but he is said to be buried at Byington, a community between Knoxville and Oak Ridge.

 

Sources for this article are: "The Rockwood Times" newspaper, September 9, 1909; The State vs. Willis MABERRY Loose papers, Historic Roane County Archives, Oral history taken by Mrs. Andy HARVEY from Richard Louis GALBREATH; Tom GALBREATH, Jr. (son of Tom GALBREATH, and Frankie GALBREATH ESKRIDGE.  Loose papers, Historic Roane County Archives.