The Dangers of Law Practice: Lawyer Murders Lawyer

If we had been alive in Memphis on Tuesday, March 10, 1891, around 11:20 a.m. at Main Street and South Court Alley, we would have witnessed lawyer Clay King murdering lawyer David Poston. Why did a lawyer kill a lawyer?

Henry Clay King was a prominent attorney. He compiled the Tennessee Digest in the nineteenth century, a copy of which I examined at the University of Tennessee Law Library. But Clay King was also a nut case.

He was married with five children. He abandoned his family for a "shack" with Mary Pillow, widow of Civil War General Gideon Pillow, at a "plantation" in Arkansas. The couple had a falling out, and several lawsuits resulted. See for example King v . Pillow, 90 Tenn. 287, 16 S.W. 469 (1891). David Poston was one of Mrs. Pillow's lawyers.

Here is Poston's dying declaration about the killing:

I was walking down Main Street just in front of Byrd's old stand. I saw H. Clay King approaching me, I thought with intention of speaking to me. He walked up in front of me and told me I was a damned son of a bitch. He pulled a pistol and fired, pushing it right at my body. No conversation had occurred between us at all. I made no effort to resent what he said. He shot me in an instant.


The trial began on June 1, 1891. King testified, and I have that portion of the transcript. He was ripped to shreds on cross-examination. On July 3 he was found guilty and sentenced to hang. One of the jurors commented to the press: "He convicted himself."

The next summer on July 7, 1891, the Tennessee Supreme Court filed H. Clay King v. State, 91 Tenn. 617, 20 S.W. 169. The Court upheld the verdict and death sentence.

Nashville lawyer Lewis Laska, who got me started on this research, says Clay King received a gubernatorial commutation and died in prison of stomach cancer.


Don Paine DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, Bickers, and Tillman LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, Tennessee Judicial Conference, and UT College of Law. He is reporter to the Supreme Court Advisory Commission on Rules of Practice and Procedure.