TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Donald Paine on Mar 31, 2009

Journal Issue Date: Mar 2008

Journal Name: March 2008 - Vol. 44, No. 3

Here's the traditional version. Hiram Hall, age 18, of Cumberland County murdered his younger wife Ida by hitting her head with a rock and dropping her into a well on the family farm on Aug. 18, 1897. He was tried Aug. 26 through 28, 1898, convicted, and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court affirmed Jan. 28, 1899. He was hanged at 6:53 a.m. on Thursday, April 13, 1899. Hiram's April 12 confession before execution blamed his mother for ordering the murder. Apparently mom hated her daughter-in-law. The declaration reported in the Crossville Chronicle contained these facts:

On the morning of Aug. 18, 1897, Ida took a bucket and started to the well. My mother ran to me and said, "Now is your time." I took another bucket and followed her. We came to the well and Ida stooped down to dip her bucket of water. I threw my weight against her and pushed her into the well. I picked up a large stone and struck her on the head. She quivered for a moment and dropped lifeless into the water.

The bill of exceptions tells a different story. Let's start with the prosecution proof:

  1. Dr. W.S. DeGolia testified that Ida was killed by four head blows administered away from the well. There was no blood evidence at the well. "I examined Ida's lungs and there was no water in them; if she had been drowned, they would have been full of water; she was dead before she went under water."
  2. Sheriff Garrison coerced a confession in exchange for removing Hiram to Sparta to escape a lynch mob.
  3. Hiram's father coerced a confession from his son "to let your mother out of it."

Now let us turn to the defense proof:

  1. Hiram Hall swore that after morning chores he was heading for school when he heard his mother "hollowing." He started to the well but mom said, "Go back, you can do no good."
  2. Hiram's sister Martha testified:
    I saw my mother standing by the well. I asked her what was the matter. She said Ida was in the well. I said 'less' get her out. She said go back. Hiram came through the front yard gate and wanted to know what was the matter. Mother met him at the gate and told him to go to the house.
  3. Hiram's mother Malinda "Lidda" Hall testified briefly and then shut up. Here is the entire record of her evidence:
    I am the mother of the defendant. I was at home on the morning of Ida's death. There was nobody there but me and Ida and Hiram. Hiram cut some stove wood, got his dinner bucket, and started to school. He had been gone some time and I was churning. I told Ida to churn, and I washed out some clothes out of the tub, and I went to the bucket. The water was out, and I told her to go and get some. She picked up the bucket and went to the well. She had been gone so long that I got uneasy about her and went to see about her. When I went to the well I saw nothing but the bucket.

Defense counsel asked her if she did not follow Ida to the well and push her in. "She hesitated and finally said she did not." On further cross-examination "she refused to answer any question."

Who murdered Ida Hassler Hall? Was it Hiram Hall? Or was it Lidda Hall? I ain't sure, but I conclude that mom either committed the murder or coerced her son to murder.

And by the way, Hiram Hall said the day before his death that mom also asked him to kill dad. He came close but could not do it. On her deathbed Sept. 22, 1925, mom did not give history a clue.

In closing, I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Crossvillians Dr. John Looney (present owner of the Hall farm) and lawyers Tom and Joe Looney. But the conclusions herein are mine alone.

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.