Posted by: Russell Fowler on Nov 1, 2020

Journal Issue Date: Nov/Dec 2020

Journal Name: Vol. 56 No. 9

Tennessee’s earliest circuit-riding lawyers spent at least half the year on horseback, saddlebags stuffed with law books and a clean shirt, traveling between county seats and taking part in as many as 17 trials a day, usually jury trials with jurors and crowded spectators awaiting stinging cross-examinations, good storytelling and high drama oratory.1 A few lawyers stood above the rest.

The titans of Tennessee’s bar were Pleasant Miller, Felix Grundy, John Haywood, Jenkin Whiteside and John Overton. All but Miller, who was away in Congress giving spellbinding speeches,2 would clash in a Williamson County courtroom in November 1810 in the young state’s first great murder trial, drawn together as much by politics as legal import. The driving force behind this confluence was another lawyer, Andrew Jackson. 

A Slaying in Shelbyville

Patton Anderson was a violent bully, brawler and “a mean drunk,” known to consort with the worst elements of society.3 He was also a close friend of Andrew Jackson. They were partners in ownership of a racecourse and cockpit.4 At 1:00 in the afternoon on Oct. 24, 1810, on the Bedford County Courthouse square in Shelbyville, Anderson came upon his old enemy, Jonathan Magness and Magness’s two strapping sons: David and Perrygreen.5 Their feud was rooted in a horse-trading deal gone wrong,6 and Anderson had threatened to kill all the Magnesses over it.7

Accounts differ. Some said Anderson pulled a long dagger before the rivals were separated by onlookers. Anderson next skulked about the square trading loud profanities with the Magnesses.8 Then, after one insult too many, Perrygreen prepared David’s pistols,9 David drew one, walked right up to Anderson and shot him through the heart.10 Conversely, others stated that David only fired out of necessity after Anderson came within a few feet of Jonathan, pulled his dagger, raised it high and was about to strike.11

The Magnesses were arrested and indicted: David for murder and Jonathan and Perrygreen for aiding and abetting. Because of the uproar in Bedford County, Circuit Judge Thomas Stuart granted a change of venue, and the proceedings were moved to Williamson County.12

Behind the scenes, the hot-tempered Andrew Jackson, enraged over Anderson’s “calculated assassination,”13 used his influence — which was considerable as a former U.S. senator, former judge of the state’s highest court and major general of the militia — to amass the mightiest prosecution imaginable in Tennessee.14

Assisting Alfred Balch, the young district solicitor general and recent Princeton graduate,15 were Jenkin Whiteside, John Overton and Thomas Hart Benton.
Whiteside, trained in the law by none other than John Marshall, was a sitting U.S. senator. He was known for his reasoning skills and attention to detail.16 Overton was a former state Supreme Court judge and Jackson’s best friend.17 Benton was a rising young star of the bar with political ambitions and recently elected to the state Senate.18

Not to be outlawyered, the Magnesses retained perhaps Tennessee’s best criminal defense lawyer: Felix Grundy.19 Formerly a judge of Kentucky’s highest court, he relocated to Nashville and had recently won election to the U.S. House. His ability to sway juries was legend.20 Although erudite, Grundy was of the frontier (he watched his brother die from being scalped21) and knew how to persuade rough-and-tumble Tennesseans. It was said he “could stand on a street corner and talk the cobblestones to life.”22 And it was regularly remarked that “if Grundy can’t save you, nobody can.”23 The defense also included John Haywood and young Stokely Donaldson Hays.24 Haywood had been attorney general of North Carolina, Superior Court judge of that state and was a famed legal treatise writer.25

The Great Trial in Franklin

On Nov. 16,26 less than a month after the killing, hundreds descended on Franklin to witness the two celebrated legal teams do battle.27 Those unable to gain entry to the courtroom watched as “an inebriated Jackson harangued the crowd with fearful vehemence”28 against the Magnesses and got into shouting matches with Magness supporters.29 One tavern served as headquarters for the defense, while the other was base for the prosecution and Jackson.30

Judge Stuart bifurcated the cases, and David’s trial commenced.31 After Grundy was accused of “packing the jury,”32 42 witnesses were called with wildly varying versions of events.33 At the extremes, David Magness was either a coldblooded murderer or the hero who saved his father’s life in the nick of time. But the apex of the trial was when the state called Jackson as a character witness to testify to “his opinion on Anderson’s reputation for peaceableness.”34

On cross-examination, Grundy chipped away at “the General’s portrait of the peace-loving nature of the deceased.”35 When he asked Jackson whether Anderson had been in many “difficulties” and made many enemies,36 Jackson, faced with the predicament of the decedent’s violent past, swiftly snapped: “Sir, my friend Patton Anderson was the natural enemy of villains and scoundrels!”37

During closing argument, Grundy praised Jackson for his famous forthrightness, but alas observed he had never been so ambiguous and evasive as in this courtroom. Grundy sympathized with Jackson’s dilemma: The General neither wanted to fault his dead friend nor be dishonest. Grundy would leave it to the jury to appraise Jackson’s answer. On hearing this, a fuming Jackson barked at Benton: “This is not fair play. … When you come to sum-up for the prosecution, I want you to skin Grundy alive on this point.” Benton replied: “I’m afraid, General, [he has] got us down on this point — flat on our backs. I reckon we had better let it alone.”38

The trial ended on Nov. 24.39 The verdict was only manslaughter, “felonious slaying,” which was considered a defense victory.40 David Magness would not hang. “Jackson shook his fist under the nose of one of the jurors.”41 The sentence was 11 months in jail and branding with the letter M.42 Both Jonathan and Perrygreen were acquitted in separate trials.43 

Nevertheless, more than 11 months later, David remained jailed in Nashville as did his father, for both claimed they could not pay the court costs adjudged against them. They prayed for release as “insolvent debtors,” but the prosecution persuaded the court that they were hiding assets.44 (They were hiding assets out of state.)45 Jonathan was freed in November 1812 when a more lenient “insolvent law” was enacted by the General Assembly.46

David was granted freedom after agreeing to enlist in Tennessee’s militia under Jackson’s command. He fought in the Creek War and at the Battle of New Orleans.47 With David away at war, Jonathan, Perrygreen and the rest of the Magnesses moved to the Arkansas Territory.48

The Legal Titans Post-Trial

As for the defense, Grundy’s renown as a lawyer skyrocketed. He went go on to engage in fabled debates with Pleasant Miller, his lawyering equal, in the state House: Grundy leading the Middle Tennessee delegation and Miller the East.49 Grundy also served in the U.S. Senate and as U.S. attorney general. Grundy County is named in his honor.50 Like Grundy, John Haywood went on to train countless fledgling lawyers. And Haywood served as a revered jurist on Tennessee’s Supreme Court for 24 years and became the state’s first great historian.51 Haywood County is named for him.52

As regards the prosecution, Jenkin Whiteside left the U.S. Senate and practiced law in Nashville until his death.53 John Overton returned to the Tennessee Supreme Court, became a wealthy land speculator and, along with James Winchester and Andrew Jackson, founded Memphis.54 Overton County is named in his honor.5

In 1813, Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson became enemies after Jackson served as a second for a man who dueled with Benton’s brother. Benton put a bullet in Jackson’s left arm and moved to Missouri. There he was elected to the U.S. Senate (serving 30 years). He and Jackson reconciled in Washington while serving as senators together. Benton later championed President Jackson’s causes in the Senate.56 

There had been plenty of murder trials before the Magness case. Prior trials, however, were often slapdash affairs on the frontier. This great trial, lawyered by the best, set an example for the bench, bar and populace of how it should be done. Furthermore, excepting Jackson’s conduct, and mindful he was not counsel of record, the lawyers demonstrated they could be fierce advocates in the courtroom yet remain good friends and colleagues. Tennessee’s legal system had come of age.

RUSSELL FOWLER is director of litigation and advocacy at Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET), and since 1999 he has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has many publications on law and legal history, including many in this Journal.

1. See Paul O’Neil, The Frontiersmen 159 (1977).
2. See Russell Fowler, “Pleasant M. Miller, 1773-1849: The Last of the Titans of Tennessee’s Founding Age” The West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 23, 25 (1995); Russell Fowler, “Miller, Pleasant Moorman,” The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture 624 (1998).
3. James MacGregor Campbell, The Great Magness Trial 7 (2017).
4. Roderick Heller III, Democracy’s Lawyer: Felix Grundy of the Old Southwest 86 (2010).
5. Campbell at 8-9.
6. Id. at 52-54.
7. Id. at 64.
8. Corlew at 116; see Campbell at 3.
9. Campbell at 57.
10. Corlew at 116.
11. Campbell at 61.
12. Id. at 8-11; Corlew at 86.
13. Corlew at 86.
14. See Campbell at 11.
15. Id. at 37-38.
16. Id. at 24-27.
17. Id. at 27.
18. Heller at 86.
19. Campbell at 17-18.
20. Joshua W. Caldwell, Sketches of the Bench and Bar of Tennessee 59 (1898).
21. Id. at 54.
22. Heller at 1.
23. Campbell at 19.
24. Some believe he may have been O.B. Hayes or Andrew Hays instead of Stokely Donald Hayes. See Campbell at 22-24.
25. Campbell at 19-20; Corlew at 116; James A. Crutchfield, Timeless Tennesseans 84 (1984).
26. Heller at 86.
27. Robert E. Corlew, Tennessee: A Short History 116 (1981).
28. Heller at 86; see Campbell at 49.
29. See Campbell 49.
30. Heller at 86; Campbell at 49.
31. Campbell at 50.
32. Heller at 87.
33. Corlew 116.
34. See Heller at 87.
35. Marquis James, Andrew Jackson, Border Captain 143 (1933).
36. Id. at 143.
37. Campbell at 65; see Heller at 87; Campbell at 65.
38. Heller at 87.
39. Id. at 86.
40. Id. at 87.
41. James at 143.
42. Corlew at 116.
43. Campbell at 107; 109.
44. Id. at 111-12.
45. Id. at 116.
46. Id. at 116.
47. Id. at 117.
48. Id. at 118.
49. Fowler, “The Last of the Titans” at 30-36.
50. Tennessee Blue Book 2019-2020 719 (Tre Hargett, ed. 2020).
51. Campbell at 20.
52. Tennessee Blue Book at 720.
53. Id. at 27.
54. See Campbell at 30; Crutchfield at 124.
55. Tennessee Blue Book at 723.
56. Campbell at 35-36.