This is a continuation of Joy Odom's article on the hanging of John Retherford. If you'd like to read Part I, here's a link:
After about a year and a half at the Rising Fawn convict camp, John Retherford had apparently reached his limit and, on 14 March 1888, he and two other prisoners, one black, one white, made their escape by digging out of the mines. Two days later, they broke into a store at Valley Head, Alabama, took the clothing they needed and blew open the safe, which gave them about $140 for their road trip.
The next night, Retherford’s two fellow escapees were captured near Valley Head but somehow Retherford, who had been with them, managed to escape again. He was able to make it to Fort Payne, where he was spotted and where two shots were fired at him but they missed and he again got away. He hung around the area near the train station there until he was able to board a northbound freight and rode it to Wauhatchie where he was confronted by a train brakeman and arrested by the train crew and the Sheriff of Dekalb County, Alabama, who happened to be aboard the same train. Retherford was returned to the Rising Fawn camp and his captors were paid a $300 reward for aiding in his arrest.
On 23 August 1888, Retherford again escaped and robbed a store about 20 miles outside Chattanooga on the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railroad for clothing and money. He committed several more robberies in different places before leaving this area. About the end of October, he managed to reach the home of his brother-in-law in Atlanta, but, again, he was spotted. The home was surrounded and, although more than 50 rounds were fired, Retherford again managed to flee the house but was then surrounded by officers in the neighborhood and wounded three of them, having acquired a gun during this escape. On 4 November, he was again returned to the Rising Fawn camp but early the next year, he was moved to Cole City, which was considered a tougher camp.
Retherford continued to plot and carry out escape attempts which were unsuccessful for at least two more years. The attempts and the short periods when prisoners were on the loose upset the community near the camp and there was agitation for the escape leaders to be transferred to other camps. Nevertheless, Retherford and his co-conspirators remained at Cole City until the deciding event came on 21 June 1891.
For this escape attempt, the convicts had somehow managed to secure at least three pistols, and a gun battle ensued between them and the guards. When the smoke cleared, two guards as well as two of the convicts were dead. The surviving prisoners were each charged with two counts of murder.
On the first charge, Retherford was given a life sentence at trial, but his trial for the second murder resulted in his being found guilty with no recommendation for mercy from the jury. This verdict condemned him to death.
While waiting for his sentence to be carried out, Retherford was held in the Dade County jail where then-Sheriff Carter’s son guarded him during the day and took notes on his conversations with the doomed prisoner.
Retherford remained unbowed and surprisingly positive up to and through his execution. He claimed to have slept better on the night preceding his hanging than on any other night since he had been in jail. He ate two hearty meals on the day of his execution and appeared to genuinely enjoy them.
At about 10:50 on 17 November 1893, a wagon was brought to the jail for Retherford’s transportation to his fate. At his request, he was first driven down the hill to Town Creek, about 200 yards south of the courthouse, and was baptized by a local minister. Accompanying him were two guards in the wagon, one holding each of his arms and 25 more armed guards around the wagon. More than 1,000 people gathered on the banks of the creek and others climbed up into trees nearby, according to newspaper accounts, to witness this ceremony. The presiding minister indicated that Retherford behaved with solemnity and seemed highly pleased to participate in this last rite.
After the baptism, Retherford changed his convict garb for “a neat, black suit” and was given his dinner. A little after noon, the guards again took their places to escort the prisoner to the gallows which were located on the courthouse grounds. Upon reaching the platform, Retherford sang a song to the assembled crowd. He then led a prayer in which he prayed for Sheriff Carter who, he said, had treated him kindly. Several ministers spoke and then the noose were readied.
The execution took place at 2:03 in the afternoon. Retherford uttered a goodbye and then stood quietly waiting for the trap to fall.
Fifteen minutes later, after his pulse action had ceased, according to an attending physician, his body was cut down and placed in a coffin. It would remain in the courthouse overnight and, the next day, would be taken to the Baptist Cemetery for burial in the pauper’s section. The exact location of this section of the cemetery is no longer known, but there are open areas there today where it’s likely the poor and the executed of an earlier era were anonymously buried.
So John Retherford and others like him are forever with us. His was not the first or last hanging in Dade County, but it certainly had to be one of the most memorable for those who witnessed it and, despite his many mistakes in life, it is hard not to have a certain admiration for a man who faced his fate with such aplomb.
The Dade Historical Society would like to again thank our own Scott Tinker for his willingness to take on the very challenging role of John Retherford during our recent cemetery walk. In addition to bringing the character to life through his words, he also sang, as Retherford did on the gallows, thus providing another facet of reality to the very unusual life of his character.