JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) — As the oldest town in Tennessee, Jonesborough has a lot of history. Some of that history is very dark and is being exposed in the True and Chilling Tales Tour in Jonesborough.
The True and Chilling Tales Tour is not for the faint of heart, as it takes listeners through some of the darker and gorier moments of Jonesborough’s history.
“Jonesborough was — still is — the county seat of Washington County,” said Anne Mason, Executive Director Heritage Alliance “So, it was very much a place of law and order. Of course, that meant punishment if you broke the law.”
Many a poor soul has walked into the courthouse to never walk out — or at least not whole.
“Something you don’t see out here anymore, of course, was the public pillory where they would put your hands in, your head in, and you’d be stuck there,” said Mason. “Poor Elias Piborn, he stole a horse and was found guilty, and they put him in the pillory. Let’s just say at the end of his time at the pillory, he was allowed to leave but his ears were not.”
Public executions were held at the courthouse until 1897. The last legal hanging took place in 1897. The hanging was not visible to the public, but a crowd still gathered in front of the courthouse. Mason said the Herald-Tribune wrote about the stores, shops and streets being filled with crowds of people.
Behind the courthouse, you will still find the railroad tracks, which in 1873 brought cholera.
“Two gentlemen who got off the train from Greeneville, unfortunately, had cholera,” said Mason. “They stayed at the house of Mrs. Collins, and she nursed them back to health. They were able to recover and go on their way. When they left, she got ill and passed away. And two days later, her husband passed away too.”
Those who could got out of town quickly after that. 100 people stayed behind, including the doctors, the sick and their families. Thirty people died, but where they rest remains a mystery.
“We know where some of those 30 plus people were buried, but not all of them,” said Mason. “There’s still some mystery on the back slope of the cemetery. So, we can’t conclusively say whether or not there was a mass grave.”
Some deaths left questions like that of John Spencer in 1909. Spencer was suspected of the first murder in Bridgeport. The body of Jonesborough-native Andrew Slagle was found in the river there, and suspicion quickly fell to his employee, Spencer.
Spencer had allegedly asked Slagle to come to Bridgeport and prior to the trip, Slagle had given him $4,000. The body was found, but the money never was.
Despite some suspicion, Spencer stayed with the Slagle family the night before the funeral, not knowing his would come soon.
The next morning he was found dead, drowned in a rain barrel.
“The police ruled that it was open-and-shut that Spencer had been guilty of killing Slagle, and he had felt so guilty about what he had done, he had drowned himself in the rain barrel,” said Mason. “But the mystery remains — did someone in the Slagle household help him to it? The only people who know the truth are now long gone.”