Another Voice: A forgotten story of redemption, racism, and reflection

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In the style of the day, the first deck of headlines told the story with grotesque simplicity.

A second deck followed with simple elaboration: “Are the Three Negro Murderers, Battiste, Petway and Thompson.”

But the final two decks suggested there was more to this story in the July 19, 1901, Nashville American.


“All Meet Death Calmly Professing Belief in Their Salvation”

There are different beginnings to this story. One can begin in the archives of the St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart, or the Josephites. Father Thomas Plunkett, a Josephite priest, came to Nashville in October 1900 at the direction of Father John Slattery, the order’s superior general. Bishop Thomas Sebastian Byrne had invited the Josephites to the Diocese of Nashville to minister to its African American members.

Father Plunkett was immediately encouraged, writing to Father Slattery on Oct. 13, 1900, “I have already met most of the colored Catholics, among whom is a captain of the Fire Department, a stone mason, a store keeper, besides several others.”

In a June 1901 report published in “The Colored Harvest”, Father Plunkett noted his progress since October: “Besides the satisfaction of being able to locate 23 baptized Catholics where few were supposed to exist, we had also the consolation to take several under instructions; the number is daily increasing.”

That is one beginning of the story of Abe Petway.

“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and life for life,” began the July 1901 Nashville American article. “The awful sentence of the law was executed and its majesty was upheld yesterday morning.”

The article further reported, “Since their confinement in jail Thompson and Petway have been baptized and received into the Catholic Church, and Father Morris, Father Plunkard (sic) and two of the Sisters of Charity visited them during the morning. … There were prayers for good death, recommendations for the soul departing, and the usual ceremonies observed in the Catholic ritual.”

The Josephite archives recount that morning in the light of the New Testament.

“‘God chose the base things of the world and the things that are despised that He might bring to naught things that are.’ Thus St. Paul laid down the democracy of mankind,” wrote Father Plunkett’s companion in the October 1901 issue of “The Colored Harvest.”

Jesus, James and John, the writer continued, “point out how the Church’s efforts find their heartiest response in the breasts of the ‘base and contemptible’ – ‘the poor as to this world.’…

“Hence when, accompanied by Father Plunkett, we stood conversing with the two condemned men and gazed at by 100 or more other criminals, we felt that God’s Holy Spirit would bless such labors – would indeed have us there in jail rather than in the State Capitol, not one thousand paces away.” 

On the morning of the execution, the Nashville American reported a “curious crowd” began forming outside the jail early.  “They lined up on the streets for several blocks,” the newspaper reported.

Between 50 and 75 onlookers were allowed to enter the jail yard and observe, a number of those being law enforcement officials from surrounding jurisdictions.

“After the executions scores of men gathered around Sheriff Hurt, and congratulated him on the cool and skillful manner in which he had discharged his duty,” the newspaper reported.

The duty had been to read the death warrants to the inmates and then to march them to the gallows.

“When the prisoners reached the gallows there was reading from the Catholic ritual by Fathers Morris and Plunkard (sic) and prayer was offered by Rev. Luke Mason, colored,” according to the newspaper.

Then each condemned man was given an opportunity to speak.

Battiste and Thompson, who had been convicted and condemned for “the murder of Cain Miller, colored,” spoke their peace, with Battiste saying he hoped “he would be a striking example to the ungodly” and Thompson saying “he faced death with nothing to fear, and trusting in God.”

Petway, recently converted like Thompson, “stated he had nothing against anyone and he hoped that all would meet in heaven.”

With their feet strapped together, hands bound behind their back, and black caps over their heads, the men fell through the gallows’ drop.

The newspaper’s description then became almost clinical: “The body of Battiste whirled around, and it appeared he was in a violent struggle for a few seconds. Twice Thompson’s hands and feet quivered, and there were slight struggles. Petway appeared to be dead from the time he fell, as there were no movement of his limbs. The necks of Battiste and Petway were broken, but Thompson died of strangulation.”

While family members claimed the bodies of Battiste and Thompson, no one came for Petway, leaving him to be buried in a pauper’s grave.

There is, of course, another beginning to Abe Petway’s story: the horrific murder of an elderly grocer in downtown Nashville.

A year before the executions, the Nashville American reported on June 3, 1900, “The murder of Michael C. Wrenne is still wrapped in mystery. Although eight negroes, six men and two women, have been arrested on suspicion, nothing has been discovered that will fasten guilt on them.”

Called to investigate a domestic disturbance, two patrolmen had noticed the grocery store door open, and upon investigation, found the grocer mortally wounded by a blow to the back of his head.

The police quickly arrested eight suspects, the newspaper reported: “As some of the negroes live in the same building, it is believed that they must have heard Wrenne groaning or the sound of the blows which killed him.

“The negroes are all confined in different cells at the station house and are being put through the ‘sweating’ process. … The police are confident that they have the guilty party or parties.”

Petway, Lewis Bridges and Eli Webb were tried for Wrenne’s murder in September 1900 and convicted.  However, in January 1901 the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed Petway’s conviction but reversed Bridges’ and ordered a new trial for him.

In reporting the high court’s decision, the American story gave these details of the first trial: “A negro named Eli Webb was also arrested in connection with the crime, and when placed on the stand testified that the negro Bridges had confessed to him in jail. This story was denied by Bridges. Petway was convicted on his own statement that he stood watch while Bridges and Webb murdered the old man.”

The July 1, 1901, Nashville American headlined the next step in the judicial process:


“Abe Petway Goes Back To Old Story and Denies Being Guilty.”

Webb, whose conviction had been vacated at the trial level, and Bridges were back on trial for the grocer’s murder, and the newspaper reported: “While there was strong circumstantial proof against the trio, the strongest evidence was the confession of Petway to the police officers who worked up the case. … When Petway was placed on the stand in the Criminal Court he claimed the confession was wrung from him by force, and insisted he had been bullied into making a false confession.”

In fact, Petway’s scheduled execution in March 1901 was delayed so he could testify at this new trial of Webb and Bridges.

“When the day of his execution was near at hand he indicated that if he was given time he would tell the whole story,” the newspaper reported. “Whether or not the state will gain anything by having the life of the negro prolonged remains to be seen. Petway now goes back to his old story that he knew nothing about the killing and that the confession secured from him by the police officer was gotten by threats of violence.”

The trial of Webb and Bridges was marked by hearsay testimony and conflicting accounts of the night’s events. A recently washed ax and a hatchet with paint marks similar to the color of the grocery store’s front door were the physical evidence offered.

It ended in a mistrial on July 4, 1901, with four jurors voting for acquittal and eight for conviction.

Petway was hanged two weeks later, July 18, 1901.

This is a story of Nashville not remembered, and the newspaper “facts” may be more evocative than dispositive. In some ways, they may be best considered as “signs of the times.”

What were the “signs of the times” in 1900 Nashville?

A ministry to those on the margins of the margins of society; capital punishment as a public spectacle for the “curious”; a murder victim relegated to a role in a public morality play; and a casual, institutional racism throughout.

Perhaps, in the end, remembering this forgotten history is an occasion to reflect on what will be remembered as the signs of our time, even in the forgotten stories.

Jim O’Hara is a parishioner of Christ the King Church in Nashville.

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