The body who (maybe) moved itself

This is the story about a murder. In many ways the case is very similar to the Tom Dooley case, that takes up a lot of space on this site. A woman disappered and was never seen alive again. A man was accused of the murder, and had to go through two trials and two appeals, before he was finally convicted and hanged. And the trial was moved to another jurisdiction like the Dooley-case was. Also the murder was committed only 30 miles from where Laura Foster was killed in 1866 as the crow flows. There was one rather distinctive difference to the two cases though. Tom Dooley maintained that he was innocent, and never admitted anything before he was hanged. In this case the murderer confessed - at least part of the crime, if not all of it.

The story I'm about to tell took place near the town of Mountain City, the county seat of Johnson County, Tennessee. In 1903, the couple Lillie and Melvin Shaw lived in a small community outside Mountain City. She was 22 and he was 59, an age difference not uncommon in those days. They were married in 1896, when Lillie was 15, and in 1903 they had two children, Mary, aged 6 and Melvin Jr., aged 3. The marriage wasn't working out too well, and the two of them were splitting up around October 1st 1903. After the separation Melvin moved to Ohio, where he settled. What happened to the children is uncertain, as they were not further mentioned during trial, but because of this, and the later events, there are reason to believe that they moved to Ohio with their father.

Lillie abandoned her home, and moved in with a young couple, Finley (aged 22) and Rachel (21) Preston and their four year old son, Wiley. In the 1900 census Finley is recorded to be 35 and Rachel 28, but the census records from this period are often wrong, when it comes to peoples age, so there is no reason to wonder about that. Finley confirmed his age in court, and in the 1820 census, where age where recorded less erroneous, Rachel is recorded as being 41, so her being 21 in 1903 is not far off.

While Lillie stayed in the Preston home, she often had a male visitor. His name is not known today. It is not mentioned in any surviving papers, but as he testified in court, it must have been recorded at some point. It was later documented, that this man was married. We don't know today, but if he visited Lillie before her divorce, he may have been the reason for the marital troubles in the Shaw household. With a 37 years age difference it would not be strange if Lillie may have had another loveinterest besides her husband. At least it sounds incredible that she would have had time to establish a close relationship with another man from she moved in with the Prestons until her own disappearance less than three weeks later. The visits from the stranger also caused some trouble in the Preston marriage, so maybe Rachel were interested as well?

Sheriff C. R. Patten on his horse. From Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA).

On October 19th, Lillie disappeared from the Preston home. A search was established and continued for some days but no trace of Lillie were found. After a week a hair comb was found, and the unidentified guest recognized it as one that he had given to Lillie as a present. Where the comb was found were tracks from at least one man and one woman (it was never decided whether there were tracks from more people). It looked like someone had been struggling. This made the locals intensify the search, and a few days later, on another ridge, around 1,300 feet from where the comb was found, something that looked like a grave, was found. If it was a grave though, it was empty, and apparently nobody had ever been buried here. No other clues were found at that time.

A couple of days later on another mountain ridge by simple coincidence a part of a rail was found, It was broken and looked as something had been carried on it.  Around the same time a pole was found nearby. On Monday, two weeks after Lillie's disappearance, the remains of a fire was found in a deep canyon, on the other side of the mountain ridge where the rail was found. This was about 1.5 miles from the Preston home. Also the fire was found almost by accident, as it was outside the area, that had been searched. When the remnants of the fire were searched, pieces of bone were found, together with hairpins, metal eyelets from shoes, a ring and several other small items. The ring was still on the bone from a finger, and it was later identified as one, given to Lillie by her unknown admirer. The people who had found the items, wrapped everything in a hankerchief and took them to the nearest official, County Clerk L. B. Morley. When he examined the items, he found the initials of Lillie's friend inside the ring. Because of that he concluded, that Lillie had been murdered and her body burned.

When this became public knowledge, people in the area began wondering who would be next, and many were terrified. The local sheriff from Johnson County, C. R. Patten began researching the matter, and he questioned a lot of people, among these Lillie's friend. He told the sheriff that he had last seen Lillie on the morning of Monday October 19th, where she had left the Preston household to go to a neighbor, in order to sell a rocking chair and a rifle. She needed the money to go to her husband in Ohio (probably to visit her children). During questioning the friend explained that his wife had filed for divorce, because he was going to accompany Lillie to Ohio. He also explained his whereabouts on the day Lillie disappeared.

It was discovered, that the man Lilie were going to sell her chair and rifle to, lived about three miles from the Preston home. Witnesses explained that they had seen Finley Preston walking around in the woods that day. Also other clues pointed in his direction, but the broken rail indicated that he must have had a partner in crime. He would not have been able to carry Lillies body on his own the 1.5 miles over the mountain to where the fire was found. Lillie weighed about 135 pounds and that would have been too much for a single man to carry over such a distance.

On November 2nd 1903 the sheriff called on Finley Preston in his home. He arrested him and charged him with murder. Finley's father, Elbert Preston was also arrested and charged as an accomplice, because some (not specified) evidence pointed in the direction of him as Finley's accomplice after the fact. The father's arrest made people in the area speculate if he had been involved in more that just the transport of the body after the killing. In the beginning of January 1904 a grand jury decided that the evidence of the prosecution was enough to put Finley and his father on trial. Before the trial began, Finleys wife, Rachel, stated under oath, that Elbert Preston could not have been involved in the matter, as Finley and Elbert hadn't mentioned the murder until some days after the murder. It was she, Rachel, who had told her father-in-law about Lillie's disappearance. She also swore that Elbert and Finley had not been together on the day Lillie disappeared, as Elbert had been home in the house with her all day. The charges against Elbert were dropped, and on January 9th 1904 the trial of Finley Preston began.

The Trial

Lillie's friend explained in court, as he had during the investigation, that the last time he saw Lillie was on the morning of Monday October 19th when she were going to sell her rocking chair and riffle. She had told him, that she needed the money to go to her husband in Ohio. He confirmed that he had visited Lille several times while she was staying at the Prestons. He could also confirm that his wife had filed for divorce two weeks before Lillie disappeared. The reason for the divorce, was his going to Ohio with Lillie.

A neighbor from the settlement where Lillie and Melvin Shaw had lived, told in court, that he hadn't seen Lillie after her husband left for Ohio. He couldn't remember when the rumor of her death started. He had been participating in the searches for her, and it was he, who had found the comb on the place, where a struggle had taken place. He had also been on the search team that found the fire and it's contents. Here it sounds like the body had been burned the same day as the fire was found, but that can't have been the case, as Finleys whereabouths of that day were known. During examination he told about the items found in the ashes. He had also been present when the rail and the pole were found, and it was he, who had come to the conclusion that the body had been carried to the place, where it had been burned. The county clerk, Morley, explained about his investigation of the contents of the hankerchief. Doctor Butler from Mountain City told, that he had examined the burned bones from the fire and the bones were human. In the ring had been a small piece of bone, that he could identify as "a portion of first part of the third finger". A dentist, Dr. Donnelly testified, that he had examined the burned teeth. In his opinion they were human, but it was an opinion only, and he couldn't swear to it.

The hanging of Finley Preston. From Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA).

At this time the townspeople were very excited, and many threats were put against Finley Preston. To avoid problems, Sheriff Patten transfered Finley to the jail in Jonesborough, county seat of Washington County,  60 miles and two counties away from Mountain City. When the trial continued in Jonesborough, the sheriff was called as a witness. He explained that a few days after the arrest of Finley Preston, an attorney had visited Finley in his cell. The sheriff had been present in the jail, but not in the cell. When the attorney had finished his conversation with Finley, the latter had asked to speak with the sheriff. During this conversation Finley admitted to killing Lillie Shaw by shooting her with a .38 caliber handgun. The wife of Lillie's friend had offered him $ 100 and 2.5 acres of land as payment for the "job".

At this time, I have to explain that both the Shaws and the Prestons were colored people. They worked as farm laborers and didn't own the land they lived on. An offer to be given 2.5 acres of land would be extremelly valuable, as the family now could work for themselves instead of working for others. A family might very well live from 2.5 acres. Also the $ 100 were a lot of money. It was more than four months payment, mayby up to six months for a farm laborer, and enogh to buy seed to plant 2.5 acres, and even a milk cow or a pig. While it is not mentioned anywhere, some things indicate that Lillie's friend and his wife were white. It were almost only white people who owned enough land to give 2.5 acres away, and neither did a lot of colored people had enough money to pay the $ 100. The scandal of a married man running away with another woman would be big, an even worse scandal would it be, if a married white man, would leave his wife in favor of a young colored girl.

The deputy sheriff, who also served as a jailor, confirmed that he had heard Finleys confession to the sheriff. He also testified that Finley had told him about a dead treestump in the woods, where he had hidden a bonnet and some other items. He, the deputy sheriff, had sent some men to the place, and they had returned with the things Finley Preston had admitted to have hidden there.

Now Finley Preston had the opportunity to testify. He explained that he was married and lived 3 miles from Mountain City in a small settlement called Sawmill Creek. He could not read or write, and he had never read even a single chapter from the Bible. He continued to explain that Lillie and Melvin had split up, and Melvin had moved to Ohio, while Lillie had moved in with him and his wife. He also told the name of the friend that visited Lillie during her stay. (This name have since been lost in later sources - or may have been removed to protect this man). After this he retold his story about how the wife of the friend had approached him and offered him the 2.5 acres of land and $ 100 to kill Lillie. Later she sold the land nevertheless and in stead offered him the money she got from the sale. He accepted the offer, but had no plans to actually do the killing. He added: "The woman however was quite a bit older than me, and every time we met, she encouraged me to go through with the killing. My head was confused and I had no idea what to do."

Finley continued his testimony by explaning what had happened on October 19th 1903. He had been out looking for some oxen grazing in the woods. He had met Lillie on the path "and after exchanging a few words with her, I shot her with a .38 caliber pistol, and left the body next to the path. She had stayed in my home the night before and I don't know why I killed her. I can give no reason for it except that I had been encouraged to do so. I was not in a state of mind, that I knew what I was doing at that time. I had nothing against her and had let her stay in my home for two weeks."

After the testimony Preston was cross-examined and during the cross-examination he added: "I never said to her, that I would kill her and I don't think she knew that it would happen. I shot her in the chest and left. I don't know if she was dead or not, but she didn't say anything after being shot." He continued to repeat his explanation that this event had taken place on October 19th, 1903. The next time he saw Lillie was the next night, when he returned to the place, where he shot her. At this time he was sure that she was dead. He didn't touch the body and didn't cover it either. Next night he returned once more, and at that time the body had disappeared. "I never saw the body again before I saw it on the other side of the mountain more than a mile from where I killed her. I didn't help carry the body across the mountain, I didn't move it myself, and I didn't help to burn it."

This concluded the testimonies. The judge instructed the jurors, who retired to their room. They returned very quickly though with a verdict of Guilty in Murder in the First Degree, which was what was stated in the indictment. Finleys lawyer requested a re-trial, but this was rejected by the judge. He sentenced the accused to be hanged on March 2nd, 1904. The defendant asked for an appeal and this was granted. The case would be heard by the Supreme Court in Knoxville in the next term of this court. The Supreme Court examined the testimonies, and ruled for a "venire de novo" - a retrial. A new trial was held in Jonesborough in the autumn of 1904, with same result, a guilty verdict. Once more the defense called for a retrial for two reasons.

1) The verdict was not sufficiently supported by the evidence.
2) The jury had been sworn in "voir dire" (with a duty to speak the truth), as they should according to law, but they were not sworn in with raised hands, and they had not been asked to kiss the bible as a confirmation of their commitment to their duty

Once more the judge refused a retrial and the defendant was sentenced to be hanged on February 22nd 1905. The reason for the long wait between trials, were the way the court system of Tennessee worked. There were only two short court terms each year, so when a trial had to be rescheduled, it had to wait for the next term. In this case the next term of the Supreme Court, and when the court ruled for a retrial, this had to wait for the next term in Washington County. Another appeal was allowed but this time the Supreme Court ruled that no errors had been made, and that Finley could not be tried again. In the next term of the Superior Court of Washington County Finley Preston was sentenced to be hanged on November 7th 1905 between 10 am and 4 pm.

Crowd at the hanging. From Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA).

Sometime in 1904 Sheriff Patten had been replaced by Will Greever, and he now had to carry out the hanging. Before the execution could take place a scaffold had to be build and tested. Also some legal matters, should be taken care of. As was the case with other executions, the local population showed a great interest in the building of the scaffold. Many people flocked to town to attend the execution. November 7th was a cold day, but the weather didn't keep the crowd away, and little by little most people gathered at the courthouse. When Finley Preston was brought to the scaffold a large crowd was present.

Finley was led up to the scaffold and the noose was placed around his neck, He didn't resist or tried to struggle in any way. He was dressed in a new set of blue clothes, new socks, shoes and a tie. When the sheriff asked him if he had anything to say, he looked over the crowd and said "Ok people. See you on the other side". A hood was placed over his head, the trapdoor was released, his neck was broken and it was all over.

Later one of the spectators admitted that it was not a pretty sight to see a life ended like that. Another witness told many years later, that he could still see the hanging before his eyes, and he wished that he had stayed at home. Many others agreed on this, and several admitted that they felt nauseous after the execution. In 1971 a paper retelling the story wrote: "100 dollars, two dead and many sorrows in addition to many years of bad memories and nightmares - which not even time have been able to heal." The execution of Finley Preston would be the last hanging ever in Tennessee as the electric chair replaced the gallows some years after, and no hangings took place in the meantime. It was also the last ever public execution in the state.

Something is rotten!

Something is definately wrong about this case! Why would Finley Preston admit to the murder, but not to moving and burning the body? Was it because he actually didn't do it? But if he didn't then who did? Maybe he hoped to get a less severe punishment if he could make it look as the murder was not premeditated, but modern lawyers find, that his defensor, would have known, that such a defense wouldn't work. So I think he told the truth about not moving the body. Maybe he didn't murder Lillie either, but just took the blame! But if he didn't kill her, then who did? Did the body wake up and walk 1.5 miles to the other side of the mountain and set fire to itself? Probably not, so someone else must have been involved, but who?

Maybe the strange unknown friend of Lillie's or his wife was involved somehow? Maybe one or both of this couple did it, or paid somebody else to do it. Maybe the same person or persons paid Finley to take the blame. Finley was visited by "a lawyer" in jail. Not "his lawyer" but just " a lawyer", and after speaking to him, he confessed. Maybe the lawyer convinced him to take the blame? Maybe he promised hem that his family would be taken care of in a better way, than Finley himself would be able to? It's also possible that this lawyer supplied him with the necessary information to make the confession convincing. Maybe this lawyer made him think that he would only go to jail, not be excuted. If this is the case it is clear why he couldn't admit to transporting and burning the body, as this would have involved at least one other person. One thing in particular bothers me. Why would Finley remove the bonnet and other items from the body, and hide it in a tree stump where it could be found, instead of burning it with the body? To me it appears more likely, that someone had hidden the things after Lillie's body was found, and told of the hiding place to Finley to make his confession more convincing. A conspiracy theory? Yes, but a possible one.

Still more questions need answers. Why was Rachel Preston so eager to get her father-in-law of the hook, while she apparently did nothing to save her husband? Had Finley had an affair with Lillie, that made her jealous? Or had she had an affair with her father-in-law? In both cases it may have been Rachel and her father-in-law who got rid of Lillie. There must have been some reason for the marital problems in the Preson family, that arose after Lillie moved in. It was told that these problems were due to the unknown friend's visits. Maybe Rachel was interested in him, and therefore was jealous of Lillie? The friend seems to have been wealthy, at least wealthy enough to gift Lillie with jewelery, and by killing Lillie and put the blame on Finley, Rachel would strike two birds with one stone. I don't believe it though. I'd rather believe in my first explanation, that someone paid Finley to die, by promising to take care of Rachel and her children. Nobody knows what really happend and because we don't know the name of Lillie's friend, it's impossible to dig further into the matter. I have not been able to locate any records from the trial on the internet, but if they still exist, the name of the friend must be in there unless it was deleted already before the case was filed.

I looked at census records from the time, and while I  have not been able to locate Rachel and her children in the 1910 census, I've found her in the records from 1920. This year she lived in Mountain City together with Wiley, now 18 (4 in 1903, but the census records of the time are very often mistaken about age). In the household were a daughter, Oara B. Preston, age 17 and another daughter, Vigire, aged 15. In the household also lived Rachels 83 year old mother, Lue Wagner. Rachel must have been heaviliy pregnant with Oara  when Finley was arrested in October, as she was born sometime in late 1903 or early 1904. Who the father of the second daughter is, is not mentioned anywhere, but as she was born in 1905, Rachel must have become pregnant while Finley was incarcerated in Jonesborough, so he can't have been the father. Was it the friend of Lillie or maybe Finley's father Elbert, or was it someone that is unknown today? All the children were called Preston, so she never married the father of Vigire. It is interesting that while Wiley and Vigire are born in Tennessee, Oara is born in North Carolina, so maybe Rachel moved away for awhile, while Finley was in jail? I can't find any records of Oara's birth in North Carolina records though.

Rachel is recorded as a widow. She was Head of Household, and the family lived in a house that she owned, not rented. There was no mortgage recorded, so the house must have been paid in cash. Rachel earned her living as a washing lady, a job that probably could not have financed a house, so maybe an unknown benefactor helped her out - maybe as payment for Finley's confession? She did her job from home, while Wiley was a public employee, and the two girls cooked at a local hotel. Grandmother was at home, making no money. In 1930 Rachel is no longer recorded, so she may have been dead - or have married again. The daughters have disappeared as well and may very well have been married themselves. There were simply to many Wiley Prestons in USA to identify the right one, but none of these lived in or near Mountain City, so he may have moved away after his mother was dead and his sisters married. Oara could be the Oara McInnis who lived in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1930. The year of birth fits, and there were not many by that name. Only this Oara is recorded as being white, not black. But maybe her father was not Finley, but the unknown friend, and she may have had light enough skin to go as white to people who didn't know her background.

Maybe, but just maybe, someone actually did take care of Rachel and the children after Finley's execution. If so, it's not possible to idenify whoever it may have been. As a final clou I may add that while Rachel and her mother were illiterate in 1920, all three children could read and write, though they never attended school. Their mother couldnt have taught them, so who did? A secret benefactor?

There is a lot to think about in this case, but unfortunately we will probably never know what really happened.

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