Named after Dr. Hugh Williamson, a friend of Benjamin Franklin and signer of the United States Constitution Williamson County was established in 1799 with land that originally belonged to Davidson County. With land donated by Abram Maury, a small log courthouse was built on the Public Square in 1800. Over the years, it was renovated and rebuilt, and in 1858, the courthouse that you see today was built.
According to the law in the 19th-century, executions were to be held within a mile of the courthouse. Since no one in the town wanted to have an execution at their residence or place of business the gallows, whipping post and stocks which were located on the grounds of the courthouse on the square.
When death by hanging was considered too harsh, often a judge would order criminals to be branded with branding irons. ‘T’ was for the thieves and ‘M’ was for the murderers. For lesser crimes, someone could be placed in a stock and forced to stand in one place for hours or sometimes days as people mocked them and threw things at them.
Other crimes like arson were punishable by cropping, which is when a criminal would be placed in a pillory or stock in the square. The criminal would then have his ear nailed to the boards. People would throw trash, eggs or other objects and eventually, the criminal would tear his own ear off trying to avoid whatever was being thrown at his head. If they didn’t tear it off themselves eventually, a police officer would cut it off for them so their sentence would be carried out. It was thought that anyone who encountered a man missing an ear would know he was a criminal and it brought great shame to the person and their family. In 1829, Cropping became illegal in Tennessee.
In 1805, a slave in town was convicted of larceny. He received 50 lashes for his crime and was branded on each cheek. He also had both of his ears nailed to the pillory.
The Williamson County Courthouse was used as the Federal headquarters during the Civil War and served as a hospital during the Battle of Franklin in 1864. Back then, the army didn’t have the advantages of modern medicine like we do today. Sawing a soldier’s arm or leg off was often the first option after battle if they had been shot and were losing a lot of blood. A lot of men died from their injuries in makeshift hospitals like the Williamson County Courthouse.
Twenty years after the war had ended and the slaves were freed, race relations were still at an all-time low. In 1888, Amos Miller, a 23-year-old African-American man was accused of raping a white woman that he worked for just outside of Franklin. Amos was arrested in Columbia after confessing to the crime. Upon hearing about the confession, a group of men gathered outside the jail demanding that he be turned over to the mob. Due to the severity of the threats, Amos was moved to Franklin followed by Nashville and his trial was postponed twice.
On the day of the trial, Miller was brought via train to the Williamson County Courthouse. Once again, a mob showed up demanding justice. Despite pleas from Amos’ attorney, the judge would not delay or move the trial again and started proceedings. As the trial got underway, a group of 40 to 50 men rushed the court and grabbed Amos. They took him outside the courtroom and hung him from the courthouse balcony until he died. No one in the lynch mob ever was arrested or charged for the murder even though law enforcement officials knew who many of the men were.
Given the courthouse’s dark history, it’s no wonder many locals believe it is haunted. Union soldiers have been seen on the balcony and looking out of second story windows. Employees and cleaning crews have heard footsteps and other mysterious noises inside the building at night when no one else is there.
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