Destinations

Victims of a shocking double-murder buried on a forgotten mountainside

A view of the valley at Bull Creek from the edge of the most recent logging operation. Clear-cutting has left extensive scars along the mountainsides, and these operations result in New River (and the Big South Fork further downstream) being muddy much of the summer months, but the valley floor beneath the clear cuts is beautiful.

The older I get, the more of a fan I become of old cemeteries. Not the well-kept and often-visited cemeteries so much as the forgotten cemeteries that have become lost in the forest.

“Forgotten cemeteries” is a bit of a misnomer, of course. These cemeteries usually aren’t forgotten at all. But they’re neglected, left to return to nature, and as the years go by fewer and fewer people know where they exist. Someday, if their stories aren’t told and preserved, they truly will be forgotten. I’ve written about many of these backwoods cemeteries in Scott County (see here and here and here for starters).

I enjoy finding the old cemeteries, then trying to discover the stories that they’re waiting to tell. All of these old cemeteries tell the stories of our past — some of them stories heretofore untold … or, at least, forgotten.

Take, for example, the Harness Cemetery near the base of Round Mountain above Scott County’s historic Bull Creek settlement. I ventured back to find this old cemetery today, after last visiting it more than 20 years ago. I was shocked to discover the story it tells — the story of one of the most gruesome murders in Scott County’s history.

Once I stumbled across old newspaper clippings of the 1889 double murder, I recalled reading them before — though I’m not sure when or where. Likely as not, someone shared them on Facebook. I had long forgotten them, though, until after visiting the graves of the murder victims today.

A little back story

In the spring, as the coronavirus pandemic gripped America and everything was shut down, there was little to do but stare at the walls and risk going crazy. So, like millions of other Americans, we started getting outside to shake off the cabin fever. We took a few Jeep rides up Bull Creek. It was my first time up Bull Creek — at least, my first time beyond the end of the gravel road — even though I’ve lived in Scott County for 41 years. It’s a beautiful place.

On one of those trips, we started up the mountains. Then, after reaching the right-of-way for the TVA transmission lines that run the length of the main ridge dividing the New River Valley through Norma from Brimstone Valley, I decided it was irresponsible to try to get my Jeep the rest of the way up the mountain. So, we followed a couple of unnamed trails through a series of clear-cuts until we finally reached a road leading off the mountain to Bull Creek United Baptist Church.

Things had changed so much since the last time I was in this part of the Cumberland Mountains that I couldn’t get my bearings until a return trip, when I realized that the trail we were on was actually traversing land I had hunted extensively when I was in my late teens. Back then, the area had been freshly clear-cut, and the old strip mines above Bull Creek were still in the early stages of nature’s reclamation.

Once I realized where we were, I remembered old gravestones that I used to visit while hunting in the area. Back then, they were nothing more than a couple of stones in a small grove of trees that had been left untouched by timber-cutters due to the presence of the graves. I decided to go back and search for them. As it turned out, finding them was easy; someone — presumably, descendants of those buried there — had built a fence around the graves, and there was a faint trail leading to them from the main ATV trail.

An 1889 double murder

Goldenrod grows alongside the Bull Creek Settlement Trail on the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area.

I drove up the mountain from the Brimstone side, by way of Slick Rock, crossing over the “Four Lane” Trail #1) that runs from Brimstone Recreation onto the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and entering TWRA’s Bull Creek Settlement Trail. As the Bull Creek Settlement Trail (Trail #17) starts to drop off the ridge towards Bull Creek Baptist Church, Jerry Trail cuts off and leads to the Rob Sexton Cemetery a couple of miles up the ridge, at the base of Round Mountain.

The last time I was here, 20-plus years ago, Jerry Trail wasn’t an ATV trail at all; rather, it was an old road left by timber-cutters after they had finished their work. I stalked and shot at a nice whitetail buck from the road bed one October morning.

Anyway…

Just off the trail, hidden by 20 years of growth except for the faint trail leading to it, are a pair of graves. The headstones read, “Peter Harness,” and “Almiry Brown Harness – Born 1854.”

This picture, date unknown, was taken by Alonzo Lawson and posted online. It shows a fence that was built around the Harness graves in the early 2000s.
This picture, taken by me, shows how much things have changed in 20 years, as the Harness gravestones disappear into the new growth.
Peter Harness was a mentally-disabled teenager when he was murdered in 1889.
Almiry Brown Harness was apparently Talitha Brown Harness, the mother of Peter Harness, although she was not born in 1854.

The Almiry Harness headstone is confusing. There are no genealogical records of an Almiry Brown or an Almiry Harness. Apparently, the headstone belongs to Talitha Brown Harness, although she was born in 1824 — not 1854.

So who were Peter and Almiry or Talitha Harness?

Talitha Brown Harness was the wife of Rev. Thomas Harness. Peter Harness was the youngest of her seven children (some genealogical sources list nine children). He is described by newspaper articles from the day as being a “halfwit,” which in 19th century terms usually meant someone with a mental handicap.

There is a lot of mystery surrounding exactly who Rev. Thomas Harness and his wife were; little is known about their ancestors. Some genealogists list Thomas Harness as the son of John Harness and Mary Wilson Harness, who were descended from the Harnish family that migrated from Germany to America in the 18th century. However, this has been declared untrue. Other genealogists suggest that Rev. Thomas was the grandson of John and Mary Wilson Harness. Doubt has been cast on this, as well, by people who have conducted DNA research.

In any event, it would seem improbable to assume that the Thomas and Talitha Harness were not connected to the rest of the Harnesses of Bull Creek and Byrges Creek. The Harness family was one of the largest families in that part of Scott County, Tenn. at the time, along with the Lawson family and a handful of other families.

At some point in early June 1889, two men — identified by authorities and newspapers as Elias Reynolds and Thomas J. Lloyd — went to the home with intent to rob Thomas Harness, who they apparently believed had a lot of money.

As it turned out, Thomas Harness was away from home that night. His wife and the youngest of their children — 17-year-old Peter — were at home alone.

21-year-old Thomas Lloyd and his uncle, 45-year-old Elias Reynolds, were described in newspaper accounts of the time as “noted hard cases.” They allegedly reached the Harness home at midnight on a Wednesday night, where Mrs. Harness and her son were sleeping. Newspaper accounts indicate that Lloyd and Reynolds broke down the door and entered the home, shooting Talitha Harness without provocation.

Young Peter, awakened by the noise, rushed out another door and into the night, but the men chased him down and beat him to death with a garden hoe. They then dragged his body back to the house and set fire to the home. The grisly news accounts stated that neighbors came upon the scene the next morning and found nothing remaining except Peter’s legs (he had been dragged partially through the front door, with his legs sticking out of the home).

Nothing was ever written about what pointed authorities towards Lloyd and Reynolds. But they were named immediately as suspects, and a manhunt was started. They were later arrested at a saloon in Jellico and taken back to the Scott County Jail in Huntsville. That same night, a mob took the two men out of jail and lynched them — murdering them before they could stand trial.

It isn’t known exactly where the Harness home was located, though it was presumably nearby the gravesite. Nor is it known exactly where Lloyd and Reynolds were buried after they were hanged. It was written that Lloyd was buried six miles up the river from Huntsville, which likely means the Crowley Cemetery at Winona. There are some graves there marked only by fieldstone, and that’s where several members of his family are buried. (His parents, James Jonathan Lloyd and Elisabeth Reynolds Lloyd, were buried at Fairview Cemetery.)

The Knoxville news called the Harness murders “one of the most brutal tragedies in the history of East Tennessee,” and it would’ve certainly been one of the most brutal crimes in Scott County’s history — an elderly woman shot to death, her teenage son hacked to death with a garden hoe, and their bodies burned in an effort to cover up the crime.

Back down the mountain

After finding the Harness graves, I headed back down the mountain to the Bull Creek church. This trail has become one of my favorites in all of the Cumberland Mountains, traveling through the old strip pits along a ridge that eventually peters out at the church. I’m not sure how much longer the trail will be in good enough shape for my Jeep to make the trip; it’s getting rough now, and with no gas wells in operation in the area and no timber left to cut, there’s no reason for it to be kept up. It may soon become impassible except for SXS vehicles and ATVs that are better suited for off-road jaunts than my old Jeep.

In the meantime, this is a beautiful area. But it seems somewhat depressing that two people who met such tragic ends on this mountainside have no one left to tend to their graves, far off the beaten path.

A field of asters bloom in a reclaimed strip mine above Bull Creek.
The trail leading off the mountain at Bull Creek passes through a unique forest in an old strip pit.
A view of the valley at Bull Creek from the edge of the most recent logging operation. Clear-cutting has left extensive scars along the mountainsides, and these operations result in New River (and the Big South Fork further downstream) being muddy much of the summer months, but the valley floor beneath the clear cuts is beautiful.

An old newspaper story from June 1889…

A HORRIBLE CRIME

Frightful Work of Two Scott County Desperadoes

A minister’s aged wife and son slain in cold blood

The purpose of the fiends was a pitiful robbery

KNOXVILLE, JUNE 7 — Particulars of one of the most brutal tragedies in the history of East Tennessee has just reached here from an out-of-the-way section of Scott County. E. R. Reynolds, aged 45, and Thos. J. Lloyd, aged 21, both noted hard cases, went to the house of Rev. Jacob Harness, a Baptist minister, believing him to have a large amount of money concealed in the house. They reached the house about midnight on Wednesday night and demanded admission.

Rev. Harness was away from home, and his wife and a half-witted son aged 16 were sleeping in the same room. Mrs. Harness, who was about 50 years of age, went to the door and told the drunken cutthroats that they must leave. They broke down the door and rushed in, shooting the old lady dead in her tracks the first thing. The boy, awakened by the noise, rushed out at another door. They followed him out and, overtaking him, beat him to death with a garden hoe. They then carried him back and threw him in the doorway, his legs protruding. They next ransacked the house, secured $74, and, to cover up their horrible crime, applied the torch. Neighbors next morning found the limbs of the young man and that was all.

The murderers were arrested in a saloon at Jellico last night and officers started to Huntsville, the county seat of Scott, with the prisoners. It is reported here tonight that they were taken from jail at an early hour this morning and lynched. The rumor has not been confirmed.

Published by Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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