He’d been known to escape houses through the keyhole

Posted by | October 27, 2015

“The celebrated mountain lands, of which Mark Twain writes in the Gilded Age, lie in Fentress County; and the picturesque village he describes under the name of Obedstown is none other than its county site.

“The court-house, on the fence surrounding which the male population of the village were sitting, chewing tobacco and spitting at bumble-bees and such other objects of interest as appeared within their wide range, while they waited the arrival of the mail; and to which one of them referred, when he observed that, “if the judge is a gwine to hold cote,’ he reckoned he would have to “roust” his sow and pigs out of the court-house, was the same in which this singular case was tried.

“It seems that an old man by the name of Stout, who lived on Obeds River, was arrested for bewitching the beautiful daughter of a certain man, named Taylor, who lived on the mountain. The defendant was treated with much rigor, and his person abused by the various experiments to which he was subjected, for the purpose of establishing his guilt.

Photo James Hale/Flickr

Photo James Hale/Flickr

“The guards had taken the precaution to remove the lead from their guns, and to load them with silver, which was considered the only metal to which a wizard is not impalpable.

“The accused was carried before Esquire Joshua Owens, a leading magistrate of the county, whom Judge Goodpasture knew intimately for many years afterwards. The prosecutor and many of his neighbors were introduced as witnesses on behalf of the State, and proved, in addition to the particular facts charged, that the defendant had frequently been seen to escape out of houses through the key holes in the doors; and that he had on divers occasions not only operated on the bodies and minds of human beings, and that at a distance of ten or fifteen miles, but also on horses, cattle and other stock.

“On this evidence the defendant was found guilty and bound over to the next term of the Circuit Court. When the grand jury met, General McCormick being of opinion the prosecution could not be sustained, refused to prefer a bill of indictment. The defendant was accordingly discharged amid great excitement, some of the mountaineers boldly declaring that it would be better to live without laws, if such offenders could escape with impunity.”


Source: A Genealogy of the Family of James Goodpasture, by A.V. and W.H. Goodpasture, Nashville: Cumberland Presbyterian Publishing House, 1897

3 Responses

  • particle_person says:

    There’s more to the story — Stout indicted persons responsible for his arrest:

    Stout, on the other hand, went before the grand jury and indicted a number of persons concerned in his arrest, for assault and battery. When these cases came on to be heard before Judge Caruthers and a jury of the county, the defendants admitted the assault and battery and justified on the ground that it was committed in arresting a felon, relying on the statutes of Henry VIII. and James I., making witchcraft a felony, which they declared had never been repealed in this State. The enlightened Judge, however, charged the jury that they were “destructive of, repugnant to, or inconsistent with the freedom and independence of this State, and form of government,” and were never in force here by virtue of the act of 1778, and the defendants were accordingly convicted.

    (From the same source as the above.)

  • Beth Durham says:

    As a native of Fentress County, Tennessee, I was pretty excited to see your blog visiting my hometown this week. Ironically, I was unfamiliar with the Mark Twain reference until I started writing a series of blog articles from a 1940’s promotional booklet that listed Jamestown as “The Obedstown of The Gilded Age” – which prompted me to start reading the book. As with most of Twain’s writing, I found the time well-spent.

    However, I would not have recognized Jamestown from his description despite a deep interest in the history of my county and region. Nor does Twain’s phonetic approach to our dialect sound familiar to me – of course it’s a hard thing to capture.
    This is certainly not the first ghost story I’ve heard from our mountain, but isn’t it fun to have one documented in official court records?

    I saw that the genealogy you referenced was published in 1897, but I wonder what was the year of the court case?

  • Dave Tabler says:

    You can read the full account online at: https://dcms.lds.org/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE47263

    Chapter VI (page 67) opens with this story. A specific date is never mentioned other than to say the trial occurred “less than ten years before Judge Goodpasture came to the bar.” Page 47 mentions that Goodpasture graduated law school in 1849, so that would date this story in the early 1840s.

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