I have been thinking about Bayless Henderson the luckless tramp and possible desperado who ended his life on a rudely constructed gallows in Webster on May 6, 1874.
He had been convicted of the murder of the 73-year-old Col. Nimrod Jarrett, a prominent businessman and land speculator who lived in Aquone near Franklin. Little is known about the condemned man other than the fact that witnesses to his final hours described him as a large, healthy fellow (his age was estimated to be between 24 and 30) who was blind in one eye (he claimed to have suffered an injury in “the war”). He said he was a native of Tennessee and had only recently arrived in Macon County looking for work.
Several local residents who had encountered Bayless in the local stores between Franklin and Aquone noted that he didn’t seem to be looking very hard. Instead, he had been inordinately curious about some of the prominent people who lived in the area ... people like Nimrod Jarrett.
Jarrett was one of the largest landowners in Western North Carolina. In addition, he farmed and traded ginseng (he was involved in the operation of a “sang factory” in Haywood County), owned mica and talc mines and served in the Macon County militia, rising to the rank of colonel. The Jarrett family resided in Aquone until their house caught fire in 1855. Jarrett’s youngest daughter perished in the flames. After this, the family moved to the Apple Tree Farm in Nantahala. Manley Wade Wellman’s account of Jarrett’s murder in a marvelous book, “Dead and Gone,” notes that Henderson probably heard speculation about Jarrett’s wealth as he lounged on the porch of several stores and probably watched the colonel ride by on his way to Franklin.
According to Henderson’s belated confession, he waylaid Jarrett near Apple Tree Farm on the morning of Sept. 15, 1873. He exchanged greetings with the colonel as he passed and then shot Jarrett in the back of the head. Jarrett fell, dying instantly, and his frightened horse bolted into the woods, dashing any hopes that Henderson had of recovering Jarrett’s saddle bags. Henderson managed to steal the colonel’s watch and a few coins, but was forced to flee when he heard another rider approaching. This rider was Jarrett’s wife, Nancy Avaline Jarrett, who had told her impatient husband that morning to leave without her and that she would overtake him later. (Avaline was 10 years younger than Nimrod but crippled by rheumatoid arthritis.) Now discovering her husband’s body in the road, Nancy resisted the natural impulse to dismount; instead, she rode on to a neighbor’s house and asked for assistance. Returning with several neighbors, the group carried out a search of the scene and in the process, discovered that they had been joined by a stranger with wet trousers who said he had just waded the Nantahala river to investigate why the group had gathered. When Jarrett’s neighbors became suspicious and asked to see the stranger’s shoes, he replied that if they intended to compare his shoes with the prints around the dead man’s body, he could prove he was not the culprit since his shoes did not have heels and the prints around the body had been made by shoes with heels. This ingenious explanation did not reduce the group’s suspicions and he was immediately arrested. En route to Franklin, he identified himself as Bayless Henderson, an itinerant worker from Tennessee.
Following his arrest, Henderson did little to prove his innocence. His answers became increasingly vague and contradictory. He failed to give any information about his birth, family or residence that could be verified. However, despite his vague testimony, his request for a second trial was granted. Bayless claimed to have new evidence, which turned out to be the fact that he was accused of murdering Nimrod S. Jarrett and the name of the deceased was given as N. S. Jarrett in the court documents. An impatient judge found Bayless‘ reasoning to be unacceptable since the two names obviously referred to the same man. Since there was evidence that due to the growing anger of Jarrett’s friends in Macon County, the accused would not receive a fair trial in Macon County, the trial was moved to Webster, then the Jackson County seat. Shortly thereafter, Henderson managed to escape but proved to be remarkably inept at hiding himself and was quickly found hiding in a brush pile and returned to his jail cell in Webster. So it was that after a series of postponements, the condemned man found himself on the gallows on May 6, 1874.
Now comes one of those whimsical – if not downright bizarre – events that occur repeatedly in this odd story. On the morning of Henderson’s execution, a colorful group of teachers and ministers appeared in Webster. The group’s mission was to evaluate the merits of schools in the region by visiting them, attending classes, studying the texts and evaluating the qualifications of the teachers. Their final results were the publication of their report in regional newspapers. Having completed their evaluation of the school at Hicksville, the group was on its way to attend classes in Jackson County schools when they encountered a large group of people congregating in Webster. Learning that the gathering was prompted by an execution, the group took the event in their stride and joined the crowd which they estimated to be about 3,000. As a consequence, we have a detailed account of Bayless’ final hours prepared by this group and submitted to the Carolina Citizen newspaper in Asheville.
Despite the fact that the scaffold had been erected on the village green, directly in front of the jailhouse doors, the atmosphere in Webster was decidedly festive. The majority of the people in attendance were from Macon, Jackson and Haywood counties. Picnic baskets were everywhere and groups of young people strolled about the village streets. At 1 p.m., almost two hours before the scheduled execution, Henderson was conducted to the scaffold by Sheriff Bumgarner and Deputy Sheriff Allman. Several ministers were present and led the throng in prayers and singing. It was noted that the condemned man seemed to be enjoying the affair. Several times he stood and gave solemn speeches about his sinful life and warned the youth in attendance to avoid his example. He spoke at length about his dissipated past, giving colorful examples of his crimes. However most of these details, when investigated following his execution, proved to be false.
“The man was not only illiterate; he was ignorant,” said one of his interviewers. He was also a natural-born liar.
The execution concluded with Bayless thanking the audience for coming and he gave several heartfelt statements of appreciation to Bumgarner and Allman. When the time came for Bayless to “hang suspended between heaven and hell,” the plunge through the trap-door failed to break his neck, but “the rope was so deeply embedded in the flesh that respiration, circulation and sensation were cut off like a lightning stroke.” The body did not struggle or contort, but “a trembling as from a chill passed over him, about two minutes after he dropped.” A physician came forward and pronounced him dead.
As a child, I often heard a traditional tale around Thanksgiving and Christmas about how several erstwhile physicians living in and around Webster were rumored to have robbed poor Bayless Henderson’s grave in order to acquire body parts that would prove valuable in studying the functions of various bones. The tale has it that they divided Bayless between them ... a tibia here, an ulna there, et cetera. So, it seems that finally Bayless rendered a valuable service to his fellowman. There are a number of other stories, but I am sure they are all probably false. Perhaps they are best described as folklore.
For example, my grandmother once told me that she and a group of teenage friends attended the hanging for the sole purpose of fainting. At the moment that Bayless fell through the trap-door, they all fell backward from a fence. They all wore several elaborate petticoats that made a colorful display when they fell, like large flowers blooming. My grandmother said their fall was a great success.