6/14/12 - cutting off his ears

In today's encore excerpt - even in the sparsely populated and violent world of the American frontier, the settlers acted to have some semblance of law and justice. In 1810, 24 year old David Crockett, -- later a Congressman from Tennessee and hero of the Alamo -- was newly married and about to move away from his wife's parents to find better hunting grounds, when he was exposed to harsh incidences of this justice:

"Before Crockett could move, a crisis erupted on Polly's [his wife's] side of the family that required urgent attention. One of Polly's five brothers, John Finley, who had wed Nancy Barnes, a local girl, on June 18, 1811, found himself at the center of an embarrassing legal action that threatened his reputation, livelihood, and perhaps even his life. His dilemma stemmed from gossip circulating the settlements and crossroads of Jefferson County that, in October of 1810, Finley had sexual intercourse with a mare, owned by William Bradshaw."

"Such a 'crime against nature' was considered to be as detestable as any offense, and in many places if judged guilty the resulting punishment could mean execution. Respect for law and order demanded harsh consequences. As early as 1792, the first criminal indictment was recorded in Jefferson County, when a man named Reuben Roach was found guilty of stealing three yards of linen and three yards of royal ribbon. He received ten lashes on his bare back at the public whipping post. A few years later, Jesse Jeffrey was convicted of horse theft, a crime that often ended on a gallows. Instead, the sentence handed down ruled that the man 'should stand in the pillory one hour, receive thirty-nine lashes upon his bareback well laid on, have his ears nailed to the pillory and cut off, and that he should be branded upon one cheek with the letter H and on the other with the letter T, in a plain and visible manner.' Some citizens thought that hanging would have been a more humane punishment. If stealing a horse could get a person strung up, or whipped and mutilated, the Finley family shuddered to think what the punishment would be for 'buggery of a horse.' ...

"John Finley [countersued] in 1811 by filing a case of slander against Finley's three accusers -- David Givens, Richard Grace, and William Bradshaw, owner of the horse allegedly made 'victim' by Finley. Legal proceedings continued for quite sometime as both sides made their case before Judge James Trimble. ... The sordid Finley proceedings finally concluded with Judge Trimble finding for [Finley]. John Finley never received what he considered his just due after the trial. He died in 1814, and it was not until the following year that two hundred bushels of corn were paid as retribution to his heirs, William and James Finley....

"[In another instance, a neighbor named] Russell Bean had delivered a cargo of his handcrafted guns to buyers in New Orleans, where he then remained for two years, engaging in cock fighting, horse racing, foot races, and other pleasures. When he got back to Jonesboro [Tennessee] and walked into his cabin, Bean was shocked to find his wife, Rosamond, nursing an infant. Outraged at this blatant act of infidelity, the swaggering Bean swigged down some fresh whiskey and decided to mark the baby so he could then distinguish it from the eight children that he had fathered. Bean yanked out his hunting knife and sliced off the baby's ears. For such a horrific deed, Bean was fined, imprisoned, and branded on the palm of his hand, as was the custom. To show his disdain for such treatment, Bean bit out the brand from his hand and spit the flesh on the floor.

"Though divorce was an infrequent occurrence in those days, the stricken Rosamond soon divorced Bean."


Michael Wallis


David Crockett: Lion of the West


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2011 by Michael Wallis


83-84, 96
barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment