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Features Murder in the school house: Scott County's first — and only —...

Murder in the school house: Scott County’s first — and only — execution

On March 5, 1927, a prominent Scott County physician was shot to death as he watched a movie in the auditorium of the Robbins School. His murderer, a deputy sheriff, was sentenced to death.

Ben Fowler, 35, a Scott County lawman who was said to have busted up 200 moonshine stills, died in the electric chair in Nashville on Jan. 25, 1928 for the murders of Dr. Wiley W. Foust and fellow lawman John Wesley West. All of the men were watching a movie that was playing in the auditorium of Robbins High School. Fowler became enraged at children laughing, and when Foust attempted to intervene, he was shot five times in the face. West was also shot by accident, and died two days later. Fowler was drunk at the time. His appeal was denied, and he became the 29th person to die in Tennessee's electric chair.

On Jan. 25, 1928, a former Scott County deputy sheriff named Ben Fowler was executed in Nashville for a double-murder he committed in Robbins just 10 months earlier. He became the first — and only — person from Scott County to be sentenced to death in the modern era.

The 35-year-old Fowler was convicted of killing a prominent county physician and a fellow deputy in a drunken rage during a motion-picture show in the auditorium of the old Robbins High School. In his book, Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past, historian H. Clay Smith wrote that Fowler was the first person to be executed by electric chair in Tennessee. That’s actually not true; he was the 29th.

Prior to 1913, all executions in Tennessee took place by hanging. The state ceased executions in 1913. When capital punishment resumed in 1916, the electric chair had been introduced. A Dyer County man named Julius Morgan, convicted of rape, was the first person to die in the chair, on July 13, 1916. The first white man to be executed was John Green, from Washington County. He was convicted of murder, and put to death on Feb. 17, 1922.

The state did not keep records on how many men were executed by hanging prior to 1913. There was at least one — and perhaps more — from Scott County who were sentenced to death in that manner. But Fowler was the first person to be sentenced to death in Scott County after capital punishment resumed in 1916, and to date he is the only person from Scott County to actually be executed. (Hubert Glenn Sexton was sentenced to death for murdering a couple in their bed in 2000, but the Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned that sentence.)

A Mountain of a Man

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Ben Fowler was said to be a big man. He was a veteran of the U.S. Army and had served during World War I, although much of his time had been spent in a hospital, battling the Spanish Flu.

Fowler — who hailed from a family in eastern Kentucky — was a feared lawman in the Prohibition era. It was claimed that he had busted up 200 moonshine stills during his three years as a deputy. He had also killed a couple of moonshiners, and had been cleared of any wrongdoing in connection with their deaths. There were claims that he had killed as many as seven men— accusations that he denied. But he was involved in frequent gun battles with moonshiners and bootleggers. When he walked into the motion-picture show at the Robbins School on March 5, 1927, he was wearing a metal bulletproof vest in addition to the pair of .44 pistols he carried. He said the vest had saved his life on many occasions.

Unfortunately, Fowler apparently liked to drink whiskey as much as he liked to confiscate it. And he was drunk on the night of March 5, 1927.

A Well-Liked Doctor

Dr. Wiley W. Foust practiced medicine in both Oneida and Robbins, traveling back and forth between the two towns by way of the brand-new highway that connected them. He was originally from Robbins.

Not a lot of information was preserved about the family lineage of the 54-year-old Foust, although we know from his headstone at the Robbins Cemetery that he was born July 3, 1872.

Foust had married Kisia Byrd, who hailed from the Byrd family east of Huntsville. She died in 1919 at the age of 41. According to her headstone in the Hutson Cemetery, they had three children: Beatrice, Wiley and George.

Following Kisia’s death, Foust married Ernie Kline, the daughter of George and Ella Kline. Ernie Kline was the aunt of Dr. George L. Kline, the prominent Oneida physician who would come later. She was much younger than Foust, and died shortly after their marriage, in 1924 at the age of 21.

Foust apparently married for a third time after Ernie’s death. Newspaper accounts at the time of his murder stated that he was in the school auditorium with his wife and son. However, her name is not known.

An Unfortunate Bystander

Also at the motion-picture show that March evening was a second Scott County deputy: John Wesley West.

The 53-year-old West was from a prominent Oneida family. Born Oct. 15, 1873, he was the son of Green Berry West and Filana Marcum West. He married Tilitha Susanna King, who was a sister of Ike King, the prominent schoolteacher, storekeeper and postmaster in the Station Camp community west of Oneida. They had two children, George and Fed. Both were lifelong Scott Countians; George died in 2006 and Fed died in 2012.

The Fateful Night

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March 5, 1927 was a Saturday night. Motion-pictures were routinely shown in the auditorium at Robbins School. We don’t know exactly what movie was being shown that night, though a couple of popular films that had recently been released included Tell It to the Marines and When a Man Loves.

Fowler showed up that night wearing his bulletproof vest and toting his pair of .44 pistols. He was apparently there to serve a warrant on someone who he had heard would be in attendance.

In front of him, Dr. Foust was seated with his wife and adult son. There were a number of children near the doctor.

Deputy West was seated nearby, and there were a number of others in attendance.

Fowler was drunk, though witnesses couldn’t agree on just how drunk. As the movie progressed and the kids in front of him laughed at the scenes they found funny, Fowler became enraged. He marched down to them and demanded that they shut up — or he would arrest them.

The sight of a grown man threatening to arrest children for laughing prompted even more laughing from those who were seated nearby — including Dr. Foust. That caused Fowler to wheel around to Foust and threaten to arrest him, too.

“Big boy,” Fowler said to Foust, “You will have to be quiet or I will get you too.”

Foust was said to have replied, calmly, “Ben, you would not do that.”

That made Fowler even madder. He struck Foust in the head with one of his pistols, then shot him five times in the face at point-blank range. The doctor died instantly.

Foust’s son pulled out his own pistol and returned fire at Fowler. He struck him five times, but four of the bullets lodged in the lawman’s bulletproof vest. The fifth struck him in the arm.

In the melee, someone realized that Deputy West had been shot. The bullet had struck him in the lower right side, in the intestines. Another bystander had also been shot, but would recover.

It was written that the scene didn’t end with the shooting. Fowler didn’t flee the auditorium, as might have been expected. Instead, he continued to brandish his sidearms, terrorizing those who were inside. At one point, he apparently ordered Dr. Foust’s wife to stop crying.

Eventually, though, Fowler was arrested as more lawmen arrived on the scene. It was determined that Foust was already dead. West was rushed to Howard-Henderson Hospital in Knoxville, but died two days later.

Justice was swift for Fowler. By Monday, two days after the shooting, a grand jury had convened to indict him. His trial started three days later.

Fowler’s defense was that he was too drunk to know what he was doing. He pleaded for the mercy of the court. Also, he claimed that he didn’t intend to shoot West.

The case went to the jury on March 14 — exactly one week after Fowler had been indicted. The jury needed just two minutes to find him guilty of murder, and recommended death. The judge sentenced him, and his execution was set for the following month — April 21, 1927.

Death in the Chair

Fowler appealed his verdict to the state supreme court. That appeal was heard on Nov. 19, 1927 — a Saturday morning — and the original verdict was upheld. A new execution date was set for Jan. 3, 1928.

Tennessee Gov. Austin Peay granted Fowler a stay until Jan. 25, to give his mother and father time to travel to Nashville to see their son before his death.

As Fowler was being led to the chair, he said to his father: “Now you go on Pap, just like you are going to the mill. Tell Maw that I am just going on ahead and I’ll be waiting when you get there.”

With that, Fowler walked into the room and sat down in the chair, unassisted. He gave advice to the guards on how to strap him in and attach the electrodes to his body. The switch was pulled, and he was dead.

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Independent Herald
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