In 1885, neighbors of James and Mary McMullen recovered their smoldering bodies from their burning house near Elmdale. Examination of their corpses revealed that they had been physically assaulted. Authorities arrested 23-year-old John Coffee for the murders. A jury subsequently convicted Coffee of the double homicide, and the judge sentenced him to be executed by hanging. Coffee became the first person executed in Montgomery County on October 16, 1885.
The execution was held in the courtyard of the Montgomery County Jail, a building which still stands and exists as a museum today. A newspaper account of the execution described it as “one of the most horrible affairs of the kind ever witnessed. When the drop fell, the rope broke and the body dropped to the ground. The neck was not broken, but the shock caused the blood to spurt from the wretched man’s ears.” The executioners carried him back up the scaffolding, readjusted the noose, and Coffee was dropped a second time when the rope broke again. After a third try, the executioners succeeded with their grisly task in front of a throng of admission-paying citizens who were “nearly overcome with horror.”
It wasn’t long thereafter that stories about Coffee’s ghost began circulating in newspapers. Do you believe everything you read in the papers? Or not? Happy Halloween reading!