A century later, no one really knows Nashville’s most famous murder

Monday, November 10, 2008 at 1:02am
Many people who walk by this statue between the State Capitol and Legislative Plaza don't know that it's former Tennessean editor Edward Ward Carmack.

This past weekend marked the 100th anniversary of the most famous murder in Nashville history. However, there is no better example of how disassociated Nashville is from its past than the story of Edward Ward Carmack.

It’s hard to find anyone who recognizes that the statue between the State Capitol and Legislative Plaza is that of Carmack, a former U.S. Senator who was editor of the Nashville Tennessean when he was killed on Nov. 8, 1908.

“I don’t know who that is,” one young attorney says, walking past the statue on his way to the Capitol. “I’ve always wondered.”

The Carmack story takes us back to a time when Nashville was nothing like the standard-issue intersection of three interstates with an NFL team that it is today. In 1908, Nashville wasn’t known for its health care or its music.

Its most favored nickname was Rock City, a name derived from the solid limestone beneath the city. Its largest private sector employers were things like cotton mills, sawmills, furniture factories, fertilizer plants and iron foundries. Its main methods of transportation within its boundaries were streetcar, horse and buggy and walking.

The city boasted only about 85,000 people but – incredibly –had three daily newspapers (the Banner, the American and the Tennessean), all of which had the word “Nashville” on their mastheads.

People have a tendency to get sentimental about the old days, but they forget what the place really smelled and looked like up close. Air pollution back then was horrible, thanks to the dependence of coal for heating. The sewage system still left a lot to be desired. And you had to be careful when you crossed the street or you might step into some horse poop.

Then there were the bars. The historian James Summerville estimates that there were around 170 bars in the few blocks surrounding the Public Square, and as best I can tell he was about right. For the most part, people didn’t sip beer in these bars. They quaffed straight whiskey until they headed for the door, stumbled out into the street and made a fool out of themselves in public.

It’s important to understand this, because the biggest issue of the day in 1908 wasn’t income taxes, public schools or professional sports: it was prohibition. A lot of people wanted the sale of alcohol completely banned, believing it would eradicate poverty, help families, make the world a better place to live and, according to numerous editorials in the prohibitionist Tennessean that are too racist to quote here, help solve the “Negro problem.”

So that’s the setting. Here is the story:

Duncan Cooper was a distinguished, proud man with a handlebar moustache that reminds you of someone from an Agatha Christie novel. During the Civil War, Cooper had led his own detachment of Confederate cavalry until he was captured and spent time in a prisoner of war camp up North.

After the war he mined silver, owned and operated newspapers and managed business interests in Central America and in general lived by his wits. By 1908 he was a close advisor to Tennessee Governor Malcolm Patterson.

Carmack was 15 years Cooper’s junior. A native of Columbia, he had started as a newspaper man (Cooper gave him his first job as an editorial writer for the American) and shifted to politics, becoming a U.S. Congressman and a U.S. Senator. Politically he was against big business, opposed to American imperialism and against the mixing of the races.

In 1906, Carmack’s career hit a stumbling point when he lost his senatorial re-election campaign. Two years later he lost the gubernatorial race to Patterson. By the fall of 1908 he was back in journalism, playing the role of bitter critic of his former opponent. And it wasn’t just Patterson he was attacking; it was his old friend Duncan Cooper — an old man with a deep southern sense of honor.

In one editorial, published on Oct. 21, 1908, Carmack compared Cooper to two Jewish men who ran a disreputable speakeasy in the Black Bottom section of Nashville (which, within the white community of Nashville at that time, was about as nasty a thing as you could say).

A few days later, Carmack again attacked Cooper on the editorial pages. And Cooper sent a message to Carmack, saying he wouldn’t take it anymore.

“You have no right in this manner to annoy, insult or injure me than you would have to do so to my face,” he wrote in a letter to Carmack. “I notify you that the use of my name in your paper must cease.”

The Tennessean editor ignored the warning and even wrote another editorial about Cooper.

The gauntlet had been thrown down. During the next few days, both Carmack and Cooper borrowed pistols from friends. Friends on both sides — among them Gov. Patterson, James C. Bradford and Edward Craig — tried to get the two men to calm down, but nothing worked.

On Monday, Nov. 8, Cooper’s son Robin was doing his best to keep tabs on his father, and the two men were in young Cooper’s law office near the corner of Third and Church. That afternoon, Governor Patterson called (phones had been around for about 10 years at this time) and said he wanted to see young Cooper. At that time, the governor’s mansion was across Seventh Avenue from where the Tennessee Tower is today, on the site now occupied by the War Memorial Building.

Taking his father with him, Cooper took the same route you might today. They went up Church to Fourth, then right on Fourth to the Arcade, then through the Arcade, then right on Fifth to Union, and left on Union and up the hill. They stopped and chatted with several people as they went. In fact, a man named John Sharp joined them in the Arcade and walked with them.

Robin Cooper walked closely with his aged father, keeping an eye out to make sure they didn’t run into Carmack. But, as they headed up the hill on Union Street, fate played a trick. At the time the Hermitage Hotel was under construction, and large construction projects in 1908 were conversation pieces. When they got next to the Hermitage site, the young Cooper stopped to chat with someone, perhaps about the big hole where the hotel was going to go.

Duncan Cooper kept walking, perhaps because, at his age, he didn’t think he would make it up the hill if he stopped to rest. When the older Cooper got to the corner of Seventh and Union, he saw Carmack, walking south to north on Seventh. Cooper crossed the street and walked toward him.

What took place next — including who said what, how the various individuals approached each other and who fired first — was the subject of a long murder trial. What we do know is that five shots were fired; two by Carmack and three by Robin Cooper, who came running up a few seconds behind his father. When it was over, Cooper was injured, shot twice, while Carmack was dead.

Since there were hundreds of homes and businesses within a few blocks, people rushed up the crime scene almost immediately. After the bodies had been removed, they still came up; bystanders came by all night, in groups of one or two, striking matches so that they could see all the blood on the street and the sidewalk.

Duncan Cooper was taken to jail that night; Robin Cooper to the hospital; and Sharp went home. During the next few days all three of them would be charged with Carmack’s murder. And since the dead man was the editor of the Tennessean, there was no doubt in the mind of those who wrote that publication about the guilt of the accused. Not only did Duncan Cooper, Robin Cooper and John Sharp all conspire to kill Carmack, the Tennessean argued, but Gov. Patterson was probably in on it as well.

Never mind the idea that the meeting had been a spontaneous one. Never mind that Sharp had only joined the group a few minutes earlier, and then on a whim. Never mind the idea that Carmack likely had fired first. This was trial by newspaper, and the newspaper’s editor was the victim and the martyr.

On Jan. 20, 1909, the case against Duncan Cooper, Robin Cooper and John Sharp began. In the days before radio, television and the Internet, criminal cases were all the rage — and never in Nashville history had one garnered as much attention as this one.

Attorneys called witness after witness — among them, the physician who conducted Carmack’s autopsy, various people who had spoken to both Carmack and Duncan Cooper in the days leading up to the crime and even a young boy who said he overhead things that the Coopers and Sharp said to each other as they walked through the Arcade. It is some indication of the times, the skill of the attorneys and the attention span of the audience to say that one of the closing speeches lasted nine and a half hours.

In hindsight, the most important witness was Mrs. Charles Eastman, a respectable middle-aged woman who happened to be walking down Seventh Avenue at the exact moment of the shooting. As best we can tell (her account of the crime was broken down fairly well when she testified), Carmack greeted Mrs. Eastman before he saw Duncan Cooper coming in his direction. When the older Cooper called out to Carmack, the Tennessean editor jumped behind Mrs. Eastman, leading Cooper to cry out, “damned cowardly to get behind a woman with a pistol in your hand!” Mrs. Cooper then jumped aside, and Carmack got between two utility poles located side by side on the street and took aim at Duncan Cooper, right about the time the younger Cooper jumped in front of his father.

In spite of these rather obvious events, however, both Duncan and Robin Cooper were found guilty of murder in the second degree and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Sharp was found not guilty of all charges.

A few months after this verdict, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the elder Cooper’s conviction but dismissed the younger Cooper’s conviction. But then, only minutes after this decision was announced, Gov. Patterson pardoned Duncan Cooper.

But the story doesn’t end there.

In 1919, Robin Cooper was murdered, his body found in Richland Creek. The crime was never solved, and for years many people in Nashville believed that Carmack’s friends, or even family, reaped their revenge.

So what came out of Carmack’s death and the hype that followed it?

For one thing, statewide prohibition did. Before the trial even took place, the state legislature voted to ban the sale, manufacture and consumption of intoxicants. Tennessee would remain dry for a generation — although somehow, in the 1920s and early 1930s — people found a way to drink anyway thanks to local bootleggers.

Carmack’s murder also may have been the best thing to happen to his newspaper. In 1908, the Tennessean was a struggling rag best known for its opposition to alcohol and the L&N Railroad. But the Carmack story put Nashville’s newest daily on the map.

In the following years, the American ceased publication, leaving the Tennessean as one of Nashville’s two newspapers (along with the Banner). Many years later, under new ownership and in a different generation, the Tennessean became, ironically, the more progressive of the two when it came to race relations.

Carmack remained a martyr and a hero in Columbia for decades. Today there is still a road named for him called Carmack Boulevard, but I strongly suspect that the people in Maury County have as scant a memory of the man as we do here in Nashville.

Which brings us back to the statue of Carmack located between the State Capitol and Legislative Plaza — above the tunnel leading into the Capitol that is named for Lem Motlow of Jack Daniel’s fame. You can stand near the Capitol for hours, as I did last week, ask people as they walk by if they know who the statue represents and discover, as I did, that just about no one does.

This leads to the obvious question: Should we move this statue of a prohibitionist, race-baiting, hothead newspaper editor to a less prominent place, now that we live on an era of more politically correct statues and memorials (such as the new Rosa Parks Boulevard)?

Years ago, a man who knows a heck of a lot more than I do about the Carmack murder case contemplated this matter. “No,” wrote Jim Summerville, in his 1994 book The Carmack-Cooper Shooting: Tennessee Politics Turns Violent. “It’s our finest monument to our collective amnesia, the neglect of our history, and the catastrophic condition of democracy in Tennessee.”

I agree with Summerville. Besides, it must have been torture for Carmack to have watched this city change under his watchful eye over the last century — to see prohibition fail and then to watch our world change into one where whites and blacks actually get along. I say we leave the Tennessean editor up there. But let’s please learn his name.

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6 Comments on this post:

By: Blip on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Interesting article, thanks. However, there is a typo: "... the Tennessean editor jumped behind Mrs. Eastman, leading Cooper to cry out, “damned cowardly to get behind a woman with a pistol in your hand!” Mrs. Cooper then jumped aside..."Mrs. Cooper wasn't there.

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Which leads to the question of which Cooper fired the fatal shots. Could that be another typo? Duncan Cooper was the last man to be released from jail, and that by pardon.

By: shenanigan on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Somethings are better off to be left the way they are. Who knows it might make a movie in the next generation or two.

By: MWPYLE on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Still love the ULTIMATE irony-- Carmack's statue stands over the MOTLOW tunnel!

By: JoeJr on 12/31/69 at 7:00

I've been absolutely intrigued by this story ever since I read James Summerville's "The Carmack-Cooper Shooting" back in 1994.A couple of months ago, I touched on this subject on my blog, in a review of Michael Glasgow and Phyliss Gobbell's book about the Perry and Janet March, "An Unfinished Canvas: A True Story of Love, Family, and Murder in Nashville." Here's what I said:Finally, the authors claim that the L'affaire Perry March is "the most celebrated case in Nashville history." Not true. In 1908, Nashville Tennessean editor Edward Carmack, who was also a former U.S. Senator and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, was gunned down on a Nashville street by a political opponent, Robin Cooper. The "Carmack-Cooper" saga gripped the city for weeks; and after a well-publicized trial, Robin Cooper was acquitted, after which Carmack's supporters in the state legislature voted to erect a statue honoring him on the capitol grounds (which you can still see on the south side of the capitol to this day).

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