The Murder of Capt. S. P. Greenlee

When a Journal reporter reached the quiet and sedate little town of Rutledge, yesterday morning, he found business entirely suspended, all the stores, shops and dwellings closed and a general air of suppressed excitement hanging over all.

The entire population, besides a large number of people from all parts of Grainger County, were down at the little churchyard in the western part of the town, attendant upon the last sad obsequies over the remains of their beloved high sheriff, Capt. S P Greenlee, who was brutally murdered in the most cowardly manner at daybreak, Wednesday morning.

As the reporter appeared the clods were falling thick and fast and around the grave every eye was wet with tears, while in the little church, lay the brother of the dead man, Noah Greenlee, who seemed to be in the last agony of death. The terrible excitement of the past twenty-four hours bought on a nervous shock. He was unconscious for several minutes and had to be carried to his home.

There had never been so large and so general attendance at a funeral – in the history of the ancient village – of Rutledge. It was estimated that seven hundred people were present. The news of the tragedy had spread abroad with the swiftness of wild fire and citizens living a dozen miles away had hooked up their teams and brought their families to pay proper respect to the memory of brave, generous, noble-hearted, Greenlee.

The funeral obsequies were under the direct charge of Rising Star Lodge, No. 64, Master Masons and the O M Dyer Post, No. 47, Grand Army of the Republic, he having been an honored member of both orders. Both the Masons and the Grand Army Post appeared in full regalia and the colors of the post were carried at the head of the procession. It was a sad funeral indeed!

There was a villainous conspiracy organized for the purpose of assassinating Sheriff Greenlee. There is no longer any doubt of the fact. Sufficient investigation has been made to lead the friends of the dead officer to firmly pin their faith that the base conspirator was John Wolfenbarger, outlaw, desperado, sneak thief and convicted felon, who escaped from the penitentiary last June, at which time a dozen others made their escape. He was sent up for planning and carrying into execution the robbery of a wealthy farmer named Jennings in the lower end of Grainger County.

The other conspirators were Dan Beeler, aged about nineteen, who is known to be one of the most daring and desperate young men in the county. Mrs. Wolfenbarger, wife of the leader of this gang is his sister. One Bart Kirby is also suspected of being an accomplice, he is a noted tough and has been convicted of numerous petty crimes. Wolfenbarger has been in the county ever since his escape and has been guilty of several small offenses. The sheriff notified him that he would be compelled to arrest him the first time a warrant was placed in his hands.

On last Saturday, Mrs. Wolfenbarger, went before Squire Beeler and swore out a warrant against her husband charging him with beating and whipping her on several occasions. The warrant was placed in Sheriff Greenlee’s hands for execution, Monday afternoon.

The Wolfenbargers and Beelers live in an area that is known as Cracker’s Neck, around the Clinch River, ten miles north of Rutledge. Squire Beeler, father of Daniel Beeler, being one of the best citizens of the county. John Wolfenbarger occupies a small cabin on the side of a ridge, two hundred feet distant is a barn with a high loft.

On Tuesday, Sheriff Greenlee, summoned a posse of true and tried men to assist him, expecting to fight his way through. The entire party led by the sheriff, left Rutledge, Tuesday night, about 1 o’clock and reached Wolfenbarger’s just before the break of day. The sheriff entered the house but found no one there except, Kirby, who was lying in the bed with a Winchester rifle on either side of him. As he raised himself up he drew a pistol under the pillow and leveled it at the Sheriff’s head. As quick as lightening he grasped the pistol with one hand and the outlaw’s throat with the other. A terrific struggle ensued and the sheriff made a prisoner of his man. He then turned Kirby over to one of the deputies.

He next turned his attention to the barn, having fully mad up his mind that the birds were in the loft. Three men were sent around to the opposite side to prevent them from escaping. At the head of the other division, Parish, closely following the fearless sheriff, with pistol cocked, started to cross the intervening ravine between the house and the barn. He had proceeded but half of the distance when two shots were heard in rapid succession and Greenlee was seen to stagger backward, then forward, failing dead on his face, without having uttered a word or a groan.

Other shots followed in rapid succession and the suddenness of the onslaught caused the deputies to fall back some distance. Parish remained at his post and fired two rounds from his pistols and both barrels of his shotgun into the stable loft. The ambushed party kept up the fire, their pistols, rifles, and shotguns protruding through a convenient crack in the wall.

They were perfectly secure as they thought from their pursuers, but it turned out that Wolfenbarger had received a serious flesh wound in the left leg and both of the women received slight buck-shot wounds. They were all able to escape however, during the terrible excitement that followed the melee.

The conspiracy had borne its fruits. The sheriff had fallen with a heavy charge of buckshot in his neck and head. He was dressed and removed at once to his home in Rutledge where the terrible news had already been received at the hands of a fleet footed courier.

Wolfenbarger was later found secreted in a thicket about 10 o’clock and was requested to surrender which he promptly did. He was taken to the Rutledge jail. He is of dark complexion, wiry looking fellow, with just a touch of the cowboy style about him.

Beeler is still at large and was seen late Wednesday afternoon near his father’s home by John Myer’s, a merchant at Shelton’s ford. He asked Myers if he had any 38 caliber cartridges in his store, Myers replied that he had none. Beeler then remarked that he knew he was in a bad scrape and if they arrested him they would have to take his corpse. He proposed to fight to the bitter end and expected in any event to die with his boots on. He is the toughest of the tough and although young in years, essays to be a regular cut-throat and outlaw. . . [remainder not transcribed]

Knoxville Daily Journal and The Evening Sentinel — Friday, April 5, 1889

Transcribed by Robert McGinnis and used by permission.

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