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With the recent toppling and damage of a statue of Edward Carmack that stood on the south side of the State Capitol for more than 90 years, facing War Memorial Plaza, there has been significant interest and inquiry regarding who Carmack was and why he was honored on the grounds of the Capitol.
Jim Hoobler, the Museum’s senior curator of art architecture, and an authority on the history of State Capitol, provides an explanation and some background.
Early Years, Ida B. Wells, and Political Career
Born in Sumner County in 1858, and a graduate of Cumberland University, Edward Ward Carmack moved to Columbia, Tennessee to practice law. In 1884 he was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives, serving from 1885 to 1887. He edited the Columbia Herald newspaper, and then in 1888 came to Nashville and worked for Duncan Cooper who employed him as the editor of the Nashville American. In 1892, he moved to Memphis to edit the Commercial newspaper.
Ida B. Wells, Editor of the Conservator (1897) (Tennessee State Library and Archives collection)
While in Memphis, Carmack was at odds with another newspaper writer, the pioneering Civil Rights activist, Ida B. Wells. She was a full-time journalist and editor, and had a one-third interest in an African American newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. She attacked segregation, lynching and other racial injustices. When African American businessmen Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Henry Stewart who owned a grocery store were arrested, taken to the Shelby County jail and then lynched by being shot, she denounced the action. Carmack incited a mob against Wells, and her newspaper office was destroyed. She was out of town at the time and did not return to Memphis. She became an internationally renowned anti-lynching activist, an early leader in the National Association of Colored Women, and a prominent suffragist. Earlier this year, she was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize special citation, “For her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
Carmack went on to become a delegate to the Democratic Conventions in 1896, 1900, and 1904. He ran for the U. S. House of Representatives and served there from 1897 to 1901, before serving in the U.S. Senate from 1901 to 1907. Robert Taylor defeated him in a campaign for the Senate seat in 1906, after which Carmack was invited back to Nashville by Luke Lea to edit his newspaper, The Nashville Tennessean.
Edward Carmack in Harper's Weekly, 1907 (Tennessee State Library and Archives collection)
Carmack had political enemies, and his return to Nashville brought with it a rekindling of those rivalries. First, there was a dislike of Tennessee’s Governor, Malcolm Patterson, that went back at least a decade to when Malcolm’s father, Josiah Patterson, had run unsuccessfully against Carmack for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in 1896. After his failed 1906 U.S. Senate campaign during which his support of temperance became an issue, Carmack officially endorsed prohibition. Carmack challenged incumbent Governor Patterson for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1907. When Governor Patterson, who was supported by pro-alcohol forces, won, Carmack began a print campaign against him, accusing him of “perfidy and dishonor.” Carmack also lashed out at his old mentor at the Nashville American, Duncan Cooper, who had supported Patterson in the governor’s race. Cooper then sent messages through personal intermediaries to Carmack, stating, “If my name appears again, the town will not be big enough to hold us both.” Carmack refused.
Shootout on the Streets of Nashville
Governor Patterson heard that Cooper was angry and asked him to meet with him at the governor’s residence on Vine Street (7th Ave. N. today, at the north end of where War Memorial Building stands). Robin Cooper, Duncan’s son, fearful of what might happen if his father and Carmack met on the streets, decided to accompany his father. The former sheriff of Davidson County, John D. Sharp, also came along. They paused to inspect the excavation for the new Hermitage Hotel, and then continued up Union Street toward today’s 7th Ave. Carmack lived near the governor’s residence on that street and happened to be speaking with a woman, Mrs Eastman, in front of a house. Carmack was facing the lady and tipping his hat to her, when Duncan Cooper crossed the street and walked up behind her. Carmack had been told earlier in the day that Cooper was looking for him, with the intent of killing him. Cooper called out Carmack’s name and raised his right hand toward him. Carmack then saw Cooper approaching and backed up and pulled out his handgun. Cooper then said, “You dastardly coward, hiding behind that woman are you?”[i] Robin Cooper then crossed the street and stepped onto the sidewalk between Carmack and his father. Carmack fired, the bullet going through Robin’s necktie, and into his shoulder. Robin drew his pistol then and started toward Carmack. Carmack fired a second time, and the bullet went through Robin’s left sleeve. Robin then fired three times, any one of which the coroner latter found would have been fatal. Carmack was killed instantly.
Trial and Pardon
Sharp was still a block away when all of this happened. But both Coopers and Sharp were arrested and held without bond until the conclusion of their trial.
The Nashville Tennessean accused the Coopers and Sharp of being assassins, saying they had committed “Murder premeditated, deliberately planned, and executed in cold-blooded style” and suggested that the saloon interests were behind it all. All three men were indicted on first degree murder charges. The jury found Sharp not guilty, but were undecided as to the two Coopers, resulting in a hung jury. The judge sent them back to the jury room for further consideration. The next day they came back into the courtroom and declared both Coopers guilty of second-degree murder, with each to serve twenty years in the State Penitentiary.
An appeal was filed with the State Supreme Court in the Capitol building. The courts met from December 1909 into April 1910. The majority on the court upheld Duncan’s conviction. They believed that Carmack had been threatened and was in fear for his life.
Governor Patterson, however, felt differently. He himself typed, signed, and announced a full pardon for Duncan Cooper. He is reputed to have said that “It took the Supreme Court 72 days to decide this case and it decided it the wrong way. It took me 72 minutes and I decided it the right way.”[ii] There was also a court-appointed acquittal of Robin Cooper.
Statue of Edward Carmack at the State Capitol, undated (Tennessee State Library and Archives collection)
The Tennessee Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), led by Silena Moore Holman of Fayetteville, declared Carmack a prohibition martyr. She and other WCTU members astutely sensed that outrage over Carmack’s death could help fuel support for outlawing alcohol. Joining with other temperance advocates, the WCTU worked to further state prohibition. In 1909, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation making it illegal to manufacture, sell, and use intoxicating beverages in the state. In 1909, the legislature also provided for the creation of a sculpture of Carmack by Nancy McCormack to be placed on the grounds of the Capitol. It was erected in 1927.
Ida B. Wells, who in addition to being a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, was also an early advocate for the voting rights of women, especially African American women. She is highlighted in the Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote.
Jim Hoobler is the Tennessee State Museum senior curator of art and Architecture. Tennessee State Museum staff contributed to this post.
The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture. Carroll Van West editor in chief. The Tennessee Historical Society, 1998.
Biographical Directory of the Tennessee General Assembly, Volume II, 1861-1901. Edited by Robert M. McBride and Dan M. Robison. Tennessee State Library & Archives and Tennessee Historical Commission, 1979.
Robert A. Lanier, “The Carmack Murder Case,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. XL, (1981), 272-285.
[i] Nashville, 1900 to 1910, William Waller, editor (Nashville, 1972) p. 96
[ii] Tennessee, a Short History, Stanley J. Folmsbee; Robert E. Corlew; Enoch L. Mitchell, (Knoxville: 1972) p. 442.