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Monday, February 17, 2014

52 Ancestors: #5 William Dow Gatlin, Ax Murderer

In 2007, I took a research trip to Nashville, Tennessee. While I was there, I visited the nearby Williamson County Archives in Franklin, Tennessee. I came across the book Obituaries from Tennessee Newspapers, compiled by Jill L. Garrett (Greenville, South Carolina: Southern Historical Press, 1995). I checked the index and found that William Gatlin was mentioned on page 159. I found the following entry:

HASLAM. The body of Samuel Haslam, 25, stonecutter, has been found horribly mutilated. William Gatlin, 45, bricklayer, has been arrested for the crime. (Nashville Union and American, 15 Sept. 1874.)

I had been expecting to find a death notice, not an arrest for murder! The description fit my 3rd-great-grandfather William Dow Gatlin, born 27 April 1927 in Davidson County, Tennessee, son of John McNairy Gatlin and Margaret "Peggy" Gower, and grandson of Methodist preacher William Gower. I needed to find that newspaper article. The next day I went to the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville. I looked at the Nashville Union and American on microfilm and found the article and two shorter follow-up items. The accused was definitely my 3rd-great-grandfather!

Samuel Haslam had been a boarder in the home of the Gatlin family. He had allegedly been having an affair with my 3rd-great-grandmother Mary (Nevins) Gatlin, who William had married on 3 January 1855 in Davidson County, Tennessee. William came home and found Mary sleeping in Samuel's room, and they got into a physical fight. Mary intended to file for divorce, and she asked Samuel to accompany her. At 4:00 AM on Sunday, William and Mary's son Clarence found Samuel lying in a pool of blood, and he ran to get his mother. Mary reached Samuel just before he died, but he was unable to speak. Samuel had been struck by an ax. William was arrested that night at the home of his cousin William Gower. When he was asked if he knew why he was being arrested, he said "I suppose it is for murder." (Nashville Union and American, 15 September 1874, p. 4.)

William was acquitted due to insufficient evidence. However, based on what I read about the case, I believe that he got away with murder.

William and Mary remained married until her death on 9 September 1888. They were apart for a little while after the murder trial, though; Mary is listed as a widow in the 1877 and 1878 Nashville city directories, but by 1879, William was once again listed in the Nashville city directory, and the 1880 United States census shows that he and Mary were in the same household. I wonder if William may have spent time in prison for something else. His children, brother, and widowed mother were all in Nashville; I can't think of any other reason that he would have left the area, and he did return.

William died on 4 March 1911 in Nashville. He and Mary are buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Nashville, in Sec. 1C Lot South Port 328. I visited their gravesite when I was in Nashville; it is unmarked.

The articles from the Nashville Union and American that I viewed on microfilm are now available online through Chronicling America:

Nashville Union and American, 15 September 1874, image 4
Nashville Union and American, 19 September 1874, image 4
Nashville Union and American, 20 September 1874, image 4

An article from the Nashville Republican Banner is also available online:
Nashville Republican Banner, 13 September 1874


  1. Cousin Beth -- yes I'm sure you're right with William Gatlin getting away with murder! My 3rd Uncle! Another fantastic historical sketch! I'm wondering two things... 1) if Samuel Haslam is an ancestor of Tennessee's Governor Haslam and 2) William Gatlin's cousin William Gower; do you think this is the brother of our Lorenzo Dow Gower SR? William T. Gower I think? M

  2. Samuel Haslam didn't have descendants, but his brothers may have living descendants. Governor Haslam's father was born in Detroit, though, so I don't know. I've been trying to match cousin William Gower up with someone in my tree, but I'm not sure who the right William Gower is. It's the one who lived on Charlotte Pike.

  3. Wow! Another incredible story! Again, checked it out on I found 2 other articles - one on the 16th & one on the 17th... & the 17th has some testimony that I'm not sure was on the 19th & 20th. Fascinating story!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I found them; thanks so much!