History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the Volunteer Times.

The following was presented to the Campbell County Historical Society by Mary Archer McTeeter from Morgantown, West Virginia, and submitted to the writer by the fine personnel at the Campbell County Historical Society in LaFollette, Tennessee. I will record as it was originally written. It tells the sad story of the happenings of John M. Burnett, Sheriff of Campbell County, 1892-93

      Several different versions relating to the slaying of John Burnett have circulated among family members down through the years. The following account of this tragedy was written by Attorney James A. Fowler, who assisted Andrew J. Will Taylor in prosecuting this case in the Campbell County courts. Mr. Fowler, who later became Asst. U.S. Attorney General for East Tennessee, and still later Mayor of Knoxville, published a volume which details many of the cases he prosecuted. This publication is on file at the McClung archives in Knoxville. Mr. Fowler writes:

     "John Burnett was sheriff of Campbell County, probably the most aggressive and diligent in the enforcement of law of all the sheriffs the county ever had. He had a deputy by the name of John Dail, who was about as active, aggressive and diligent as the sheriff himself. Both were fearless, and the terror of criminals did not enter their heads.

     "One morning they boarded in Jellico the passenger train which left there for Knoxville about daylight. One of them had a Capias [warrant] issued by the Clerk of the Circuit Court against either a Smith or Jones. Sometime after the train started it was ascertained that the man was aboard. He was placed under arrest, I think by Burnett. There were also on the train three Smith brothers from Scott County; Albert, Will and another I believe was named Roscoe. The man Jones, who was under arrest, was also from Scott County and was a companion of the Smiths.

     "Burnett was standing in the aisle of the car and Dail was sitting on one seat facing the prisoner, who was on another seat which had been turned to face the one occupied by Dail. Suddenly a disturbance was started by the Smiths. One of them shot Burnett in the head, killing him instantly. Dail shot Roscoe Smith about the junction of the neck and breast, killing him. Dail and Jones scuffled to the step and fell off the train. Albert and Will Smith escaped. Jones, stunned by the fall, was captured and taken to the jail at Jacksboro. That night a mob took him from the jail and hanged him. Albert Smith was subsequently captured.

     "I [James A. Fowler] was employed to assist the Attorney General in prosecuting him. He was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to ten years. Albert Smith's connection with the killing of Burnett was very doubtful. The real culprit was Will Smith. The evidence left no doubt that he fired the fatal shot when the melee began, and Roscoe Smith was attempting to join in when Dail shot him. Now begins the second episode.

     "The County Court elected 'Bud' Burnett, a younger brother of John Burnett, to fill the vacancy of the office of the sheriff. He, of course, was very anxious to bring about the capture of Will Smith, and offered a substantial reward for that purpose. After a while he received a communication from a man by the name of Stoner, who was in Kentucky, representing that he knew where Will Smith was. Some letters passed between them. Stoner finally wrote that if Burnett would send him fifty dollars in advance to bear expenses, he would secure the arrest of Smith and hold him until Burnett could come for him. Burnett promptly sent him fifty dollars. But Stoner wrote back right away, giving a plausible excuse why he was not then able to have Smith placed under arrest.

     "A short time afterwards Burnett received another letter from Stoner, this time from a mining town in West Virginia, in which he again professed to have Will Smith located, and asked that another fifty dollars be sent to procure the arrest. Burnett did not yet suspect that Stoner was deliberately lying, that he knew nothing about the whereabouts of Will Smith, and that his representations were made for the sole purpose of swindling Burnett out of some money. But Burnett wanted to be sure of Smith's capture, so he at once took a train to the place from which Stoner's letter was sent.

     "Stoner did not know of Burnett's coming. By accident, however, he was at the train station when Burnett arrived. They had previously met and Burnett recognized him. He went directly at him. Stoner represented that Smith was in a mining village some distance from the station, and suggested that they go there. In going they passed though a hollow with woods and undergrowth on either side. As the place was strange to Burnett and they had no light, he had to be guided by Stoner. When in the hollow, Stoner made a pretext that they were being attacked, stepped behind Burnett, shot him in the back and ran. He intended to kill Burnett, and thought he had. His object was of course to avoid being caught by Burnett in the scheme to defraud him. He thought it would be a simple matter to concoct a story of an attack by moonshiners or other outlaws which would satisfactorily explain the killing.

     "However, Burnett was painfully, but not seriously wounded. He fell, then wheeled out of the road they were traveling and spent the night in the woods. He yet did not suspect Stoner had shot him. The next day he ascertained the truth. Burnett had lost his hat when he fell. Stoner returned to the place in search of Burnett's body, found the hat, and was wearing it when arrested. Stoner subsequently stood trial in Campbell County and was sentenced to fifteen years. The case was appealed, and eventually Stoner broke jail and was never recaptured.

     "Whether Will Smith, the man who most likely shot Sheriff John Burnett, was never captured is not known."

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