George Marcus Cunningham Part 2

Read Part 1 here.

George Cunningham was to be hung at noon on June 9, 1875. People came from all over Madison and Buncombe Counties to witness the hanging. A hanging was a public spectacle like July 4th or the Christmas Parade. Men, women and children all showed up to watch. The mood was festive. Souvenirs and refreshments were sold. People laughed and visited with friends and relatives they hadn’t seen in months or years. It was one of the biggest crowds Marshall had ever seen.
Just before noon the crowd began to quiet down. The prisoner was led out in chains with a deputy on each side. George Cunningham spoke to the crowd of the evils of drinking and gambling. He continued to maintain that he was innocent. Cunningham was taken to a pen located behind the Madison County Jail surrounded by a fence that was fifteen feet high. Cunningham was hung and died without a struggle.
The rope was cut from around his neck and the body was put into a coffin that was already on the back of a two horse wagon. The driver of the wagon immediately left south towards Asheville and Fletcher. It took about two days for the wagon carrying the body to reach the boy’s home.
A large crowd attended Cunningham’s funeral. Most people in Cane Creek and Fletcher believed he was innocent. The coffin was not open, this was a very rare occurrence. Coffins were almost always open for the friends and relatives to have one last look at the deceased. The family said that since it had been several days since the hanging and the weather very hot that the body had decomposed quickly and it would be better not to open the coffin. George Marcus Cunningham was buried in Patty’s Chapel Cemetery.
That was the official story of the hanging and burial of George Marcus Cunningham. However, the body wasn’t even buried before talk began to spread from those who attended the hanging. They said that because of the fifteen foot wood fence around the pen where the hanging took place, you could only see the upper part of Cunningham’s body when the trap was sprung. The body dropped to the end of the rope. It was said that the tips of Cunningham’s feet touched the ground. The doctor that attended the hanging ran to the body and quickly announced loud enough for everyone to hear, “The man is dead”. The rope around George Cunningham’s neck was immediately cut and his body put in the coffin on the back of a wagon. The man driving the wagon lashed the horses and the crowd opened up as the wagon raced out of Marshall. Several men on horseback followed the wagon just out of site. They said about dusk the wagon drove into the woods and stopped. They made out the figure of a man jumping out of the coffin and running into the woods. The lid was put back on the coffin and the wagon continued towards Fletcher. The riders turned around and headed back towards Marshall. They told everyone what they saw. Rumors spread wildly and grew bigger with each telling.
It was said the wagon stopped before it got to George Cunningham’s home. An oak log was lifted and put into the casket to fool Cunningham’s pall bearers when they carried the coffin to the grave. Several people down on Cane Creek and Fletcher claimed to have seen a man they thought was George Cunningham walking along the road near his mother’s house in the dead of night. The rumors continued well into the mid 1950s.

The Committee

In 1959 some relatives and friends of George Cunningham decided to check into the rumors about his death. Cunningham would have been 104 years old that year if he had lived. They waited until there was little or no chance he was still alive to begin this investigation. Nine of his nieces and nephews and eight of his other relatives signed a petition to ask the court to give them permission to open George Cunningham’s grave. They told the court they wished to see if there was a body in the grave and put an end to the rumors that had circulated for 84 years. The relatives did not say why they waited 84 years to respond to the allegations.
The family contacted Dr. David Pierce, a chemistry professor at Asheville-Biltmore College (now the University of North Carolina at Asheville) to attend the grave’s opening and determine if there had ever been a body in George Cunningham’s grave. The Cunningham relatives and Dr. Pierce arrived at Patty’s Chapel Cemetery on July 7, 1959. They started digging up the grave slowly and with care in order not to destroy any evidence. The dirt was removed by hand and sifted. They found the handles on the coffin were still attached to the wooden casket. Dr. Pierce said the coffin handles were made of zinc and the coffin made of pinewood. The coffin had been lined with lamb’s wool. The coffin contained a large amount of oakwood, much of it was still covered with bark. This backed the story that an oak log had been placed in the coffin to match Cunningham’s weight in order to fool the pall barriers. There were no teeth, hair, bones, clothes or anything else that would indicate a body had been in the grave. They did find an empty bottle of “Hoyt’s German Cologne” made in Lowell, Massachusetts. In the days before embalming a bottle of cologne was often put in a coffin to cover the smell of the decaying body. Professor David Pierce examined the grave and everything that was found in it for over a hour. He announced that there was no evidence that there had ever been a body in the grave.
The rumors that had been whispered about for 84 years were true. George Cunningham was not hanged until dead in Marshall on June 9, 1875. He and or his friends had paid off the doctor and Madison County officials to stage a phony hanging and let him escape. George Cunningham may have slipped home a few times and visited his mother, but he could not have lived anywhere close to this area for fear of being recognized. He likely went out west, changed his name and started a new life for himself. v

Local historian Bruce Whitaker documents genealogy in the Fairview area. If you have photographs, documents or history on residents of the community, call Mr. Whitaker at 628-1089 or send an email to him at [email protected].