Saturday, April 6, 2024

A Cowardly Assassination.

Henry Clay King and David H. Poston, two prominent Memphis attorneys, were bitter legal opponents in a scandalous civil case involving adultery and fraud. The animosity reached a peak when King shot Poston on Main Street in broad daylight. The case took on national significance when Senators, Congressmen, and even a President weighed in on King’s punishment.

Col. Henry Clay King stood in front of S. L. Lee’s cigar store on Main Street, Memphis, Tennessee, on the afternoon of March 10, 1891. As David H. Poston approached him, King drew his pistol. When Poston was directly in front of him, King thrust the weapon into his stomach and fired. 

Poston cried, “My God, he has shot me.”

He reeled, almost unconscious, staggering toward Mooney’s restaurant. Several witnesses to the shooting helped him inside and sent for medical assistance. An ambulance took Poston to Mitchell and Maury’s infirmary. King made no effort to escape. He stood in place until Officer Wolfe arrived and took him to county jail.

Both men were prominent Memphis attorneys. H. Clay King was a Confederate veteran and the leader of a regiment known as King’s Tigers. He was the author of King’s Digest of the Laws of Tennessee, a standard reference for Tennessee lawyers. Poston, who also fought for the Confederacy, aggressively represented Mrs. Mary Pillow in a real estate suit against H. Clay King. King believed that Poston made personal attacks against his wife and himself in open court. This triggered the murder.

As the people of Tennessee and Arkansas knew well, the King-Pillow case was complicated and scandalous. Mary Pillow was the widow of General Gideon J. Pillow. The Rock Island Daily Argus described her this way:

Mrs. Pillow is about 45 years old and looks 30. She is a woman of queenly presence, finely educated and of the most fascinating manner. She has the bearing of a Bernhardt with the wit and polish of a Recamier. She was known to be “risqué,” and women of her own social rank gradually drew away from her after her husband’s death.

She met H. Clay King, by chance, four years earlier, when she called on his partner on a business matter. Kink was captivated at first sight and, from that moment, was her slave. He was never happy when they were apart, and she encouraged his attentions. King deserted his wife and children and went to live at her house. When the scandalous relationship became public knowledge in Memphis, he took her to his plantation in Lee County, Arkansas.

Over time, she became so influential on King that he deeded her all his property, including the house in Memphis occupied by his estranged wife and children. Apparently, it was a gesture of love because he told her he did not want the transactions recorded. Mrs. Pillow was too much of a businesswoman to let this opportunity go, and she secretly had the deeds recorded. 

When King found out, he went into a rage, and they had a terrible fight. As a result, Mrs. Pillow ordered him off what was now her plantation, and he was forced to go. He tried to renew his relationship with her, but she rejected him. King brought suits to recover his property to courts in Arkansas and Memphis. The whole wretched story came out in the pleadings, and when two local newspapers published it, King sued them each for $50,000 damages. Nothing came of these suits, but his fights to recover his property were still pending in the courts. 

The firm of Poston & Poston vigorously represented Mrs. Pillow in the case. King’s bitterness against his former mistress transferred to David Poston, the leading counsel. The night before the murder, King was drinking in a saloon and said publicly that he intended to shoot Dave Poston on sight. Poston heard about the threat but paid no attention to it. 

When King was taken to jail after the murder, his first request was for a bottle of whisky, the second was to see his wronged but still loving wife. They reunited when she visited him in jail, and Mrs. King became her husband’s strongest supporter. 

David Poston died on the evening of March 11, 1891. H. Clay King was indicted for first-degree murder.

Trial: June 1, 1891.

King pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and self-defense, emphasizing self-defense. Two versions of the story from the testimony of David Poston’s brother Frank and H. Clay King sum up the meat of the trial. Frank Poston heard his brother’s dying declaration in the early morning of March 11:

I was walking down Main Street and saw H. Clay King approaching me. I thought with the intention of speaking to me. He walked up in front of me and told me I was a _____ ____ __ __ ______ (probably, “damned son of a bitch”), and pulled a pistol and fired, pushing it right at my body. No conversation occurred between us at all. I made no effort to resent what he said. He shot me in an instant.

King remembered it differently:

On the morning of the killing of David Poston, I went into Lee's store get some cigars. As I left the store, I met Dave Poston. He looked at me, and I looked at him. I asked him to withdraw the charges he made against me and my wife in a cross bill filed in the King-Pillow case. He refused, and I denounced him as a scoundrel. He then called me a number of vile names. He put his hand behind his overcoat, and I thought he had a pistol. I told him to stand back, and I retreated several steps. Then, as he advanced, I gave him one shot. I could have given him five more, but I just gave him one to repel the attack. I intended to give myself up to the Sheriff, but Deputy Sheriff Charles Smith came up and arrested me. I was a sick man that morning and wanted to go home when the affair occurred.

The jury believed Poston’s version and found H. Clay King guilty.

Verdict: Guilty of first-degree murder


King was sentenced to hang on November 6, 1891. While most people were satisfied with the verdict, King and his attorneys fought on. When their motion for a new trial was dismissed, they took the case to the state Supreme Court. With that, they managed to postpone the execution date, but the court sustained the original verdict. King would hang on August 12, 1892.

A group of King’s supporters, led by his wife, petitioned Governor Buchanan to pardon King. In response, David Poston’s four brothers issued an open letter denouncing the petition and calling for justice to be administered. But Governor Buchanon faced mounting political pressure to stop the hanging. 26 United States Senators and Representatives petitioned the governor to commute King’s sentence to life in prison. 

Even Grover Cleveland, at the time campaigning for his second term as president, weighed in. While he did not directly address the issue, he informally implied support for a pardon. Responding to a letter from a niece of H. Clay King, requesting help, he said sympathy should not control executive action. However, he closed the letter by saying:

Notwithstanding this, I feel that there are circumstances in your uncle's case which ought to appeal strongly to the pardoning power, and I earnestly hope that such representations may be made to your governor as will avert the execution of the death sentence what has been pronounced.

Two days before the scheduled execution, Governor Buchanan succumbed to pressure and committed King’s sentence to life in prison. The backlash was tremendous, with public denunciations of Buchanan and even calls for violence against both King and Buchannan. The Poston family, who had been lifelong Democrats, renounced the party.

Mrs. King never stopped petitioning for a full pardon, but in December 1903, H. Clay King died in prison. 

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“At Death's Door,” Knoxville Journal, June 14, 1891.
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“On a Crowded Street,” EVENING REPOSITORY., March 10, 1891.
“On The Stand,” Public Ledger, June 12, 1891.
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“Poston's Chivalry,” Norfolk Virginian, March 18, 1891.
“Ruthlessly Shot,” The Public Ledger, March 10, 1891.
“To Hang on August 12,” EVANSVILLE COURIER., August 5, 1892.
“Want King Pardoned ,” The Memphis Commerical, December 10, 1892.
“Will Bolt The Ticket,” Sunday Oregonian., September 18, 1892.

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