By Ray Hill
It was James A. Fowler who helped to send a murderer to prison for an unusual and spectacular crime in 1906.
One of the most prominent cases in Fowler’s long legal career involved a young lawyer, Sam Parker, who had been a stand-out athlete at the University of Tennessee where he had played both football and baseball. Parker had been a star pitcher at the university and was good enough to have received offers from several league teams. Sam Parker, according to the Knoxville Journal and Tribune, “was probably the best all-round athlete in the university during the three years he remained there.” Parker had also enlisted in the First Tennessee volunteer infantry while still “but a boy” and served in the Philippines. Sam Parker was an up-and-coming young man, socially and personally popular. Parker had been returning from Oneida where he had participated in a ball game before returning home to Helenwood, the county seat of Scott County at the time.
Judge James E. Fulton, “upward of forty years of age,” a Democrat who had served as judge and chancellor by appointment, waited as Parker stepped off a Cincinnati-Southern train in Helenwood, Tennessee and shot the young attorney in cold blood. For some inexplicable reason, Fulton had brought his thirteen-year-old son with him as he waited at the train station.
Neither Fulton nor Parker spoke a single word as the judge whipped out a shotgun and fired a blast that struck the younger man in the abdomen. Fulton fired both barrels and the reason why was as old as the world itself: jealousy.
The mortally wounded Sam Parker was hurried to the home of his father, who lay ill and unconscious in the same house. A special train was sent to fetch Dr. Reddish to Helenwood from Somerset, Kentucky. Newspaper reports confirmed there was little hope for Parker’s recovery and the doubt was openly expressed that the young attorney would likely be dead by the time the doctor arrived.
The twenty-six-year-old Parker was the son of a former judge from Scott County. The case caused a sensation with people coming from miles around to attend not only the trial, but the preliminary hearing. The courtroom in Knoxville was filled to capacity as the judge took his seat in the big, highbacked chair at 1 o’clock on a sweltering July afternoon. Fulton promptly offered a plea of insanity while Magistrate Robinson ordered him to jail without bail. Judge Fulton had gathered together a formidable array of legal talent to extricate himself from what he recognized as a potentially lethal situation. There was no question that he had killed Sam Parker deliberately and with premeditation. Church Pemberton testified he had been with James Fulton at the train station an hour before the train had arrived. Pemberton made it very clear Fulton was neither intoxicated nor crazy. The witness, who had known the accused for years, said he had never known Fulton to be “in a better or more rational mood.” Pemberton was but one of the witnesses paraded through the courtroom by the prosecution. Fulton claimed he had been periodically insane for at least two years due to heavy drinking and the excessive smoking of cigarettes. Two physicians readily testified as to their own belief that Fulton had been insane at certain intervals during the past couple of years, yet neither of the doctors would swear to the fact; rather, they merely gave their opinions.
A prominent local doctor testified he had treated James Fulton for something akin to “delirium tremens” about a month earlier and noted the judge had been highly nervous ever since, the victim of “excessive use of stimulants.” The doctor said he believed excessive use of stimulants could certainly affect the mental status of someone.
Certainly, one recent event supported the notion James E. Fulton was crazy. The week he murdered Sam Parker, Fulton was seen in front of the courthouse where he was “tearing up ten-dollar bills.” The judge told friends he had plenty of money and never hesitated to spend it. Modern-day readers must consider at the time, a $10 bill was worth almost $300 in today’s dollars.
What had driven James E. Fulton plumb crazy was allegedly Sam Parker having claimed to have been intimate with Mrs. Fulton and the young man had supposedly bragged he could be yet again. That boast was apparently more than Fulton could stand and he had shot Parker as a result. While the defense pressed that claim quite hard, the prosecution pointed out Sam Parker, with his dying breath, had denied it. Clearly, the Fulton marriage was in some great difficulty as the couple had been separated for some months prior to the husband having shot and killed his wife’s alleged lover. Loyally, Mrs. Fulton sat with her husband in the prisoner’s box of the courtroom. For good measure, Fulton’s aged mother, “bowed with grief”, sat beside her son and daughter-in-law. Sitting near the prosecution were Sam Parker’s three sisters and brother John; the murdered young attorney’s mother was dead and his father was reported as being “unconscious” and unaware that his son had been killed. The head of the prosecution’s team, Colonel Sam E. Young of Sweetwater, gave an impassioned speech fueled by his own grief as Parker had been named for him. Young’s plea “was especially eloquent and moved many to tears.”
While Fulton’s own defense attorneys readily acknowledged popular sentiment was against the defendant, they were caught by surprise when the magistrate refused bail. There were rumblings amongst Parker’s friends of breaking into the jail and dragging Fulton out of his jail cell and hanging him. Perhaps in an effort to forestall such a possibility, both Fulton’s wife and mother remained near his cell as long as the sheriff would allow it.
Feelings about the murder of Sam Parker were quite raw as the young man was considered to be “one of the brightest young men in Scott county.” The remark or remarks allegedly made by Sam Parker was hotly denied by the young attorney who supposedly told Fulton he very much regretted such reports had reached him. Sam Parker’s funeral was held in Helenwood as Judge James Fulton sat sullenly in his jail cell, still adamantly refusing to discuss his killing of the young lawyer. A large number of those who had attended the University of Tennessee with Parker made the trip from Knoxville to Scott County and there were hundreds of floral tributes flanking the young man’s coffin.
Finally, Judge Parker, Sam’s father, was told of his son’s murder. The judge who was believed to be “sick unto death” was devastated by the news. Parker asked that Jerome Templeton, one of Fulton’s defense attorneys, not defend his son’s murderer. Judge Parker sent his three daughters to see Templeton and the lawyer promptly withdrew from the case. The judge’s grief had been “agonizing” when told of his son’s murder and was all the more painful because the killer had been James E. Fulton, whom the judge had treated as a member of the family. The judge told his friend Sam E. Young he had boarded Fulton and provided him a law office without charge. The old judge begged Sam Young to prosecute Fulton “with all the power at his command.” The loss of his son proved too much for Judge J. C. Parker to bear and he died just a few weeks after his boy.
Whether or not it was a charade, James Fulton sat in his cell writing long letters to himself and apparently believed himself to be someone else. Fulton’s first trial resulted in a mistrial and for the second trial, held in Huntsville, James A. Fowler was appointed as the special prosecutor. Although the first trial had resulted in a mistrial, the majority of the jury believed James Fulton was guilty of murder and wanted to convict him.
Fulton insisted he had been provoked to kill Sam Parker due to Parker’s “ungentlemanly” remarks about his wife.
The second trial saw James Fulton convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. Fulton’s lawyers appealed his case to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction. James E. Fulton served only a few months of his prison term before he was pardoned by Governor Malcolm Rice Patterson. Fulton went on to become the attorney for the City of Oneida, his career evidently unimpaired by his having killed Sam Parker.
The special prosecutor, James A. Fowler, deserves a special mention. Regarded by his peers as an outstanding lawyer of rare ability, Fowler had served in various capacities in the Department of Justice during the administrations of five presidents. Fowler was the Republican nominee for governor in 1898. James A. Fowler was twice elected to the Knoxville City Council and served for a brief time as mayor. Fowler was the GOP nominee for the United States Senate in 1928 against the venerable Kenneth D. McKellar. Ten years later, Fowler’s son and law partner, Harley, would be the Republican candidate for the U. S. Senate against the Democratic nominee Tom Stewart. Fowler continued practicing law with his firm, known as Fowler & Fowler when a few of his sons joined him. James A. Fowler continued working until he was ninety-two, stopping only a few months before he died at that advanced age. The old General resided at 3311 N Broadway and lived long enough to see his grandson and namesake, James A. Fowler, III graduate from Princeton University and become engaged to Miss Marguerite Phillips. General Fowler shared his birthday of February 22 with his son Harley and his last was celebrated quietly with three of his sons who lived in Knoxville. According to a grandson, John Rowntree, the General was still “holding his own.” On the eve of his 91st birthday, General James A. Fowler came out of retirement as the teacher of his Sunday school class at Trinity Methodist Church. Probably no citizen of Knox County then living was more accustomed to speaking before others than James A. Fowler. The General began his lesson by telling those assembled in his class, “Gentlemen, make no mistake about it – – – old age will get you.”
James Fulton’s bizarre behavior did not end once he got out of prison. J. E. Bell, editor of the Scott County Times, published an editorial that Fulton especially disliked, believing it portrayed him in a negative light. James Fulton, according to several “authoritative sources” threatened the editor’s life. It was alleged Fulton was seen on the streets of Oneida, Tennessee with a double-barreled shotgun, the same weapon he had used to kill Sam Parker, declaring he intended to kill Bell. The editor sent word to Fulton he would apologize if the temperamental lawyer felt the newspaper had done him an injustice. James Fulton read the message, declared it was not enough and threw it away.
Fulton began stalking the editor, which, considering Fulton’s history, alarmed Bell, who promptly armed himself. J. E. Bell apparently came across Fulton in the office of Judge Potter of Oneida on July 1, 1917, and the editor produced a double-barreled derringer and shot and seriously wounded him. In fact, Fulton died from his wounds almost eleven years to the day he had murdered Sam Parker.
Although tried and convicted of involuntary manslaughter, Bell was later pardoned by Governor Tom Rye.
Perhaps the last word on the case came from James Fulton’s former wife, Laura M. Neil, who was “continued at the Highlands sanitarium by reason of a pistol shot.” Miss Neil announced she had been entirely “exonerated” in the matter of her ex-husband’s murder of Sam Parker in 1906. “I know it was said that Judge Fulton killed Sam Parker on my account,” Miss Neil said, “but Judge Fulton himself declared that it was not true, and that his wife was entirely blameless.” “He killed Sam Parker on another account,” she added.
If true, to this day, nobody knows why James Fulton killed Sam Parker.