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Convicted of first-degree murder in Weakley County, Tennessee, in 1903, John McElwrath was pardoned eleven years later after a witness to the crime revealed the name of the actual murderer.
In February 1903, Will Wilson was found dead near the railroad tracks in Martin, Tennessee. Wilson had spent the day traveling by freight train from Jackson, Tennessee, to Mounds, Illinois, with John McElwrath. Wilson and McElwrath, black work hands with the Illinois Central Railroad, had made the trip to collect their pay. The two men began the return trip together, but split up at a stop in Fulton, Kentucky.
McElwrath continued the trip back to Jackson without Wilson. In Martin, Tennessee, however, his train made an unexpected stop when a body was spotted near the tracks. The body turned out to be that of Will Wilson. McElwrath was searched, and when a pistol that appeared to have been recently fired was found in his pocket, he was arrested. In August of that year, McElwrath was brought in front of a jury of the Circuit Court of Weakley County on the charge of murder in the first degree.
The prosecution presented the pistol found on McElwrath as the primary evidence against him. Despite defense attorney L. E. Holladay’s argument that the prosecution’s case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence and did not conclusively prove that McElwrath murdered Wilson, McElwrath was found guilty. Judge R. E. Maiden sentenced him to hang on October 2, 1903. Holladay appealed, postponing the execution, but the Supreme Court of Tennessee affirmed the judgment of the Circuit Court. McElwrath’s execution was rescheduled for August 18, 1904.
Days before his execution, McElwrath’s case was brought to the attention of Tennessee Governor James B. Frazier. Prompted by letters and petitions submitted by prominent businessmen and Dresden city officials, Governor Frazier exercised executive clemency and commuted McElwrath’s sentence to life in prison in August 1904.
McElwrath remained in the state penitentiary until 1914, when a previously unknown witness admitted to having seen Wilson’s murder. On his deathbed, this man revealed that a friend of his, not McElwrath, had murdered Wilson. The confession was brought to the attention of attorney Duke C. Bowers. With the assistance of Selden Maiden, the brother of the judge who had sentenced McElwrath to death, Bowers undertook an investigation of McElwrath’s case.
Bowers and Maiden sought a pardon from Governor Ben W. Hooper based on the confession of the newly discovered witness. On January 15, 1915, his last day in office, Governor Hooper granted the pardon and released McElwrath from prison.
In compensation for his time spent wrongfully incarcerated, the State provided McElwrath with $0.25 and a train ticket to Dresden, Tennessee.
– Researched by Sarah Kull
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.