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Smyth man's1889 shooting death ends in acquittal of accused

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1889 Shooting articles

It began with a charge of murder in late August of 1889 and ended in a courtroom acquittal more than eight months later.

The victim was a young man from Seven Mile Ford in Smyth County, a telegraph operator for the Norfolk & Western Railroad Company. His accused killer was the son of a wealthy Bristol merchant.

The event that lead to the death and trial?

A horse trade apparently gone wrong.

At high noon on Aug. 27, 1889, E.A. “Gus” Burson, of Bristol, and Stephen F. Bonham, of Seven Mile Ford, “became involved in a personal encounter about a horse trade, which ended in the death of the latter from a pistol shot fired by the former,” according to a news article published on Aug. 30 in the Clinch Valley News of Tazewell. Bonham was the son of William P. Bonham, who was, at the time, the proprietor of the Central Hotel in Marion.

Burson was described as a “young man of good moral character” and was “regarded as a quiet, peaceable citizen.” Nonetheless, he was arrested on a charge of murder and jailed.

Therein began a long legal battle that included, mostly, wrangling over whether the accused murderer should be allowed bail due to poor jail conditions and claims by his attorneys that his health was so bad that he might die if the judge did not release him on bond.

Extant court minute book records show that within two days of the killing, Burson was indicted by a Washington County grand jury for the murder of Bonham. Apparently Burson had friends in high places, for the judge in the case — George W. Ward Jr. — called upon Judge George W. Richardson of Smyth County to preside over the initial case, as Ward was “so situated as to render it improper in his opinion to sit in the trial of the case.” This likely meant that Ward was close friends with the Burson family.

The case was contentious from the start. Attorneys for Burson objected to their client being arraigned at all and, after arguments were heard, the arraignment took place as planned. Burson’s counsel then immediately “demanded” that their client be tried in the Washington County Circuit Court and that he be granted a secured recognizance bond. More arguments followed, with the judge overruling on the grounds “that the Court had no jurisdiction of the matter on account of Defendant having elected to be tried in the Circuit Court.” Burson was then sent to jail, having been bound over for a court appearance on the fourth Monday of September of 1889.

By all accounts, Burson was still in jail the following October, when The Comet newspaper in Johnson City, Tennessee, published an article on Oct. 10 in which it reported that Burson’s trial was to be postponed until the next term of court. “The counsel for the defendant are trying to get bail for the prisoner on the ground that he is affected with heart disease, and that imprisonment is very injurious to his health.” (Burson was only about 25 years of age at the time.) The news article noted that Judge Kelly “has not yet made a decision” on the issue of bail.

More than three months later, in early January of 1890, the accused murderer Burson was still in jail. By then, the judge continued to refuse bail, but had agreed to let a committee of about 15 physicians examine the prisoner and report the condition of his health back to the court. The Richmond Dispatch, on Jan. 12, reported that the committee of doctors appointed to examine Burson included some who declared the prisoner “a right sick man,” while others stated he could remain in jail “without any deleterious effects.”According to a Jan. 17 article published in the Clinch Valley News: “That report justified the judge in releasing Burson upon a bond of $30,000.” (Compared to 1890 dollars, this amount was close to $900,000 by 2020 currency values.) However, since no material witnesses appeared at the appointed court date, the judge again refused Burson’s request for bail and the case was continued to the next term.

E.A. Burson did not stand trial before a jury of his peers until early May of 1890. Newspapers of the day reported that the case was moving forward with the selection of jurors. As the examination of witnesses proceeded, Burson even took the stand to insist he had killed Stephen F. Bonham in self-defense. Newspaper accounts, from the beginning of the case to its conclusion, gave no details regarding the death of Stephen Bonham or how it occurred.

Public opinion at the time was fragmented. “There are those who think he ought to hang and those who think otherwise. It is claimed by some that the prosecution has been badly managed in the case and that if he is acquitted it will be on that account,” stated the Chattanooga Daily Times of Tennessee in an article dated May 9, 1890. “A gentleman who is in Abingdon sent a special here last night in which states that he is afraid Burson will be acquitted.”

He was.

Knoxville’s Journal & Tribune reported the news on May 13, 1890: “Gus Burson was acquitted. The jurors and a large number of persons shook his hand and congratulated him.”

Oddly enough, the jury had been split eight to four in favor of acquittal earlier in deliberations. The article stated that two jurors had decided to join the eight, followed by the remaining two holdouts eventually agreeing to a not guilty verdict. “Their holding out was due to misapprehension as to the instructions of the court,” the article stated. In a move that never would be allowed in a modern trial, “The jury presented Burson with the pen with which they wrote the verdict.”

Perhaps all but forgotten in the nearly eight months since his death, was Stephen F. Bonham, the young man who had died at the hand of E.A. Burson. Newspaper reports show that Bonham’s father and one of his brothers attended at least one of Burson’s early trial appearances in October of 1889. There is no mention of William P. Bonham or other family members attending the May 1890 trial that resulted in Burson’s acquittal.

Stephen F. Bonham lies buried in Round Hill Cemetery in Marion beneath a small obelisk that is badly aged by time and air pollution. Early newspaper articles described him as being 25 years of age at the time of his death, but his cemetery monument gives his birth date as Dec. 11, 1867, placing his age at the time of his death at only 21 years. His mother was the former Missouri E. Cormany. Bonham’s paternal grandparents were Hezekiah and Sarah Kinser Bonham, who were married in Wythe County in 1824. (The author’s great-great-grandfather, James Harvey Bonham Sr., was Stephen F. Bonham’s paternal uncle and a brother to William P. Bonham.) William P. Bonham, the father of the murdered man, was no stranger to tragedy. His brother, Addison Augustus Bonham (A.A. Bonham), was murdered near Marion in September of 1878 by a man named Alfred Gold or Golds, who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to a year in prison.

Eugene Augustus “Gus” Burson was the son of Major Zachariah L. and Nannie J. Burson. He inherited land in Florida from his father when Zachariah died in 1894 and Burson was living there as late as 1918. He married Maude Garatt. Burson eventually relocated to Marion County, Ohio, where he died and was buried in 1946.

William A. “Bill” Veselik lives in Marion and is an archivist for the F.B. Kegley Library in Wytheville.

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