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From: "Kaye Lanier" <>
Subject: [COPE-L] "When They Hanged Old Callahan"
Date: Sat, 02 Feb 2002 06:46:48 +0000

On the frontispiece of Jess Wilson's book is the following:

"When They Hanged Old Callahan" is a poem by Mary T. Brewer, dedicated to
Jess Wilson who told the tale in his memorable book "When They Hanged the

They hanged the fiddler, so goes the tale
O that gruesome but strangest affair;
How three were condemned and three men were hanged
And how the last one fiddled there.
The scaffold was built, strong, sturdy, and tall,
With the hangman's rope fastened in place
And round them the people, while the fiddle tune played,
Did a wild and lively dance pace.
The lumber for coffins was brought to the site;
"How long must they be and how wide?"
"We be three feet and a 'backer-chaw' tall!"
The doomed men called out in reply.
Two men were hanged and laid to the ground
While Callahan played the death-knell,
Then upon the scaffold he challenged the crowd
To come play the fiddle as well.
But none took the dare and fear gripped them all
As they gathered much closer around.
With a shout Old Callahan struck the handrail,
Broke the fiddle as the trap-door dropped down.
Now tales of the past may be forgotten and fade,
Lose much of their glory and shine,
But Old Callahan's tune can still be heard
As it echoes forever through Time.

Jess Wilson related the story of Isaac Callahan in his book as follows:

In the year 1816, a David Newberry as found murdered...three men were
arrested and charged with the murder...They were Isaac Callahan, Thomas
Begley, Jr., and Achilles Gibson.

The examining trial was held at Manchester, KY, July Term 1816. The
following witnesses were present: John Gilbert, Jesse Roberts, Jeremiah
York, Pleasant Wilson, Massie Hacker, John Muncy, Henry Sizemore, and
Susannah Callahan (NOTE by Kaye-Susannah Callahan was Isaac's wife.)

It appears from the court records that the evidence against Isaac Callahan,
Thomas Begley, Jr. and Achilles Gibson was circumstantial. Achilles Gibson
may have given evidence for the prosecution. He was tried in Clay County
Court and released. (a footnote indicates that Achilles Gibson was listed in
the 1830 census of Morgan Co. TN).

The families of Callahan and Begley managed to get a postponement of their
trial until they got a state law passed giving them the choice of being
tried in Clay or Knox County. They chose to be tried in Knox County.

The levy (taxes) collected by Clay County in 1816 amounted to $650, and $275
was spent to hire special guards for Callahan, Begley, and Gibson.

The most damaging evidence against them was that the murdered man, David
Newberry, was a witness against them in another case. They had been heard
to threaten Newberry. Some say that the real trouble had started in the
"Old Cattle War."

Isaac Callahan and Thomas Begley, Jr. were tried in Knox County court and
were sentenced to be hanged at Barbourville, Saturday, May 17, 1817.

Isaac Callahan was a fiddle player. When the Sheriff went to measure the
condemned men so as to have their coffins made, Isaac was fiddling and the
prisoners were dancing. One of them called out, "Three feet and a chaw of
tobacco, that's how tall we are."

There are several variations of the story of the hanging, but all agree that
Isaac Callahan played the fiddle for the crowd before he was hanged. Now,
whether he played a slow and solemn dirge or a foot stomping jig, I do not
know. They say he challenged anyone else to play the tune as well. When no
one offered to try, he broke the fiddle and they hanged him.

Some say that sound never ceases, that it goes on and on, forever. Perhaps
somewhere there still waifs in the outer ether some lingering refrain of
"The Last of Callahan."

Jess Wilson lists as his sources: The Diary of Rev. John J. Dickey, Roy
White's History of Clay County, James F. Bowman's, "The Phillip Wilson
Family of Owsley County, Kentucky Historical Society, and Family Traditions.

NOTE by Kaye - Isaac Callahan, born 1785, was the son of Edward Callahan and
Mahala Susannah Brock. He was the eighth of nine children born to this
couple. Their first child was Jennie Callahan, my gggg grandmother who
married William S. Strong II. Isaac married Susannah Mahala Wilson 5 Jul
1810 in Clay Co. KY. They had five children: Davis, Wilson, Zilpha, Jane
"Jenny", and Jackson. On 8 Jul 1820 in Clay Co. KY, Isaac's widow married
Thomas Strong, son of William S. Strong II and Jennie Callahan.

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