Russell Bean: The perils of genealogy

Betty BeanGrainger, Knox Scene

Upon learning that I was getting interested in genealogy, a friend warned me that I’d likely find it an unsettling experience: “If you are not expecting to find incestuous cousins, criminals, slaveowners and other kinds of rotten humans, you need to stay the hell off”

She’s not wrong about the perils of shaking the family tree, although I already knew that some of my ancestors were rascals. The tale of Russell Bean (the first white child born in Tennessee and youngest son of William and Lydia Russell Bean), pretty much proves her point and has turned out to be even worse than I’d thought. He was a bad actor who cut off a baby’s ears when he came home from a two-year trip to New Orleans and discovered his wife nursing a newborn infant. What could be worse than this story, which was the subject of a Heartland Series episode and is probably mostly true?

(And come on, Russell. You were just selling corn and hog meat and home-made guns and knives down in the Big Easy for two years? Who believes that?)

Russell, who was big, homicidal and handsome, was convicted of “inhuman cruelty,” branded on the palm of his hand and jailed for his crime. This didn’t appear to slow him down in the least – he bit out the brand, spat out the burnt hunk of palm flesh, broke out of jail and set about to kill the man who fathered the earless baby, a shopkeeper named Allen.

My favorite account of Russell’s rampage is from “Dropped Stitches in Tennessee History,” written in 1893 by John Allison, whose understated style – “sought a difficulty” is so much more elegant than “opened a can of whoop ass” –makes the facts clear:

“He … was allowed to remain at large, for the reason that the officers were afraid of him. His wife soon got a divorce from him; but he was determined to kill Allen, and it was known that on several occasions he had secretly watched for him. Failing to get a chance at Allen, who was really in hiding, Bean sought a difficulty with Allen’s brother, whom he assaulted and beat unmercifully…”

The next day, the sheriff found Russell sitting in his front yard with a cache of weapons, daring the lawman to come get him. But the sheriff, being a prudent man, postponed the confrontation until the arrival of Judge Andrew Jackson, who was scheduled to hold court in Jonesborough a few days later. Upon being apprised of the situation, Allison quotes Old Hickory (who was probably still Young Hickory at this time) thusly:

“Summon every man in the court house, and bring Bean in here dead or alive,” whereupon the sheriff, with a grim humor which does him infinite credit, responded, “Then I summon your honor first!” Jackson at once left the bench, exclaiming, “By the Eternal. I’ll bring him!”

So, Jackson proceeded to the Bean house and ordered the First White Child to surrender or prepare to meet his Maker. And Russell, who was a fool but not an idiot, complied, and was taken before the bar of justice and sentenced to pay a big fine, which was not really a problem, since the family had become financially prosperous by this time. Although the incident has been widely written about, over the years, the fact that the baby died of its injuries has been buried deep enough not to cast its sorry reflection on legends of the wild frontier. That’s how history gets told.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for

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