February 8, 1924 dawned cold and icy, just like any other winter morning in Emory Gap, Roane County, Tennessee.
But the day would prove far from ordinary.
Constable James Jett had information about an illegal moonshine still on the Newport family farm. This was the era of Prohibition, and the U.S. Constitution had been amended to outlaw the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” This moonshining had to be stopped, and Constable Jett was determined to uphold the law by destroying the still and arresting the moonshiners.
Constable Jett couldn’t conduct a moonshine raid by himself; he was going to need some help. And he couldn’t think of anyone better to help him on the raid than Deputy Sheriff John Franklin Swann. The two men worked raids together previously, and Deputy Swann was a good man he could count on to have his back. So Jett stopped by the Swann home that morning to ask for help. John got his gun, and said goodbye to his wife Essie and their four small children. He promised to be home for supper and left with Constable Jett at about 8:55 a.m.
That was one promise John would not be able to keep.
At the farm, 15-year-old Leland Newport went up from the house to the family’s moonshine still to get something. He arrived to find Constable Jett and Deputy Swann in the process of destroying the family’s still. The two lawmen arrested and handcuffed Leland, and Constable Jett went down to the Newport house, presumably to make more arrests. He left Deputy Swann guarding Leland.
At some point, Leland managed to run off through the chicken lot toward the house. An eyewitness said that Walter Newport, seeing his younger brother running toward the house handcuffed, called out to Leland “Son, what are you doing with them things on?” Leland replied, “Jett and Swann arrested me and put ‘em on me.”
An eyewitness in the home said that upon hearing this, Walter grabbed his gun and left the house for the barn. Less than a minute later, the witness heard shots ring out. He hightailed it away from the Newport farm, fleeing from the trouble.
Two young men were rabbit hunting near the scene and witnessed the shooting. Dewey Pressly and Roosevelt Stamps heard four rifle shots from either the barn or the nearby chicken house. Then the two men saw Constable Jett come running out of the Newport’s barn and fall down on all fours. They heard him loudly cry out “Oh!”
With the sharp sound of two more shots, Deputy Swann also fell. The two hunters heard him repeatedly crying “Oh Lord!” as he struggled to get back up.
According to stories passed down, it was Maynard Human who shot Deputy Swann. Walter Newport and John Swann often played pool together at the local pool hall and Walter considered him a friend. When Walter said he couldn’t shoot John, Maynard reportedly said “you have to” and took the gun from Walter and fired the fatal shot.
Deputy Swann’s liver was shot into pieces and part of it was completely severed, lying loose outside his body in the front of his shirt. Medical examiner Dr. H. M. Carr stated at the trial, “There was a piece of his liver about five inches long and two and a half inches wide that was out here under his shirt.”
Even suffering from mortal wounds, Swann still kept struggling, trying to get to his feet to help Constable Jett, until he finally bled out.
Dewey Pressly and Roosevelt Stamps went to get Pressly’s uncle, who lived nearby, and then Pressly and his uncle went back to try to help the men, still not knowing who they were. When they got to within approximately 150 feet of Deputy Swann, shots were fired at them. They ran back to the uncle’s house and proceeded to go to Constable Jett’s home to report the crime. When they didn’t find Constable Jett at home, they went into town to a local store to telephone the sheriff.
After the shooting, Walter Newport cut the handcuffs off of his younger brother Leland, leaving fresh bruises and cuts on the teenager’s wrists. The chisel and broken handcuffs belonging to Constable Jett were later found hidden nearby in a stump. Then the Newport family and Maynard Human proceeded to try to hide the bodies.
First, they buried Constable Jett in a dip in a road under construction. The Newports didn’t realize Constable Jett was actually still alive – just unconscious. After the moonshiners started to bury him, he woke and nearly managed to dig himself out. The moonshiners kept firing into the ground, trying to finish him off after they buried him. Dr. H. M. Carr performed the autopsy. He testified that he took four bullets out of Jett, one of which entered and exited the body in multiple places.
A search party spotted Constable Jett’s big, red, handlebar mustache sticking partially out of the ground. He’d almost dug himself out before he died.
Deputy Swann’s body was found about noon under a tree not far from where he had fallen. His body had been covered with loose grass to hide it while the moonshiners dealt with Constable Jett’s body.
Constable James Jett left behind a wife and eleven children, nine of which were still at home. Deputy Sheriff John Franklin Swann left behind a wife and four small children. One of those children, George Leslie Swann, was my then four-year-old grandfather.
In 2009, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. to witness the dedication of my great-grandfather’s name on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, a tribute to fallen law enforcement officers across the United States. My grandfather was no longer with us, but I felt compelled to make sure someone from our family was there to represent John’s family at the dedication.
An adorable little boy, about the age of my grandfather when John died, sat in front of me. He was sobbing, held by a relative, grieving the loss of someone dearly loved. The little boy didn’t know anything about heroism or dying in the line of duty. All he knew was that someone he loved was gone.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.
Being there among law enforcement families, their grief still fresh from the loss of those they loved, I felt for the first time I understood some part of what my grandfather went through. Why he repeatedly told me the story of his father’s death in the line of duty. Why he kept a little slip of paper with his father’s signature on it along, with a picture of his father and mother on their wedding day, close to him in a drawer just beside his favorite armchair. Why he would take it out and show it to me from time to time, as if he wanted me to be sure to always remember the father he barely got to know. I suppose that is why John’s story has always meant so much to me, even though I never knew him.
Counting the Cost
The murder of these brave law enforcement officers had a profound impact, not just on their families, but on their community, and even subsequent generations. The two men left behind 15 children between them. Two of Constable Jett’s children were already grown, leaving 13 kids to grow up without a father.
They also left two wives, struggling in a world especially tough on single mothers, often unable to provide for themselves and their children without a husband. At this point in history, a woman couldn’t go out and get a job easily, or place her children in daycare while she earned a living. These women clawed and scraped by just to survive without their husbands.
Later, the children’s children would grow up never having had the opportunity to know and learn from the wisdom of their grandfathers.
According to one of Constable Jett’s grandsons, his father was never able to talk about James’ murder. Not as long as he lived. Not even to the rest of the family.
John’s wife, Essie, would remarry – a marriage of economic necessity – to a man who according to my grandfather would often hit Essie. Shortly before he died, he told me the story of how he, as a teenager, chased his step father through the house with a shotgun after he saw him hit Essie, yelling “Don’t you ever touch my mama again.” Then he smirked, just like a teenage boy would, and said, “And he never laid a hand on my mama again.”
Liberty vs. Prohibition
No one can question of the heroism of the men who died in the line of duty, nor question that the moonshiners who did the killing were very bad men. But one has to question the wisdom of a government sending lawmen to their deaths merely to control what its citizens are allowed to put into their own bodies.
Prohibition was obviously constitutional. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution served as the tool to ban the manufacture, transport, import, export and sale of alcoholic beverages. But just because something is constitutional doesn’t make it a good idea.
It could be argued that the 18th Amendment was never actually intended to prevent people from drinking alcohol, as it didn’t technically ban possession and consumption of intoxicating liquor, but let’s be real here. If no one can manufacture, transport, import, export, or sell it, then no one can possess or consume it can they? At least not legally.
The intent is clear, even if the verbiage isn’t – the proponents of the 18th Amendment wanted the federal government to be able to control what its citizens were and were not allowed to put into their own body.
The Most Important Question: Was It Worth It?
Was it worth the suffering and deaths of two good men and the struggles of their wives and children? Simply because the federal government wanted to prevent its citizens from putting alcohol into their bodies?
We must answer these questions. Every time a legislative body – be it federal, state, or local – passes a law, they deem it worth putting law enforcement officers’ lives in jeopardy to enforce that law. The legislators tacitly agree that the law that they are making stands so important that it is worth risking good people dying to see it enforced, be that a law enforcement officer or the person who violates that law.
This is a huge responsibility not to be taken lightly. This is the primary reason that laws should never be passed for trifling reasons, but only to prevent one person from interfering with the natural rights of others. Let’s face it, a ban on alcoholic beverages, just because some citizens don’t like what others put in their own bodies, doesn’t rise to this standard.
Even though the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was repealed, Prohibition remains every much alive and well in the 21st Century. The so-called “War on Drugs,” a complete and utter failure since its inception, has cost the lives of countless law enforcement officers.
This is not to say that those who consume alcohol and drugs and then harm others should not be pursued and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The law in its proper role exists to protect individuals from the infringement of their rights by others. If someone under the influence of these substances violates the rights of another person, law enforcement can, and most certainly should bring, them to justice. Violation of the rights of others cannot and should not be tolerated.
However law enforcement officers routinely arrest a person who is merely in possession of or consuming drugs, but not violating the rights or liberties of anyone else. How can anyone justify persecuting people over what they choose to put into their bodies and risking the lives of our law enforcement officers in the process?
If we allow the government to control what people are allowed to put in their bodies just because some people don’t approve, what is next? Will natural health supplements be banned? Will it be illegal to grow food in our own gardens because the methods used to grow it may not be to the FDA’s liking? Will we be forced to eat genetically modified and irradiated food because the government deems it to be “safer?” Our federal government already asserts it knows better regarding marijuana, despite scientific evidence of its amazing medicinal properties for treating chronic pain, along with other ailments. Marijuana’s cousin hemp is a well known superfood. Americans are forbidden to grow it, in spite of its nutritional value, multiple industrial applications, and anti-cancer properties.
We walk along a slippery slope.
Once we as a people relinquish our right to control what we can put into our bodies, we not only put good men and women serving in law enforcement at risk, we put ourselves at risk as well. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently put it, “If people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.”
Author’s Note: The details in this article about the murders of Constable James Jett and Deputy Sheriff John F. Swann have been taken from court transcripts and newspaper articles published at the time of the murder and trials of the suspects, as well as first hand accounts from the family of the slain officers.