The State of Tennessee vs. Julia Morrison James was a production in three acts that played to a theater packed to suffocation. The crowds attending the sensational murder trial in Chattanooga in January, 1900, crammed into the pews, crammed into the aisles, crammed themselves even behind the judge's bench. The curtain lifted on Act I: The Prosecution.
Flash back to the prior September at the Chattanooga Opera House. The curtain is not yet risen. The traveling play about to take center stage is titled "Mr. Plaster of Paris," a light-hearted comedy. The leading man is one Frank Lieden (also Leiden), a fairly popular and well-known theater actor from New Orleans. The leading lady is Julia Morrison of the same city, a handsome blonde appearing in her first acting role.
As the audience awaits the action, three shots ring out. Part of the play? they must have wondered. The first two pops went off in rapid succession; the third they heard after a slight delay. No one in the audience stirred until one of the actors came before the curtain. "There's been an accident," the man said. "Frank Lieden has been killed."
And indeed he was -- shot dead in front of the whole cast and crew by the leading lady.
What had happened was this: as the play was about to begin, "Miss Morrison" (her stage name) arrived at the very last minute, still in street dress and with no makeup on. She marched into the theater with a revolver, a .32 Smith & Wesson, in her hand, walked up to her co-star, and from a distance of three feet, shot him in the neck. She shot him again as he fell. While he lay bleeding to death, she shot him again in the face.
Miss Morrison was immediately arrested and gave a long statement to the police admitting the murder (it was undeniable), describing a series of bitter quarrels with her victim. He persecuted me, he insulted me, she declared. He tried to have my husband removed from the traveling show.
The sympathy of the company was with the deceased. His only offense, they said, was in trying to get rid of her; she was an amateur who had gotten into the company by false pretenses, they reported. She was a "d--- b----," said the assistant manager. One witness said he overheard the leading lady tell the leading man earlier in the day that "I will put a ball through you yet."
Thus the fact that a murder was committed was firmly established, with ample evidence of premeditation. Miss Morrison, if convicted, would hang.
But on to Act II and a life-or-death performance.
The papers were careful to describe the defendant's appearance, her fluffy pompadour, her jaunty hat, her smiles and effusive greetings as the trial commenced. She took the witness stand with a confident air and proceeded to tell those assembled her sad life story. "She did not seem to realize the gravity of her situation," said the papers.
Julia was orphaned as an infant and then raised by foster parents who subjected her to severe treatment, who sometimes beat her head against the wall, she said. She married before she was fourteen years old and worked as an office girl and a housekeeper before securing the leading role in "Mr. Plaster of Paris."
At first, she said, Frank Lieden was gentlemanly, telling her she was "great and excellent." Then, she said, he found out she was married. He was unkind thereafter, and she was forced to endure insults. On one occasion, he wrapped his arms around her and asked for a kiss and offered an indignity.
And he called her awful names. When told by counsel that she had to use the exact words of the "terrible oaths" he used against her, she sobbed for the first and only time during the trial. "Bitch" was among the epithets, but the papers couldn't print the rest. She also said he had a "violent temper" and once raised a cane to her, remarking, "You are not fit to act in an amateur company." And on another occasion: "You aren't fit to be in a dog show." She insisted that she had no memory of the shooting except that she recalled that he threatened to kill her a moment before she killed him.
While no witnesses verified her version of the events immediately before the murder, other witnesses corroborated her stories of "abuse." A "colored boy" who worked at a theater in Knoxville was brought in to testify that he overheard an argument. When Miss Morrison would not wear a specific dress Frank Lieden wanted her to wear, he railed against her, saying he would get another woman to take her place if there was one within 50 miles. Many character witnesses also testified for her, describing her as a "perfect lady." One that, oh, so happened to keep a loaded pistol handy.
And for the denouement:
Well, a preface. It turns out one of the jurymen was once on trial for his own life for killing a man by striking him in the head with a bat during a baseball game. (The jury convicted him of involuntary manslaughter and his "sentence" was a $500 fine.) And another juryman was a nephew of the chief defense lawyer! A mistrial was in order... but the judge gave the case to the jury.
Miss Morrison was acquitted (surprise, surprise). She immediately rose and gave a nauseating speech, calling the jurors "just and generous." She magnanimously forgave the prosecutors, and, turning to the family of her victim, she said, "I leave them to their conscience and their God."
The moral of the story: don't dare make statements calling your leading lady a bitch or say that she can't act or make an indecent proposal. Not in Tennessee. Not in 1899. Not to a woman who can act, after all.
"Tragedy Instead of Farce Comedy. Chattanooga Opera House the Scene of Blood Last Night. Large Audience Present To Witness the Performance of "Mr. Plaster of Paris" Company. Orchestra Had Played an Overture; About the Time curtain was Due to Rise Pistol Shots Were Heard, on the Stage--Julia Morrison Shoots and Kills Frank Lieden," Atlanta Constitution, Sept. 23, 1899.
"She Tells Jury of Leiden's Insults. Miss Julia Morrison Makes Her Statement. Gives Story of Her Life; She Relates How Leiden Persistently Hounded Her; And Made Indecent Proposals; She Said Her Manager Kicked and Slapped Her, and on Night of Tragedy Threatened to Kill Her--Dramatic Scene in Court," Atlanta Constitution, Jan. 6, 1900.
"Julia Morrison Stands Ordeal. Of Cross Examination with Remarkable Coolness. Evidence for the Defense; Employees of Theaters at Which Her Company Performed Testify to Her Being Ill Treated; By the Man She Slew--Numerous Depositions Read--Court Adjourns Until Monday--Ladies in the Courtroom During the Trial," Atlanta Constitution, Jan. 7, 1900.
"Did Not Display Enough Emotion. Julia Morrison's Counsel Said To Be Disappointed. In Her While On The Stand; She was Too Self-Possessed and Smiled Too Much. Mistrial or Acquittal Predicted," Atlanta Constitution, Jan. 8, 1900.
"The Actress Was Acquitted," Statesville (North Carolina) Landmark, Jan. 12, 1900.