The Gates to Hell Opened in 1896
The history that lives on at Brushy is yours to witness. It is an experience like no other.
Coal Mining in the South
Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary wasn’t just a jail. For decades it was a coal mine for the state of Tennessee that originated in the wake of a bloody labor battle.
The end of the Civil War led to a boom in railroad construction and the rapid expansion of the coal mining industry throughout Tennessee. Because many of the state’s coal veins were located in remote areas, most mining companies providing housing by collecting rent from miners’ wages.
When those companies opened onsite stores selling food, clothes and other necessities at inflated prices, already poor workers piled up debt. By the time their debt and rent were paid, they had little to show for a meager wage job with dangerous working conditions. The Coal Creek miners were clever, holding strikes in winter when coal demand was high; this tactic worked until a new convict lease program gave companies a cheaper, more compliant workforce.
The prison lease system was adopted throughout the South mainly because state governments couldn’t afford to build and maintain prisons or feed, shelter and clothe inmates and a convict lease program cut costs and brought in money. Beyond that, officials could exploit the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery but allowed “involuntary servitude” for criminal punishment.
When federal troops left the South in 1877 after Reconstruction, state officials who were hostile to former slaves handed down long prison terms and life sentences; even for petty crimes. Soon, blacks made up the majority of prisoners in the South.
The Coal Creek War
Tennessee began leasing prisoners in 1866 and by 1891, the Tennessee Coal Mine in Anderson County adopted the practice. This fateful decision led to the Coal Creek War, where citizen-miners attacked and burned the state prison, stockades and mines, then loaded prisoners and guards alike onto a train headed out of town.
Mining companies sent them back and state officials called in troops for protection. When months of small-arms skirmishes led to dead men on both sides, officials realized the cost of maintaining a standing militia undercut any financial gains and as convict-lease contracts expired, legislation passed to construct the state’s first maximum security prison – Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
Brushy Mountain in the Beginning
By 1896, inmates were building an onsite railroad spur, as well as the original wooden prison structure with their own hands. Between the ongoing violence, deadly mining accidents and chronic illness, life inside Brushy was precarious to say the least. Diseases were rampant, including tuberculosis, typhoid fever, pneumonia, and syphilis – which alone affected 3/4 of the black prisoners. Beyond generally poor medical care and treatment, inmates were routinely beaten for “underproducing” in the mines, despite their dire health conditions, and many died as a result.
There was never a death row at Brushy, but there was plenty of death, I promise you. While America was roaring through the ‘20s, convicts at Brushy spent their days in the dark of the mines, urged to dig faster with lashes from thick leather straps.
Their nights weren’t any better, with men stacked into the original wooden buildings that were falling apart and just waiting to catch fire. In 1931, Brushy held nearly a thousand inmates, far more than it was ever meant to.
In 1931, Brushy housed 976 men, roughly 300 more than its capacity. Overcrowding was so prevalent and persistent it drew comparisons to conditions inside the infamous Siberian prisons of the Soviet Union. The state’s answer was simple. Plans were drawn for a new structure to be made of reinforced concrete and they made convicts break sandstone out of the nearby quarry to build the new prison. Constructed in the shape of a Greek cross, it stood four stories high, boasted battlements atop and by 1934 was surrounded by an 18-foot stone wall. For a moment, things got better. The new prison was safer, more sanitary, and built in the shape of a cross, offering inmates a narrow path to redemption.
The Modern Era
Mining remained the sole mission of the prison until the 1960’s and in 1969 Brushy was reclassified as primarily maximum-security when 100 beds were added to house lesser offenders “outside the walls.” Many of the new minimum-security inmates were entrusted with jobs serving the outside community such as participating in the Petros Voluntary Fire Department, which operated 24/7 between 1971 and 1994.
By the middle of the century, Brushy’s reputation as the last stop for the worst criminals had become legend. If you wore out your welcome at another prison or committed some unspeakable crimes, you ended up at Brushy, and let me tell you, that was never a good thing.
In ‘57, after finally shutting down The Hole, they built D-block to keep the nastiest inmates isolated from the rest. It just happens that D-block was built on the site of the old “death house,” where the bodies of dead inmates were kept until they were given back to their families or buried at the pauper’s cemetery up on the hill there.
In ‘69, Brushy was reclassified as a maximum security prison. The end of the line.
But convicts continued to work and die in the mines for decades. It was Lake Russell, a reform-minded warden and former football coach at nearby Carson-Newman College, who finally stopped the mining at Brushy Mountain. Of course, the mines were also losing money. So was it a good warden, or a good businessman that put an end to it? That’s Brushy for you.
This was the most infamous era of Brushy’s history, a time when the assassin James Earl Ray was transported here, tried to escape, failed, got stabbed. In ‘72 the guards went on strike, demanding security improvements, and Brushy was shut down for four years.
So they improved some things and reopened Brushy in ‘76, but friends, let me tell you, it was still Brushy. Tensions between black inmates and white inmates threatened to overwhelm a system that just didn’t seem capable of containing the evil of this place.
In ‘82, the powder keg ignited. Seven white inmates held guards hostage at knifepoint. They took the guards’ guns, found four of their black rivals in their locked cells and opened fire. They killed two. The other two managed to survive by hiding in the corner behind their mattresses.
People said things couldn’t get any worse, and maybe, finally, they were right.
James Earl Ray
James Earl Ray wasn’t the meanest one to ever walk down these halls and sleep behind these walls, not by a long shot, but his is the name that echoes across Brushy’s long history.
Even before he confessed to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1969, Ray’s life seemed to bend the wrong way. When he was a kid, his daddy passed bad checks and had the family assume false names to avoid the law. Ray joined the Army at the close of World War 2 and served in Germany, but was discharged for “ineptness and a lack of adaptability.”
He was always a thief, a fraud, and a criminal, and managed to escape a sentence for armed robbery, sneaking out of the Missouri State Penitentiary in a bakery truck.
Ray arrived at Brushy in March of 1970, and he wasn’t here a minute before his certifiable lack of adaptability and urge to escape was made apparent. A year after he arrived, Ray removed a cinder block from his cell and managed to squeeze through the hole. He might’ve escaped but for his path ran smack into the prison steam plant, where the heat would’ve cooked him. A year after that, a guard caught Ray crawling with a makeshift saw, apparently hoping to cut his way out of an air vent.
Then, in ‘77, Ray and six others climbed over the wall using a 16-foot ladder made of salvaged pipe. The FBI and US Marshall Service swarmed into Morgan County, but a little more than two days later, local trackers and hound dogs found him exhausted and buried under leaves trying to mask his scent. He’d only made it few miles from the prison walls.
Now the thing is, a lot of inmates and even some of the guards said they liked Ray. He was friendly and funny and didn’t cause trouble—except for those escapes, you know.
In ‘81, three inmates stabbed Ray 22 times. Some say it was payback for the assassination. Some say it was another of Ray’s schemes, a way to get publicity and a new trial for what he claimed was a false confession.
Ray left Brushy for good in ‘92, and died at the state facility in Nashville six years later.
Byron (Low Tax) Looper
There’s greedy politicians, there’s crooked politicians, and then there’s Byron Looper, a man who actually changed his middle name to “(Low Tax)” — yes, with the parentheses — all in a bid for power.
Byron Anthony Looper was born an hour west of here in Cookeville, but raised in Georgia where his daddy was a school superintendent. Things started well enough for Byron. He attended the US Military Academy at West Point, but didn’t finish after receiving an honorable discharge for a bad knee injury after being thrown from a horse.
He moved back to Georgia to finish school, worked for the state legislature and even ran for the Georgia House of Representatives, but he lost in the primaries. In 1992 he moved back to Tennessee try his political luck here.
And here’s where things go squirrely for Byron. After losing an election to serve in the Tennessee House, he changed his name to Byron “Low Tax” Looper, promising to expose corruption, to be fair, and... well, we’ve heard all that before.
In 1996, Byron ran for property assessor in Putnam County where he was born. He didn’t participate in debates or anything like that, he just ran negative campaign ads. He won the election.
Now, what started as merely strange was about to turn very dark, friends...
A week after taking office, Byron called a press conference to announce he’d discovered $100 million worth of property taxes that hadn’t been paid. But before the reverberations from that headline had reached the farthest corners of Putnam county, from Hanging Limb to Muddy Pond, the County Commission, to which Byron reported, responded that $100 million was the “normal backlog” for property taxes at this time of year. They also suggested that Bryon should just do his job and stop holding press conferences. After further checking, Byron held a press conference to announce they were right. Then he left town – for Puerto Rico.
While using his office to punish or bribe his enemies, Looper managed to win a primary to face extremely long odds against Tommy Burks, a popular incumbent State Senator.
In October of ‘98, with the TBI breathing down his neck over corruption charges and seeing no chance to win a fair election, Looper drove to Burks’ farm and shot his opponent in the head.
Looper was arrested, convicted, and arrived at Brushy. His first night here, Low Tax refused to scrub pans in the kitchen. That earned him an extra month of scrubbing.
They moved him to the Morgan County Correctional Complex after Brushy closed, and he died there in 2013. Officially, the cause of death was a problem with his heart. He was 48 years old.
Paul Dennis Reid
Brushy saw its share of evil men in the 113 years it operated, and Paul Dennis Reid was as evil as any of them.
Reid was 20 years old when he was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 20 years in Texas. After serving seven years, Reid was paroled, and he set his sights on Nashville with dreams of becoming a country music star. He ended up washing dishes at Shoney’s, where he was fired for throwing a plate at another employee.
The day after losing his job—this was February of ‘97—Reid went to a Captain D’s that was down the road from his old job. He forced a 16-year old employee and her 25-year old manager into the cooler. He shot them to death and stole money from the register. The next month, he killed three more at a McDonald’s three miles from the Captain D’s.
The month after that, he drove an hour up the road from Nashville to Clarksville, where he kidnapped and cut the throats of a 21-year old and a 16-year old that worked at Baskin-Robbins. He left their bodies in Dunbar Cave, a popular state park.
The Fast Food Killer—they always slap names on them, don’t they?—was convicted of all seven murders, and given seven death sentences, the most ever handed down in a single case in Tennessee. He ended up at Brushy, moved to Morgan County Correctional Complex when Brushy closed, and died in 2013 from pneumonia
The Salvation of a Humble Few
Make no mistake, friend, Brushy has a darkness about it. You’ll recognize that as soon as you step inside and breath this air. But you need to know that it wasn’t all darkness.
Back in ‘82, where the old segregated bath house once stood, they built the Brushy Chapel. They say more than a thousand inmates were baptized. Sure, some of it was that jailhouse religion, act right and get out early, but some of it was real.
In ‘89, they built the High Security Annex, a modern building with solid doors, electronic locks and fire prevention systems, the kind of place you’d expect. D-block became a minimum security section, so maybe that was a kind of redemption, too.
Brushy didn’t suddenly became a nice place to spend time in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Far from it. But there was hope here, too. Good people doing good work, and bad people trying to be good.
One day back in the early ‘70s, a young deer fell off of the cliff into the yard here at Brushy. The inmates decided to keep the deer as a sort of “pet,” and named the deer “Geronimo” on account of how it came to be in the prison. Geronimo was tamed and liked to chew on unlit cigarettes.
When labor disputes shut down Brushy from ‘72 to ’75, the inmates were moved to Nashville, but Geronimo stayed behind with its future uncertain. The inmates voted to move Geronimo to Nashville’s prison. The state paid to move the deer to Nashville with its friends, but Geronimo had trouble adjusting to life away from Brushy Mountain.
The Nashville warden said the deer threw "temper tantrums." One inmate's face was nicked by the deer and required stitches. When the prisoner was taken to the hospital for medical attention, he briefly escaped.
Geronimo's days behind bars ended when the animal broke its leg and the limb had to amputated. Newspaper reports don’t specify where the deer spent the rest of its life, but Geronimo still lives on in the hearts of inmates & guards who cared for it.
A New Beginning
Now there are a few ways to think about this prison a decade after it closed.
On the one hand, you can thank a couple of sharp entrepreneurs from Chattanooga for seeing an opportunity to bring a good business and good jobs back to this amazing place. The Brushy Mountain Group came together in 2013 and they’ve been working here ever since.
But they couldn’t have done it without the help of Morgan County, its leaders and citizens, all of them determined to honor the past and build a future big enough to share. The tours, the distillery, the concerts, the good times you’re having here, let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. But it came to be in the best way, from good people working together.
Brushy ate Tennessee’s sins for 113 years. It bore witness to terrible sadness and awful violence. It provided hard lessons and good jobs. More than anything, it created a legend and a legacy that will echo across this country and its history.
Come visit us, and enjoy your time here, friend.