Murder ballad written by a killer
by Robert A. Waters
In 1884, Willis (Willie) Maberry murdered Thomas Galbreath in cold blood. The two had been friends, but during a quarrel, Galbreath “cut” Maberry with a knife. The wounded man, married to his assailant’s sister, vowed revenge.
Roane County, Tennessee lies in the eastern section of the state. The county seat is Kingston, where Sam Houston once worked before moving to Texas. Harriman (“the town that temperance built”) is nearby. Hardy, self-governing people populated the rural area in the late 1880s. Like many Southerners, they didn’t take kindly to acts of aggression.
One September afternoon, in a town called Old Oakdale, a small crowd gathered at the home of Tom Galbreath’s brother. Suddenly, a shotgun blast sent Tom reeling. He’d been hit “in the left side, on the arm, and the back of the neck and through the leg,” according to an article entitled, “The Killer Poet,” written by Jere Hall and Robert L. Bailey.
Several people saw the killer. Willis Maberry had hidden beneath the porch steps of a home across the street. Waiting in ambush until he had a clear shot, Maberry fired. Hall and Bailey wrote: “Lucy Galbreath was sitting inside the house peeling apples when the shot rang out. She rushed to the door, saw Maberry with a gun in his hand pointed at Tom and called to him not to shoot any more since he had already killed her pig. Maberry offered to pay Lucy for the pig, and did not shoot again. The pig died instantly and Tom died about 24 hours later. Some of the shots also went through a fence and Lucy's feather beds which were drying on the fence.”
Maberry quickly left Roane County, though he later claimed that he went to Tom’s funeral. For twenty-five years he wandered, working in St. Louis, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Nebraska. There seems to have been little effort to track him down.
In 1909, Maberry returned to Roane County. Family members stated that the fugitive came back to claim property he’d inherited from his recently deceased father. (He likely had remained in contact with some of his family during those years on the run.)
The sheriff arrested Maberry. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. Hall and Bailey reported that “while still being held in jail in Kingston, [Maberry] began writing a poignant poem which was entitled ‘Roane County Prisoner.’ He later finished the poem, [and] it was set to music and became quite popular after the turn of the century under the title, ‘The Hills of Roane County.’ Many Roane County residents remember hearing it played on the radio in the 1930s and 40s.”
After serving several years in prison, Maberry became ill and was released. He returned home to Roane County, but never regained his health. He is buried in Byington, between Kingston and Oak Ridge.
Unlike many folk songs which can have hundreds of different versions, this song has remained virtually the same throughout the decades, with little variation.
The version I’m including here is by Tony Rice. One of the best guitarists in country music, he also has a fine, lonesome voice.
The Hills of Roane County
Written by Willis Maberry
In the beautiful hills in the midst of Roane County,
That's where I have roamed for many long years.
That's where my heart's been tending most ever,
That's where the first steps of misfortune I made.
Was about thirty years when I courted and married.
Amanda Galbreath would soon be my wife.
But her brother stabbed me for some unknown reason;
Just three months later, I'd taken Tom's life.
For twenty-five years this world I have traveled;
I’ve been to old England, to France, and to Spain.
But I missed my old home in the hills of Roane County.
I boarded a steamer and came back again.
I was captured and tried in the village of Kingston.
Not a man in that county would speak one kind word.
When the jury came in with the verdict next morning,
Was a lifetime in prison was the words that I heard.
When the train pulled out, poor Mother stood weeping,
And sister, she sat all alone with a sigh.
And the last words I heard was: "Willie, God bless you;
Dear Willie, God bless you, God bless you; goodbye."
In the scorching hot sands of this foundry Iʼm working,
More than just working my whole life away.
Theyʼll measure my grave on the banks of old Cumberland
As soon as Iʼve finished the rest of my days.
Well, the jury was great, but the judge he was better.
There’s better and worse although you may see.
Boys, when you write home from the prison in Nashville,
Place one of my songs in your letter for me.