The Legend of Daniel Keith
By Pat Mendoza
In the Rutherford County jail of old,
There’s a story of a man or so I’m told;
A massive man with a great red beard,
Whose haunting of that jail is still heard.
His name was Daniel Keith and on December 11, 1880, he was the innocent victim of a public hanging in Rutherford County, North Carolina; and the people there will tell you that his curse is still on that land.
Daniel Keith was a massive man; and many folks feared him. It is said that he stood six foot-four and weighed around 230 pounds of solid muscle. Few men would risk a confrontation with him man to man.
Keith’s thirty-three years of life was a history of one con game after another, with petty theft as a sideline. But, nowhere in his criminal record was there ever a mention of his committing a violent crime. He had conned many a man out of his money and women out of their favors. He was married three times and three times he deserted his wives. Keith was born in Pulaski County, Kentucky in 1848, and was the youngest of eight children born to Clayborn Keith and his wife, Permillia.
Life was rough for Clayborn in those days. He was a farmer with a hundred dollars worth of land and at age twenty-eight, he was the father of eight children. The oldest of these was his daughter, Millie, who was thirteen when Daniel was born.
Keith’s father died when he was thirteen; and in 1862, a then fourteen year old, Daniel Keith left home and joined the Confederate Army. This was the beginning of his career; and of it he said, “It was one of those critical points in a man’s life at which there is but an inch between the path to heaven and the road to hell.”
He deserted the army and made his way north to Indiana and began to steal on a small scale to survive. He later secured employment, but burglarized his employer. He returned to Kentucky, stole a horse and headed for Tennessee. In Tennessee, he again joined the Confederate Army and again deserted it; this time he was caught, but he escaped punishment by shrewdly lying.
He spent years living in many parts of Tennessee, and in 1878, he moved southeast into North Carolina. Keith settled in Rutherford County, and quickly made his presence known with a series of petty thefts and swindles. Rutherford County was an ideal location for these swindles, as it was an area that gold could still be found. In 1831, the first dollar gold piece in U.S. history was minted in Rutherfordton, at Bechtler’s mint. Many men of the area still had dreams of finding that Bonanza that would assure them a rich and cozy life. It was men of this nature that proved to be easy pickings for Daniel Keith.
Making Certain Enemies
His biggest swindle took place in 1879 when he took a sixty-eight pound rock and rubbed it with brass. He sold this “gold” mine to many men in Western Carolina making him one of the most unpopular men in North Carolina. Many swore that they would get even with him; and in January of 1880, a tragedy would give them the opportunity to rid Rutherford County of Daniel Keith once and for all.
The body of ten year old (some records say 12 years old) Alice Ellis was found in a wooded area of Rutherford County. She had been brutally raped and murdered; and when Sheriff N. E. Walker was notified, a witness came forth and said that he had seen Daniel Keith in the area and that he appeared to be drunk and belligerent. A couple of hour’s later Sheriff Walker contacted Keith at his cabin. He was sober, but there were bloodstains on his shirt. The Sheriff asked him where the stains had come from, and Keith stated that he had “been skinning rabbits.” His story was not believed even though the carcasses of the rabbits had been found. Keith was arrested. He was first taken to the Rutherford County jail, but was transferred to the Cleveland County jail in Shelby, N.C., because the Sheriff feared a lynch mob would take justice into their hands.
Keith was found guilty in the spring term of the Rutherford County court in spite of evidence produced in the trial that there was an escaped convict from neighboring McDowell County who had been sighted in the area by several persons. This fugitive had been awaiting execution for the same crime Keith was accused. The evidence was ruled inadmissible because of a ruling in North Carolina (State vs. Baxter) that “on trial of an indictment for crime, evidence tending to the guilt of another in its commission does not disprove the criminality of the party charged.”
Keith appealed his conviction to the North Carolina Supreme Court, but the conviction was sustained. Judge W. I. Love sentenced that on December 11, 1880, Daniel Keith was to be taken to a place of execution and to be hanged until he was “Dead, dead, dead.”
Keith was returned to the Rutherford County jail a few days before his execution. According to a reporter from the Charlotte Observer, he was “chained with a heavy chain to the bottom of the cage in which he was confined … his coffin was placed near the cage and near the place where he sat.” Daniel Keith had professed his innocence up to the moment they took him to the “hanging meadow,” an area where the Rutherfordton Hospital now stands.
On the day of his execution, he told Sheriff Walker “the soul of an innocent man won’t ever rest until he can prove himself innocent.” He told the Sheriff, before a large crowd that had gathered to see him hang, “a man should be hung for what he’s done, not for what he ain’t done.” He then advised the Sheriff to “keep a cool head and not become excited” when he went to hang him.
The Charlotte Observer reported that at 1:00 p.m., Daniel Keith was hanged and “the world is rid of a monster.”
A Haunting Shadow
A few days after the hanging, the people of Rutherfordton noticed something very odd. It was as if Daniel Keith’s warning was coming true, for there appeared on the South wall of the jail a very definite shadow. The shadow of a hanged man! At first the Sheriff thought it was a prank, so he had someone paint over the shadow. But, after a few days it appeared again! Exactly as it had before!
For eighty years thereafter many attempts were made to paint and white wash the shadow away, but it refused to leave. It was as though the shadow was there to remind them of the deed they had done.
The old jail stood at the intersection of North Carolina 108 and U.S. 221, a prime business location in the city of Rutherfordton. In 1960, the old jail was torn down in the name of progress, but something strange is still happening at that location. Every business that has occupied that land has failed for one reason or another. Some people say it was due to bad choices in location, or many other “sound” business reasons. But mostly you’ll hear another explanation by those in Rutherford County. They say that the curse of Daniel Keith is still on that land … to remind them of that wintry day when Daniel Keith was hanged.
Pat Mendoza is a storyteller, musician, singer and writer. He’s a former resident of Rutherford county, now living in Colorado. We contacted him for permission to reprint his story and he provided these details
I turned the story into a song and it was the third most requested song in a three county area (I lived in Rutherford County at the time) for quite awhile. The song actually came out before the written piece. It was recorded in Charlotte at the Arthur Smith Studios.
The original story was published in a 1984 book titled The Heritage of Rutherford County, North Carolina, Volume 1 (on page 5). It was again published in a book I wrote called Extraordinary People in Extraordinary Times. Libraries Unlimited is the publisher.
I did extensive research on the life of Daniel Keith, spending three days in Raleigh going through old court records, newspaper files, and census reports. I disproved two points of the legend with that research; 1) that Daniel Keith was hanged at the jail and 2) that he was held in Rutherford county the whole time of his incarceration.
I lived in Rutherford County for eight years. It is still one of my favorite places. As a matter of fact I performed a series of concerts in Cleveland and Rutherford Counties this past October .