I grew up in McNairy County, Tennessee, the home of Sheriff Buford Pusser of “Walking Tall” fame. Stories about Pusser and the Stateline Mob were as common to me as talking about my cousin who lived down the road. I fondly remember sitting on the sun-bleached, rain weathered front porch of my Grandparent’s log house and soaking in tales of mystery, intrigue, and murder.
Maybe these were not the best choices of stories for young ears, but they are a part of my heritage and a part of me. I learned the chemical compositions that can dissolve a body by hearing about a man who killed his wife, put her body in an abandoned well and poured lye on it, so it would quickly dissolve. Bribery and bootleg whiskey was always a common topic.
One tale, however, always stood out. In Chewalla, Tennessee, a neighboring town, there lived a man, who by today’s terminology, would be considered a serial killer. Russ Hamilton would meet his demise in 1968, in a Christmas Day shootout with Sheriff Pusser. This was two years before my birth, and certainly not a “hot” news story by the time I was listening to front porch storytelling. In fact, I never had a name to attach to the horrific tale of how he murdered one of his wives until I was an adult and began researching for my writing. As a child, my Grandfather would recount how in 1940, Russ tortured and killed Grace Burns, his “wife” (no one can confirm if they were, indeed, legally married), tied her up in the woods and left her to die. Body parts were strewn by animals through the woods, ultimately leading to her body being found. Other versions of the story state that he had dismembered her. At any rate, it was quite a lot for a child’s imagination.
This is where the story takes a sharp left turn, not in the details of the horrific murder, but rather in learning how close a connection my Grandfather had to this man! They were “running buddies”! Grandpa, who had long passed when I began my research, is quoted as often saying that Russ, “…was the nicest man you would ever want to meet unless he had been drinking.” That seems to ring true, when you look at his life history, although I am not certain that bootleg whiskey, alone, was the catalyst for his callousness and evil temper.
No one knows exactly when Russ started killing. It seems that he was an odd child and possessed the stereotypical serial killer characteristic of torturing and killing helpless animals. Family members, transients and lovers suffered unusual and untimely deaths or simply disappeared. The first documented murder was in 1931 when he killed Deputy John York in Chewalla, Tennessee. In 1933, he went to the Tennessee State Penitentiary for that killing but was paroled and pardoned in 1938.
In late August/early September of 1940, he brutally tortured and murdered his wife, Grace, for which he would negotiate a plea deal of 2nd Degree murder with a ten-year sentence. However, he was paroled on June 29, 1948. In January 1951, his mother, Ben Ella Hamilton, was found dead and although he was never charged, it is commonly held that Russ
killed her. While being questioned about her death, he was found to be in violation of parole and did go back to prison. (Maybe a measure of justice there.) He was paroled, again, on January 1, 1953, but was arrested for assault and battery, less than two months later and returned to prison until June of that year, when he was finally discharged.
Russ tended to bounce between the McNairy County, Tennessee area and Lauderdale County, Alabama and it was there, in October of 1960, that he killed a co-worker, John G. Grossheim. He was found guilty of 2nd Degree murder and sentenced to 40 years to life. However, he was granted a new trial in 1963 and the jury returned a verdict of 1st Degree manslaughter with a ten-year sentence.
He was released in February of 1967 and went to live with a cousin, Don Pipkin, in Selmer, Tennessee, who owned a small apartment that Russ would rent for $20 a month. On Christmas Day, 1968, one of Russ’ drunken rampages would end his life. He fell through a plate glass window during a Christmas celebration and when Don took him home, he became belligerent and drew a gun on him. Don retreated and called the law. When Sheriff Buford Pusser arrived at the front door and announced himself, Russ started firing as he came through the door. Sheriff Pusser was wounded but returned fire and shot Russ right between the eyes. A lifetime of killing was brought to an end by one bullet.
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