Jerry Summers: Murder Of A Wealthy Farmer At Etowah - 1911

Monday, December 6, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Tragic accidents and violent crimes often know no class distinction in events along the road of life.

On Friday, August 25, 1911, James L. Miller, 65, a wealthy farmer in Etowah, Tennessee was the victim of a vicious homicide that took place in a thicket on his property. 

Three men and a woman were charged with the crime including the decedent's son, Bascom Miller, Thomas Senter and C. W. Rose and his wife.  The latter two were tenants on the victim’s farm.

The alleged motive for killing the victim was an act of vengeance by C.W.

Rose who had recently been prosecuted by Mr. Miller for stealing corn from the Miller farm.

Bascom Miller had a learning disability, and it was alleged that Rose had driven the young man to participate in the heinous crime by threats and by taking advantage of his lack of full mental capacity.  Stories vary as to his active or passive involvement in his father’s death.

The successful plot called for Mrs. Rose to stand on the road when Mr. Miller came by, and she beckoned him to help her.  When he responded to her calls to see what she wanted he was led into a thicket where he was ambushed by the three males.  Allegedly, young Miller and Senter held the victim while Rose viciously attacked him with a heavy hand axe according to one version of the horrible crime. Rose’s wife is also alleged to have cried out “Glory be to God; the old devil is out of the way at last.”  A third historical version asserts that Bascom Miller was the actual killer of his father, but a trial jury would later vote 9-3 in favor of his innocence and the case would not be retried.

The body was horribly mutilated, and the remains were left hidden in the thicket in a poorly dug grave by Thomas Senter and Bascom Miller.

Due to his failure to return to the county home, family members caused a search to take place which resulted in the discovery of the body.

The murder prosecution resulted in C.W. Rose being sentenced to hang.  The fate of Senter and Mrs. Rose is unclear from the available surviving records.

James L. Miller had previously taught as a teacher in the Etowah community and had served for two terms as Superintendent of Schools in McMinn County.  At the time of his death his former students remember him with affectionate regard. 

His son, White Burkett Miller (1866-1929), was a distinguished lawyer in Chattanooga and would form what is now the prestigious Chattanooga law firm of Miller and Martin with over 130-150 attorneys in Chattanooga, Atlanta, Nashville and Charlotte.  A second son, Vaughn Miller, Sr. would likewise have a distinguished legal career.  The third son of James L. Miller was the aforementioned Bascom Miller.

The Miller name is best remembered for the philanthropic and legal work of grandson Burkett Miller (1890-1977) as a successful financier who also established a charitable foundation, Tonya Memorial Foundation, (TMF) that has given multi-millions to support such local community endeavors as the Willie Miller Eye Center (in honor of his wife), Tivoli, Coolidge Park, Renaissance Park, the Hitching Visitor Center, and many others.

The University of Chattanooga (UC) and the University of the South have benefited from TMF’s endowment of chairs, lectures, and internships.  He also donated the residence on Lookout Mountain which has served as the UC Chancellor’s (President) residence.

A strong supporter of downtown Chattanooga, he funded the initial creation of Miller Park also known as Miller Plaza in the memory of his father, White Miller.

Mr. Burkett Miller’s law school alma mater, the University of Virginia, also benefits from his philanthropy in the creation of the Miller Center as “a place without partisanship, where leaders, scholars and the public could come together for a discussion grounded in history to find consensus solutions.”

In 2017 a former associate of Miller and Martin, Thomas E. Hayes (2005-2012), wrote the history of Miller and Martin titled, “Substance Matters.” 

In a candid and historical document prepared in commemoration of the firm's 150th Anniversary (1867-2017), Hayes presented the origin of (M&L) that began with the founder being Colonel T.M. Burkett following his admission to the legal bar in 1867 after the Civil War.

The author includes several incidents from a historical perspective that are candid, humorous, and sometimes contradictory and incorrect.  Two examples follow:

(1)       It is written that Burkett served in the Civil War, but it is not absolutely clear as to which side of the conflict he was on as a soldier; and

(2)       Although he never rose above the rank of Third Lieutenant “he returned home however with the moniker of ‘Colonel’ by which he has come to be known and remembered.”

In 164 pages Hayes shows the development of the law firm from its humble beginnings to the corporate multi-state legal giant that it is today.

In addition to the discussion of the firm it also includes the works of several other recognized authorities which also makes it an additional important source of the history of Chattanooga and East Tennessee.

Like many families that have unfortunate episodes in their history, the tragic death of James L. Miller in 1911 in Etowah has been followed by a rich tradition of public service that has greatly overcome the tragedy of that date.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at


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