Upland Chronicles: Was Jasper Mellinger's death accident or murder?

Jan. 06, 2013 @ 03:20 PM

Due to the lack of adequate forensic science techniques in the Smoky Mountains in the early 1900s, the exact cause of death of Jasper Mellinger may never be known. While some people contend it was nothing more than a tragic accident, others say it was murder.

Although the exact date is unknown, Jasper Mellinger left his home in the Roaring Fork area sometime between 1901 and 1903 and was never seen alive again. He was walking toward North Carolina along a ridge between Elkmont and Hazel Creek. It is possible that Mellinger, who was a blacksmith, was traveling somewhere for work to earn some money.

Mellinger had been missing for several years when his remains were discovered and the local people started calling the place where he was found Mellinger Death Ridge.

According to an account in “Smoky Mountain Folks and their Lore” by Joseph Hall, Zeb Lawson who was a fire guard in the mountains, told that Mellinger was caught in a bear trap placed along the ridge illegally by hunters. The bear trap captured him, shattered his bones and stranded Mellinger on the rugged mountain.

Mellinger was slowly dying of exposure and starvation when the two hunters who set the illegal trap came along and found him. Knowing they were in trouble, the hunters were faced with a decision of whether to save Mellinger and risk retaliation or to kill him and save themselves from the authorities and Mellinger’s family.

They decided to kill him. Mellinger was probably bludgeoned to death with a log or big rock. They either buried him in a shallow grave or threw him off a cliff so that it would appear he had accidentally fallen.

Several years passed before Mellinger’s body was discovered. Identification of the remains was possible only because Mellinger’s pocket watch, his rifle and other personal effects were found with him. A coroner’s inquest was held at the scene but no true bill was ever issued by the grand jury and no circuit court trial was conducted.

A few years later a young man in Wear’s Valley fell ill and on what he thought was his deathbed confessed to his part in the crime. He admitted that he and his father, John Beasley, set a bear trap in violation of the law in the middle of the trail without warning signs.

When they returned five days later they discovered Mellinger caught in the bear trap almost at the point of death from pain and exposure. He said his father ordered him to kill the unfortunate victim with a log. Reluctantly, young Beasley followed his father’s orders and the father and son together covered Mellinger’s body with broken hemlocks.

Another version of the story recounted in Dr. Gail Palmer’s upcoming book about cemeteries in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park says Art Huskey and his son were accused, faced trial and subsequently acquitted of the crime when a jury could not decide which man was responsible for the actual murder. However Huskey’s descendants disclaim this story.

There are others who say that instead of a father and son duo the crime was committed by two brothers whose names vary with the telling. Still many folks doubt that Mellinger was actually murdered.

They feel he was simply the unfortunate victim of an accident and possibly broke his leg by stumbling and, unable to walk, died of exposure.

Regardless of the true circumstances surrounding the death of Jasper Mellinger, once his remains were positively identified his family buried him in a little cemetery near his home.

His final resting place may be reached by following an unmarked path off of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail which leads to an old home site. All that remains are a few large logs and a stack of rocks that were once a chimney.

Deeper along the trail up a small slope sits a small moss-covered cemetery with three graves. It is here that you will find the grave of Jasper Mellinger marked with a crude homemade tombstone. The other graves are those of two of his children, Charles (born 1874) and Lenora (born 1872).

Born in 1837, Mellinger was only around 45 years old when he died. His widow, Martha Yarnell Mellinger who married Jasper on Aug. 3, 1871, was left destitute. She had no alternative but to live in the Sevier County Farm (commonly called the Poorhouse) in Sevierville. Known as Granny Mellinger by fellow residents and visitors, she was a well loved figure at the establishment.

When Martha died in 1925 after living at the Poorhouse for more than 20 years she was buried there in the county cemetery for the indigent. The caretakers at the poor farm loved Granny Mellinger so well that they wouldn’t allow her to be buried in one of the usual ordinary pine coffins.

Instead, they purchased a nice casket for her with their own money and provided her a more dignified burial. The county cemetery is adjacent to LeConte Medical Center on Middle Creek Road.

Mellinger Death Ridge, a spur of Cold Spring Knob near Miry Ridge, by its name bears silent witness to the tragic incident over a century ago.

Although there were fluctuations in the spelling, national park records indicate the ridge where Jasper Mellinger’s life ended was being identified with Mellinger’s name as early as 1905. In 1943 “Mellinger Death Ridge” was officially recognized and adopted as the official name by the park and the U.S. Geological Survey.

No one will ever know exactly what happened over a century ago on that otherwise insignificant place deep within rugged Smoky Mountains that made Jasper Mellinger forever a legend in the annals of Smoky Mountain Folklore.

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.