Law and order
Judge's novel recalls a bloody true-crime tale
On June 24, 1913, 12 men reached a verdict in the trial of Anna Dotson, the first woman in Tennessee history to face possible hanging for murder. It was a case that fascinated the public, and nearly a century later it grabbed the attention of Kip Gayden, a judge of the First Circuit Court in Nashville. The judge began pouring over local newspaper accounts of the case. "The thing that hooked me most was that every article I read got more interesting," Gayden recalls. "The story was just surreal and no historians that I knew had ever heard of this case."
Gayden, who's been presiding over court cases for more than 30 years, was so fascinated by the events and people enmeshed in this century-old romantic triangle that he decided to turn those newspaper stories into his first work of historical fiction, Miscarriage of Justice. Writing is a familiar activity for the judge; in the past he's produced magazine articles on Tennessee judicial cases, a novel about a POW and a biography of former Nashville Mayor John Bass. Turning for the first time to historical fiction, Gayden decided to devote his limited time away from the bench to imagining what reporters hadn't covered in Anna Dotson's story. And for the next five years, that's what he did. "I had been looking for a subject and I am drawn to historical stories," he says. "I've found it stretches one's imagination, lets one's mind wander. I used to paint a little, and writing is like that. You go into another world."
It was a friend researching his genealogy who first came across an article about Dotson. Knowing Gayden's interest in history, especially as it relates to the law, he suggested the judge check it out.
Dotson was a prominent and popular socialite in the small town of Gallatin, Tennessee, who shot and killed her lover, Charlie Cobb, while he was cutting hair in a Nashville barbershop. Saying she had already ruined her life by having the affair, Dotson confessed to authorities that she killed Cobb to prevent her husband from doing so. Dr. Walter Dotson was a pillar of their community; Anna Dotson said it was better that she, not her husband, suffer the consequences of killing Cobb. To his surprise, Gayden found himself feeling compassion for the 32-year-old woman. "When I first got into the story, I was of the opinion that this woman did a terrible deed, and she did. Killing someone is wrong and can't be justified. But I really got into the head of Anna Dotson in writing the book. She was in a vise, a terrible vise, and took that way out. As you'll notice, my book ends up by saying 'you be the judge' because I have a different feeling about it than when I started the story."
Part of the vise in which Anna Dotson found herself were the restrictions society imposed on its female population in 1913. Women were still seven years away from ratification of the 19th amendment, which would allow them to vote. Higher education, career choice, winning custody of children in divorce cases, access to birth control, inheriting family property—all were difficult for women because of laws or social stigma. And according to Gayden's research, getting Walter to find time for his wife was especially difficult for Anna. "He [Dr. Dotson] was a workaholic. He was extremely active politically and received President Taft in Gallatin, as a matter of fact. He was head of the Lion's Club, he was a lecturer for the Masons, a city alderman. He was a doctor and did surgery in Nashville as well as Gallatin. I don't know how the guy even went home—and sometimes, apparently, he didn't," Gayden says with a laugh.
Gayden not only immersed himself in newspaper reports of the crime, he also turned detective, sleuthing for additional sources of information from city archives and stories passed down from people who'd known Anna Dotson. But no one proved to be more revealing, or to tell the tale better, than the woman herself. "One of the interesting things about it was that she got up on the witness stand and wrote my book. She didn't pull any punches. I'm sure her lawyers were telling her, shut up! But she just told the whole story."
The story, yes. The novel, no. Gayden feels it's the responsibility of any writer of historical fiction to be as accurate as possible, with the understanding that conversations, emotions, reactions and other subjective occurrences are the province of the author. "Just about everything in the book is either true or reasonably based on the characters and the events as they would have happened," he says. "I think you have the responsibility to stick to the truth as much as you can."
In 1913, women were not allowed to serve on juries, which meant there were 12 men deciding Anna Dotson's fate, including the possibility of the death sentence. Suffragettes attended the trial, wearing the yellow roses that were a symbol of their support for passage of the 19th amendment. The debate over whether women should have the right to vote, thereby also gaining the right to be on juries, became a subplot in Miscarriage of Justice. "I think the men [on the jury] had to go through an osmosis in a short period of time in their thinking," Gayden says. "It's reasonable to ask if Walter Dotson had killed him [Charlie Cobb], what would they have done to him? I think they believed she [Anna] killed Charlie to spare Walter."
Having developed his own feelings of sympathy for Anna Dotson, Gayden was surprised by how many of his advance readers disagreed with the jury's final verdict. So did the trial's judge, A.B. Neil, who later became chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Neil called the verdict a "miscarriage of justice," which gave Gayden his book's title. Gayden's goal in writing Miscarriage of Justice was a simple one, he says. "It is historical fiction I wanted to make into a mystery, to set up a jury trial in such a way that it would be a one-two punch to the reader." Did he accomplish that goal? To quote the final line in his book, "I invite you to be the judge."
Formerly host of "The Fine Print," a public radio program of interviews with writers, Rebecca Bain currently reads for work and pleasure at her home in Nashville.