5. The First Woman Sentenced to the Electric Chair
Franklin holds the dubious distinction of the home of the first woman sentenced to die by electrocution in Tennessee.
Her name was Betty Burge. She ran a boarding house on what is now Fowlkes Street just up the street from the Carter House. Burge, with her son Sherman, planned and perpetrated the murder of Rosa Mary Dean, a lone, young woman who was from out of town and down on her luck, in December 1949. If the stories of witnesses in the Burge’s trial in early 1950 are true, Burge killed more than once.
Dean was found on the cold morning of Dec. 12, 1949, behind the old Franklin High School gym on West Fowlkes Street with her throat slashed. She was nearly decapitated.
A virtual stranger, who came to town from Indianapolis looking for a place to stay, Dean’s murder– and the apprehension and trial of her killers— rocked Franklin and brought national attention to the crime.
Betty and Sherman were the only people she knew in town, from boarding at their house five years before. What Dean saw– or said she saw– then would lead to her death.
After arriving off the train late on Dec. 11, Dean went looking for a room at the Burges’s boarding house. Penniless and desperate, she threatened blackmail by saying she saw Betty help murder her lover’s wife, five years earlier. Supposedly, Burge murdered Sally Golden to marry her husband, John, so the pair could collect the life insurance money on Sally Golden. Rosa Mary Dean claimed she witnessed the murder and demanded money to keep quiet.
Betty and Sherman kept her quiet, all right, a silence Dean paid for in blood. The two beat her and cut her throat, before sneaking out in the early hours, with help from one of their boarders, to dump her body by the incinerator behind the old Franklin High School gym. A pair of students found her the next morning.
The Burges were soon arrested and a sensational trial ensued. Bobby Woodard, the accomplice, talked and testified. An incensed and curious public showed up to witness the trial and the killers. Newspaper accounts at the time estimate that 15,000 people crowded the square and streets by the courthouse in downtown Franklin for the two-week January trial.
In the end, both found guilty, Betty became the first-ever woman sentenced to die by the electric chair in Tennessee. Sherman also was sentenced to death.
In the end, both escaped the electric chair. Then-Gov. Gordon Browning commuted their sentences to 99 years.
Dean was buried quietly a week after her death in an unmarked grave, with police as pallbearers and no family present, or even known of, to send her off. In town, she was known only, and then just barely, by her killers.