By the Sword 

A reporter remembers: a bloodstained bedroom in a white-columned mansion

A reporter remembers: a bloodstained bedroom in a white-columned mansion

It was about 3 o’clock in the morning when my bedroom phone rang. There was nothing unusual about that. I was the police reporter for the Nashville Banner, and I got calls from anybody and everybody. My home telephone number was and is listed in the directory. Back then, I also had a police-radio-dispatcher friend who called me regularly when he was on duty. His shift was 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. For whatever reason, he liked me, and whenever he heard anything the least bit exciting or interesting, he would call me. Hell, he would even call me if nothing was going on.

The phone would ring about 3 in the morning, and he would say, “All’s quiet.” So, it wasn’t unusual that, in the early morning hours of April 6, 1963, I grabbed the phone before the first ring was over. Cradling the phone receiver between my pillow and my ear, I heard the voice of Henry Gleaves, the dispatcher. “There’s something going on out on Harding Road, right up the street from the Belle Meade Theatre. The house number is 4215 Harding Rd.”

“What’s going on Henry?” I asked, admittedly still a little blurry-eyed.

“Don’t know, but something strange,” answered my dispatcher friend. “Homicide and Dr. Core are on the way.”

“And so am I. Thanks,” I said, hanging up the phone and jumping out of bed.

Dr. Core was W.J. Core, the county medical examiner. Core was never summoned to a crime scene unless someone was dead. Whenever his name was mentioned, it was a wake-up call for me. I went to virtually all of the murders, suicides, even accidental deaths, day or night.

Pulling out of my driveway in Green Hills, I headed to the Wilson residence, about 10 minutes away. I drove past the Belle Meade Theatre and spotted the Wilson residence. To put it mildly, it was not the kind of home I was used to showing up at in the middle of the night. It was a grand, two-story mansion, with huge white columns flanking a front porch, and dozens of large trees shading an expansive lot. Stone columns rose from either side of the driveway.

The driveway meandered into a parking area at the rear of the residence. Arriving just in front of me was Core, the medical examiner, a short, heavyset older man, who wore wire-rimmed glasses down on his nose. Core had both a sense of duty and a sense of humor on homicide calls. No death was ever too gruesome for him. He had seen it all.

“What you got, Doc?” I asked.

“Don’t know...yet,” he answered, walking toward the back door with his little black leather bag in hand.

The interior of the home was wall-to-wall antiques, paintings, and expensive carpets. At the top of a stairwell, to the right, were two bedrooms. Both fronted on Harding Road. Two city homicide detectives, Ernest Castleman and Benton Hicks, were standing in front of the bedroom doors, along with John Cole, an investigator for District Attorney General Harry Nichols.

Meanwhile, as I looked in one of the bedrooms, I saw a body, sprawled on the floor, face up, with its feet pointing at the side of one of two twin beds. It was 54-year-old John B. Wilson, fully dressed except for his suit coat. A well-known financier and sports-car enthusiast, Wilson was also a leading social figure in the city, having been president of the Nashville Bachelors Club. Wilson was a longtime Nashvillian; he had lived in the Harding Road house all of his life except for a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard dur ing World War II. In fact, he had been born in the house in 1909.

But now, a large blood stain circled the front of his white shirt. There was also a pool of blood on the floor and a smudge of blood on the bed nearest the doorway.

“You ain’t going to believe this, Doc,” Detective Hicks said to Core. “His wife killed him with this samurai sword.”

I stood there for a moment between the body and the doorway. Back then I was allowed wherever detectives went. I stepped over the deceased Wilson, and headed to the foot of the bed to get a better look. Meanwhile, Core leaned over and checked the victim’s fatal wound.

Within a day, Core would make a detailed report laying out the cause of death. But within hours, the facts surrounding the case of Nashville’s samurai murder would start spilling out.

According to various interviews conducted by police, this much quickly became known: Wilson and his wife, the former Gene Beasley Cochrane, had arrived home about 2 a.m. They had been to a party hosted by attorney James O. Bass, at his home on Chickering Lane. A founding partner of the prestigious Bass, Berry and Sims law firm in Nashville, Bass told investigators he recalled Wilson playing billiards at his home that night. He said the Wilsons were the last to leave the party, but added he didn’t see any indication that Wilson had had too much to drink.

After entering their sprawling Harding Road home, Gene Wilson told authorities she went into the bedroom of her son, 20-year-old William Cochrane. Cochrane, who was her son by a prior marriage, was an employee of Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. Often the target of tirades from Wilson, his stepfather, Cochrane only came home on weekends because of the constant abuse. All the family members, and many of their friends, knew of the rancor between the two men.

Gene Wilson, who was the daughter of a well-known local furniture dealer, told authorities she entered her son’s bedroom to talk with him. Her husband followed her into the room. As Cochrane later told authorities, Wilson immediately “started getting on me about something. He was always getting on me about something.” As the victim’s stepson later elaborated to Assistant District Attorney Howard Butler, “We didn’t think alike, and everything I did was wrong.”

Gene Wilson told investigators that, as her husband continued to snipe at her son, she leaped on one of the single beds, removing a samurai sword from a wall rack. An Oriental “weapon of honor,” the Japanese sword, which had a 28-inch blade, had been a gift to Cochrane from his biological father two years earlier. Still wearing her evening dress, Gene Wilson said she was trying to ease the tension in the room and “humor” her husband back to his own bedroom.

Trying to impersonate the late swashbuckling movie star, Douglas Fairbanks, she said she plunged the tip of the 28-inch sword blade into a decorative pillow at the head of the bed. Then, she claimed, she swirled around with her sword, à la Fairbanks, and at that very moment, her husband lunged towards her. Five inches of the blade plunged into her husband’s chest, piercing his heart. Within minutes, Wilson was dead.

Moments after the sword pierced her husband and he lay dying, Gene Wilson rushed to the telephone. Oddly, she did not call for police or an ambulance. Rather she phoned the family physician, Dr. F. Tremaine Billings, who rushed to the home. By the time he arrived, he could offer little help. Wilson was already dead. But Billings did set in motion Gene Wilson’s legal defense. He called John Hooker Sr., one of the city’s top criminal lawyers. He also notified police.

Hooker, a courtly gentleman who was known across the South for his criminal-defense talents, drove into Nashville from his Franklin home, arriving just minutes after the detectives, Castleman and Hicks. Hooker immediately closeted himself with Gene Wilson. Unfortunately, the detectives had already picked up some evidence that could prove incriminating to Hooker’s client. Shortly after Castleman arrived at the Wilson home, he had a conversation with Billings, the doctor. The doctor did not mince words: “Mr. and Mrs. Wilson had had an altercation, and she had killed him.”

Following the advice of Hooker, however, both Gene Wilson and her son refused to give the police any statements about the incident. By this time, she had changed out of her blood-stained evening dress. As investigators began wrapping up their investigation in the bedroom, a hearse from Bracey-Welch Funeral Home swept in the driveway and pulled in behind the darkened residence. Meanwhile, as I stood at the top of the stairs, I could see Hooker and John Cole, the district attorney investigator, commence a legal tap dance that I knew would grow into a matter of intense public interest.

“I’ll bring Mrs. Wilson to the district attorney’s office on Monday,” Hooker told Cole.

But Cole wouldn’t buy it. “Mr. Hooker, she’s going downtown this morning. I’m charging her with murder.”

The veteran lawyer seemed to shake his head in disbelief, then disappeared back behind the bedroom door to give his client the bad news.

The wheels of justice turned quickly. And just four hours after her husband’s death, Gene Wilson appeared before Night Court Judge Daniel Boone. As if in a daze, she spoke quietly with her lawyer. She then turned to Cole, and said, “You mean I’m charged with murder?”

Assured that she was, the attractive, graying mother of three said nothing else. Hooker entered a plea of innocent for her. And she was then released from custody on a $2,500 bond posted by Billings.

News of Wilson’s death, and the arrest of his widow, spread quickly. Headlines screamed across the top of that day’s Banner: “John B. Wilson Dies From Wound, Wife Faces Charge.” A photograph showed Castleman, the detective, holding the infamous sword. Friends rushed to the Wilson residence to offer assistance to Gene Wilson.

The medical examiner determined that John Wilson, described by friends as a “heavy weekend drinker,” had died in about three minutes from loss of blood. Private funeral services were held two days later at the Wilson home. Burial was in Mt. Olivet Cemetery. The day after the funeral, Gene Wilson, accompanied by Hooker and other members of the family, went to the offices of District Attorney General Harry G. Nichol on the sixth floor of the courthouse. There, Hooker began sketching out what amounted to a legal defense strategy.

To Hooker, the affair was “an accident,” he would later tell newspaper reporters. Gene Wilson did indeed have the sword in her hand. But she did not have “any intent of doing any injury to him.” Unfortunately, Hooker said, “Wilson lunged into her.” And, as everyone already knew, the consequences were unfortunate and dire.

Other than Gene Wilson herself, there were no eyewitnesses to the alleged murder. Cochrane, the stepson, told officials he didn’t see his mother impale Wilson with the sword. While his stepfather was berating him, Cochrane said he turned his head away from the abusive Wilson. The only person who truly knew what had happened, therefore, was the woman being charged with the murder.

Investigators fanned out into the community to ask questions about Wilson. For starters, they wanted to know how much Wilson had had to drink at the earlier party. They seemed to get two different answers. Gene Wilson said her husband was “tight,” while Bass, the party host, said he saw nothing “remarkable” about the intoxication of the couple when they left for home.

Meanwhile, Nichol, the county district attorney, told reporters he was somewhat “disappointed at not getting more information from the man’s family.” He placed Assistant District Attorney Paul Bumpus in charge of the investigation. Bumpus returned to the death scene with a draftsman to draw a scale model of the bedroom. Accompanying him were a police photographer and Cole, the veteran investigator. As the probe continued, the questions being asked by scores of people across the city, not to mention the couple’s neighbors in Belle Meade, only multiplied.

Was it an accident? Did Mrs. Wilson murder her husband over his treatment of her son? Did her son stick the sword into his stepfather’s chest, letting his mother take the blame? It wasn’t a case that was going to be easy to prove.

What about fingerprints on the sword? Core, the medical examiner, said it was impossible to lift fingerprints from the handle of the sword because of its spiral-shaped handle. Why wasn’t the bed coverlet in disarray if Gene Wilson jumped on the bed and clowned with the sword before stabbing her husband? Investigators called to the scene did not find anything in disarray.

Finally, something else raised suspicions with John Cole, the district attorney investigator. “If Mrs. Wilson was standing on the bed and her husband on the floor, the blade of the sword would have entered his body on a downward angle,” Cole figured. But the medical examiner ruled the blade entered Wilson’s body on a “straight line.”

To those seeking answers, hope finally came. On May 24, the Davidson County grand jury began an investigation into the murder by calling 11 witnesses for testimony.

Cole, of the D.A.’s office, was the first to testify. I was the second. Others included detectives Castleman, Hicks, and Luke Stewart; police officers James Byrd and Henry Parrish; George Currey, an investigator for the district attorney; James O. Bass, whose party the Wilson’s had attended; and Joseph Eckert of Bracey-Welch Funeral Home.

The grand jury room was located just over the district attorney’s office in the Metro Courthouse. The foreman was Willie Geny, an insurance executive. The grand jury’s options included indicting Gene Wilson for first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, or even assault. Or it could return a “not true bill,” which meant there was insufficient evidence to bring her to trial.

When I was called in, I didn’t spend long with the grand jurors. They only had a few questions for me to answer. I wasn’t surprised later when the grand jury reported a not true bill.

John Hollins Sr., who was then a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office and is now a leading divorce attorney in Nashville, said he and Assistant District Attorney Bumpus would have been assigned to try the case if Gene Wilson had been indicted. But Hollins believes he knows what the grand jurors were thinking when they didn’t indict her.

“I think the grand jury used the ‘He should have went’ defense in reaching its decision,” explained Hollins. “That’s the term used by defense lawyers and prosecutors back then to mean the county was probably better off without Wilson.”

Even though that grand jury didn’t indict Gene Wilson, prosecutors could have taken the case before a later grand jury to seek an indictment from them. But they never did. Gene Wilson was free. She had her story, she stuck to it, and there was no way to disprove it. That doesn’t mean the whispers have stopped.

Most of the other major participants in the investigation of this strange case, Nichol, Butler, Bumpus, Hooker, Cole, Castleman, and others, have died.

As for whatever happened to the samurai sword, Ritter, the Tennessean reporter, was apparently promised it by Harry Nichol, the district attorney general. But the newspaper reporter never got it before Nichol left office. Instead, Hollins, the prosecutor, ended up with it. That was because Hooker, Gene Wilson’s lawyer, did not want the weapon to be returned to members of the Wilson family, so on Hooker’s recommendation, it went to Hollins.

But Hollins says he only had it briefly. A member of Wilson’s family contacted Tom Shriver, who succeeded Nichol as district attorney, and wanted the sword. According to Hollins, “Shriver sent Charles Hunter, one of his investigators, to pick it up so it could be turned over to the family member,” Hollins said.

To this day, 35 years after the crime took place, Nashvillians still occasionally discuss the case. George Currey, a retired Metro police major who was an investigator in the district attorney’s office at the time of Wilson’s death, remembers investigators speculating that William Cochrane, not his mother, might have stabbed his stepfather. Frank Ritter, the reporter for The Tennessean who followed the case, and others, including me, had the same suspicions.

Cochrane, who was only 20 at the time of his stepfather’s death, is now 55. After working as a dredge boat captain in Northern Alaska, he recently returned to Nashville to make his home. Although he would like to forget the deadly night of April 6, 1963, he hasn’t erased it from his mind.

“It was all very embarrassing,” he remarked in a recent phone conversation. He described the event as “tragic” and “very unfortunate.”

“It’s been a long, long time,” he said, adding, “You have to get on with your life.”

To those who believe he was the one who actually stabbed his stepfather, Cochrane said, “There were all kinds of rumors.” And, not surprisingly, he is adamant about his own innocence. Asked if he stabbed his stepfather, he responds firmly, “No, I didn’t.”

As for whatever happened to the woman charged with the murder, Gene Wilson moved to Memphis after her husband’s death and married John Heiskell, the Shelby County district attorney. He later died of cancer. Now married for a fourth time, she lives in Chattanooga.


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