On Wednesday, March 23, 1955, the first hints of Spring were alive in the Nursery Capital of the World or, as it was better known, Warren County, Tennessee. Although the winters in this area would be described as mild summers by those above the Mason-Dixon line, to Southerners any weather requiring more than one layer of clothing is enough to send them scrambling indoors until the mercury rises.
In the Rowland Station community of Rock Island, Tennessee, Henry Bratcher and his distant cousin Billy Thomas Gibbs decided to take advantage of the warmer weather on this March morning to do a bit of fishing in the pond less than a hundred yards from the Bratcher’s back door.
While the men went about their fishing, Mrs. Vassie Fields Bratcher stayed behind to tend to her household chores: cleaning, preparation of lunch and the evening meal, and taking care of her 20 month-old granddaughter Charlotte Ann Bratcher whom she and her husband had been caring for since the unexpected passing of their daughter-in-law sixteen months earlier.
It’s never been said what matters were discussed between the fisherman during their morning excursion but no doubt at some point the subject of Gibbs’ newborn twin daughters, born just hours earlier, found its way into the conversation. Somehow, though, the verbal exchanges left the more joyous subject of babies and turned into a heated debate. Just exactly what caused the two men to begin bickering has never been recorded into written (official) record, although many old-timers of the area swear the argument was over Gibbs’ request for money.
Whatever the source of contention, Billy Gibbs later told police Henry Bratcher had shoved him off a tree stump. Realizing he had enraged the 23 year-old Gibbs, Henry began running back in the direction of his home. When Gibbs recovered himself from the fall, he grabbed the rifle he’d brought along and gave pursuit. Still running, Gibbs aimed the rifle at Henry and fired. Forty-four year-old Henry Bratcher crumpled to the ground.
When Gibbs caught up to the man, he saw the extent of the wounds he had inflicted on his cousin. It was then, Gibbs later said, he realized death was imminent so he shot Henry Bratcher several more times in the head and neck.
Having heard the repeated gunshots, Mrs. Bratcher, with little Charlotte on her hip, rushed out the rear door of her home to investigate the ruckus. She’d no more began to make her way to the pond when Gibbs topped the hill, fire in his eyes and gun in his hand. Sensing the danger, Mrs. Bratcher held the toddler close to her body and began to run toward the barn. Unfortunately, the 42 year-old mother and grandmother wasn’t fast enough and Gibbs soon had hold of her.
No one can ever know why Vassie Bratcher did as Gibbs instructed and threw her granddaughter into the farm’s cistern. Maybe she knew Gibbs intended to kill them both and her hopes were the little girl would survive the fall and help would arrive before she could drown. It’s likely the grandmother weighed the known end result against the hope of a probability and dropped Charlotte Ann into the deep, dark, water-filled hole.
Or maybe it was a deranged killer’s way of separating himself from a completely unjustified, totally senseless murder of a child who couldn’t even talk in complete sentences before her life was coldly ended.
But no more had Mrs. Bratcher done as she was told than Billy Gibbs opened fired on her. A single shot to the head ended the woman’s life. Vassie Bratcher was dead before her body fell to the ground.
Leaving the bodies where they lay, Gibbs climbed into Henry Bratcher’s truck and pointed it toward McMinnville, the more populated county seat of Warren County, and sold the very rifle he’d used to murder two people just a couple of hours earlier.
The murder weapon now out of his hands, Gibbs returned to the Bratcher farm and began rounding up livestock. He was in the barn when the rumblings of a school bus announced the return of Lily May Bratcher, the youngest of the murdered couple’s four children, from school.
According to Gibbs, he’d never intended to murder anyone else and started out of the barn to meet Lily with some claim of emergency and sweep her off safely to her brother’s home but before he could do so, Lily discovered the lifeless, bloodied body of her mother and began to scream. Fearful her cries would draw attention, Gibbs grabbed the young girl and silenced her by bashing her head repeatedly with a hammer.
It had been a frenzied day for the new father of two and he needed to rest. Driving Henry Bratcher’s truck, Billy Gibbs went home where he went about his familial duties as if nothing had happened.
After a few hours sleep, Gibbs woke the next morning before daylight and went back to the farm. Once there, he first hid Henry’s body in a pile of scrapped cane stalks. Next he moved the bodies of Vassie and Lily to a nearby sinkhole before he loaded up the livestock and took them to sale.
Later in the afternoon, a sheriff’s deputy saw Gibbs driving Henry Bratcher’s truck. Although it was strange to see someone else behind the wheel of the familiar vehicle, the deputy didn’t think much of it – until a day later.
On Friday, March 25, 1955, two days after the murders, Charles Henry Edward Bratcher went to his parents home to visit with his daughter. When he arrived, a sign on the door advised visitors they were in Nashville where the baby had been hospitalized. Concerned about his daughter, the 21 year-old Charles Bratcher drove to McMinnville where he hoped to find the answer of what may have happened to send his daughter to doctors in a city over two hours away by car in 1955.
Soon confusion was added to concern when Charles Bratcher received disappointing answers from those he asked if they had seen his parents and daughter. No one he asked knew anything about baby Charlotte being sent to Nashville – an oddity in the small, close-knit town. Without anywhere else to turn, Charles went to the Warren County Sheriff’s Department and that is when a deputy spoke up about seeing Gibbs driving the elder Bratcher’s truck.
Something was very wrong. Sheriff Eldridge H. Youngblood immediately gathered his deputies and instructed them to began investigating the disappearance of the one the area’s most well-known and respected families.
Within just a short time, investigators learned Billy Gibbs had sold two mules and some pigs known to belong to Henry Bratcher so a theft warrant was issued against Gibbs. He was roused from his bed during the early Saturday morning hours and taken to the Warren County Jail.
As he was being questioned about the missing family, law enforcement officers and community volunteers gathered at the Bratcher farm to begin searching for the family. First to be discovered was the body of little Charlotte Ann who was floating in the barn’s cistern. Next the officers located the bodies of Vassie and Lily in the sinkhole. The search ended with the discovery of Henry Bratcher’s bullet-riddled body.
As word spread throughout the county of the quadruple murder, citizens vocalized their outrage and rumors abounded about vigilantes who intended to enact swift justice. Trying to prevent any more bloodshed, Sheriff Youngblood quickly moved Gibbs to an “undisclosed location” which was later learned to be the Coffee County jail in nearby Tullahoma.
Initially Billy Gibbs denied any knowledge of or participation in the murders of the Bratcher family. However, after almost 24 hours of intense questioning by Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (TBI) detective Kenneth Shelton, Gibbs provided a complete written confession which investigators said coincided with the evidence uncovered at the farm.
Tensions were still running high among townspeople when Gibbs was arraigned on murder charges before the Honorable Judge Robert S. Brady. The hearing was done in complete secrecy with Gibbs being snuck into town by law enforcement officials. After the formalities were completed, Gibbs was immediately transferred to a state-sponsored mental hospital to undergo psychiatric testing where doctors later determined him to be sane and competent to stand trial.
The unemployed and destitute Korean War veteran was appointed the services of local attorneys William G. McDonough and George Mason Beaver who successfully argued their client would not receive a fair trial in Warren County. Gibbs’ first trial in May 1955 took place in a Manchester, Tennessee, courtroom where Gibbs was noted to smile and wave to his wife and father who were in attendance and frequently laughed with his attorneys, much to the dismay of Court spectators.
For two days, jurors listened to testimony from deputies, investigators, neighbors of the Bratchers and learned of two more confessions written by Gibbs wherein he claimed to have been deeply under the influence of alcohol at the time of the murders. When all was said and done, the verdict was announced before a standing-room-only crowd on May 26, 1995, declaring Billy Gibbs guilty of murdering 10 year-old Lily. He was sentenced to 99 years and one day in the state penitentiary.
In August 1955, Gibbs went on trial for the murders of Vassie and Charlotte Ann Bratcher. Again Gibbs was found guilty of murder – but for only one of the two counts. The jurors had been unable to agree on a verdict or the murder of Mrs. Bratcher, so a mistrial was declared on that charge. However, for the death of Charlotte, Gibbs again received a sentence of 99 years and one day.
Following the two convictions, the defense and District Attorney Fred Gilliam reached an agreement wherein Gibbs pleaded guilty to murdering Henry Bratcher and was sentenced to an additional 20 years and one day, for a total prison sentence of 218 years and 3 days.
Having defended a much-hated client through two grueling trials, Attorneys McDonough and Beaver asked the Judge to release them from Gibbs’ defense. Their request was denied.
Third time was not a charm for Billy Gibbs. Possibly bolstered by the previous jury’s inability to convict him of Vassie Bratcher’s death, Gibbs took his chances with a third trial (a retrial for the murder of Vassie), which proved to be a huge mistake. In January 1956, the mass murderer was found guilty of Mrs. Bratcher’s murder and sentenced to death.
Following an unsuccessful appeal, Billy Gibbs was put to death by electrocution only minutes after midnight on Tuesday, May 7, 1957 – just 2 years, 1 month, 14 days after the murders. Prison officials said the 25 year-old man appeared calm as he was prepared for the execution. Although he had no final words, Gibbs handed the warden a sealed envelope which he asked be given to his father, Walter Gibbs, following his death – the contents of which have never been revealed.
By the time the defendant in Warren County’s “most vicious murder” was executed, the small town had already headlined a few more murders and was trying to forget about the horrific tragedy. Something of such great significance cannot, however, simply be swept under the rug and forgotten. More than 57 years later, The Bratcher Family Murders, as they’ve come to be known, is still frequently a topic of conversation in the area. Time, unfortunately, has a way of skewing memories and often the “facts” are grossly incorrect. My intentions in writing this story are not to stir up things better left alone but to provide a complete and accurate recounting, compiled from Court records and newspaper archives so that a piece of history, regardless of its unsightliness, remains factual and does not become distorted fiction.
Charles Bratcher, who lost his parents, sister, and young daughter in this horrific murder, passed away on March 13, 2009. He had remarried many years before his death at the age of 75 and was the father of two surviving sons, a daughter, three grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren. He is buried alongside his second wife and just across the pathway from his family in the Brick House Cemetery in the Rowland Station community of Rock Island, Tennessee.
GPS COORDINATES: Crime site: 35.756003, -85.697887; Cemetery: 35.758963, -85.684025. Please respect property owners’ rights by obeying Tennessee’s trespassing laws.
Thank you to the Magness Library staff, Warren County Sheriff’s Department, Warren County Circuit Court Clerk’s office, and the Southern Standard for providing me with the documents, sharing of your personal recollections, and answering my many questions which helped me tremendously in preserving a piece of our history.