July 14, 2020 6:00 pm

In the 1870s, the people of North Alabama knew the name Tom Clark, and they feared it. Mountain Tom Clark, as he was known, had committed numerous robberies and bragged of killing 18 people. But there’s another reason Tom Clark is the subject of a historical marker in Florence, Ala.: He is buried beneath a busy street, according to legend.

Clark was a member of a gang of post-Civil War bandits who wandered the South, terrorizing the citizenry. The gang – called Clifton Shebang or the Buggers – was made up of deserters and soldiers from Union and Confederate armies.

Clark and two other gang members reached the end of the line when they were arrested in Lauderdale County, Ala., in September of 1872, accused of robbing numerous homes in Florence the previous night and robbing nine homes in nearby Athens, Ala., earlier that week.

Florence marshal William E. Blair captured the men with the help of William Barks, William Joiner and W. E. Warson when the bandits stopped for dinner at a restaurant near Waterloo, dressed in their finest clothes.

The Lauderdale Times reported on September 10, 1872, that the captors searched the men’s lodging and discovered eight watches, a number of men’s breast pins, as well as a case filled with burglar’s tools.

The men were escorted to jail, and the outlaws and captors were joined by the marshal from Athens, as well as curious citizens. The newspaper stated: “Florence turned-out en masse, as the party rode in town much excitement prevailed.”

The sheriff assigned eight men to guard the devious bandits but they were ineffective. The newspaper account continued: “About midnight a great crowd came to the jail and demanded the keys. The guard refused to give them up, and fired on the mob … the three men taken out and carried immediately to an adjoining square, and hanged by the neck until they were dead. The three were suspended from a tree, which stands in the rear of the site of the old Masonic Lodge.”

The newspaper printed an “Extra” edition about the incident. Headlines read: “Three Men Hung on One Tree! Thos. Clark, the Notorious Outlaw, Executed!”

The names of his cohorts were unknown but the newspaper reported: “One was a short, stalwart man, with the initials F. R. and a star, in Indian Ink, on his right arm, and two hearts pierced by an arrow on his left hand; and one is supposed to be Gibson. We understand that one of the robbers directed his portion of the $365, in money, which was found on their persons, to be sent to his sister, Miss Kate Schilee, of Indianapolis, Indiana. The same man attempted to escape, was shot by some person, unknown, recaptured, and hung with the others. It is the opinion of Dr. Hannum, who examined his wound, that death would have resulted from the pistol shot. The younger robber marched up boldly to the tree and requested the executioners to hold him up and drop him, instead of drawing him up.”

The Lauderdale Times reporter, concerned that the actions of the group would hurt the city’s reputation, wrote this defense: “Tom Clark, who boasted that he had murdered, in cold blood, sixteen men, deserved hanging sixteen times over. The others, no doubt, would have slain their scores if they had found it necessary to cover their villiany [sic]… (this was) the legitimate effect of an indignant and outraged public feeling…We are opposed to mob law, but these men met a death richly deserved, and over their fate we shed no tears.”

From here news accounts end and legend takes over. According to a historical marker located adjacent to Florence Cemetery on East Tennessee Street in Florence, someone remembered Clark boasting “Nobody will ever run over Tom Clark” and townspeople decided they would bury him beneath a road.

The marker states: “Near the center of Tennessee Street lies the remains of Tom Clark, a notorious leader of one of the number of outlaw gangs who terrorized helpless citizens during the Civil War…they buried him here so that all who passed by would run over Tom Clark.”

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This post was written by Nadia Vella