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Death on Paradise Ridge — Historic True Crime

Justice Simpson just wanted a drink of water. He stood in the dark at the well, the ladle paused at his lips. The sun had been down for hours, and he was likely dog-tired and long past ready for bed.

In the distance Justice saw a flickering, a wavering red-orange light. Over around Farmer Ade’s house something was burning. The flames rose and punched holes in the cloaking night. The late March cold fell away as Justice turned from the well and went to saddle up, heart thumping in his chest. If the fire was as big as it seemed from this distance, the old German would need some help right away.

Jacob Ade was not a young man, anymore.

It probably didn’t hurt that most folks living along Paradise Ridge figured Mr. Ade for a man of means. If Justice Simpson helped Old Jacob with this fire, surely there would be some gratitude from the old man in the future.

Through the whispering dark of the Tennessee night Justice Simpson rode, ready to help however he could.

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Paradise Ridge, Tennessee is today called Joelton, and it sits about 20 miles northwest of downtown Nashville. While northern Davidson County is beautiful with its densely wooded hills and green fields nestled between the hills, it also has some of the most winding, dangerous roads in the county — like the Devil’s Elbow, seen here.

Paradise Ridge was named for a pair of North Carolina-born brothers who settled there in the early 1800s, but in late March of 1897, it probably was the kind of place that seemed like paradise to many who lived there. Even today, the character of the land feels very different from the rest of Metropolitan Davidson County.

I spent many summers in that part of the county as a child, staying with my Uncle Phil. His sons were close to my age, and rambunctious, wild. They pulled me out of my bookish shell and we walked the winding roads and splashed through the shaded creeks, always on the lookout for cottonmouths, on the hunt for crawdads. Even in a sweltering Tennessee summer shade came early, and the flickering firefly nights seemed generous with cool breezes that came down from higher elevations, breezes that blew over Paradise Ridge.

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Jacob Ade was born in Prussia (now part of modern-day Germany) sometime around 1840. I could find no records of when Ade made his passage to America, but by the 1880 census he was established on Paradise Ridge. Wife Pauline was also Prussian-born, and 7 years Jacob’s junior.

By 1880 the Ade family was growing at a pace: daughter Emma had been born in 1870, Rose in ’72, Anna in the year of the American Centennial, 1876, and Lizzie in 1879. Four years later Pauline would give birth to a son, Henry. In 1880 Ade was already doing well enough farming on Paradise Ridge to have a hired man, 22-year-old Italian-born Aleck Gholma.

Germans in general were apparently drawn to that part of Davidson County — today the business district of Joelton is still called Germantown Hill.

Ade was locally well-known on March 20, 1897, even though the area was remote, sparsely populated.

In the next week or so, Ade’s name would be found in newspapers all across the United States.

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Justice Simpson found the Ade home collapsing, flames arcing and smoke billowing. The fire had either spread to or been set in the smokehouse and other outbuildings as well. Simpson immediately set about trying to save meat from the smokehouse. He called out, thinking surely the Ades were somewhere close by.

Other than the snapping of burning timber, there was no response.

Justice made his way up to the main house.

The fire must have been guttering when Justice Simpson got there, for he apparently saw enough of the scene inside the Ade home to know that this was no regular house fire.

Simpson turned away, shocked. The fire was incidental now, and Jacob Ade was in no position to show anyone any gratitude, anymore.

Again, Simpson rode off into the night, to raise a different kind of alarm.

Perhaps the chill of the March night that would have vanished with a rush of adrenaline and then being close to the fire returned then. Simpson had seen evidence of ice-cold evil among the embers.

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From The Galveston (TX) Daily News, March 25, 1897:

Last night about 10 o’clock, on Paradise Ridge, in this city, where [there] is quite a settlement of thrifty Germans, the house of Jacob Ade was discovered to be on fire by Justice Simpson, living half a mile from Ade’s house. Simpson immediately ran over and found the house in ruins. In the debris he found the almost entirely consumed bodies of Jacob Ade, Mrs. Jacob Ade, Lizzie Ade, aged 20 years, Henry Ade, aged 13, Rosa Moirer, aged 10 years. The bodies of all except Rosa Moirer were burned to a crisp, her body not being so badly burned, and part of her clothing was intact…

Rosa Moirer was the daughter of a neighbor, Henry Moirer.

A crowd gathered on the Ade family’s property. This was long before even the most minimal police force might know about securing a crime scene, or have a clue about anything like contaminating a crime scene. Neighbors, residents of Paradise Ridge, law enforcement milled around the ruins. In the words of the newspaper article, they were “investigating, consulting, surmising.”

But it remained an awful mystery. Someone had murdered 5 people in cold blood and set the fire to hide the crime. Only small portions of the bodies had escaped the consuming flames.

What was the motive? Robbery was the first thing that came to anyone’s mind. Apparently the rumor among locals was that Ade had money on hand, maybe several hundred dollars.

Yet the robber or robbers had failed, if that indeed had been their goal — a tin can was found in the ashes, and inside the can was a considerable amount of cash for the day, at least $300. Later investigation determined that Ade had withdrawn that money from his bank in Nashville, intending to make a loan to one of his neighbors.

Jacob Ade had also been in a dispute with a neighbor named Ed Anderson, having accused Anderson of stealing some of Ade’s hogs. Had Anderson decided to end things the hard way?

Ed Anderson did a smart thing when he realized the suspicion that might be cast upon him. Almost immediately he turned himself in to Sheriff John D. Sharp, offering cooperation and an air-tight alibi for his whereabouts the night the Ades and little Rosa Moirer died. Ed Anderson was clean.

Perhaps the robbers were after Ade’s large stores of meat, for it appeared that there was a considerable amount missing.

Yet why slaughter a family just for some meat?

One rumor from the time was that the mass murder had been the work of “tramps,” who had “lately been numerous in the locality.” Could the Ades have been beset by vicious “tramps” on the verge of starving?

Whatever the motive was, one thing was clear as the Nashville Banner continued reporting on the murders, while the press in other states moved on to more immediate and local matters; the Ades and their neighbor’s daughter had met up with a truly psychopathic, vicious killer or killers that night.

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Everyone was gathered in the parlor. Supper had been eaten. It was probably a hearty meal worthy of hardy Germans like the Ades, perhaps ham or steak, certainly potatoes, and afterwards they may have been coffee, or tea.

The light from candles, kerosene lanterns or gas jets would have been mellow and golden, softening features, and the talk was probably lively but not loud. The hearth was burning, a warm glow pushing heat along the wooden floor. Everyone still wore their clothes from the day, woolen trousers on the males, the women in layered crinolines that hung down to the tops of the ankles, where the sober tops of button-up boots took over.

Was there a knock at the door? Breaking glass?

Reconstructions of the crime as related in the Banner seemed to indicate that Jacob Ade was struck first as he sat by the fire, possibly by an ax. Others whirled in shock and alarm, looking for an exit, and they made for a window.

Only one person made it through, though. The others were felled by the same weapon used on Jacob — Pauline, Henry, Lizzie, all down.

Little Rosa made it out. How far she got, no one could tell. The killer followed.

Rosa’s hand was missing when she was found, as was a portion of her head. Someone had taken an ax to a 10-year-old girl, and then thrown her body back in to the fire.

The night after the Ades and the Moirer girl were found, cold rain blackened the ruins of the home and obliterated any tracks that might have been left in mud on the Ade property. Later, authorities emptied a cistern on the property, perhaps thinking there was evidence at the bottom. Their efforts yielded nothing.

The murders remained unsolved.

Or did they?

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From The Dubuque (IA) Telegraph-Herald, May 12, 1902:

Nashville, Tenn., May 12,– The last chapter of the famous Jacob Ade family murder case was enacted this afternoon at the county Jail, when the murderer, George Newland, died in the presence of his wife, whom he married four days before the commission of the crime.

Intent on robbery, Newland broke into the home of Ade, a wealthy man, murdered him and four other members of the family and then set fire to the building, consuming the bodies.

Many arrests were made following the crime, but it was only a year ago Newland was arrested…

The few reports that are readily available today about the murders on Paradise Ridge state that they were unsolved. The quote above was the entire story, and the only mention of Newland I could find in relation to the Ade family.

In the 1880 census George Newland was listed as living in Cheatham County, and was at the time only 6. He would have been 23 or so in 1897. This proximity was interesting because the Ade family lived near the Cheatham-Davidson County line.

But really, Newland’s family being across the county line tells us very little. By 1900 Newland lived in Davidson County, but he did not appear to live too close to where the Ade homestead once stood. The article didn’t state that he confessed, either, yet the assurance with which it was written might make one think he did.

However, anyone familiar with news reporting over 100 years ago knows that it was often, at best, barely reliable. It could be that Newland was simply the best candidate the Davidson County authorities had in 1902. Perhaps someone simply wanted the occasional questions that surely came about the Ades to cease. As Newland (still a young man) had just died in jail, he made a pretty easy scapegoat.

Other Tennessee legends and stories have easily eclipsed the Ade murders as time passed. The Bell Witch, a Tennessee fable from the early 1800s, is still alive and being re-told in the 21st Century — a major movie was made about the haunting of the Bells in 2005.

Southeast of Paradise Ridge, Nashville continues to extend its glittering fingers through the hills and hollows. The “semi-rural” nature of Joelton diminishes as traffic increases, as strip malls replace oak trees and hickories. Were the ghost of Justice Simpson to stand one night on Paradise Ridge he would be bewildered by the dimming of the stars above and the brilliant glow of Nashville clamoring below the Ridge, now not so far away.

The city lights would remind him of another night, a night when he stood in the dark at the well, just wanting a simple drink of water. Justice would see the orange glow in the distance, and remember.

Sources:

NewspaperArchive.com
A Nashville Unsolved Murder Mystery from 1897,” About: Nashville.
1880 and 1900 census records, Ancestry.com.
Wikipedia: Joelton, TN.