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1934 Riot, Part 1: The beginningPosted Thursday, December 17, 2009, at 9:58 AM
First of a 7-part series
For the next seven days we'll be looking at the rioting 75 years ago this week in which Bedford County Courthouse was burned. Most accounts of the events seen locally in recent years were taken from The Bedford County Times' coverage as quoted in the 1969 Times-Gazette Sesquicentennial Edition. I've gained access (through www.newspaperarchive.com) to multiple wire service stories.
The next week of blogs will contain a mix of content from the original Times reporting and Associated Press, United Press International and International News Service stories. Reader additions and comments are welcome.
THE BEGINNING: MONDAY, NOV. 19, 1934
A 14-year-old girl from the Fall Creek area near Halls Mill, according to The Bedford County Times, is allegedly attacked by Ernest K. "E.K." Harris, 22, about 1:30 p.m. while excused from school for a few moments.
Harris has allegedly been hanging around the school all day, The Times reports, and has recently served jail time, working on the road crew. He is described by The Times as "mentally unbalanced."
Harris allegedly drags the girls into nearby woods where she fights off an attempted assault and makes it back to the school's doorway where she "falls prostrate," the Times reports.
Time magazine tells a somewhat different story in its Dec. 31, 1934 edition.
(W.J. Crowell, one of Harris' court-appointed defense attorneys, later wrote Time denying most of the article's contents.)
Her father, John Gibson, 58, and a "posse" of 300 men led by Sheriff Thomas E. "Tom" Gant scour nearby woods, catch Harris and accuse him of rape.
Harris is black. The alleged victim is white. In the 1930s South, that factor undoubtedly sparks already-strong emotions.
Three Shelbyville police officers charge Harris (odd, since the alleged attack happened in the county). Harris allegedly admits attempting to assault the girl but says the act was not consummated.
Harris is taken to Bedford County Jail (the old rock building still in use today) where the crowd is denied a demand that Harris be turned over to them. Sheriff Gant becomes their enemy.
At the advice of an unnamed "prominent" local attorney, according to The Times, Harris is moved to Rutherford County Jail in Murfreesboro. Within minutes after arrival, the Rutherford County sheriff is told the Bedford County crowd is headed to Murfreesboro to attack his jail. Harris is then moved to the more-secure Davidson County Jail in Nashville.
Meanwhile, the young girl is examined by Dr. E.E. Moody, a Shelbyville physician well-remembered by some older residents today.
According to Time, Gibson tells his neighbors that Moody says his daughter is pregnant. (Moody tells a reporter on Dec. 21 that he doesn't think she is pregnant or was actually raped, pointing out she is back in school. Crowell also denies the girl is pregnant.)
COMING FRIDAY: Talk becomes action
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David Melson is a copy editor and staff writer for the Times-Gazette.
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