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1934 Riot, Part 3: The fateful dayPosted Saturday, December 19, 2009, at 1:48 PM
Third of a 7-part series
This series goes into details of the December 1934 rioting in Shelbyville in which Bedford County Courthouse was burned after rape suspect E.K. Harris wasn't turned over to a mob. Information is taken from The Bedford County Times and national wire services of the time. Reader additions and comments are welcome.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 19, 1934: THE FATEFUL DAY
Wednesday, Dec. 19, is a typical early winter day in Shelbyville, which boasts an estimated 5,500 residents. It's cloudy with sporadic light rain, highs in the upper 40s with temperatures expected to fall into the mid-30s at night.
The rape trial of E.K. Harris, accused of attacking a teenage girl outside a rural school in November, begins this morning. Harris admits attacking the girl but denies an actual rape occurred. An angry crowd wants revenge.
Gill Freeman and Pat Lawes, who would both be dead by week's end, ride to Shelbyville with John Gibson, father of the alleged victim, in his truck.
A crowd begins forming. UPI (United Press International) says the "mob" is led by a group from the "bloody" 18th district and many of the men in the crowd are drunk. International News Service (INS) reports Gibson is leading the crowd.
Harris arrives in Shelbyville in a "militia truck" along with 110 men from three companies of the 117th Tennessee National Guard.
Guardsmen are stationed outside the courthouse. The trial is closed to spectators. The press is allowed, and one wire service later distributes a photo made in the courtroom.
Sporadic fighting, mostly with rocks and tear gas bombs, begins to take place outside the east door of the courthouse.
11:15 A.M.-12 NOON
The first serious attempt by the mob to force their way into the courthouse occurs. (Separate accounts say 11:15, 11:45 and noon) An unidentifed man is cut on the head by a Guardsman's bayonet. Tear gas repulses the crowd.
An admittedly-nervous Coleman tells those in the courtroom that gunshots being heard are fireworks from a Christmas celebration.
Raincoat-clad Guardsmen stand in front of the courthouse (near where the parking places in the inner circle are today, photos show) with bayonets and tear gas bombs ready. Others stand at windows with machine guns in "deployed formation."
Fifty yards away the crowd, estimated by authorities as about 300 to 500 and in unattributed UPI and INS reports as 1,000 to 1,500, shouts at the troops.
The jury is seated. Coleman orders an hour's recess. The trial never resumes.
A guard officer waves his arm and attempts to address the crowd. The crowd gathers close. The guardsmen surround the officer. Nerves snap.
The crowd surges. The troops hurl tear gas and strike their attackers with gun butts.
Raleigh Edwards, listed as either 30 or 31, a Shelbyville house painter, is killed instantly by (three different reports) either a bayonet wound to the stomach, the wound coupled with a gunshot, or a .45 caliber bullet that enters his chest and comes out through his spine. HIs body is left face down on a sidewalk; a photo is transmitted to newspapers across America.
Several others are wounded.
The Guardsmen, on orders of Adj. Gen. J.H. Ballew, retreat within the courthouse.
Reinforcements are ordered from Nashville. They don't arrive in time.
The third assault occurs in what is described as a "great forward rush."
The crowd, armed with pistols and clubs, reaches the east side courthouse porch unchallenged. A man throws a bench through the east side door.
From that vantage point, the guardsmen open fire with .45 automatics and riot guns in close face-to-face fighting as the crowd tries to break down the door.
Seriously wounded are:
*Gilford "Gill" Freeman, 45, of Petersburg, a machinist is shot through his lungs and stomach. Seriously wounded, he is taken to Bedford County Hospital, located on the Madison Street site of today's First Christian Church
*Floyd Cannon "Pat" Lawes, 27 or 28, of Chestnut Ridge, a farmer and city fireman referred to Gibson as his nephew by marriage, is shot in the back of his head and falls eight feet from the courthouse porch to the concrete walk below. He is also taken to the hospital
*An unidentified man, suffering gunshot wounds, who is taken, supposedly by relatives. from the hospital. Two reports indicate he was dead and another that he was alive. Officials thought he was from another county.
*Less seriously wounded are Mead Jones, shot in the hand and feet and bayoneted in the feet; Everett Patterson, shot in the leg; Herschel Neely, minor gunshot wound; W. M. Clayman, bayonet wound in the side; James Bledsoe, shot in the feet; and two men who refuse to reveal their names, minor injuries.
Eight are hospitalized, UPI reports.
The angry crowd withdraws across the street.
Coleman declares a mistrial and dismisses the jury. "The adjutant general told me that he could handle the situation so as to have the trial but that it might result in the killing of as many as 100 people," Coleman said later. "I told him that I didn't want that done and that I would declare a mistrial to avoid bloodshed."
The judge believes the trial could have been finished in one day.
Guardsmen dress Harris in uniform overcoat, leggings and cap and put a gas mask on him. Deputy John E. Gant (the sheriff's son) and five miltiamen rush Harris to Adj. Gen. Ballew's waiting car.
"He was made to lie down flat on the floor of the back of the car," John Gant said. "Just as we were pulling off one of the mob caught onto what we were doing.
"He yelled out, 'There he goes.'
"They started running towards our car and we had to drive fast to get out of town. Nobody tried to follow us."
The car heads toward Lewisburg, according to The Bedford County Times, or toward Murfreesboro, according to wire services.
Harris is taken back to Davidson County Jail.
Immediately afterward the troops march out of the courthouse as insults and stones are thrown. They end up at a camp two miles outside Shelbyville. The reinforcements are cancelled.
Three men carrying a stick of dynamite make their way to a corner of the courthouse, dig at the base of the wall, and abandon their plan.
Sheriff Gant attempts to speak to the crowd and is stoned. Gibson threatens to lynch the Gants.
Ollie Gant, 42, the sheriff's brother, is forced into a car by members of the mob. He later returns unharmed.
Occasional shots are fired.
As night falls, the crowd overturns and ignites four National Guard trucks, refusing to let firefighters extinguish them but saying they didn't want buildings burning.
Attacks on black neighborhoods are threatened.
The courthouse is sprinkled with gasoline and dynamite is tossed inside.
5:30-6 P.M. AND LATER
Mob leaders break into Gant's office in the courthouse, saturate it with gasoline and apply a torch. A police officer tells AP a "slight explosion" precedes the first blaze.
Firemen quickly extinguish visible flames but the blaze spreads unseen (presumably through the ceiling, inner walls, etc.) to the second floor and spreads.
Two "hose lines" are available but for almost an hour only one can be used.
Groups of armed men threaten firefighters ("Drop it or we'll drop you," one is told), cut off water at fireplugs, roll up and cut the second hose and knock down ladders.
The crowd is estimated at 300 to 500.
Dr. Joseph "Jo" Davis Steele, an older, apparently-retired physician serving as county court clerk, suffers a heart attack as the mob allows him to remove records from his office.
County records, stored in fireproof vaults, survive and are immediately moved to the Gunter Building.
"Let's lynch the sheriff!" someone in the crowd yells. Gant, his wife, two sons and daughters flee Shelbyville. The crowd searches for him all evening.
Gov. Hill McAlister, at the request of city aldermen and "prominent citizens," orders 500 Guardsmen due to indications the mob will "burn the whole town."
Guardsmen are en route.
Dr. C.T. Carney, an city alderman, requests a police guard for the water plant after arson threats.
A black-owned hotel catches fire at midnight but is not destroyed.
The mob announces the jail will be burned at 1 a.m. Dr. James L. Morton, county health officer and hospital superintendent, is in charge of the jail in the sheriff's absence. All prisoners -- the number varies from 24 to 33 in different accounts -- are removed overnight (I've found no source that says where they were taken or who was with them). The jail is not burned.
The crowd begins to disperse but occasional gunshots are still heard.
COMING SUNDAY: A nervous city responds
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David Melson is a copy editor and staff writer for the Times-Gazette.
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