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1934 Riot, Part 4: A nervous city responds

Posted Sunday, December 20, 2009, at 1:17 PM

Fourth 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.

THURSDAY, DEC. 20, 1934: A nervous city responds

8 A.M.

Three companies of National Guard soldiers -- 500 to 600 from Nashville and Jackson -- arrive shortly after 8 a.m to find downtown Shelbyville deserted but 300 to 500 men still on the city's edges. Local officials tell United Press International the crowd has completely dispersed; the reporter states only a few "early risers" are on the streets.

The entire city police department has barricaded itself inside City Hall, on the west side of the square, to keep it from being dynamited, UPI reports. (I've wondered if this may have actually occurred the previous night).

There is no other local law enforcement in the county. The Associated Press reports a Guard leader said martial law will not be declared but "semi-martial law" will be in effect and troops will handle all law enforcement until Sunday morning, Dec. 23.

A procession of 14 to 16 cars, carrying from six to 10 men each, races through the streets during the morning.

The Guard patrols downtown and black residential areas. Others are stationed at posts in the business district.

Two more companies from Athens and Cleveland, Tenn., are expected to arrive during the day.

Merchants tell reporters they fear the loss of Christmas business because of the rioting.


Shelbyville businessmen, at the request of the board of mayor and aldermen, hold a mass meeting and form a volunteer vigilante corps. Ten leaders will command seven men each. All will be armed.

"Vigilantes would assist city and county authorities in maintaining peace and order," City Judge Charles C. Smith tells UPI. "They would serve as an armed body, if necessary, after guardsmen leave."

"There is no use in letting them (the mob) take our town," U.S. Commissioner Ed Nance tells the vigilante committee. "If we have to kill some of these fellows, let's kill them. If we have to die, let's die."

The committee votes to authorize appointment of 10 leaders who will command seven men each and go armed.

Authorities are undecided if anyone will be prosecuted pending results of preliminary investigations.


Gill Freeman, seriously injured in Wednesday's riots, dies at Bedford County Hospital of abdominal wounds leaving behind a wife, Minnie Murray Freeman, and two sons. He dies minutes after 43 to 45 Guardsmen offer to donate blood to save his life, including the soldier who wounded him, whose identity is not disclosed. No local citizens answer a call for volunteer donors. (Word was hard to get out then; Shelbyville had no radio station and the two weekly newspapers had already printed their Thursday editions).

Officials say they fear the death may spark more violence.


Sheriff Tom Gant returns to his home in the jail. (Bedford County sheriffs lived in or near the jail for many years; today's jail office was originally built as a home for the sheriff). He says he has no intention of resigning and tells AP he'll remain "whether they (his enemies) would let us or not." His son, Deputy John Gant, also returns.

Thirty Guardsmen are assigned to guard Sheriff Gant at all times. Sixty are assigned to the jail. At any given time 80 overall are on duty, AP reports.

"We have the soldiers and they are armed with machine guns. We think that is enough." Gant feels any attempts to harm him will also involve his son.

"I only tried to do my duty," Gant says of his actions.

Dr. E.E. Moody, who examined the young victim of the alleged attack by rape suspect E.K. Harris in November, tells the media he thinks she was not actually raped and is not pregnant.


Smouldering debris rekindles in the courthouse's ruins but is quickly put down. A total of 537 Guardsmen are on patrol.

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It's amazing how the "mob mentality" thing works. I guess if the Police or National Guard had determined who the ring leaders were and just killed them right up front the whole thing would have fallen apart. But you can't just go around killing folks. My Grandfather told me he was "observing" the goings on until a bullet hit the Gunter building over his head. He decided to go home to granny on Coble road. Later he said you could see the glow in the sky and he new a fire that big had to be the Court House.

-- Posted by MyMrMarty on Sun, Dec 20, 2009, at 10:55 PM

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David Melson is a copy editor and staff writer for the Times-Gazette.