Just as the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Centers changed our nation forever, the history of Carroll County was permanently altered after that fateful Thursday morning when a gunfight in the old Carroll County Courthouse left five people dead and several others wounded.
With the 100th anniversary of that infamous day quickly approaching, the Centennial Citizens’ Committee wants to make sure upcoming events to commemorate the tragedy are done in a respectful manner. With that in mind, the committee has drafted guiding principles to make sure all sponsored activities will be sensitive, sympathetic, conciliatory and balanced.
“We want to stress the balance. We know a number of families suffered the grief, the sorrow of this tragedy and we want to be sensitive to all of this,” said Gary Marshall, Chairman of the Centennial Citizens’ Committee. “We want to make a clear distinction between the idea of commemorate versus celebrate. There is nothing to celebrate in this tragedy, but there are reasons to have memorial-type or commemorative-type programs and events.”
Marshall stressed those points Oct. 12 as he spoke to the Carroll County Board of Supervisors about the committee’s plans. Carroll County experienced its most horrifying criminal and historic event on March 14, 1912 as five court officers and local citizens were martyred in the old courthouse, Marshall told the board.
What began as Floyd Allen’s trial for illegally taking his two nephews from the custody of deputies turned into a bloodbath after Allen was sentenced to a year in jail. “Gentlemen, I just ain’t a going,” Allen reportedly said that day before the gunfight broke out. Among those killed were Judge Thorton Massie, Sheriff Lewis Webb, Commonwealth’s Attorney William Foster, jury member Augustus Fowler, and Betty Ayers, a witness. Floyd Allen and his son, Claude, were executed a year later, while Floyd’s brother, Sidna Allen, was sentenced to 35 years in prison. The two nephews that triggered the events leading up to the episode, Sidna and Wesley Edwards, and another nephew, Friel Allen, were all sentenced to lengthy prison terms as well.
“Together this was a true and tragic tragedy of epic proportion and consequence,” Marshall said. “The Carroll County Historical Society has formed a Centennial Committee charged with coordinating a series of sensitive and balanced programs, educational projects and presentations and memorial services.”
Joining Marshall on the committee are local attorney Joe McGrady, author and playwright Frank Levering, Ron Hall, author of “The Carroll County Courthouse Tragedy,” Circuit Clerk of Court Carolyn Honeycutt, artist Ron Leonard and Shelby Inscore-Puckett.
“Our goal is to promote healing and we will uphold, promote, sustain and respect the dignity, honor, and fortunes of all in our sponsored activities. We will promote positive community engagement with this history,” Marshall told the board. “We will resist partisan or judgmental expression of all of our sponsored activities. And finally we will renounce personal or corporate financial gain in the conduct of these services and will seek remuneration only in the amount of the committee’s expenses.”
Marshall told The Carroll News that the committee is still in the planning stages of commemorative events. One event he does anticipate will be a symposium of academic sorts relative to the context of the local tragedy. The context will most likely include the influences that shaped the 1912 culture that possibly contributed to the volatility, hostility and political divisions leading up to tragedy.
“For instance you had some continuing influences left over from the Civil War. Of course the sesquicentennial of the Civil War will run concurrent with the centennial of the local tragedy and there are various other cultural influences, economic situations,” Marshall said. “So a symposium that looks at the context of early 20th century Virginia will be important. Then the symposium should also include aspects of the tragedy itself that need further research and hopefully reflection.”
Part of that reflection might be the impact of the tragedy on the families directly involved, Marshall said. A memorial service will also be part of the plans, he said, possibly at the gravesides of the five killed in the courthouse.
“We are in no way anticipating a re-enactment. We are not going to portray the carnage in the courtroom, but to have a sensitive, balanced memorial is certainly going to be a focal point,” Marshall said. “And that will maybe be at the conclusion of the symposium and should be conducted in the courtroom itself.”
The first commemorative event, which will be held on Dec. 18 of this year, will be a community corn shucking. It will be a social event, Marshall said, that will mark the 100th anniversary of the event that set things in motion leading up to the courthouse shooting.
During those days, legend had it that a boy that found a red ear of corn at a corn shucking could kiss any girl he wished. At a cornshucking held Saturday, Dec. 17, 1910, Floyd Allen’s nephew, Wesley Edwards, found a red ear of corn and kissed a girl said to be Rachel McCraw. In turn, the kiss is said to have resulted in a brawl at a church service the following day between Edwards and Will Thomas, McCraw’s boyfriend. Sidna Edwards, Wesley’s brother, and others were also involved.
Following the brawl, warrants were taken out against Wesley and Sidna Edwards. They were indicted in March 1911 by a grand jury and arrested a month later. As deputies were taking the Edwards brothers to jail, Floyd Allen freed his nephews from the police wagon, leading to his trial for interfering with their arrest. It was at this trial where the shootout took place.
Dec. 18, 2010 is a significant date, Marshall said, as it marks the 100th anniversary of the cornshucking. Dec. 18 was chosen instead of Dec. 17 since the 18th is a Saturday night like Dec. 17, 1910.
“The date is significant because the cornshucking on a Saturday night and the churchyard brawl the following Sunday at least initiated the events that led up to the culmination of the tragedy,” Marshall said. “Our plan for the cornshucking is not a re-enactment, but a commemoration and an interpretation of this history. We are commemorating the 100th anniversary. We as a committee want the cornshucking to be a positive, upbeat public event to set the tone for the centennial committee’s full sponsorship of the programs that will follow. Again, we are not here to celebrate pain and suffering, we are here to commemorate the significant history, and that history that unfolded over a 15-month period.”
Although the location for the commemorative cornshucking event has not been set, Marshall said details will be released in the near future. The Carroll Chamber of Commerce is recruiting vendors, musicians, games, and crafts for children and adults. To go along with the cornhusking theme there will be apple-cider, cornhusk doll crafts, music and dancing.
Marshall said the committee has received much response as to why would it want to commemorate such a local tragedy. There are many reasons, including the opportunity to heal, he said.
“The first reason is the infamy of the tragedy. It was such a shocking, grossly criminal historic event like Dec. 7, 1941, or Sept. 11, 2001,” Marshall said. “March 14, 1912 lives in infamy, it is just so shocking and so horrific that there is something of a sanctity that the date that helps us deal with the horror.”
Marshall said the second reason is because of the magnitude of the tragedy in the annals of courtroom justice. There is no comparable loss of life of courtroom officers — a judge, a sheriff, a prosecuting attorney, a juror and a witness — Marshall contests.
“There are lessons to be learned and those lessons are several. And we as a committee are still formulating the specifics of our reasons, but they do include the idea that one key lesson is law and obedience to law is actually the foundation of our democracy,” Marshall said. “It is what preserves our ultimate liberties. If you have no law, or if you don’t have respect or obedience of the law, that is defined as anarchy and chaos. So there are lessons to be appreciated by every generation that whenever law is violated, liberty is lost.”
Marshall said there is such a thing as abuse of authority. Court officers were not guiltless in this tragedy, Marshall said.
“There was some corruption to their exercise of power and authority, and so checks and balances at every level is another important lesson from this tragedy. The judge should have and could have limited that abuse and possibly prevented this horrific history,” Marshall said. “Third in the lessons coming out of the tragedy certainly is the consequence of conflict. Human conflict has been a human experience since Cain and Abel, and the consequences to that conflict can be as severe as hell on Earth, so we need as a community and culture to reflect. This centennial offers us a prime opportunity to reflect on these important lessons on law and liberty, abuse of authority and the consequence of conflict.”
Finally, Marshall said there is redemptive value to the centennial. There are educational values regarding the lessons that can be learned. There are also some conciliatory benefits to the centennial, he said.
“If our committee succeeds in our educational efforts in our high view of the tone of our commemoration and so forth, we might reconcile some of the factions and some of the issues that have divided us for the 100 years preceding,” Marshall said. “But then the final redemptive value might be economic interests, development of economic interests from this history. We as a centennial committee have agreed that we are not seeking a personal or corporate profit for any of our sponsoring agencies. That’s not our role, in fact we are swearing it off. But we do acknowledge that town and county planners are measuring the development potential of this history. And so public response to our programs might possibly gauge the economic potential for such things as dramatic plays or lectures. It won’t be developed by our committee, but if the town or county want to develop some economic projects, then we are offering an opportunity to gauge that potential.”