VA Locality Prepares for Tragedy's Centennial
November 29, 2010
RICHMOND, Va. – A hundred years ago, two teenagers in rural southwest Virginia shared a seemingly innocent kiss which eventually led to a courtroom massacre that dominated the news until it was bumped from the front pages by the sinking of the Titanic.
Five people were killed _ a judge, the sheriff, the prosecutor, a juror and a witness _ in the 1912 gun battle that has become known as “The Carroll County Courthouse Tragedy.” Even in an era when folks carried guns freely, the idea of such a violent outburst was shocking because it occurred not in a street fight or saloon but in the halls of justice.
To some, it remains a painful part of Carroll County’s history because of lingering resentments and conflicting accounts of who fired the first shots and why. Nevertheless, county residents are preparing to commemorate the shooting’s anniversary starting with a community corn shucking on Dec. 18.
“I want to make it clear we are not celebrating anything,” said Gary Marshall, chairman of the planning committee. “There were no heroes here. Everyone was to blame here, and that’s what makes the tragedy of such epic proportions.”
It’s also why the incident has remained divisive _ a topic some consider unfit for polite conversation.
“Everybody around here is kin to everybody else,” said Ron Hall of Hillsville, who has written two books about the incident. “For many years nobody would talk about it because they weren’t sure if they would offend somebody.”
Feelings remain so strong, Hall said, that he had reservations about observing the centennial. He agreed to serve on the planning committee after he was assured the commemoration would be done in a tasteful, respectful way to all parties.
One fact everyone agrees on is that the shooting can be traced to the December 1910 corn shucking.
Tradition held that a boy who found a red ear of corn during a shucking could kiss the girl of his choice. Wesley Edwards found a red ear and kissed another boy’s girlfriend.
That led to a fight outside a church the next morning between the boyfriend, his friends, Edwards and his brother Sidna.
The Edwards boys prevailed, but were later arrested on charges stemming from the fight. As they were being hauled off to jail their uncle, Floyd Allen, freed them. Allen would later say he didn’t mean to free them, he just wanted them to be treated as humans instead of as animals.
The Edwards were later convicted and served their sentences working at an orchard.
But Allen was arrested for interfering with deputies. According to historical accounts, after a year of delays, his case went to trial.
Judge Thornton Massie had been warned to expect trouble but took no precautions, Marshall said. And the packed courtroom suggested even the public was looking for drama.
“They wanted a spectacle, and they got it,” Marshall said.
After being convicted and sentenced to a year in jail, Allen stood and announced: “Gentlemen, I just ain’t a-going.’”
Who fired the first shot is still a subject of debate. According to Marshall, court clerk Dexter Goad and Commonwealth’s Attorney William Foster came to the court armed.
Sidna Allen wrote in his memoirs that his brother Floyd Allen and Floyd’s son, Claude, did not fire the first shots _ they merely returned fire in self-defense.
But Floyd and Claude were convicted of killing the prosecutor. Claude was also convicted for Massie’s death. Both men were executed.
Sidna Allen, received a 35-year sentence for his role in the shootings.
Some Allen descendants believe their ancestors got a bum rap.
Rhonda Barker of Loganville, Ga., the great-great-grandniece of Floyd and Sidna Allen, harbors no bitterness toward those who blame them for the bloodbath but tends to believe her family’s version of events.
“The more I’ve learned about the story, it’s clear there are two sides,” Barker said. “It seems kind of senseless. It’s a shame it all had to come to that.”
Barker said some Allen descendants believe it was a court official with a political vendetta against Floyd Allen, a prominent landowner and Democratic power broker.
While there is plenty of blame to be shared, Marshall emphasized that the commemoration will take a neutral approach and will focus on healing and the lessons learned from the tragedy _ primarily, respect for the law.
The committee adopted a statement of principles promising as much, as well as a goal of reconciliation.
“Resentment, bitterness, confusion of fact … all linger within our community,” the committee says in a document outlining reasons for observing the centennial. “Healing often happens after infection is exposed and treated.”
One thing the commemoration won’t offer, Marshall said, is a re-enactment of the shooting. A consultant hired to recommend ways to boost tourism in Hillsville a few years ago suggested a re-enactment, but residents were appalled, he said.
To them, it was like recommending a re-enactment of the Columbine massacre, he said.
So the commemoration likely will include memorial services and panel discussions, all with the intent of paying respects to the dead and acknowledging the historical significance of the incident.
Whatever the events, Barker hopes to be there.
“I’m excited about it,” she said. “The whole thing is fascinating to me. One, it’s my family. But it’s just an interesting story. It’s amazing that a little kiss could have started this whole fiasco.”
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