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THE CARROLL COURTHOUSE TRAGEDY 100TH ANNIVERSARY — PART 2

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On the 100th anniversary of the infamous gun battle at the Hillsville courthouse, folks reflect on what happened and what it all meant.

 

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By RALPH BERRIER JR.
Landmark News Service

On March 15, 1912, the day after the deadly shootout in the Carroll County Courthouse, the New York Times reported in its lead story:
“[A] troop of twenty mud-splashed mountaineers galloped in with rifles from the surrounding hills early this morning, and in less time than it takes to tell it, the judge before the bench, the prosecutor before the bar, and the sheriff at the door lay dead in the courtroom. Several of the jurors were also shot, one probably mortally, and the prisoner also was wounded. The courtroom, which was crowded with countryfolk, was turned into a scene of panic and confusion.”
The Roanoke Times reported that Sidna Allen had been captured in “a hot fight” at his home and that his wife had been killed.
None of it was true.
“Newspapers were completely outlandish,” said Ron Hall, a retired physicist and amateur historian who spent more than 20 years researching this particular gunfight. “They reported that they rode horses into the courtroom and such. I don’t think they ever printed too many retractions on stories like that.”

CLICK HERE TO READ PART ONE OF THIS STORY

The story made national news until the sinking of the Titanic a month later. The Roanoke Times carried stories on its front page for nearly two weeks, as the hunt for the Allens intensified.
The law arrived the day after the shooting in the form of hired guns. The Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, which had a home base in Roanoke, was dispatched to Hillsville by Gov. Mann.
The agency handled security for the Norfolk and Western Railway and its detectives would become notorious strike-breakers, union-busters, spies and gun thugs during the West Virginia coal wars. Founder William Baldwin was born in Tazewell and had started as a progressive lawman. He studied early fingerprinting techniques in Europe and had helped capture some of the battling Hatfields and McCoys.
Baldwin’s partner Thomas Felts lived near Galax, where a spur line of the N&W ran past his house — the Cliffview estate — for his own personal use.
(Felts Park in Galax, where the world-famous Old Fiddlers' Convention is held annually, is named for him.)
Baldwin-Felts operatives left their work in West Virginia mining camps and rode the rails down to Galax. They traveled to Hillsville in the rain, fording a swollen creek without their horses.
When they got to town, the Baldwin-Felts men posed for the newspaper cameras on horseback, rifles at the ready.
Felts arrested Floyd Allen in the hotel where he had spent the night. Photographs of the arrest ran nationwide. Felts knew how to generate publicity.
Newspaper accounts of the hunt for the Allens read as if they were spoon-fed to reporters by the Baldwin-Felts men. Tales of imminent battles and arrests made headlines.
In truth, many of the detectives — some of them locals hired for the manhunt — slogged around in the rain for days, stumbling through the woods and sleeping in the mud as the Allen clan eluded capture, perhaps aided by their friends and neighbors. Bleary-eyed detectives shot at tree stumps they mistook for outlaws. In his memoirs, Sidna Allen wrote dismissively of the “grand posse” and its pursuit of the Allens.
Within a couple of weeks, three of the gang were either captured or surrendered, including Claude, Floyd’s son.
Sidna Allen and his nephew Wesley Edwards were more elusive. They made it all the way to Des Moines, Iowa, where they got jobs and lived under aliases.
They were captured six months later by Baldwin-Felts detectives, after Edwards corresponded with his girlfriend, Maude Iroler, back home — even returning to Virginia on one occasion to visit her.
Sidna always believed that the girl had sold them out. "I felt sure she had betrayed us to the detectives,” Sidna wrote in his memoir. “They say love is blind, so I suppose that accounted for his faith in her. I was informed by the detectives that she sold [out] Wesley for five hundred dollars.”
Word of the sensational arrest spread across the country and huge crowds came out in Des Moines, Chicago and Cincinnati to see the famous outlaws in person as they were brought back to Virginia.
When they arrived in Roanoke on Sept. 16, 1912, Sidna and Wesley were paraded down Campbell Avenue in an open touring car, as if they were prize trophies. Roanoke’s legendary photographer George Davis got a shot of them standing in the back of the car, surrounded by Baldwin-Felts men.
The last Allen fugitives were in custody.

A swift end
Meanwhile, the wheels of justice were turning fast — a bit too fast for some folks, who were beginning to believe that perhaps the Allens were not completely guilty. Public sympathies began to shift slightly in favor of the Allens, as Floyd and his son Claude were swiftly tried for first-degree murder.
“Almost immediately, these divisions came about,” said Shelby Puckett, a longtime educator and member of the Carroll County Historical Society. “You had people pleading on behalf of the Allens. And you had people saying ‘stay the course’ and that lawlessness could not be tolerated.”
The handsome Claude had become something of a celebrity. His good looks, black hair and stylish suits had made him a front-page sensation. Interest in the trials was high — but this time, the courtroom crowd was disarmed.
In May, barely three months after the shootout, Floyd was convicted in Wytheville for the murder of William Foster, the commonwealth’s attorney. Two months later, after three separate trials, Claude was convicted in Washington County for conspiring to kill Foster, even though there was no evidence that he ever shot at him.
Floyd wept openly at the trial of Claude, a once-proud man now beaten and broken. Frances Allen, Floyd’s wife and Claude’s mother, who was described in the Richmond newspapers as the “woman of woe,” hugged Claude and sobbed after the verdict.
The father and son were sentenced to die in the electric chair.
After several appeals and stays of execution, and despite petitions signed by thousands of Virginians asking for clemency, execution day came on March 28, 1913, one year and two weeks after the horrific Hillsville shootout.
Floyd Allen, now 56, was strapped to the electric chair inside the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond. A leather mask was placed over his face, electrodes attached to his arms and at 1:22 p.m. the first of four, minute-long, 2,000-volt electrical shocks was sent through his body. A wisp of smoke rose from his wrists as his head slumped forward. He was pronounced dead at 1:26 p.m.
Twelve minutes later, Claude Allen, just 24, was electrocuted in the same chair.
The bodies of father and son were taken to a Richmond funeral home where, against the family’s wishes, they were placed in a public viewing. Thousands of people filed by the open coffins.
When the bodies were returned to Carroll County, they were placed in the front parlor of Floyd’s home. In an emotional moment, Frances Allen — Floyd’s wife and Claude’s mother — entered the room and strode past Floyd’s body, never looking at it. She went straight to her son and cradled him like a baby.
To Puckett, the scene is revealing. “It’s like she’s saying to Floyd, ‘Look at what you have done; look at what you have done to me,’” Puckett said. “Her loss was unimaginable. A husband and a son. She had to move away from home. She had lost all her family connections.”
Floyd and Claude were buried side by side in a cemetery in Cana, swaddled by the Blue Ridge Mountains. The original headstone bore the defiant epitaph: “Sacred to the memory of Claude S. Allen and his father, who was judicially murdered in the Va. Penitentiary March 28 1913 by order of the Governor of the State over the protest of 100,000 citizens of the state of Va.”
The headstone was replaced some years later. Legend has it that its removal was a condition for Sidna Allen to receive a pardon for his conviction in the shootout.
The other Allens received more lenient sentences. Sidna Allen was sentenced to 35 years in prison, Wesley Edwards 27. Two other nephews, Friel Allen and Sidna Edwards, got 18 and 15 years, respectively.
All four were pardoned by Gov. Elbert Lee Trinkle in the 1920s. Sidna Allen got out in 1926 after serving 14 years. Historians have wondered if Floyd and Claude would have been pardoned eventually, too.
Sidna became a woodworking craftsman of some repute while in prison, where he built ornate furniture made of thousands of inlaid wooden pieces. The Carroll museum has some of his work on display.
After prison, Sidna spent his later years selling his wares from the back of a truck, writing and peddling his memoir and telling anyone who listened that the Allens did not fire the first shot.
He died at his daughter’s home in Hillsville in 1941.
In 1987, on the 75th anniversary of the shootout, a funeral wreath appeared on the steps of the Carroll County Courthouse. A sign read: “In memory of the martyred Allens.”

No happy ending
In the afterword of his book, Hall wrote that the courthouse tragedy signaled a turning point in the history of Southwest Virginia.
“The mountains were becoming more civilized by 1912 and Floyd Allen had not yet resigned himself to the fact that he couldn’t live by his own rules,” he wrote. The political powers in Richmond would no longer be able to ignore the Commonwealth’s farthest-flung regions, either. Soon, roads were paved, electrical dams built, telephone lines strung — times were changing.
Even as the good folks of Carroll County acknowledge the fascinating historical aspects of the shootout this week, it should be remembered that, more than anything, it is the story of an enormous human tragedy. The violence in Hillsville left five widows and 32 fatherless children.
“It’s a story that touches on every human emotion,” said Puckett. “Anger, conflict, violence, love, betrayal. But above all else, it’s just a sad story.”