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Healing a century of old wounds

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Memorial service brings together descendants of Carroll County Courthouse shootout victims on both sides of the law for a chance to end 100 years of hurt.

 

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By CHRISTOPHER BROOKE

and BRIAN FUNK

Staff

HILLSVILLE — One hundred years later to the day, community members and civic leaders from Hebron to Hillsville, from Cana to Pulaski, gathered in the beaming sun among the headstones in local cemeteries and paid tribute to those who lost their lives in or after the March 14, 1912, gun battle between the Allen family and court officials in the Carroll County Courthouse.
Even after a century, organizers of the memorial events this week hoped that the ceremonies would promote a sense of peace for families of the five who died from their wounds received in the courtroom and the two members of the Allen family who were later executed.
Memorial events on Tuesday and Wednesday concluded three days of scholarly reflection on the event, including a two-day symposium in the courtroom featuring academics speaking on topics like courtroom violence, the Old South versus the new and even the history of folk songs about the shootout and other tragedies.
With the analysis concluded, time came to deal with the lingering emotions and deep psychic wounds left by the event. The memorial was about healing.
And so it was on Wednesday morning, as the sun heralded a lovely March day, two community members with connections to both sides of the shootout — Joe McGrady and Victor Allen — climbed the winding wooden steps to the cupola of the historic Carroll courthouse, through the law library, to reach the rarely used bell there.
From his career as attorney, McGrady can remember the days when the ringing of the bell preceded court sessions.
At the stroke of 8 a.m., McGrady pulled the bell rope five times and Allen twice.
The bell rang once for Judge Thornton Massie, who died at the bench.
Once for Sheriff Lewis Webb, not long in office when the shootout occurred.
For Commonwealth’s Attorney William Foster.
For juror Augustus Fowler.
For trial witness Bettie Ayers, only 17 when she died.
Once for Floyd Allen, whose refusal to go to prison at the conclusion of his trial for obstruction of justice led to the shootout.
Once for Claude Allen, Floyd’s son who also went to the electric chair at age 24.
McGrady is kin to Foster, his great-great-great nephew. Attorney Walter Tipton, also a great-great-great uncle of his, served as Floyd Allen’s defense attorney. And his great grandfather, Dr. John Bolen, went to the Klondike with Sidna Allen during the gold rush.
Victor Allen’s great-great grandfather was Floyd’s brother.
The graveside wreath layings that followed on Wednesday were fairly quiet events.
Several members of the Carroll County Historical Society traveled to Pulaski to lay a wreath for Massie, returning to the Wilkinson Cemetery in Hillsville for Commonwealth’s Attorney Nathan Lyons to say a few words honoring his predecessor for his service to the community.
“We assemble here in the Wilkinson Cemetery… again on another sacred site…” organizer Gary Marshall of the Carroll County Historical Society said. “We are now here at the site of the burial of William McDonald Foster who was commonwealth’s attorney, serving when he met his tragic death on March 14, 1912, exactly 100 years ago today.
“We’re here today in a tribute to the office of the commonwealth’s attorney, but really in a memorial to the servant William Foster who gave his life in the service of his community….”
Foster was elected more than three times to that office and gave his life while prosecuting Floyd Allen’s trial that day.
“We remember him as a faithful steward to the community, a public servant… we remember it as a tragedy for all of those involved and for the sacrifices that each individual gave…. they gave the supreme sacrifice, their life for what they thought was important or for the office they held at that time,” Marshall said. He asked the attendees for a moment of silence to remember Foster.
Marshall, standing in the shade of an awning provided by a funeral home, noted that Foster was buried alongside other representatives of the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, John Alderman Sr. and son John Perry Alderman.
Participants then drove east of Hillsville to a grassy hillside where Sheriff Lewis Webb lay under a slab of concrete in his family cemetery, with a scenic view of Buffalo Mountain in the distance.
Carroll Sheriff J.B. Gardner said a few words: “The year that the sheriff was killed was the last year, except for two years during World War II... that there were less than 100 police officers killed. As violent as [1912] was, it was not as bad as many of the other years we’ve had since then…”
As a school resource officer and teacher of a high school criminal justice class, Gardner had taken students to the national police officers’ memorial in Washington, D.C., and brought back an etching of Sheriff Webb’s name to present to the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office.
“The younger generation needs to remember those kinds of things,” he explained.
Carroll deputies, as well as Hillsville Police Chief Steve Williams, saluted Webb while “Amazing Grace” played.
“We do pause at a site selected by family members 100 years ago to lay to rest the remains of a servant of this community and the citizenry of the county,” Marshall said. “I’m very much touched by seeing the beauty of this place and to stand on hollowed ground recognizing sacrifice.”

Remembering the Fallen
The night before Wednesday’s graveside services, descendants of victims and heirs to the offices held by court officials gathered at the VFW in Hillsville for a memorial service to reflect on the shootout.
Marshall lit seven candles, one for each who lost their life, and representatives of each victim dedicated the wreaths that were taken to grave sites Wednesday.
(Hillsville Mayor Bill Tate, who runs a florist shop, provided the bouquet of flowers with seven candles for the event.)
The families of Judge Massie and William Foster brought forth wreaths, with Lyons escorting Priscilla Edwards, Foster’s great-great niece.
Sheriff Gardner and Clerk of the Court Carolyn Honeycutt brought up the wreath for Lewis Webb, followed by David Fowler and a procession of juror Augustus Fowler’s descendants.
Witness Bettie Ayers had no children, and no remaining family in the area. So, her wreath was carried by Linda Smith of Ararat, the actress who played Ayers in “Thunder in the Hills,” a play written for the 100th anniversary of the shootout.
Sen. Ralph Smith and Del. Anne B. Crockett-Stark presented Shelby Puckett of the Carroll County Historical Society a joint resolution passed by the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates in honor of the society’s efforts to preserve this piece of history.
Smith said the event affected all of Southwest Virginia. For example, he and Stark had ancestors who were jurors in Floyd Allen’s murder trial in Wythe County, 99 years ago.
Dozens of people attended the symposium “to understand this horrific history,” Marshall said, and 11 performances of  “Thunder in the Hills” were sold out and there is a 16-page waiting list for tickets to future shows.
This shows the ongoing interest in the event, and explains why the memorial was at the VFW instead of the courthouse — it could not have held the large crowd that gathered Tuesday night.
Marshall recounted the facts of the bloody conflict 100 years prior. Though there have been deadly courthouse shootings before and after the Carroll incident — in fact, there was one this week, in Texas, on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy — none have been on the scale of the one in Hillsville. “Never have we experienced that magnitude of loss of court servants.”
Quoting President Franklin Roosevelt’s comment about Pearl Harbor, Marshall said March 14, 1912, is another “date that will live in infamy.”
But, he noted that “we’re not here to relive that history... It’s one of those days when our pause to reflect gives some soothing.”
U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-9th District), who was asked to speak on whether justice was served after the shootout, illustrated how deeply the roots of the tragedy run, and how easy it is to find those with connections to it.
On his way from Salem to Hillsville on Tuesday, he happened to stop by a gun shop in Willis. The owner turned out to be the great-great-grandson of Sidna Allen, who received a prison sentence for his part in the shootout.
Griffith also had a personal connection to the event. His great-grandmother told him stories about the shootout, and she had visited the prison where Sidna Allen served his time to hold a prayer session.
So affected by that encounter, Griffith’s great-grandmother bought one of the ornate wooden boxes that Sidna was famous for making. Reaching into his bag, Griffith took out the wooden tiled box, a family heirloom that he inherited.
Griffith marveled that, in an age when there was no TV, radio or Internet to spread the story, 100,000 people signed a petition to commute the Allens’ sentences and ask that Floyd and Claude not be executed. That speaks to how deeply the event affected culture in Southwest Virginia.
Griffith said there are dozens of questions about the event — like who fired the first shot — “but I don’t think any of us will ever know. I don’t think they can be answered.”
He said it’s difficult to judge a historical event 100 years after the fact. “We are looking back with a different set of values and social mores... We can see the picture, but it’s fuzzy.”
What we can do is learn from history, he said.
“Romance, love, politics, power and family honor were all stirred up in this powder keg that, when it was lit, blew up this county,” Griffith said.
“Carroll County is a good place that found itself thrust by fate into a vicious set of circumstances. Let us hope that it never happens again, and let us not be quick to judge what happened 100 years ago.”
Marshall presented Griffith with a wooden nesting doll of “Lady Justice.” Inside were smaller dolls, each representing the victims of the shootout.

Redeeming a Family Name
Tuesday evening provided a catharsis for members of the Allen family, who also lost loved ones when Floyd and Claude — father and son — were executed. They were honored with equal respect alongside the other victims.
Jewel Jones came all the way from Cape Cod, Mass., to attend Tuesday’s memorial. She spoke on behalf of Claude Allen, her first cousin, twice removed.
“We have great sorrow for all the lives lost,” she said. “May God forgive us all in this tragedy.”
Jones said on Wednesday the commemoration healed some old wounds for her family.
Her father’s people were Allens and Joneses. The family moved away from Carroll County, and she described her father as having “toxic shame” that stemmed from the conflicts that lingered here.
After lighting the candle for Claude Allen at Tuesday’s service, Jones made sure she reached out to the families of other victims.
“We all hugged and cried, and it’s time to put it behind us,” Jones said before the wreath laying at the graves of Floyd and Claude in Cana’s Wisler Cemetery on Wednesday.
“It’s history... I’ve been able to forgive it all. It’s probably been one of the most monumental weeks of my life.”
Puckett heard similar sentiments from those gathered at Augustus Fowler’s wreath laying on Wednesday. They noted their kin lived as a Christian and died as a Christian, and as Christians the family members felt it was time to forgive.
Speaker Tony Lowe noted, while remembering Floyd Allen, that Floyd’s family thought of him as a good provider and father and his neighbors thought that no one had a bigger heart.
“That’s one of the things that we do need to think about — the good in all these people, that they were loved by their families, well spoken of by their neighbors,” Lowe said.
Claude Allen’s life was too short, Victor Allen said while laying the wreaths. “May we all use this as a lesson and be able to learn from it.”
Victor — who ironically played Sheriff Webb in “Thunder in the Hills” — spoke at Tuesday’s memorial on behalf of Floyd Allen and the legacy of proud and independent mountaineers like the Allens.
“I light this candle in tribute to many old families of these mountains, whose ancestors fought with distinction in the American Revolution and Civil War, and thus created, with their blood, these free United States,” Allen said.
“We, their descendants and heirs, are mindful of the hardships, sacrifices and dedication to family, land and liberty that inspired them.
“I light this candle in memory of Mr. Floyd Allen, whose qualities of industry and intelligence are sadly overshadowed by his brevity of patience and impulsive intolerance. He was a faithful husband, a good father and a worthy steward of the land. He atoned for the guilt of his crime against this court with his life.
“In lighting this candle, his life and love among family, and his labors and service to his neighbors, are gratefully remembered. His death at the hands of justice is the cause of sadness, but the light of this candle dispels all bitterness.”
Lowe felt that people were reaching a place of healing in connection with the commemoration.
One of the big points Jesus hits in the Lord’s Prayer is forgiveness, he said.
“I sense that there’s been some healing and some forgiveness in the things that are going on in Carroll County right now,” Lowe said. “Some old wounds are finally being dealt with. We’re making our peace.”
Lowe believes that, if any of those honored were living today, that’s what they’d say: “Make your peace. Let the wounds heal. Forgive.”

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