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Internet bloggers dig into 1912 tragedy

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Almost a century later, the Hillsville courthouse shootout still fascinates a writer who is the descendant of one of the victims.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

 

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HILLSVILLE — Two bloggers visited Hillsville last week to get a bead on what makes the 1912 courthouse shootout still such a hotly debated issue.
For one Arlington-based blog writer, the visit became something of a family reunion.
It was only five years ago that Anne Meador learned that Sheriff Lewis Webb, her great-great-grandfather, died from the wounds he received in the Carroll County Courthouse that cold March day, nearly 100 years ago.
(This is just one example of the heightened attention that the event has received as the centennial approaches.)
Photojournalist Jerry Nelson saw the visit as his chance to get the perfect shot to capture the flavor of the area.
A freelancer and blogger for the Huffington Post, Nelson’s motto is “I see it, I shoot it, I live it.”
That’s been true for the last few months as Nelson has lived in a tent among the Occupy D.C. protests and took photos on assignment for The Washington Times.
In fact, Meador and Nelson did not know each other until they both started blogging about their local "occupy" protests.
They met after commenting on each other’s blog posts, and Meador invited Nelson along to take pictures while she explored the history of the shootout that left five people dead and led to the execution of two members of the Allen family.
The two bloggers tried to immerse themselves in the local culture and shootout history for the two days they visited.
That gave Nelson a chance to find the proverbial end of the ball of yarn and pull to find the best pictures possible, as he put it.
On a Thursday morning, Meador sat down for a long talk with Bill Webb of the Carroll County Historical Society  — a distant relation — over coffee, orange juice, pancakes, scrambled eggs and biscuits.
Meador didn’t know anything about her ancestor’s violent demise until her father handed her a folder of newspaper articles — full of sensationalized and inaccurate details, but enough to pique her interest in those events.
“I was hooked — I couldn’t believe it happened....” she said. “That was my ancestor.”
Webb, like many other locals have said, didn’t hear much about the shootout while growing up in Carroll County, but learned what he knows through historical society programs and reading the many books on the subject.
Webb gave the bloggers a sense of how many theories and divergent opinions remain about what led to the conflict in the courtroom — a stolen kiss, the politics of the area, the grudges of Floyd Allen and those who held grudges against him, the Allen’s place in society.
The age-old question of who shot first came up and whether any of the guns used are still around.
Though officials brought in an engineer to draw up a document about where the 57 bullets fired in the courtroom ended up, Webb pointed out other parts of the investigation turned out sketchy.
Matching up recovered bullets to the guns that fired them wasn’t even thought of back in the day, the historical society board member noted. There’s no definitive proof of who shot who, not in any “CSI” forensics kind of way, at least.
The story goes that Sheriff Webb fell back, immediately dead with a toothpick in his mouth, after the shooting. Many of the deputies in the courtroom soon made themselves scarce.
“You know, the sheriff is dead,” Webb noted. “All the deputies vanished into the woodwork or the woods, or whatever.”
Could be a sense of self-preservation encouraged that.
By today’s legal standards, most if not all of the participants probably would have not been convicted, much less put to death, due to the way the investigation unfolded, Webb responded to a question from Nelson.
Meador plans to write several versions of an article on what she learned while visiting Carroll, the courthouse, Floyd and Sidna Allens’ homes, the gravesites.
She’ll offer it to many different publications in and around Virginia and travel magazines.
She wanted to look for a different angle, and that may involve her personal viewpoint being a descendant of the sheriff.
“I just want to find out what it’s like here now and why this story is still alive,” Meador said.
Meador got some help on her Webb family genealogy when she saw historian Ron Hall at the museum — he printed off a family tree for her on the spot.
The ambiguity of events around who shot first intrigued Nelson, who came up with a theory of his own.
What if a metallic pinging sound came from the logs burning in the woodstove at just the wrong time?
What if, amid all the tension between all the armed men in the courtroom after Floyd Allen announced that he had no intention of going to jail, one of the many armed men mistook the popping sound for gunfire?
“And at the worst possible moment, one of the pieces of wood in the woodstove cracks and pops and starts it all off?” Nelson asked Webb at the Hillsville Diner.
Nelson explored that idea more at his blog.
“All arrived with heightened expectations of trouble and violence,” Nelson wrote. “Tensions were on edge. Nerves were raw. The slightest word, gesture or noise could ignite this tinderbox that had been smoldering for decades.”
Meador’s blog can be found here.