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CANA — In the time remaining until the premiere of “Thunder in the Hills,” attendees still have time to review the history to better understand the complexities of the courthouse shootout before the curtain rises on Frank Levering’s original play.
While a play based on a true event is an interpretation of the author, Levering has included a number of details that don’t come up otherwise in glosses of the shootout between members of the Allen family and court and county officials that killed five and led to the execution of Floyd and Claude Allen.
His research to put together his narrative acquainted Levering with some of the more obscure elements of the conflict, as well as the lives of the participants.
The drama that resulted examines many of the lingering questions from that day in the Carroll County Courthouse in 1912 when Floyd Allen’s trial for obstruction of justice turned into a gun battle between members of the family and court officials.
From the familiar query of why there were so many guns in the courtroom that day, Levering’s piece goes on to consider the weighty topic of the state of justice in Virginia when it came to the Allens and the impact on all those involved.
Levering approached the shootout as a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense, as a drama that arises from human suffering.
Floyd Allen refused to serve time in prison, a sentence arising from an obstruction charge. Other acts also perpetuated animosity between the participants.
The fact that 22-year-old Claude Allen gets executed is a tragic outcome.
“It becomes tragic in that Floyd realizes, as a result of his own tragic flaws, he sacrifices the life of his own son,” the playwright said. “I think in a nutshell, really it comes down to the fact that Floyd Allen had a long history of acting irrationally and without regard for due process of the law.”
The shootout and its aftermath created a rift between Floyd and his wife, who never forgave him for the death of her son, Claude, by execution. Levering noted that news reports from the time documented that the Frances Allen — known in the press as the “woman of woe” for dressing in black in public and at her loved ones trials \—never looked at Floyd’s body at the funeral, just her son’s.
In “Thunder in the Hills,” Frances is “the emotional center of gravity,” because the audience will experience the tragic loss through her eyes.
In the end, Frances moved to New Jersey with son Victor Allen, in a sense being exiled from her home due to the aftermath of the shootout.
The play deals with the pain of many of the women impacted by the shootout.
Bettie Allen has to deal with her sudden change in social status after husband Sidna Allen’s fall from grace. Before the shootout, he was one of the most prosperous men in Carroll County.
Bettie Allen lost everything during her husband’s imprisonment. She moved to Hillsville and struggled to support their two daughters by herself, taking jobs as a maid and washing clothes, all the while being treated as a pariah, the playwright recalled.
Nellie Wisler stuck by Claude and took her effort to get his death sentence commuted all the way to the governor’s office.
Newspaper accounts reported that Gov. William Hodges Mann expressed a desire in that meeting to save the man Wisler loved, but in the end did nothing to stop the execution.
This led to Levering wondering if, at that moment during the governor’s visit with Wisler, he had been sincerely moved by her emotions or if he told her what she wanted to hear.
What makes the loss of life from the shootout even more sad is that it could have been avoided, Levering says.
History tells that many members of the Allen family brought guns to the courtroom that day. So did Clerk of Court Dexter Goad, who had many disagreements with Floyd Allen.
Accounts tell of Goad buying a new gun and taking it out for target practice in the lead-up to the trial.
Levering dramatizes this in a scene with Judge Thornton Massie talking to Goad and Commonwealth’s Attorney William Foster about his refusal to ban guns from the courtroom for Floyd’s trial.
Massie, in the play, adopts the attitude that the court would look weak and fearful if he banned guns outright.
“It appears that Massie was on a little bit of a high horse about how sacrosanct that the law was and the court was,” Levering says. “The judge just dismissing the idea that there could be gunfire in the courtroom — people just respected the law too much for that to happen.”
Floyd Allen and Goad had plenty of disagreements before, as a scene early in the play recounts.
Floyd had tried to get Goad’s election as clerk of courts overturned, for example. Levering also recalled Floyd blowing the whistle on Goad during his term as U.S. commissioner, charging Goad with selling illegal liquor while holding that office.
The court officials also knew that Floyd Allen had often insisted he would not serve time in prison but would accept a fine, adding to the atmosphere of danger in the courtroom during his trial.
Goad proved to be a complicated person, too. Levering found that the clerk of court was an accomplished man who left a positive impact on Carroll County, but he was also capable of provocative acts.
The distrust between the Floyd Allen and Goad and Foster seemed rife, the playwright believes.
“You had a situation where everybody felt compelled to arm themselves in case of trouble,” Levering said.
People anticipated violence, he added. In fact, the jury foreman left the courtroom well before the shooting started for that very reason.
Levering tried to be careful in the play to fairly present the different perspectives from the Allens, the court officials and Gov. Mann.
Based on the history of the Allen trials after the shootout, as collected in “The Red Ear of Corn,” Levering believes Virginia’s governor and his lieutenants were on a mission to kill a couple of Allens, as long as public sentiment remained on the politicians’ side.
“What happened after the shootout to me is incredibly dramatic and important at a high level,” the playwright says. “In terms of revealing what the thinking was about ‘justice’ in Virginia at that time.”
From reading accounts of Gov. Mann’s reaction from the time he got Dexter Goad’s telegram about the shootout, to trial transcripts of the state’s attorneys trying to establish a conspiracy among the Allens to attack the officials to the governor’s statements about the case, Levering believes that Mann felt on a gut level that members of the Allen family had to be dealt with harshly.
“I just have a feeling that Gov. Mann was on a mission to bring these Allens to Richmond to execute them.”
Plenty of upset jurors bought the state’s arguments about a conspiracy at Floyd and Claude’s trials, which led to their convictions and executions, Levering said. But when Sidna Allen was caught some months later after escaping to Iowa, public sentiment had shifted and Sidna was spared capital punishment.
With no forensic evidence or proof of who shot whom, the courts put Floyd and Claude to death.
As the centennial of the shootout approaches, it appears to Levering what happened to the Allens at their trials amounts to an injustice.
“I think it’s pretty clear in hindsight that was an unjust verdict against Floyd and Claude,” he said. “Act II is a plea for real justice to be done for Floyd and Claude 100 years later.
“Too late, but that’s one reason you do a play — to revisit wrongs that have been done.”
Of the many books on the shootout, Levering depended on two heavily.
Ron Hall’s “The Carroll County Courthouse Tragedy” informed much of Act I, which draws to a close with the shootout.
Act II, involving the legal and political wrangling, was influenced strongly by William Lord’s “The Red Ear of Corn.”
Levering also got a sense of the importance of family honor and how that might have contributed to these events from “The Memoirs of J. Sidna Allen.”
These three books are recommended reading for anyone who wants to know the history behind “Thunder in the Hills.”
The nine performances of the play begin on March 9 and run through March 25 on weekends in the historic Carroll County Courthouse.
A number of presentations and discussion topics as part of the Courthouse Tragedy 1912 Centennial Symposium may also shed light on the culture and the times in which the shootout occurred in.
Being held on March 12 and 13, the symposium includes topics like “the place of violence in the New South,” a talk on the Baldwin-Felts detectives who tracked the fugitive Allens, guns in the courtroom and folk songs that arose from dramatic events like the shootout and who fired the first shot.
For more information call (276) 728-4113, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.courthousetragedy1912.com.