Carroll Courthouse Tragedy: Lives Forever Changed

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The 1912 shootout in the Carroll County Courthouse altered the fates of all those involved, and their families.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter



HILLSVILLE — Five people in the court for the conclusion of Floyd Allen’s obstruction of justice trial soon went to their graves, fatally wounded by the hail of bullets that family members and court and county officials exchanged on March 14, 1912.
Floyd and son Claude Allen both went to the electric chair for their roles in the shootout.
Another seven in court that day survived their injuries.
People with even the most cursory knowledge of the event known as “the courthouse tragedy” probably know that much, but what happened to the lives of others impacted by that 90-second gun battle?
That’s what Shelby Inscore-Puckett’s presentation highlighted during last Tuesday’s session of the centennial symposium, a wide-ranging two-day discussion of Southern culture and history meant to put the shootout in context of the times.
Beyond the main participants, Puckett noted that six women lost their husbands and 28 children were left fatherless.
Cornelia Frances Allen, Floyd’s wife and Claude’s mother, had her life shattered, according to the presentation, based on author Ron Hall’s research on the subject with additions by Puckett.
Dubbed the “Lady of Woe” and the “Lady in Black” for the somber clothing she wore to the trails of her family members, Frances had been married to Floyd for 35 years.
She argued against Claude going to his father’s trial that day.
“[Claude] came home after the tragedy,” the presentation said. “She hid and provisioned him, but he was her baby.”
Frances also fed the Baldwin-Felts detectives that came searching for the wanted men. Puckett noted that one of the detectives reacted with pity to her plight and paid her.
Her efforts to safeguard her son failed as Claude was caught two miles from home.
Frances’ son Victor also was jailed and tried, but found not guilty.
Frances Allen could do nothing when the barn went up in flames that August.
Requests for clemency went up to Gov. William Hodges Mann for Floyd and Claude and appeals continued until the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
Frances Allen must have become desperate during the drawn-out process, because she wrote a letter asking for financial help for The Galax Post Herald to publish, addressed to the public,  Puckett noted.
“The members of my family and our attorneys have received many letter from persons offering to start public subscriptions to aid me in carrying on the defense of my husband, Floyd Allen, and my son, Claude Allen,” began the letter that’s been kept in Gooch Harmon’s museum in Woodlawn. “We have refused these offers as we wanted to pay the expenses of these trials ourselves as long as we had anything to pay with.
“My husband and my two sons have gone through long and costly trials all summer that have taken all that we could raise on our home.”
The barn burned while she watched Claude’s trial in Wytheville, destroying all feed and farm machinery on the property.
“If the people who have made these kind offers still want to help us, anything that they can collect and will send to me at Mount Airy, N.C., will be used in the defense of my husband and my boy,” Frances wrote.
This was poignant to Puckett because Frances must have been a proud woman who was worn down.
She gave up all her roots and moved to Tabernacle, N.J., after the death sentences were carried out.
At the funerals, Frances bypassed Floyd’s coffin and held Claude’s body until the end.
She lost her property after it was seized and sold at auction.
“To me, she’s the epitome of suffering after the tragedy,” Puckett said.

Betty Allen, wife of Sidna, suffered major economic loss as her husband was sentenced to prison for 35 years for his role in the shootout.
When Sidna fled to Iowa during the manhunt, Betty didn’t know where her husband was for months while she struggled to provide for their two daughters.
Their impressive Queen Anne-style home in Fancy Gap was seized in May 1912, the same month in which her father died, according to the presentation. She wasn’t allowed to keep the general store they ran, so she made a living doing housework and washing.
Bill Lord’s book, “The Red Ear of Corn,” records Betty’s anger at her brother-in-law Floyd for what happened to her husband.
“Betty inquired about the health of Floyd Allen, now in the Roanoke jail,” Lord wrote. “When Sidna and the others left him after the shootout they believed he was dying. Told that he had recovered, she gave an indication of whom she blamed the most for her troubles. ‘Too bad he didn’t die, don’t you think?’”
By the time Sidna was pardoned in 1926, Betty was 54 and missed spending the best years of her life with her husband. Still, Puckett reports that Betty lived happy years alternating her time at a winter home in Eden, N.C., and in Hillsville in summers.
Brothers Sidna and Wesley Edwards — who Floyd freed from police while they were under arrest, leading to his obstruction of justice trial  — reportedly were a “bit wild” and had turned to moonshining.
Wesley Edwards fled with his uncle to Iowa after the shootout, and both men were caught after a visit by Edwards’ fiancee, Maude Iroler, giving rise to the question of whether she betrayed Wesley for the reward.
Historians surmise that the informant might have been Iroler’s father, who was said not to have approved of the man she had romanced.
The recently published book “The Allens of Fancy Gap” by Edwin Wiley includes a letter from Baldwin-Felts Detectives’ chief W.G. Baldwin to the governor on that subject.
“Westley (sic) Edwards’ sweetheart, a girl named Maude Iroller turned over to the men we had in the mountains a letter from him telling her to meet him and giving all directions,” the letter said, according to the book. “We sent Lucas to Irollers’ and he got in with the girl and she told him all about the men. Her father got her to give them away for the reward.”
Another item from the letter was that Sidna Allen and Wesley Edwards fled from Carroll County only two days after the detectives started searching for them, Puckett pointed out.
Sidna Edwards got a plea bargain for second-degree murder and went to prison for 18 years, but Wesley refused a deal and got sentenced to 27 years in prison, according to the presentation.
Nellie Wisler, Claude’s girlfriend, went to Richmond to be close to him after he was sentenced to die, according to the presentation.
“Miss Nellie Wisler, Claude Allen’s sweetheart, asks the governor to meet and talk with Claude personally, offering herself as a hostage in the event Claude should actually try and succeed to escape,” Lord wrote in his book.
She organized petitions for clemency for Claude and helped him write his final statement.
After Claude was executed, Wisler married in August 1914 and lived in Bluefield, W.Va., until her death in 1976.

When Judge Thornton Massie died at 45 from his gunshot wounds, the Pulaski resident left three children and a wife, though they were likely better off economically than most at the time, according to the presentation.
Sheriff Lew Webb had eight living children at the time of his death. One of his daughters wrote to Gov. Mann opposing clemency for Floyd and Claude.
Commonwealth’s Attorney William Foster had five children with wife Katherine and lived on Main Street where Jackson’s Insurance is now.
“William Foster’s daughter Aline married George Ellison “Bud” Edwards” in 1917, according to the presentation. “Bud Edwards, a cousin of Will Thomas, [who was] involved in the December 1910 fight with the Edwards boys.”
(Wesley Edwards’ fight with Thomas was the incident that got them arrested in the first place, leading to their capture and Floyd Allen freeing them from custody.)
Bud Edwards later served as sheriff of Carroll County for many years.
Juror Augustus Fowler had 10 children with wife Mary Bryant.
“Some descendants still bitter about his death, which was probably accidental, caught in the crossfire of Claude Allen and the lawmen,” according to the presentation.
Witness Betty Ayers was in the courtroom that day because she had been at Sidna Allen’s store when Floyd confronted the Carroll deputies. It was only recently that her plot in the Guynn Cemetery in Cana was marked with a stone by historians Gooch Harmon and Ron Leonard.
Court Clerk Dexter Goad, who survived his wounds, because something of a celebrity after the shootout. For years, his connection with the incident was a subject of interest, as shown by a mention of a visit by Goad in the Elkin Tribune in 1918.
His daughter, Jezebel Goad, received a medal for bravery for rushing to her father’s side during the shootout.
For a long time, Carroll County as a whole closed the door on this chapter of its history, Puckett noted.
When a play emerged in 1978, the author had to put it on in Wytheville, as no one in Carroll would permit its staging here. This year, a play about the event sold out 11 performances — all in Carroll County.
“We’re talking about it again,” Puckett told The Gazette about the centennial activities.
The Carroll County Historical Society and community members have worked within the symposium and the “Thunder in the Hills” play and the memorials “to open up that door again and look at that history and see it in the context of history as the tragedy that it really was.”