In 1917, Gaston Means was on trial for murder in his hometown of Concord, North Carolina. A member of the prosecution’s team was John Dooling, the New York City assistant district attorney. Throughout the trial, Dooling had annoyed the crowd of spectators with his harsh Yankee accent and aggressive manner with witnesses. By the time he began to cross-examine Gaston, everyone was on edge. On day two of his cross-examination, Gaston lost his temper, growling “Ask your questions like a gentleman, and I’ll answer them in the same way.” Dooling was not prepared to give an inch. Meanwhile, his brothers Brandon and Afton prowled the back of the courtroom.
That night, the town was tense with ladies warning their friends to stay away from the courthouse in the morning because there was sure to be trouble. The general sentiment was that the entire Means family had been grievously insulted. The press warned of a repeat of the “Hillsville incident of 1917.”
That, of course, sent me back to my sources to discover what had happened in Hillsville, a little town in Carroll County, Virginia, not far from Mt. Airy, North Carolina. It was, I learned, a eruption of violence that ended in a cross-county investigation and two deaths in the new-fangled electric chair. It held the country’s attention until the sinking of the Titanic one month later.
The article below, from November, 1982, and reprinted courtesy of The Roanoker Magazine, tells the story of the fateful day in Hillsville and shows the lingering impact on a close-knit community over three-quarters of a century.
The Hillsville Massacre
By Seth Williamson (Originally published in the November, 1982 issue of The Roanoker)
Nobody knows who fired the first shot that cold, gray day, but before it was over, four lay dead, one was dying, and Carroll County would never be the same again.
Perhaps the hardest thing for an outsider to understand is the frequently heard claim that the subject is dead. “The Courthouse Massacre? Don’t nobody talk about that much any more,” says the young workman in Druther’s Restaurant on Main Street in Hillsville. Motioning with a French fry in the direction of the Carroll County Courthouse, he continues, “When I was a little boy there used to be groups to tour that old barn every week. But nowadays the whole thing is pretty much forgotten, I’d say.”
That was disappointing news. The Allen Clan’s blazing courtroom shootout that left five dead earned international headlines in 1912 and became the stuff of legend—and violent controversy—for decades afterward. Only a few years ago State Senator Joseph Fitzpatrick was planning a motion picture based on the events that led to the electrocution of Floyd Allen and his son Claud. Could it be that the topic was now pretty [much dead] even in Hillsville?
“But as long as you’re doing another story on it, you may as well get it right,” the young man says. Smoothing out a paper napkin, he proceeds to make a ballpoint diagram of the courtroom as it was on that cold and wet March day 70 years and seven months ago, complete with the positions of Judge Massie, Sheriff Webb, Commonwealth’s Attorney Foster and Clerk of Court Goad. “Now if you’ll just look at this, you’ll see that there was no way Dexter Goad could have fired the first shot like the Allens claimed . . .”
This is a dead subject?
Folklorist Roddy Moore, director of the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, believes the issue of the Allen Clan’s shootout is still alive and kicking in Hillsville. “We are familiar with the story, but we decided not to get into it. There’s just too much controversy about it even today. Besides,” Moore says, “it’s too hard to get people to speak on the record.”
To those not born and raised in Carroll County, it may seem incredible that fundamental issues of fact can be raised about an event that was witnessed by over a hundred spectators.
Nevertheless, the issue of just who fired the first shot in the courtroom massacre is a live one yet. But if disagreement is still festering, is it possible—seven decades later—to discover the ultimate truth? Moore says, “All you can do is record both sides.”
So that’s what we’ll do.
The most important thing to remember about the Allen family of Carroll County is that they were not your standard-issue outlaws. Jeremiah Allen , born in 1818 and a Civil War veteran, was a prominent landowner, farmer and local officeholder. He was also, many claim, a big-time maker of moonshine whiskey and brandy, or “blockade liquor,” as it was known in Carroll County. He had a big family of seven boys and three girls, most of whom did quite well by the standards of the day. Of Jeremiah’s large brood, the most important to this story are Floyd, Jasper (or “Jack”), Garland, Sidna (pronounced as “Sidney”), and their sister Alvirtia, who married a man named Jasper Edwards.
Jeremiah Allen and his sons were of a type that is peculiarly American. Freed for generations from the social and legal conventions of European society, the Allens cherished an individuality that would have been inconceivable back in the British Isles. The pioneer families who settled Virginia’s Blue Ridge grew or made nearly all of life’s necessities. They learned to depend only on themselves and a few close neighbors, and grew up with a kind of freedom and self-confidence unknown to Europeans of the same class. Government, to the Blue Ridge mountaineers, was something to be tolerated grudgingly and suspiciously. The Federal Government in far off Washington, D.C., received their theoretical support, except when it made obviously ridiculous laws like those taxing whiskey and brandy, which the mountaineers believed themselves entirely justified in flouting.
The pioneer strain of radical independence seemed to persist longer in the Allens than most of their neighbors, side by side with a strong drive to get on in the world. Floyd Allen, a farmer, storekeeper and part time moonshiner, said on more than one occasion that he would “die and to go hell” before he spent a minute behind bars. Sidna was a successful storekeeper at Fancy Gap who had once gone adventuring in Alaska and Hawaii, been tried for counterfeiting, and later built the finest house in Carroll County. Garland was a respected farmer, schoolteacher, and Primitive Baptist preacher, and Jack Allen was a wealthy farmer and sawmill operator. Whatever else they were, the Allens clearly were not the band of ignorant hillbilly outlaws that some Northern newspaper accounts made them out to be.
On the other hand, they were not a race of mild country squires. One is struck, when reading accounts written by the Allens or their defenders, by the numerous unsavory incidents that have to be explained away. According to their claims Floyd’s shooting of a black man in North Carolina was self-defense; Sidna was unaware that his employee and close friend Preston Dickens was using the plating machine Sidna ordered to counterfeit coins; it was self-defense when Floyd shot a man in the leg in 1904; Floyd got in a brawl with revenue officers because they got drunk and abused his hospitality; Sidna’s nephews, Wesley and Sidna Edwards were prosecuted for disturbing public worship because they were not “members of a privileged clique.” All the Allens deny numerous contemporary accounts alleging that Jeremiah and at least some of his sons made blockade liquor. Some of the smoke may be slander, but it is difficult not to suspect at least a little fire.
The train of events, which culminated in the execution of Floyd and Claud Allen, began on a Saturday night in the spring of 1911. Alvirtia Edwards’ 20-year-old son, Wesley, had an argument with a man named Thomas at the local school. The following day, when Wesley and his 22-year-old brother, Sidna, were attending services at their uncle Garland Allen’s church, Wesley was supposedly called out of the service and attacked by Thomas and some friends. Sidna then rushed out of the church and came to his brother’s aid. As a result of the fracas in the churchyard, Wesley and Sidna were indicted for disturbing a public worship service. When they heard of the indictments, the brothers left Carroll County and went to nearby Mount Airy, where they would technically be out of reach of Virginia law officers without extradition papers.
But the Edwards didn’t count on the persistence of the commonwealth’s attorney and the sheriff. Despite his lack of jurisdiction in North Carolina, Sheriff Webb dispatched deputies Pink Samuels and Peter Easter after Wesley and Sidna, who were arrested without a struggle in Mount Airy. The deputies evidently didn’t trust the boys to stay put in the back of the wagon, so they were handcuffed and tied to the wagon posts as the party crossed Fancy Gap on the way back to Hillsville. The road passed by Sidna Allen’s store and Floyd Allen’s house, and when Floyd saw his nephews “trussed up like hogs,” his notorious temper flared.
Floyd was already angry because the other young men involved in the churchyard brawl escaped without punishment, a fact he attributed to his own previous fight with Commonwealth’s Attorney Foster and Foster’s resulting enmity. Sidna Allen summarized the Allens’ side of it in his Memoirs: “Wesley and Sidna had never been in trouble before, were neither dangerous nor desperate, and were charged only with committing a misdemeanor; yet they were not only handcuffed but also tied to the buggy in which they rode with ropes, despite the fact that they were in the keeping of two strong and well-armed men.”
What happened next, like nearly every-thing else in the Allen saga, is disputed. Deputies Easter and Samuels claimed that Floyd, Sidna and Barnard Allen attacked and beat them and freed Wesley and Sidna Edwards. The Allens claimed that Floyd requested his nephews be untied, was threatened with a gun, and single-handedly disarmed the deputies without harming either one. Whatever happened, the following day Floyd took his nephews to Hillsville, where they served 60 and 30 day sentences. For his pains, Floyd was charged with “illegal rescue of prisoners,” as the Virginia law of the time put it. After several continuances, trial was set for March 12, 1912.
There were many in Carroll County who believed that trying Floyd Allen on any charge was asking for trouble. Floyd’s biggest fault, said his brother Garland, was his “uncontrollable temper.” Garland said that their mother had more than once been forced to tie Floyd up with rope when he was a child, and by the time he was a grown man his temper was legendary. It wasn’t reserved just for outsiders, either. Floyd and his brother Jack got into a fight once over some barrels of brandy in their father’s estate and shot each other. Jack recovered, but it began to appear as if Floyd had fought his last brawl, and he sent for his brother Jack, “to make his peace with him,” he said, “before crossing the divide.” Jack heeded the pitiful request and sorrowfully approached his brother’s deathbed.
He should have known better. When Floyd saw the grief-stricken Jack shuffling slowly to his bedside, he grabbed for a revolver he had concealed under his pillow and attempted to give his brother a ticket to cross the “divide” with him. Jack was saved by another brother who grabbed Floyd’s arm before he could squeeze off a shot. Floyd recovered from his own wounds shortly thereafter. “He was too damned mean to die,” said an acquaintance.
Then there was the Combs incident. In 1904 Floyd wanted to buy a farm owned by one of his brothers, but they could not agree on a price. A man named Combs wanted the land badly enough to pay the asking price and bought it despite Floyd’s warnings not to “butt in.” Not long afterward Floyd shot Combs (who recovered), and was indicted and tried on charges of assault. Contemporary reports say that Floyd let it be known that if convicted of the charge, he would kill the judge and jurors. It seems likely the court was influenced by such threats because, despite the gravity of the charge, Floyd was fined a mere $100 and sentenced to a symbolic one hour in jail.
But even an hour was too much for a man who had sworn he would “die and go to hell” before serving a minute in jail. Floyd’s lawyers managed to have the 60-minute sentence dismissed, and Floyd reportedly forced Combs to pay the $100 fine. There were some in Carroll County who believed that Floyd Allen was a law unto himself, and the Combs decision reinforced that belief. G.M.N. Parker, who wrote about the incident in The Mountain Massacre, said Carroll County had “two governments, one by the county and one by the (Allen) Clan.”
In 1912 Floyd Allen was again scheduled for trial. It was a perfect time, believed many county officials, to demonstrate just who really governed Carroll County.
According to a prominent Carroll County citizen who is a repository of local history, about three weeks before Floyd Allen’s trial, Commonwealth’s Attorney William Foster received a letter promising he would die if Floyd Allen was found guilty. Foster took the letter to Judge Thornton Massie, who was scheduled to try the case, and requested not only extra deputies but a search of all who entered the courtroom during the trial. Judge Massie denied the request: “I think that would show cowardice on our part,” he is reported to have said. Judge Massie never changed his mind, and when his body was removed from the courtroom on March 14, Foster’s letter and another similar one were found in his coat pocket.
The jury in Floyd Allen’s case was unable to reach a verdict on March 13. Judge Massie, in his only concession to warnings of trouble had them sequestered in Thornton’s Hotel that night, and scheduled the next morning’s proceedings for 8 a.m., an hour early. Floyd Allen, still free, rode home with his brother Sidna and spent Wednesday night at his house.
Thursday morning dawned cold, wet and foggy. A bone-chilling drizzle was falling from the slate-gray clouds, but it wasn’t doing much to melt the snow that still lay on the ground. Despite the miserable weather, over a hundred spectators had crowded into the courtroom by 8 a.m.; a lucky few were warming their hands over the wood stove in the rear of the room. The Allen family was well represented: Floyd; his sons Victor and Claud; Sidna Allen; Jack Allen’s son Friel; Sidna and Wesley Edwards, and a sprinkling of other relatives.
At 8:30 the jury filed back into the courtroom with a verdict. Floyd Allen, his attorney W.D. Bolen, and assistant clerk of court S. Floyd Landreth were sitting in the small fenced dock facing the judge and jury. Sidna Allen and Claud Allen were in the northeast corner of the courtroom, standing on benches to see over the crowd. Friel Allen sat in the back of the room, and the Edwards boys stood on benches next to the north wall. The sheriff, commonwealth’s attorney, clerk of court, and several deputies were standing at the south end of the courtroom. The room was hushed as the jury foreman announced the verdict: guilty as charged, with a recommended sentence of a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. A motion to set aside the verdict was denied, as was a request for bail. Judge Massie instructed Sheriff Webb to take charge of the prisoner, and Webb began to move toward the dock.
What happened next will never be known with absolute certainty. The issue of who fired the first shot has divided Carroll Countians for the past 70 years and, in the words of one Richmond researcher into the case, has caused the county to “shut itself off from the rest of the world.”
Most witnesses agree that Floyd Allen stood up and announced to the court something like, “Gentlemen, I just ain’t a goin’.” A shot was fired, and for the next 90 seconds the courtroom became a shooting gallery as the Allens, Dexter Goad, William Foster and the law officers, all produced guns and began to exchange fire. A screaming, shouting mass of spectators tried to leave the courtroom at once as bullets whizzed over their heads and thumped into the courtroom walls. Attorney Bolen dropped to the floor and the wounded Floyd Allen fell on top of him. Bolen is said to have screamed at his client, “Floyd, they are going to kill me shooting at you!” The battle moved down the courthouse steps and out onto the streets of Hillsville, with some of the Allens hiding behind the statue of the Confederate soldier while reloading their pistols. The Allens headed for the livery stable. Back in the courtroom. Judge Massie, Sheriff Webb, Commonwealth’s Attorney Foster and a juror named C.C. Fowler lay dead on the floor. A witness in another case, Betty Ayers, walked back to her home and died the following day. Dexter Goad had been shot in the mouth but recovered from his wounds.
Floyd Allen was wounded too badly to escape, and he and his son Victor, who had taken no part in the violence, spent the night at a local hotel and were arrested the next morning. Wesley Edwards, Friel Allen and Claud Allen escaped together, and were soon joined by Sidna Allen. Sidna Edwards hid out for a few days before surrendering himself to the authorities.
According to Virginia law in 1912, when a sheriff died all his deputies lost their legal powers. Carroll County, therefore, was now without law enforcement. Assistant clerk of court S. Floyd Landreth, realizing the imperative need for some sort of civil authority, rushed down the street to the telegraph office. Landreth sent the following telegram—collect—to Governor William Hodges Mann:
Send troops to the County of Carroll at once. Mob violence, the court. Commonwealth’s Attorney, Sheriff, some jurors and others shot on the conviction of Floyd Allen for a felony. Sheriff and Commonwealth’s Attorney dead, court serious. Look after this now.
Governor Mann phoned the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency in Roanoke and asked them to hunt down the Allens who were still at large. A special train bound for Galax left Roanoke late Thursday night with Baldwin-Felts men aboard. Prevented by swollen creeks from making the last leg of the journey by wagon, the detectives trudged the last few miles in a chill, insistent rain.
The weather that greeted the Baldwin-Felts men was an omen of the way things were to be for the next five weeks. There was some initial good luck: Claud Allen was captured not long after Sidna Edwards surrendered. Friel Allen was reported to have surrendered also, but a local historian who has made a study of the case claims that Friel’s father, Jack, turned him over to the detectives in exchange for their efforts to avoid his execution.
But unfortunately for the Baldwin-Felts men, Wesley Edwards and Sidna Allen were far more difficult to track down in the rugged mountain country surrounding Hillsville. Knowing the terrain well, the pair easily eluded the frustrated detectives, who spent a good deal of their time posing for dramatic horseback photographs. The fugitives frequently had hot meals and warm beds in the homes of friends and relatives while the Baldwin-Felts men slogged down mountain roads in weather that remained almost consistently bad.
After five weeks of hiding, Sidna Allen and his nephew decided to leave Carroll County for the west. Passing through Mount Airy, Pilot Mountain and Winston-Salem, which were plastered with wanted posters bearing their faces, they walked to Salisbury and bought train tickets for Asheville. From there they went to Des Moines, Iowa, where they found jobs as carpenters and lived together in a boarding house.
Six months to the day after the courthouse massacre Sidna and Wesley were arrested by the persistent Baldwin-Felts detectives. Sidna Allen maintained until the end of his life that he and his nephew were sold out by Wesley’s sweetheart, Maude Iroller, who supposedly led the detectives to them in exchange for $500. But a local expert on the case says that Miss Iroller’s father, who had never approved of his daughter’s romance with Wesley Edwards, tipped off the detectives that Maude was going to Des Moines to marry him.
The wheels of justice turned far faster in 1912 than today. Floyd Allen went on trial in Wytheville on April 30, charged with the slaying of Commonwealth’s Attorney Foster. On May 18 he was convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair. In July, after three trials, Claud, too, was sentenced to death for Foster’s murder. Friel Allen was tried in August and confessed to shooting Foster; he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Sidna Allen and Wesley Edwards were sentenced in November to 35 and 27 years respectively.
After three stays of execution, Floyd and his son Claud became the 47th and 48th victims of Virginia’s relatively new electric chair. Floyd was electrocuted at 1:22 p.m. on March 28, 1913, and Claud died 11 minutes later. The execution was accomplished despite some last-minute technical delays related to Governor Mann’s absence from the state, which were resolved when the governor returned from Pennsylvania for the express purpose of allowing the execution. In the final weeks prior to the execution date, petitions with thousands of signatures were delivered to the governor requesting commutation of Claud’s sentence, who, it was said, had been shooting only in his father’s defense. The petitions failed to convince Governor Mann.
The governor was also unmoved by a number of death threats mailed to him, at least one of which was in the same hand-writing as the original threat to Commonwealth’s Attorney Foster. Baldwin-Felts detectives were never able to prove who wrote the threatening letters, and those mailed to Governor Mann are stored with his papers today in Richmond.
The deaths of Floyd and Claud had a morbidly bizarre aftermath. The bodies were taken to Biyle’s Funeral Parlor where, over the bitter protests of Victor Allen, thousands of gawking spectators gathered to view the remains. Richmond newspapers reported that schoolchildren with books, mothers with babies in arms and young men and women out on the town filed past the bodies, laughing and talking. Victor Allen was not permitted custody of his kinsmen’s bodies until 11 p.m., shortly before they were shipped by rail to Mount Airy.
Among the questions still debated in Carroll County on long nights before the wood stove, the most persistent is, “Who fired the first shot in the courtroom on March 14, 1912?” The Allens claimed it was Dexter Goad, who, along with William Foster, had supposedly engaged in a politically motivated vendetta against them. The most vociferous proponent of the vendetta theory today is Rufus Gardner, author of a book on the subject and the flamboyant owner of a flea market, package store and souvenir shop on Route 52 at the state line.
Gardner has a one-room museum devoted to the Courthouse Tragedy in the back of his souvenir shop, and he will expound to whoever is willing to listen his ideas on the massacre, which consist largely of praise for the Allens and bitter denunciations of their enemies. “Hell yes it was Dexter Goad shot first at Floyd Allen. Everybody knows it,” says Gardner. “It was politics, just politics—the Allens was good Democrats and the courthouse crowd was Republicans, and they had it in for the Allens ‘cause they was so popular and well liked.” Gardner’s book is a patchwork of newspaper accounts, legal documents (“I stole’em out of the Carroll County Courthouse and there’s not a damned thing they can do about it.”), letters, and sections lifted whole from the books of others without attribution. Gardner is a Courthouse Massacre entrepreneur. In addition to his museum, his book and his souvenirs, he now publishes and sells the Memoirs of Sidna Allen, which read far more coherently than Gardner’s own volume. “The Allens have been a great family since 1476, the finest in Virginia,” crows Gardner. Around Hillsville it is commonly reported that Gardner is related to the Allens, a connection he denies.
In the back of Rufus Gardner’s book is a copy of an affidavit he obtained in 1967, in which two men who were with Woodson Quesinberry when he died swear that Quesiberry claimed responsibility for the first shot. But a local historian who has done much work on the case says that one of the deponents listed on the affidavit told him that swearing out the document “was the easiest 25 dollars 1 ever made.” About all Gardner’s affidavit accomplished when it was made public 15 years ago was to fan old resentments. “That document is worthless, let me assure you,” said a prominent local citizen.
The same local historian also says there is little doubt that Claud Allen fired the first shot in the courtroom that day: “There’s no question in the world, none whatever.” Not only is this theory backed up by the bulk of the trial testimony, but it is certainly less implausible than the Goad hypothesis. Why would a prominent local figure who had just seen his enemy put away for a year decide to open fire in full view of over a hundred witnesses? And if Goad indeed fired the first shot and the Allens were merely shooting in self-defense, why wouldn’t Goad have been the first victim? Not only did Dexter Goad survive, but Commonwealth’s Attorney Foster and Sheriff Webb, both of whom were standing near Goad, received many more wounds.
Yet another mystery surrounds the tombstone of Floyd and Claud Allen. The original stone supposedly read something like the following: “Judiciously Murdered by the State of Virginia Over the Protest of 40,000 of Its Citizens.” Most Carroll Countians will tell you that the stone was removed as one of the conditions for the pardon of Sidna Allen and Wesley Edwards in 1926. Although a local person of great credibility claims to have seen the stone, there are some doubts that it ever existed. Not only are several different versions of its inscription recorded, but—amazingly—no photograph of it has surfaced. There are hundreds of photos of every other item relating to the massacre, but apparently none of the apocryphal tombstone, despite a $500 reward Rufus Gardner offered for a photograph of it. Says courthouse custodian and massacre buff Bill White, “I have to doubt that it ever existed to begin with.”
Few people are now alive in Carroll County who can remember that fateful March day in 1912. One of the few is Mrs. Viola Harrison, a frail but alert woman in her 80’s who is Jack Allen’s daughter. She is accustomed to being asked about the tragedy, but has talked little about it to outsiders. “I just don’t like to give out information because you don’t know how you feel about it yourself,” she says. She has good memories of her uncle Sidna Allen: “I remember that people liked him very much. He was a good neighbor and kind to people; everybody that worked for him liked him.” Mrs. Harrison contends that a political feud played a part in the events of March 14, 1912, and also believes that public opinion in Carroll County is swinging around in favor of the Allens. “But whatever you do,” she says, “please write only the truth. People here have never really known what happened because of distortions in what they read.”
Truth is always a scarce commodity, and nowhere more so than in the interminable wrangles over the infamous Hillsville Court-house Massacre. But the story of the Allen Clan has taken on a life of its own these past seven decades and it may be that the ultimate truth has very little to do with the tale’s fascination. It seems unlikely that the case will ever be settled to the satisfaction of everybody in Carroll County. What does seem certain is that they won’t quit talking about it—not now, and not for some time to come.
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