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Photo courtesy Library of Virginia
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Photo courtesy Library of Virginia
At 1:31 p.m. on March 28, 1913, Floyd Allen was pronounced dead by electrocution at the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond. He was 56 years old, and it was said that he faced death silently and unafraid.
"I'm ready to go," he whispered, as he seated himself in the electric chair.
Eleven minutes later, his 23-year-old son, Claude — a dark-haired charmer, who had a reputation for making women tremble with his good looks — followed his father without protest into the death chamber, his pace steady without hesitation.
The penitentiary had encountered early failures with its new electric chair, installed in 1908, and officials wanted to be certain that dead was dead. So, Floyd Allen was subjected to 2,000 volts of electricity four times in succession. Claude was pronounced dead after two rounds of voltage.
They were the 47th and 48th inmates to die in the electric chair in Virginia. When their bodies, dressed in dark suits, were taken to Bliley's Funeral Home at Third and Marshall streets, the Times-Dispatch estimated that between 12,000 and 15,000 people passed by their remains to take a last look. "The scene was one of the most astounding that can be conceived, revealing an extent of morbidity difficult to comprehend," the Times-Dispatch reported. Claude Allen's suit lapel bore the gold medal that supporters had commissioned for him. The inscription read, "PRESENTED TO CLAUDE ALLEN FOR DEFENDING HIS FATHER." And so it was that one of the most gripping, emotional and sensational sagas in Virginia history — which began with the courtroom shooting deaths of a judge, sheriff, prosecutor, juror and the mortal wounding of a witness, in the Carroll County Courthouse in 1912 — ended with a raucous crowd of gawkers peering into the caskets of the two most prominent figures in the events that transfixed Virginia and, for a time, the nation.
The shootings at the Carroll County Courthouse on March 14, 1912, and their aftermath have inspired more than a dozen books, at least one play, scores of research papers, folk ballads, countless inquiries about creating a movie from the events and a tourism hotspot for the Carroll County Historical Society. "It brings a lot of people in here," says Nancy Morris, the historical society's curator at the old courthouse, where the society has a museum and displays that tell the story of what happened that day. Carroll County, in the southwestern corner of the state, now has a new courthouse, and the only original links to the shootings at the old courthouse in Hillsville are two bullet holes in an outdoor wooden stairway that curves up the front of the courthouse, under a portico. The number of shots fired in the courtroom and during a gun battle outside has remained a source of conjecture. A civil engineer employed by the state testified that he had found 38 bullet holes in the courtroom, but only one bullet was intact. Souvenir hunters working with pocketknives within days of the shootout had dug out all the rest. Nineteen bullets were found in the bodies of the victims; all told 57 bullets were accounted for. That doesn't include the shots fired outside as court officials and deputies exchanged gunfire with members of the Allen clan. Besides the five people who died, seven were wounded. Initial stories from out-of-town newspapers and wire services portrayed the shootout as hillbillies run amok. No doubt the Allen clan led by Floyd Allen — a farmer who had served as a sheriff's deputy and deputy treasurer in Carroll County — were hill people. Some were whiskey distillers, others farmers or storekeepers. One was a postal carrier. But a political feud, long-simmering personal disagreements and the court's acquiescence to a gun culture that permitted all parties to carry guns into the courtroom — the clerk of the court had two — also contributed to the slaughter. None of the Allens or their extended relations were known to run from a fight, whether with others or between themselves. Floyd Allen bore the scars of 13 bullet wounds, five inflicted by members of his own family, according to newspaper accounts. Allen had come to the courthouse on the day of the shootout to face a jury verdict on a charge of "rescuing prisoners." He was accused of aiding the escape of his two nephews, Wesley and Sidna Edwards, who had gotten into a fight at a church service with a group of neighborhood boys. Arrest warrants were issued charging them with disturbing a religious gathering. The nephews, at Floyd Allen's suggestion, fled to nearby Mount Airy, N.C., hoping that in time the incident would be forgotten. It wasn't, and after discussions with law enforcement officials, Allen agreed to go after his nephews and return them for trial. On his way home from the discussions, he encountered two deputies who had his nephews in custody. They had been handcuffed and tied with rope to a buggy in which they were being transported. Allen became enraged and freed his nephews, taking the deputies' guns and assaulting one of them. The political overtones of the shootout were that Floyd Allen and his family were mostly Democrats, and the political machinery in Carroll County had been wrested from the party in recent elections by a Republican coalition. Floyd Allen believed that Court Clerk Dexter Goad and Commonwealth's Attorney William Foster, both strong Republicans, were out to get him. On the day of the shootout, Judge Thornton Massie disregarded advice to have those entering the courtroom, estimated to be anywhere from 100 to 250, searched for firearms. It was to be a fatal error. Floyd Allen was tried on March 13, 1912, on charges of rescuing prisoners. But the jury's verdict was delayed until the next day. Court Clerk Dexter Goad read it, but Judge Massie said it wasn't in the proper legal form, and it was rewritten, handed to the jury foreman for his signature, then the foreman handed it to Sheriff Lewis Webb and he handed it back to Goad to be read again. "We the jury," Goad intoned, "find the defendant Floyd Allen guilty as charged in the within indictment and fix his punishment at confinement in the penitentiary of this state for one year." One of Allen's attorneys made a motion that the verdict be set aside because of newly discovered evidence, and indicated that he could have affidavits prepared and witnesses brought in by the next morning. He asked that Allen be freed on bail until then. But the judge denied it. He ordered the sheriff to take charge of the prisoner. Within seconds, the chair Floyd Allen had been leaning back in slapped to the floor on all legs. As Sheriff Webb moved toward him, Allen rose. "Gentlemen, I ain't a'goin," he said. The words struck like a thunderbolt in the courtroom. Accounts vary widely about what happened next. Some say Allen started unbuttoning his sweater; others say he reached up under it. Whatever he did, the shooting started soon afterward. Yet to this day, no one can say with certainty who fired the first shot. During testimony over a long series of trials, some witnesses testified that Clerk Dexter Goad fired first when he saw Floyd Allen reach under his sweater. Others say it was Sheriff Webb. Still others say it was one of the Allen family members in the rear of the courtroom. This is certain, however: There was plenty of firepower available. Floyd Allen had a .38-caliber revolver hidden in his clothes. Clerk Goad had two pistols. The deputy clerk, the chief prosecutor and the deputy prosecutor all carried pistols as well. Several members of the Allen clan and their extended families were armed, too, as were all the court deputies. All the guns, all the shooting, all the killing is what has kept the memory of the event alive, says author Ron Hall, a Carroll County native who has written extensively about the shootout. "Think of the OK Corral," he says. "It only lasted 30 seconds, but we still remember that." The courtroom shootout in Hillsville lasted for much longer, as the gun battle moved out of the courtroom and into the streets of Hillsville, and as the participants emptied their weapons and then reloaded. Hall, author of The Carroll County Courthouse Tragedy, says the shootout, and the subsequent manhunt for escaped perpetrators, was front-page news across the country for weeks — only displaced with the sinking of the Titanic passenger liner on April 15, 1912. Virginia Gov. William Hodges Mann ordered the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency in Roanoke to send its men to Hillsville. A hardened group known for their pugnacity and marksmanship, the Baldwin-Felts detectives were empowered to restore order and hunt down the fugitives who had fled the carnage. The governor said no cost should be spared to make the apprehensions. Approximately 50 detectives were dispatched, and the state militia was ordered to stand by, in the event they were needed. At one point, hundreds of detectives, militia and special deputies were engaged in the manhunt. Floyd Allen, who had been shot in the hip and thigh and couldn't travel, and his oldest son, Victor, who didn't have a gun in the courtroom and was later acquitted of all charges, were found in a Hillsville hotel the day after the shootings. They offered no resistance, but Floyd tried to cut his own throat with a small pocketknife. Floyd and Victor were the first to be captured. The search for the rest of the Allens and their relatives involved in the shootout consumed six months, ranging from the hills and hollows of Southwest Virginia to Des Moines, Iowa. By May 1912, even as the search for other participants continued, the prosecution was ready to bring Floyd Allen to trial. At the request of defense counsel, the trial was moved to Wytheville, about 30 miles away. The prosecution wanted to prove that Allen and his family had engaged in a conspiracy to wipe out the entire court. Allen pleaded self-defense, asserting that he had begun firing his pistol only after Dexter Goad and others began shooting at him. The jury returned a guilty verdict of first-degree murder against Allen in the death of Commonwealth's Attorney William Foster. First-degree murder carried the death sentence. Floyd's son Claude was the next to stand trial. Hall says that during the period between the shootings and the start of the trial, sentiment had been building that Claude Allen had been involved, only because he was trying to defend his father. Newspaper writers saw Claude as a romantic element for their stories, because he was handsome, mannerly and had a devoted and attractive girlfriend, Nellie Wisler, who was in love with him. They were planning to marry. Claude was tried for the murder of Judge Thornton Massie. But the prosecution failed to prove that he was part of a conspiracy, and the jury convicted him of second-degree murder and sentenced him to 15 years in prison But his troubles were not over. He subsequently was tried twice for the murder of the commonwealth's attorney. The first trial ended in a hung jury, but when he was tried again the jury returned a verdict of first-degree murder. Now that Floyd and Claude Allen had both been convicted of first-degree murder, they had only to await sentencing. That came on Sept. 19, 1912, in Wytheville when they were both ordered "to be put to death" at the penitentiary. The date of their executions was set for Nov. 22, 1912. Trials for the others charged in the shootings would continue. But the public's focus was squarely on Floyd and Claude. Petitions began circulating to commute their death sentences, because none of the others who had been charged and convicted in the courthouse shootings faced execution. Moreover, the prosecution had largely failed to produce compelling evidence of a premeditated conspiracy to kill the court officers. Nellie Wisler, Claude's fiancée, wrote to newspapers and to the governor asking for leniency. Prominent personalities also came forward. Among them were Richard E. Byrd, the Speaker of the House of Delegates; the Rev. George McDaniel of Richmond's First Baptist Church; and U.S. Sen. Claude A. Swanson of Virginia. To ensure that all appeals could be heard, Gov. Mann repeatedly rescheduled the date of the executions. Finally, March 28, 1913, was settled on as the day Floyd and Claude would die. That settled, Mann embarked on a trip to Trenton, N.J., where he was to give a speech. Then events took a bizarre turn. As soon as the governor left the state, supporters of Floyd and Claude Allen approached Lt. Gov. J. Taylor Ellyson and offered the opinion that as acting chief executive of Virginia, he had the power to commute the death sentences. The Allens were scheduled to face the electric chair early the next morning. On the night of March 27, Ellyson asked Virginia Attorney General Samuel W. Williams about the constitutionality of the request and did he have such powers? (The attorney later ruled that Ellyson did not have that authority.) The warden of the penitentiary was reached, and postponed the executions until he received other instructions. The New York Times reported that Gov. Mann was awakened at 2:55 a.m. on March 28 in Philadelphia, where he and his family were staying until it was time for his speech in New Jersey. The governor dressed and immediately went to the train station to board a train for Virginia. He arrived in Alexandria at 8 a.m. and wired officials in Richmond that he was still the governor of the state and was within Virginia's borders. He ordered the executions to be carried out without delay. A crowd protesting the executions had gathered at the train station in Richmond to face the governor when he arrived at 11:30 a.m., and police rushed to the scene to protect him. The executions proceeded apace. Last year, Carroll County commemorated the 100th anniversary of the courthouse shootings. One of the signature events of the commemoration was a play, Thunder in the Hills, that depicted what happened during the courthouse shootings, but also provided insights into the possible motivations of the central participants. Frank Levering, a local writer and a Carroll County native, wrote and directed the play. Eleven sold-out performances were staged at the old courthouse, and the waiting list for tickets grew to more than 2,000. "It was quite something," Levering says. "The feedback was tremendously positive. "So many people told me and the actors and the historical society that for the first time, they had a clear picture of both sides, and the conflicts between them. It is a tragedy that encompassed virtually everybody." The play is scheduled to be reprised this year, though the dates have not yet been set. By train and wagon, Floyd and Claude Allen's bodies were returned to Carroll County. A funeral on Sunday, March 30, 1913, drew a reported 5,000 people. The burial site was near Floyd's home, against a backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Victor Allen, Floyd Allen's eldest and surviving son, unpinned the gold medallion citing Claude's Allen's defense of his father from Claude's chest. He pressed it into the hand of Nellie Wisler.