Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
The Courthouse Tragedy: Gunfight in Hillsville in 1912

The Courthouse Tragedy: Gunfight in Hillsville in 1912

  • 0

HILLSVILLE — Two holes, barely big enough to stick a pinkie finger into, are still visible in the wooden stairway that curves gracefully up the front of the old Carroll County Courthouse.

"These are Floyd Allen's bullet holes," said Ron Hall, sounding like a tour guide as he pointed to the eighth and 16th steps of the courthouse's south stairs.

"That was the last shots of the gunfight."

Hall, a retired physicist and amateur historian who spent more than 20 years researching this particular gunfight, pointed toward Main Street. A cold drizzle fell as lunchtime patrons filed into the Mile High Burger Co. and the Cabo Mexican Grill and Cantina.

Nearly 100 years ago, Main Street was where Floyd Allen, minutes after his criminal conviction, blasted away with his pistol, wobbling on a bullet-shattered pelvis and knee.

On March 14, 1912, bullets flew as members of the Allen family shot it out on the courthouse lawn with armed courtroom officials. Dozens of panicked citizens fled in all directions. Gunmen jumped on horses to escape into the mountains. The dead and the dying lay inside the courtroom, where the gun battle started.

That's the day when members of the "Allen Clan" and local lawmen engaged in an epic gunfight that made national headlines and shook the community like an earthquake. In barely a minute, a judge, prosecutor, sheriff, juror and witness were killed or mortally wounded. A year later, a father and a son would die in the electric chair.

In these parts, it's known as "The Courthouse Tragedy."

The shootout proved to be a tipping point for Southwest Virginia, as the frontier-style old ways were brought kicking, screaming and shooting into the 20th century, when the rule of law would not be obliterated by clannishness and gunplay.

This week, the county's historical society is pulling out all the stops to discuss, remember and attempt to extract some meaning from the tragedy.

"Thunder in the Hills," a play written by Carroll County playwright Frank Levering and featuring an all-local cast, sold out 11 performances and 1,300 tickets in less than a month, with proceeds creating a nice little windfall for the historical society. A two-day symposium is bringing speakers from near and far to discuss and dissect the horrific events of 100 years ago. A recent documentary film "Hillsville 1912: A Shooting in the Court" won an independent film award last year and will be shown this week in Hillsville.

The phone hasn't stopped ringing in the tiny office of the Carroll County Museum, housed inside the old courthouse.

"People call and say, 'I've lived here all my life, but I just don't know that much about it,'" said Shelby Puckett, a longtime educator and member of the Carroll County Historical Society. "They just want to know."

In addition to interviews and other research, much of the following account is based on Hall's book, "The Carroll County Courthouse Tragedy." A Carroll County native who grew up hearing stories about the gun battle, Hall wrote the book while living in Minneapolis, where he worked for 3M. He returned to his old stomping grounds frequently to research old records and talk to people, some of whom were old enough to remember the tragedy.

"What surprised me was what I found out to be the truth was not much like the stories that had been passed down," said Hall, who now lives in Mount Airy, N.C. "Everybody had a story that their great-grandma had told them and it simply doesn't match the facts."

Here are the facts.

The red ear of corn

The whole mess started with a kiss.

A stolen kiss, actually, at a corn-shucking party in Fancy Gap in late 1910. It was a big to-do, often celebrated with music and probably more than a little liquor. One of the corn-shucking traditions was that if a boy discovered a red ear of corn, he was allowed to kiss the girl of his choice.

According to the most widely accepted version of events, Wesley Edwards, one of Floyd Allen's many nephews, shucked a red ear of corn and kissed the girlfriend of one of his rivals.

The next day, Wesley and his brother Sidna Edwards (not to be confused with Floyd's brother, Sidna Allen, whom we'll hear from later) got into a fight with some of those rivals outside a church service. The Edwards boys were about to be charged for assault and other crimes, so they hot-footed it across the state line into Mount Airy, where the Carroll County law couldn't catch them.

Weeks later, they were arrested by North Carolina lawmen and handed over to a pair of Carroll County deputies — Thomas "Pink" Samuels and Peter Easter — who were to take them to jail over the mountain in Hillsville. Along the way, they met Floyd Allen, the boys' uncle.

Floyd Allen was a rough character. He was 54 years old at the time and a man "who could be your best friend or your worst enemy," Hall said.

He was also a merchant, alleged bootlegger and occasional deputy. He had a temper and was a bit vain about his appearance, keeping his whisk-like mustache neat and carrying a comb and toothbrush in his shirt pocket. He came from a large family, with several brothers that he often scrapped with. He and his brother Jack even shot and wounded one another in a fight.

Floyd and his brothers also possessed a measure of influence over county politics. Maybe too much influence for some folks' liking. They were unreconstructed Democrats in a county run by Republicans. So, when he saw his nephews being dragged off to jail, he sensed his political rivals had conspired against the family.

As his younger brother Sidna Allen wrote many years later in his memoirs: "This humiliating predicament in which the boys found themselves could have only one purpose, namely, the distressing of Floyd Allen."

What happened next depends on whom you believe.

According to the deputies, Floyd physically freed the boys, beat the deputies and smashed Samuels' pistol against a rock. Floyd, who despite his run-ins with authority had been deputized as a lawman on occasion, said he told the deputies they didn't have proper warrants for arrest and that he freed the boys without harming anyone, although he did admit to hitting Deputy Samuels.

Regardless, Floyd took the boys to jail himself a few days later. He was charged with rescuing prisoners in custody, assault and maiming. His case was continued a couple of times until a trial date was finally set for March 11, 1912.

Rivalry for the ages

The weather was awful that week — raw, wet and cold. The stiff wind carried morning snow flurries. County roads were muddy and nearly impassable in some places. This did not stop scores of spectators from jamming the courthouse to watch the trial of Floyd Allen.

Rumors of threats by the Allens ran rampant through the county. Judge Thornton Massie of Pulaski was urged to disarm everyone as they entered the courtroom, but Massie refused, saying he was there "to prosecute, not persecute." It was said that after the shooting, two threatening letters were found in his pocket, but like most of the other alleged threats, the rumors were never corroborated by any evidence.

So a well-armed crowd settled in for a two-day trial that finally began March 12, a day later than scheduled. Even Floyd, the accused, was packing.

The case pitted the Allens against a dream team of their political enemies. Clerk of Court Dexter Goad had numerous run-ins with the Allens. Floyd once accused Goad of selling liquor for his father's operation, prompting Goad to resign his post as a federal commissioner. For his part, Goad had charged Allen with falsifying expense reports when Allen was a deputy.

Then there was Commonwealth's Attorney William Foster, a man who had switched party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in order to defeat one of Floyd's nephews for the chief prosecutor post.

"Floyd referred to it as a 'clique' and William Foster and Dexter Goad were right in the middle of it," Hall said. "Dexter and Floyd never got along and they had several run-ins. Every chance they got to do something to the other one, they were doing it."

The jury had not reached a verdict by March 13 and was sequestered in the Thornton Hotel next door to the courthouse. Floyd spent the night in his brother Sidna's fine new home in Fancy Gap, about 7 miles south of Hillsville.

The next day broke cold and gray, as people filled the courtroom, a throng that included Floyd's sons, Claude and Victor, his brother, Sidna and several nephews. Floyd sat inside an area called "the bar of justice," a slightly raised platform cordoned off by a wooden rail on all sides. He was accompanied by his lawyer, W.D. Bolen, a retired judge.

At about 8:35 a.m., the jury returned with a guilty verdict and recommended Floyd spend a year in jail and pay a $1,000 fine. Bolen, Floyd's lawyer, asked for bail while he worked on an appeal. Judge Massie denied the motion and instructed Sheriff Lew Webb to take charge of the prisoner.

Floyd stood up, fumbled with the buttons on his sweater, and announced, "Gentlemen, I just ain't a-goin'."

As Hall wrote in his book: "And for a moment, the world stopped."

The shootout

For 100 years, members of the Allen family, their descendents, allies and sympathizers have vociferously proclaimed that the Allens did not fire the first shot in the courtroom that day.

They fired dozens of others, however. And were struck by a few themselves.

"You really can't judge events of the past by today's logic and morals," Hall said.

"They really don't apply. The line of thinking was different in those days. Floyd may have been perfectly within his rights to have a gun."

Hall believes that the first shot was accidental, that it came from Sheriff Webb as he fumbled with an automatic pistol he had borrowed from a neighbor in case there was trouble that day. Other witnesses gave wildly conflicting testimonies — some said the first shot came from the direction of Claude and Sidna Allen, but others said it came from the vicinity of Webb or Dexter Goad.

Instantly, pistols popped and bullets screamed through the crowded courtroom for at least a minute. Shots were fired from all sides, catching victims in a perfect crossfire between the Allens and court officials. Fifty-seven bullets were later recovered, including the ones in the bodies.

When the melee subsided, five people were dead or dying: Judge Massie, prosecutor Foster, Sheriff Webb, juror Augustus Fowler and an 18-year-old witness, Betty Ayers, who died the next day.

Judge Massie told a bystander, "Sid Allen killed me," just before he died. Foster, the prosecutor, was hit six times and staggered into the jury room, where he died with a pistol in his hand. Sheriff Webb died quickly, perhaps even hit by his own deputies in the back during the melee.

(Incredibly, no autopsies were ever performed on the victims, even though the forensic science was good enough in 1912 to determine from what guns the bullets came. Some locals have believed for years that the power brokers preferred not knowing if people died from stray bullets fired by lawmen and court officials.)

Goad, the sworn enemy of the Allens, had fired at both Floyd and Sidna. He shot Floyd in the pelvis, dropping him to the floor where he fell on top of his lawyer, who had ducked for cover.

"For God's sakes, Floyd," the attorney begged, "get off me or they'll kill me shooting at you!"

A bullet struck Goad in the face and exited the back of his neck, popping off his collar button, but he was able to make it outside where the gun battle continued. Terrified citizens jumped out of the courthouse's tall windows, landing in trees and falling hard to the ground. Men ran across the front lawn to escape the shooting, their long winter coats flapping and ballooning out like parachutes as they jumped down to the street from a rock wall.

Goad, who would be celebrated as a hero, wounded both Floyd and Sidna outside. Floyd fired his last two shots, which lodged in the courthouse stairs, leaving the still-visible holes. Floyd was too badly injured to ride his horse, so his son, Victor, whisked him into the Elliott Hotel, where he would spend his last night as an almost-free man.

Hillsville had only one telephone line leading out of the county. Goad was the first to reach the outside world with a telegram to Gov. William Hodges Mann in Richmond:

"Send troops to the county of Carroll at once. Mob violence. 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."

After the killing of Sheriff Webb, his deputies faded from view, probably fearing for their own lives. For nearly 24 hours, Hillsville truly was a lawless place. Townfolk feared that the Allens would return to finish off the rest of their enemies.

But the Allens and their kin, except for Floyd, were long gone.

Newsmen and lawmen arrive

On March 15, 1912, the day after the shootout, the New York Times reported in its lead story:

"[A] troop of twenty mud-splashed mountaineers galloped in with rifles from the surrounding hills early this morning, and in less time than it takes to tell it, the judge before the bench, the prosecutor before the bar, and the sheriff at the door lay dead in the courtroom. Several of the jurors were also shot, one probably mortally, and the prisoner also was wounded. The courtroom, which was crowded with countryfolk, was turned into a scene of panic and confusion." The Roanoke Times reported that Sidna Allen had been captured in "a hot fight" at his home and that his wife had been killed. None of it was true.

"Newspapers were completely outlandish," said Hall. "They reported that they rode horses into the courtroom and such. I don't think they ever printed too many retractions on stories like that."

The story made national news until the sinking of the Titanic a month later. The Roanoke Times carried stories on its front page for nearly two weeks, as the hunt for the Allens intensified.

The law arrived the day after the shooting in the form of hired guns. The famous — some might say infamous — Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, which had a home base in Roanoke, was dispatched to Hillsville by Gov. Mann.

The agency handled security for the Norfolk and Western Railway and its detectives would become notorious strike-breakers, union-busters, spies and gun thugs during the West Virginia coal wars. Founder William Baldwin was born in Tazewell and had started as a progressive lawman. He studied early fingerprinting techniques in Europe and had helped capture some of the battling Hatfields and McCoys.

Baldwin's partner Thomas Felts lived near Galax, where a spur line of the N&W ran past his house for his own personal use. (Felts Park in Galax, where the world-famous Old Fiddler's Convention is held annually, is named for him.)

Baldwin-Felts operatives left their work in West Virginia mining camps and rode the rails down to Galax. They traveled to Hillsville in the rain, fording a swollen creek without their horses.

When they got to town, the Baldwin-Felts men posed for the newspaper cameras on horseback, rifles at the ready. William Felts arrested Floyd Allen in the hotel where he had spent the night. Photographs of the arrest ran nationwide. Felts knew how to generate publicity.

Newspaper accounts of the hunt for the Allens read as if they were spoon-fed to reporters by the Baldwin-Felts men. Tales of imminent battles and arrests made headlines.

In truth, many of the detectives — some of them locals hired for the manhunt — slogged around in the rain for days, stumbling through the woods and sleeping in the mud as the Allen clan eluded capture, perhaps aided by their friends and neighbors. Bleary-eyed detectives shot at tree stumps they mistook for outlaws. In his memoirs, Sidna Allen wrote dismissively of the "grand posse" and its pursuit of the Allens.

Within a couple of weeks, three of the gang were either captured or surrendered, including Claude, Floyd's son.

Sidna Allen and his nephew Wesley Edwards were more elusive. They made it all the way to Des Moines, Iowa, where they got jobs and lived under aliases.

They were captured six months later by Baldwin-Felts detectives, after Edwards corresponded with his girlfriend, Maude Iroler, back home — even returning to Virginia on one occasion to visit her. Sidna always believed that the girl had sold them out.

"I felt sure she had betrayed us to the detectives," Sidna wrote in his memoir. "They say love is blind, so I suppose that accounted for his faith in her. I was informed by the detectives that she sold [out] Wesley for five hundred dollars."

Word of the sensational arrest spread across the country and huge crowds came out in Des Moines, Chicago and Cincinnati to see the famous outlaws in person as they were brought back to Virginia.

When they arrived in Roanoke on Sept. 16, 1912, Sidna and Wesley were paraded down Campbell Avenue in an open touring car, as if they were prize trophies. Roanoke's legendary photographer George Davis got a shot of them standing in the back of the car, surrounded by Baldwin-Felts men.

The last Allen fugitives were in custody.

A swift end

Meanwhile, the wheels of justice were turning fast — a bit too fast for some folks, who were beginning to believe that perhaps the Allens were not completely guilty. Public sympathies began to shift slightly in favor of the Allens, as Floyd and his son Claude were swiftly tried for first-degree murder.

"Almost immediately, these divisions came about," said Puckett, who will give a presentation this week about the tragedy's affect on families. "You had people pleading on behalf of the Allens. And you had people saying 'stay the course' and that lawlessness could not be tolerated."

The handsome Claude had become something of a celebrity. His good looks, black hair and stylish suits had made him a front-page sensation. Interest in the trials was high — but this time, the courtroom crowd was disarmed.

In May, barely three months after the shootout, Floyd was convicted in Wytheville for the murder of William Foster, the commonwealth's attorney. Two months later, after three separate trials, Claude was convicted in Washington County for conspiring to kill Foster, even though there was no evidence that he ever shot at him.

Floyd wept openly at the trial of Claude, a once-proud man now beaten and broken. Frances Allen, Floyd's wife and Claude's mother, who was described in the Richmond newspapers as the "woman of woe," hugged Claude and sobbed after the verdict.

The father and son were sentenced to die in the electric chair.

After several appeals and stays of execution, and despite petitions signed by thousands of Virginians asking for clemency, execution day came on March 28, 1913, one year and two weeks after the horrific Hillsville shootout.

Floyd Allen, now 56, was strapped to the electric chair inside the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond. A leather mask was placed over his face, electrodes attached to his arms and at 1:22 p.m. the first of four, minute-long, 2,000-volt electrical shocks was sent through his body. A wisp of smoke rose from his wrists as his head slumped forward. He was pronounced dead at 1:26 p.m.

Twelve minutes later, Claude Allen, just 24, was electrocuted in the same chair.

The bodies of father and son were taken to a Richmond funeral home where, against the family's wishes, they were placed in a public viewing. Thousands of people filed by the open coffins.

When the bodies were returned to Carroll County, they were placed in the front parlor of Floyd's home. In an emotional moment, Frances Allen — Floyd's wife and Claude's mother — entered the room and strode past Floyd's body, never looking at it. She went straight to her son and cradled him like a baby.

To Puckett, the scene is revealing.

"It's like she's saying to Floyd, 'Look at what you have done; look at what you have done to me,'" Puckett said. "Her loss was unimaginable. A husband and a son. She had to move away from home. She had lost all her family connections."

Floyd and Claude were buried side by side in a cemetery in Cana, swaddled by the Blue Ridge Mountains. The original headstone bore the defiant epitaph: "Sacred to the memory of Claude S. Allen and his father, who was judicially murdered in the Va. Penitentiary March 28 1913 by order of the Governor of the State over the protest of 100,000 citizens of the state of Va."

The headstone was replaced some years later. Legend has it that its removal was a condition for Sidna Allen to receive a pardon for his conviction in the shootout.


The other Allens received more lenient sentences. Sidna Allen was sentenced to 35 years in prison, Wesley Edwards 27. Two other nephews, Friel Allen and Sidna Edwards, got 18 and 15 years, respectively.

All four were pardoned by Gov. Elbert Lee Trinkle in the 1920s. Sidna Allen got out in 1926 after serving 14 years. Historians have wondered if Floyd and Claude would have been pardoned eventually, too.

Sidna became a woodworking craftsman of some repute while in prison, where he built ornate furniture made of thousands of inlaid wooden pieces. The Carroll museum has some of his work on display.

After prison, Sidna spent his later years selling his wares from the back of a truck, writing and peddling his memoir and telling anyone who listened that the Allens did not fire the first shot.

He died at his daughter's home in Hillsville in 1941.

In 1987, on the 75th anniversary of the shootout, a funeral wreath appeared on the steps of the Carroll County Courthouse. A sign read: "In memory of the martyred Allens."

No happy ending

In the afterword of his book, Hall wrote that the courthouse tragedy signaled a turning point in the history of Southwest Virginia.

"[T]he mountains were becoming more civilized by 1912 and Floyd Allen had not yet resigned himself to the fact that he couldn't live by his own rules," he wrote. The political powers in Richmond would no longer be able to ignore the Commonwealth's farthest-flung regions, either. Soon, roads were paved, electrical dams built, telephone lines strung — times were changing.

Even as the good folks of Carroll County acknowledge the fascinating historical aspects of the shootout this week, it should be remembered that, more than anything, it is the story of an enormous human tragedy. The violence in Hillsville left five widows and 32 fatherless children.

"It's a story that touches on every human emotion," said Puckett. "Anger, conflict, violence, love, betrayal. But above all else, it's just a sad story."

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News

Sports Breaking News

News Alert