On May 8 1919, Della Wagner (Sometimes Delia Waggoner, later Cunningham, later Whaley) was staying with her sister and her sister’s husband at Callaway and Crooked St., now known as Douglas Ave, in Knoxville. She told the police that she awoke to find a man standing in her room and screamed. The man showed her a pistol and warned her to be quiet. She quickly blurted out that she had no money, to which the intruder replied, “I don’t want money.” Frightened, Mrs. Wagner screamed again, and the man shot her, wounding her in her hip. Wagner went on to tell the police that the light from an arc lamp in the street had shone through her window and that she knew who had entered her home.
Robert McNish was described as a “Holy Roller” teacher, and Wagner insisted he had been following her for days. She was sure it was he who had entered her room. Police arrested the man, but he declared that he was never armed with anything but a Holy Bible and a song book. He swore he had not entered anyone’s room at night, and he never even visited that part of town except on Sundays when he attended the Holiness church services. McNish had been arrested before, on the charge of failure to register for the draft during WWI. In that case he claimed killing in war was contrary to God’s wishes. McNish was released on bond and Wagner would eventually “pray on it” and renounce her identification of the preacher.
This is often identified as the first of the Night Marauder attacks in Knoxville, but in fact the news of the day associated the attack on Della Wagner with several other recent break-ins. Few of these attacks fit any particular pattern. Most of the incidents speak of a man entering a home, usually armed with a gun. The Spessard sisters suffered one such attack early in the morning on Saturday, May 3. Latissia, Julia, Eva, and Marie Spessard were asleep in their home on Asylum Avenue when a man entered. Police stated that they responded to reports of a gunshot and found the four young women hysterical. They had been sleeping and, upon hearing a noise, they stirred and woke one another up. Almost at once the figure shot towards Latissia and then ran away. He never said anything and he did not steal anything. The sisters described him as a white man but could not remember any distinguishing features.
Other home invasions involved a clear-cut burglary, such as the invasion of the home of Vance Stamps on Hannah Ave on May 10. Stamps and his family awakened to find an intruder in the house. However, in that case the intruder was carrying off Mr. Stamps’ clothing, and on the way out of the house, he dropped a pocket watch. It was the noise of the watch face breaking that woke everyone up. Stamps’ clothing was later found on the front porch. This sort of attack is similar to the work of a burglar eventually known as “Pants” in Knoxville. In this situation, robbery appeared to be the aim.
As time went on, the Night Marauder attacks became more common, more violent, and received a lot of attention. Della Wagner changed her story. She was called as a witness in the trial of a suspect in 1921, and by that time she had divorced her husband and gone back to using her maiden name, Cunningham. It had been over a year since she was attacked, and she now claimed it was June 10 when the intruder entered her home. She says she awoke to find a man standing over her bed. He immediately put a gun in her face and said if she screamed, he would “put a bullet in my brain.” She says she tried to get up and run away and he pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. He aimed the gun downward and pulled the trigger again. This time, he shot her in her leg. She stated that he had no flashlight. When asked about her past identification of the preacher, McNish, as the intruder and her claim that the intruder wore a long preacher’s coat, she said she was wrong. “As a good Christian”, she could not clearly remember the intruder and knew it would be wrong to convict a man of God.
In 1925, six years after she had been shot, Della told a private investigator in Blount County that she woke up at 3:30 a.m. during the night of June 5 because she felt hands on her body. Thinking it was her sister adding a blanket to her bed, she said “Please do not put any more covers on me. I am warm enough.” A man’s gruff voice answered her, telling her to be quiet or he would shoot her. She screamed and he aimed to shoot her. She said he had a flashlight in his other hand, so she fought with all her might to push the arm holding the gun away from her. He pulled the trigger three times before the cartridge exploded and that’s when she was wounded. After shooting her, the man ran off. Della says she then chased the man out of her house and only at her doorstep did she feel the blood running down her body. She told the investigator she was sure she could identify the man by his voice.
As a number of suspects faced trial for the Night Marauder attacks, Della’s story became associated with the series and was cemented as the first case. But in many ways, the attack she suffered bore little resemblance to the horrors that were to come.