Police Desperate After Triple Event

Exactly six weeks after the intruder accosted Maude Maples and then killed Lula Robinson while assaulting her sister-in-law, the killer struck again. Many elements were the same—it was the early hours of a Tuesday in Knoxville when an intruder entered a home and attempted to assault a sleeping young woman.

On September 21, 1920, at around 2:15 a.m. 16-year-old Ruth Cox awoke to find a man by her bed, shining a flashlight in her eyes. Miss Cox lived with her father, J. M. Cox, at 2003 Linden Ave in East Knoxville. Police say the attacker had put a chair from the neighbor’s porch under Ruth’s window and entered the room. Ruth, who slept beside her little sister, cried out to her father and the intruder immediately shot her and fled. The bullet entered her shoulder, but surgeons were able to remove it and she recovered. To the best of her memory, it was a white man, and he wore a felt hat. Mr. Cox ran out in pursuit of the attacker who, realizing that the streetlights on Linden Ave would allow Cox to see him clearly, escaped through the back yard. Mr. Cox told reporters that he believed the motive for the intruder must have been robbery because he couldn’t imagine any other motive.

Just after 2:30 a.m. an intruder threatened Annie Key in her home on the corner of Luther Ave and Kellar St., barely a block away from the Cox home. Her father, J. R. Key, was home at the time of the attack. Annie woke up because of a flashlight being shined on her face, and she immediately jumped to her feet. That’s when the intruder showed her the pistol and threatened to shoot her. She screamed for her father, who came running. The marauder ran to a door to escape, though it appeared he had entered the house through a window. Mr. Key wondered how long the man had been in their home since he was certain he had locked the door before going to bed. However, the intruder was able to open the door very quickly as he fled meaning he must have unlocked it before waking the girl. They did not see where the man went after he got out of the house.

At about 3:30 a.m., the intruder moved on to a Nelson Ave home where Alice Burnett and Eula Henry were staying as guests of a friend, Mrs. R. C. Hamilton. Miss Henry woke up when she felt hands on her body and was immediately blinded by a flashlight. The intruder said “Be quiet, be quiet” in a hoarse voice end showed her a pistol as he climbed into bed with her. He told the two women he would kill them if they did not do as he said. Miss Henry, looking up at him, tried to grab the gun out of his hand and struggled with him. The two rolled out of the bed onto the floor. Miss Burnett leaped on top of the pair and got hold of the gun herself briefly. The two women tried to overwhelm the man and force him back onto the floor, but he was too strong. Two shots were fired in the struggle—one passed through the sleeve of Burnett’s nightgown and the second hit her in the side. The intruder broke loose and fled out the back door which had been left open when the women retired, with only a hook holding a screen door closed. He had easily lifted the hook with use of a knife blade. After the man left, Burnett stumbled into the other bedroom and said “I’m shot” before collapsing on the floor. She was rushed to the hospital where doctors discovered the bullet had entered her left side, tore through her body, and was lodged in her right hip. The shot seriously damaged her intestines and surgeons did the best they could to save her, operating for three hours. Alice Burnett hung on for two days before she died.

Mrs. Hamilton was deeply affected by the attack that took place in her home. Alice Burnett had been engaged to marry Ross Hamilton, Mrs. Hamilton’s son. However, the young man had been killed in a work accident at the L & N Rail yards several months earlier. He was working as a switchman and was caught between colliding cars at the depot and crushed. United in their grief, Miss Burnett and Mrs. Hamilton remained close friends and that is why Alice Burnett and her friend Eula were visiting that night. Mrs. Hamilton had lost her husband in 1912 and her daughter Effie in 1914. And now, in quick succession, she had lost her son and then his bride.  Hamilton had been helpless to stop the intruder even though she entered the room before the shot was fired.  She caught a quick glimpse and said he had a dark complexion and possibly a mustache but nothing else. Eula Henry could not give a clear description of the man who had attacked them even though they had been close together during the struggle. It was a tragedy in every way and the police were desperate for information.

The intruder left behind the knife he had used to open the screen door of Mrs. Hamilton’s house. Chief O’Conner of the KPD Detectives brought the knife from the Hamiltons’ to the Keys’ residence. The Keys said it matched the remains of a set that was still in the kitchen, with one missing. Chief O’Conner was certain the same man carried out all three attacks that night and was responsible for earlier attacks as well. He reasoned that the length of time between the second and third attacks on September 21st was not simply a matter of the distance between the homes. He thought the delay suggested the Marauder had paused to think out a better plan. Having failed to complete an assault twice in a short time, the attacker was frustrated and determined to succeed. As in the August 10 attacks, frustration at having been interrupted led the Marauder to greater violence.

Alice Burnett’s brother offered $100 reward to anyone who could provide information about the man who had killed his daughter. The city of Knoxville added an additional $500. Others donated funds so that the amount reached $1200. In 2021, that amount is equal to a reward of more than $16 thousand dollars.

Police were frustrated by the lack of clues in this string of attacks and particularly by the inability of victims to provide a clear description of the intruder. Though all the victims and survivors described identical tactics and behaviors, none could agree on skin color or build. Police were growing more certain every day that one man was guilty of all these attacks but could not identify a suspect. A day after the triple event on September 21st, Commissioner of Public Safety N. B. Kuhlman issued a statement to Police Chief Ed M. Haynes. It read, “Be advised and instruct the police department as follows: Beginning this date at midnight, I want the police department to dragnet the city of Knoxville and search for, arrest, and lock up in the city jail any and all persons found on streets and in alleys, unless they have credentials and show good reasons why they are on the streets at that time of night.”

Knoxville Mayor E. W. Neal oversaw a vote on the proposed curfew during a city commission meeting. The dragnet and reward were unanimously supported. After the meeting, Commissioner Kuhlman remarked that the city had been criticized in the past for having too large a police force. On the contrary, he continued, “It is plain that our police force is not large enough to cope with the situation.”

By September 23, the city was in turmoil. Newspapers described the city as an “armed camp” with few out and about after dark. There was a boom in gun sales and most families saw a trend of men staying up all night to remain vigilant. Law enforcement was shifted almost entirely to night shift so there were few officers available during the day. The county Sheriff’s office and KPD both decided to target drug addicts, though medical and psychiatric experts claimed drug addiction had little to do with the kind of thrill sought by the Night Marauder. Nevertheless, law enforcement struggled to make sense of the Marauder’s motives. They settled on “dope fiends” because those people might be acting under a drug-induced hallucination. It would be years before criminal profilers would sort out the domination fetish that might drive a serial rapist.

Officials also feared that even if they did catch a meaningful suspect, it would simply lead to the kind of mob violence that had rocked the city when Maurice Mays was arrested. They were willing to round up every drunk and vagrant they encountered on the streets and pursue suspects in even the least violent robberies. Somehow, the Marauder had evaded them at every step, and catching him would require heavy-handed action.

Published by Nancy Locklin

I am a professor of history at Maryville College in east Tennessee.

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