Southern Honor Culture: The Backdrop of the Night Marauder Mystery

This post was written by contributor Eleanor Forester (MC’21). The post was edited by N. Locklin.

Knoxville Sentinel article, “East Knoxville Woman is Shot” Sept. 21, 1920

In her study on the culture of violence and homicide in the US South, Pauline Grosjean of the University of New South Wales reported that there is a correlation in regions with a large percentage of Scots Irish ancestry to higher rates of homicide.(Journal of the European Economic Association, October 2014) Grosjean claimed that in the US South, settlements made by 18th century Scots-Irish herders and Scottish Highlanders continued traditions of violence as emboldened by honor culture in Britain. She attributes this trend to agrarian customs surrounding land protection in the homeland. Grosjean’s academic background is in economics rather than history or sociology, and we may or may not find her thesis ultimately convincing. The study does, however, provide a useful starting point for an exploration of honor culture as the backdrop of our grand tragedy: the Night Marauder murders.

Bertram Wyatt-Brown provides an extensive definition of honor culture which is relevant to early 20th century East Tennessee. His book Honor and Violence in the Old South begins, “Under honor’s law those who have power to demand, and to hold, esteem and authority are able to do so because the entire social order has sanctioned their rule and called it moral.” Wyatt-Brown continues to describe the “cultural matrix” of honor culture which consists of binary oppositions such as the protection of Southern hospitality in the domestic sphere paired with the public performance of strength and brutality. Bertram Wyatt-Brown argues that the white South developed a system of honor that depended heavily on these factors of opposition at play with one another.

In the Modern South of the 1900’s, honor culture took on a new dimension. Influencing the Progressive Era of social, political and industrial reforms, the social purity movement in evangelical spheres placed much weight on Christian morality. In this age of modernism, honor culture set the stage for masculine aggression rooted in evangelicalism because men were viewed as either protectors of women’s virtue or detriments to their purity. Women were viewed as natural, inherent possessors of purity and morality; there was a supposed moral superiority of women over men.

Thus, the crimes of sexual nature against women by the Night Marauder are all the more socially transgressive. While Knox and Blount Counties rest in the foothills of Appalachia rather than the Deep South, the history of Protestant Christian culture still influences social customs. Honor culture, which may excuse (and even promote) public displays of masculine aggression and violence between men, vehemently condemns sexual violence against women because of their supposed purity and morality. The terror caused by the Night Marauder and the public response is perhaps more interesting in light of this context. The relevance of honor culture extends into language and community relationships, which becomes clearer when we look at how a community responds to violent crime. A victim summary composed by police detectives and local newspaper accounts reflect what the community members believed were most sinister.

Many news articles related to the series of crimes recalled that the Night Marauder “attempted to commit criminal assault” upon various women but fail to specify the nature of the assault; readers understood the implication of sexual assault. At other times, euphemisms such as “outrage” communicated what was attempted without going into any detail. “Marauder always sought to prey on women,” states a police summary. The victims in these East Tennessee crimes are described as prey to carnal, animalistic, and impure acts of brutality. Later attacks in which the shooting victim is a woman’s husband offer up another way of promoting the values of honor. The husbands of assaulted women are reported to have died protecting the virtue and lives of their wives – the highest praise in honor culture.

While the purpose of journalistic and police summaries was to help investigators distinguish victims and keep track of their experiences and personal information, there is evidence to suggest that the record keepers struggled to remain objective. Throughout the summary, the acts of nonsexual physical violence are described in greater detail: “while grappling he pulled the trigger of the gun which he had three times the cartridges failed to explode,” “the murderer had a flashlight and pistol a 38 caliber,” “the marauder entered this home and assaulted (the woman) by striking her upon the head and causing a scalp wound.” The violence caused by the perpetrator’s gun clearly were considered separately from the sexual offences which are described only as “unspeakable demands,” “lustful desires,” and “indecent proposals.” While the intent of the police and media summaries was not originally to make moral judgements on the crimes themselves, the language used in this victim summary certainly displays some subjectivity. The summaries were a way to track the pattern of attacks, perhaps with a goal to assist in the investigation and provide fodder for a future prosecution.

Honor culture permeated the U.S. South for centuries, and East Tennessee was not spared. Honor culture places great significance on an individual’s reputation and creates unspoken rules for public behavior according to gender-based and racial binaries (to name a couple). After transgressive acts against socially respected women, men could restore familial honor by engaging in community action to defend feminine virtues of purity and hospitality. The violation of these feminine virtues, in addition to the sexual violence itself, can explain why details of the Night Marauder’s rapes, the “unspeakable acts,” are excluded from reports. We know that defending public honor was important to the citizens of East Tennessee when the attacks took place.

Additionally, these sources were compiled at a time when Protestant Christianity held a tight grip on Southern culture. This deep connection to Protestantism generated a belief in divine control and religious determinism among Southerners. Reporters and investigators, then, would not only have been concerned with the physical safety of residents in Blount and Knox counties — the Night Marauder’s concentrated acts of sexual and fatal brutality pointed to a loss of this divine control and posed a threat to the system of religious determinism that was sovereign over religious and social life for many Protestant Southerners.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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