The Purpose of Terror

Even if most of Knoxville was no longer interested in the Night Marauder, he did not need to terrorize the whole city to achieve his aims. He really only needed his victims to be terrified. His next attack, however, would revive the city’s attention while also traumatizing the only witness for the rest of her life.

On August 1st, 1921, the Tilson home at 420 W. Baxter Ave was invaded by the Night Marauder. It was a house with three rooms in a row and one room, the kitchen, off to the side where a door opened onto the backyard. Ida (21) and her sister Georgia (15) shared a bed in the front room, where a door opened onto the front porch. It turns out, Georgia normally slept with her sister Ruby in that room, but Ida joined her that night because Ruby had fallen asleep in Ida’s usual bed. Newspapers would say it was her “kindness of heart” towards her little sister that put her in the room where the marauder would kill her. Just after 1:30 a.m., the sisters awoke to find a man in their room, holding a pistol and shining the light of a flashlight into their eyes. He told them to be quiet and tried to climb into bed with them, making “indecent proposals” all the while. Ida fought with the man, telling him she would rather die than give in to his demands. He whispered fiercely that he would not hesitate to kill her, but she continued to resist. He indicated he would simply take her younger sister, and, at that, she redoubled her efforts. He struck her several times with the gun but even then, she did not stop. Finally, he shot her and left the house. Their father, James Tilson, got to the room to see Georgia holding her bloody sister and crying. Ida died a few hours later at the hospital.

Knoxville Sentinel, August 3, 1921

Georgia was spared. He did not stay to assault her, and she was not physically injured at all. But she remained damaged by the encounter. On the day after the attack, newspapers reported Georgia suffered from “nervous prostration” and was unable to give any account of what had happened. Georgia remained in “a state of collapse” for quite some time. She was under a doctor’s care and was medicated but could not sleep and had fainting spells during the day. The rest of the family—their father, grandparents, younger siblings and two uncles who lived nearby—came running only as Ida lay dying and the intruder had fled out the front door. No one but Georgia could have said what the man looked like. Even days later, the courts postponed the inquest twice because Georgia was still in shock and was sent out to the countryside to recover. In the meantime, some in the family said Ida whispered it was a Black man who had fought with her while others disputed that. Police and the courts held out hope that Georgia would recover enough to testify and asked reporters to leave her alone.

Rufus Tilson, one of her uncles, said they were close and that she trusted him. She was willing to tell him all that had happened, and he claimed at first that her statement would shed no more light on the matter. He told the Knoxville Sentinel that he went to see her and found her “troubled, disorganized, and almost frantic.” He was the one to recommend she be taken away from the city for some peace and quiet. He said she also told him she trusted him to protect her if the marauder came back. Georgia said the intruder had warned her that he would kill her if she ever identified him, and she took that threat to heart.

By August 16, 1921, Georgia was recovered enough to testify at the inquest. She stated with absolute certainty that it had been a white man who attacked her and her sister and she named him. She said it was someone she had never spoken to but who was often around their neighborhood.  The newspaper did not print the name of the man, and the coroner and the judge decided her word was not enough for them to arrest the man. They do not explain why they decided this when they had not not hesitated to name, arrest, and then have to release other white men in the previous week. (Ernest Connor, who worked with Ida at the Brookside Mill and had paid attention to her and Edmund Dowling, who had been to church with Ida the evening of her murder.)  Chief of police Haynes offered to arrest the man anyway if the girls’ father wanted them to do so. It appears he did not request the man’s arrest at that time.

During the first dragnet of the city, rumors circulated that the police had given a free pass to some well-respected, unnamed man. He had been found armed and dressed like the intruder on a night during which someone had been killed. And now, once again, someone identified by the only possible witness was going to be ignored. And the attacks would continue.

Years later, with the private investigator hired in Alcoa, TN, Georgia would pick the killer out of a photo of 20 men and confirm that he was the one who had shot her sister. The investigator was thrilled because she had picked out his number-one suspect and he was building a case against the man.

Georgia said that the marauder had entered their home three weeks before August 1, perhaps as part of his July rampage, and had threatened her. However, others in the house heard him and he ran away. They found a mark on her temple where the stranger had pressed the muzzle of his pistol. She believed he returned on August 1 to finish what had been interrupted in July. Furthermore, three weeks after Ida was murdered, Georgia and her uncle were returning to the house, and they saw a man hiding in nearby woods. She was sure it was the same man, returned to get her. Her uncle sent her into the house and went to find the man, but he was gone. Georgia’s whole family was very careful of her, but she never felt safe again. She said she could never forget his eyes, his face, or his voice and she shuddered every time she remembered him. And, having named him in court in 1921, only to have him hunting her a week after that, confirmed that the Night Marauder meant it when he said he would return.

When the investigator went to see her in February 1925, Georgia was a married woman with a child. Nevertheless, she would only speak to the detective with her whole family present. She was willing to look at the photo and the investigator instructed her to take it to her room and take her time before speaking. Her mother objected, saying Georgia might have a panic attack if she even saw a likeness of the murderer. That is how fragile Georgia had been since the attack. But Georgia insisted she could do it and she picked him out of a group photo. She was even willing to sign an affidavit confirming her identification. However, Georgia said with some regret that she could not possibly testify in court. He had said he would kill her if she did and so she could not help build a case against him. That was the extent of her involvement in the case and the investigator noted his frustration. He was worried that the signed affidavit would not be enough to arrest the suspect and hold him for very long.

Georgia Tilson Hill lived a full life but a descendent told me “Great Aunt Georgie” went to her grave having never identified the Night Marauder to anyone else.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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