Rookie Mistake, or, Why It’s a Bad Idea to Surprise a Woman Holding a Hatchet

The Night Marauder project was recently honored by a visit from criminologist Lee Mellor, and he had so much to teach us about the killer. Dr. Mellor made reference to the frantic events in which the intruder ran from one unsuccessful attack to another within a neighborhood. Sometimes, the event wouldn’t end until the Marauder managed to assault or shoot someone. This is the pattern of a “disorganized” criminal.  His brutality might seem practiced and carefully planned at times, but he was more likely acting on impulse and taking great risk. In some of the attacks, the marauder seems to have had knowledge that the men of the house would be on the night shift in the city’s mills. In other cases, like the sloppy encounter with Maude Maples and the deadly attack on Alice Burnett and Eula Henry, the intruder had preyed on women who happened to be guests in someone else’s home. He approached them in places where they usually would not have slept, making it seem like pure chance or whim. In the deadly attack on Ida Tilson and the deep traumatization of her little sister, Georgia, he seems to have targeted the home regularly, intending to assault Georgia and her even younger sister who usually slept in that room. His attacks were all over the place.

Imagine his surprise when, on August 3rd, just two days after Ida Tilson’s murder, the marauder slipped into a home where the young woman in the room happened to be cutting kindling for the wood stove. Blanche Raby lived at 1220 Marion Street with her mother, Mrs. Victory Riggs. At the time, Blanche was a 17-year-old cotton mill worker living with her mom and stepdad. She could read and write, but the 1920 census confirms she had never attended school. It was quite early for a Night Marauder attack—just 7:40 pm and on a warm August evening, Blanche was probably getting the stove ready to cook supper. The hatchet appears to have been an effective deterrent, though she dropped it not long after they began to struggle. The intruder ran away after shooting at her.  A neighbor of Raby’s, a jeweler named Mr. James Groseclose, told reporters he had just come home after closing his shop. He happened to be standing on his front porch when he heard screams from the Raby house and rounded the corner in time to see a man climbing over a fence. It was not yet very dark, but Groseclose never saw the stranger’s face. He lamented he’d had no idea he witnessed a prowler’s escape because he had his .35 Smith & Wesson on him and would have shot the man. Raby confirmed that this was a white man with “a dark complexion”, but, like many other victims she could offer no more detail than that.

The newspapers commented on the “orgy of crime” since the attack on the Tilson home and reported that police were frustrated. In spite of the curfew and dragnet, there were persistent sightings of random people out in the streets with no justification. One promising report came from a witness, Rose Turner, who was returning from a show in the company of other women as they crossed a pasture on the way home. As they did so, a man ran past at “a dead run” away from the homes and towards the railway line. Turner said she knew the man, and he had once entered her home to try and assault her, cutting her arm before he gave up. She also noted he visited from out of town and that the assaults all seemed to be happening when he came to Knoxville. However, police said they had trouble believing Blanch Raby’s account. She said the man had a dark coat on when Groseclose and Turner both said the man was in his shirtsleeves. He might have shed his coat somewhere, but no such coat was ever found.

Miss Ruby Walker, later Mrs. Ruby Mitchell, spoke to the private investigator in 1925. She told him that on September 20th, 1921, an intruder entered her home on Lyde Alley, where she lived with her parents and four younger siblings. At the time, she was 17 and working as a telephone operator.  She recalled that the stranger tried to assault her and, when she resisted, he shot at her, missed, and fled.  Newspapers from 1921 do not report any of this event. The news in those days was dominated by the trial of silent film star Fatty Arbunkle for the rape and murder of actress Virgina Rappe. Other headlines followed the fight to bring the national Kiwanis Convention to Knoxville, and preparation for the upcoming Agricultural Fair at Chilhowee Park.

On October 25th, after midnight on a Monday, Mrs. William Bailey awoke to find the Night Marauder in her home at 1210 Euclid Avenue. He threatened her with his pistol and succeeded in sexually assaulting her. She claimed that he threatened her husband, who did not dare move during the attack. She insisted that she could see his face from the reflected rays of the flashlight and that it was definitely a Black man. A man named Luther Saffel was arrested for this crime and he admitted to being in the neighborhood that morning. The owner of the building at 318 Marble Alley in which Saffell rented a room testified that he was sure Saffel had to gone to bed around 9 p.m. and that the building is locked up every night at 11 p.m. Doors remained locked until the owner opened them at 4:30 a.m. Other boarders swore that they heard Saffell leave for work around 5:30 a.m., which would have been after the assault on Mrs. Bailey was complete. Saffell said he was walking to work that morning and happened to see a hunting party returning to the neighborhood. Several of the hunters, all of whom were also Black, confirmed that they had seen him on the corner of Vine and Central Aves. Interviewed separately, the men described their actions that morning as they loaded their hounds into a car. Saffell was able to describe all he had seen, and all the stories matched. Neverthless, Saffell would be tried for the crime because Mrs. Bailey was unshaken in her certainty. Other neighbors who had reported break-ins committed by a Black man between 2 and 3:30 a.m. said they were not sure at all that Saffell was the man they encountered in their homes. On November 19, 1921, the media reported that Saffell was likely to be freed since so few witnesses were able to positively identify him.

Other homes entered that night included the home of Robert Schubert on W. Baxter Ave, where a marauder stood at the foot of the bed with a pistol and flashlight. Mrs. Schubert felt someone’s hands on her ankle as she slept. When Mr. Schubert attempted to stand to confront him, the stranger fired a shot towards the bed, where an infant slept between his parents, and fled. The next home invaded was at 44 Knox St., where the home of Margaret Lane stood. Mrs. Lane was a widow who shared her home with her son William, his wife and their baby boy. In this case, it was Mrs. Lane who first stirred and interrupted the marauder’s plans. Nevertheless, none of these witnesses were able to furnish a description and none were prepared to identify even the race of the intruder.

On October 31st, 1921, Mrs. R. S. Schultz was awakened by a marauder in her home at 704 Baxter Avenue. He attempted to assault her, but she fought him off. He shot at her and missed and fled the scene. As in the case for Ruby Walker, this incident is reported years after the fact to a private investigator, but the press of the day made no mention of the many break-ins in the city. That is, until the next deadly attack.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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