The Emery Letter

Based on a piece written by N. Locklin. Edited by Luke Nelson (MC ’24).

John M. McCampbell was the Sheriff of Blount County, TN, from September 1922 to 1924 in his first term in office. During those years, the Sheriff maintained something approaching an obsession with the Night Marauder, determined to catch the fiend and bring an end to his terror. McCampbell used every resource at his disposal but could not seem to get any closer to his quarry and it seems the Marauder knew this and decided to have a little fun at the Sheriff’s expense.  Around August 6th of 1923, McCampbell received a mysterious letter in his post office box – handwritten and in pencil – its author claimed to be the killer. The letter carried all the signs we now associate with a serial killer’s ego and his glee over getting away with murder. The letter taunted the Sheriff for his inability to outsmart him and promised to keep at his trade.

The entire letter was released to the public during the first trial in 1925 as it would serve as a central piece of evidence. However, in terms of our timeline, it predates the criminal trials that would take place in Maryville so we will examine it here:

Dear John—
	I can tell you a thing or so when it comes to having a good time with your men over there I was over there Sat night and it rained and I did not leave there till daylight but your rumey’s could not see a bloke if it was on his nose, I have tried to find a woman who would holler so I could get to shot her but they would none of your Maryville women holler, so I don’t get the fun out of it.
	I wish you could tell some of those girls to holler so I can have the fun shooting them. Can’t shoot a woman unless she give me an excuse.
	I am tired of coming over there you can’t catch me and every n***** you catch for me you turn loose. So you can rest till I get ready to come again, I have not been in Maryville yet but in Alcoa I went into a fellow’s house near the bridge where the concrete pike begins, he and a child were in the front room his wife and 2 or 3 children were in the back room I told her if she screamed I’d shoot but when I looked at her I thought she was too old to shoot that way but when she did holler I shot at her old man but don’t know if I got him I then walked to Alcoa or up the pike toward Maryville, I went to a house up that St found a woman but she would not holler so I could not shoot her, I just love to shoot if they scream can get away just as easy when I shoot as if I did not, Good bye John I am going away for a while you are about as wise as Ed. Haynes & Bill Cates.
Mimeographed version of the letter handed out at the first trial. Courtesy of the V. J. Hultquist estate.

Unfortunately, the handwritten version of the letter is long gone. As it is, the Sheriff would testify that he carried it with him in his pocket for years and it became worn down; he’d lost the envelope with no other information about the letter or its author.

The improper grammar and lack of punctuation in the printed copy, handed out to the press at the trial, were reproduced as closely as possible in case there were clues to the mindset of the criminal. It resembles the marks of an educated person trying to appear uneducated, the investigator would note how uneven the writing and spelling were, switching back and forth from proper to improper grammar.  The letter’s author explicitly targeted Sheriff McCampbell, possibly to challenge and enrage him. At the same time, he manages to express his disdain for Sheriff Bill Cates of Knox County and Knoxville Chief of Police Haines. The writer goes on to ridicule the deputies who have tried to track him down, proudly boasts of all the mayhem he has committed, and promises more to come. He doesn’t seem to care about getting caught, though he clearly doubts the Sheriff and his men have the capacity to catch him. He also delights in hearing women scream so he can shoot them, it’s no fun otherwise. He has also sexualized his victims, even though he makes no direct references to sexual assault. He merely observes that one particular woman in Alcoa looked “too old to shoot in that way.” He signs with the name that an unknown horseman in the dark gave to Dr. Cusick in Seymour right after Dora Davis was murdered there in 1915. Finally, he lists some of his past victims, most notably Dora herself and Bertie Lindsey.

The Sheriff would later testify that he shared the letter with multiple people, including the postmaster and a few others involved in law enforcement and the justice system.  We also know, from the Sheriff’s descendants, that he shared it with his wife and sister-in-law, Georgia, after dinner one night.  Georgia is said to have been the one to have spotted the name Dora Davis on the letter and connected her to Will Sheffey. Georgia reminded the Sheriff that “They used to go together,” referring to Davis and Sheffey, who now lived in Maryville.

McCampbell told the story a bit differently to the investigator in 1925. He told the P.I. that, after receiving the Emery letter, McCampbell chanced to meet old Dr. Cusick who had retired to Maryville. Upon learning that Cusick had lived in Sevierville, he asked him what he knew about the Dora Davis murder and was shocked to find that he was speaking with a key witness for the prosecution. McCampbell learned in the conversation that, no matter what was reported about the Davis trial, Cusick had always believed that Sheffey killed Dora. Cusick would later inform the investigator that he felt the Davis case had been rushed because of Sheffey’s relatives who were in legal professions; the prosecution never got a shot at firming up their case, in his opinion. McCampbell was more and more convinced that the good people of Maryville had a seasoned murderer in their midst.

If the writer of the letter liked screaming, he would soon get his wish as the first attack in the heart of Maryville would earn both a lot of screaming and a woman to shoot. However, it would also open the door to more serious investigations and launch a series of trials that had to have made life a lot less fun for him.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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