Who was Will Sheffey?

Written by Scotty Leach (MC ’23) based on research compiled by N. Locklin.

Within the quiet, peaceful town of Maryville lay the College Hill Historic District. From Goddard to Waller Avenue, this humble area of Blount County lies along with all of its historic memories of its past. The land across from the district is occupied by Maryville College, which was established in 1819. The close proximity of the college and the district allowed for close connections to form, and the neighborhood became the home to several members of the faculty and quite a few alumni. This modest district became home to the Sheffey family sometime during the first World War. The tight-knit Sheffey family was originally from Hawkins County, TN, but had moved to Seymour in Sevier County by 1910. Ida Sheffey, the hardworking mother of the family, had four children – Josie, Maggie, Thomas Phillip, and Will. Will Sheffey shared his mother’s hardworking nature and spent a lot of time at home and within his neighborhood, doing what he could do to help. Will even spent time helping on the Davis farm, who were neighbors to the Sheffeys and lived in the same district. Young Dora Davis was close friends with Will Sheffey and for a time, they were romantically connected. That fact was what made him a suspect when Dora was murdered in 1915. Will would be arrested, tried, and finally acquitted.

In 1914, World War I began, and the world was thrown into chaos. Eventually, the United States entered WWI in 1917, becoming a part of the international conflicts of Europe. It was during this time that Will Sheffey was drafted. He had enough of an education to decide how he would serve in the military to support his nation and their involvement in the war during this tumultuous time. Sheffey specifically served in the Medical Corps of the United States of America. Will excelled during his service as a year later, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant within the Sanitary Corps and was assigned to Camp Green in North Carolina. It was here that Will met Carol Sykes, his future wife. Will was drawn to Carol, yet the pair were quite different in many ways. Unlike Will, Carol was raised in the busy New York State in a city called Binghamton. Carol later went on to attend the Mechanics Institute of Rochester. Will’s educational experience was more limited. He attended Chilhowee Institute for his secondary education and later was accepted into the Carson-Newman College in East Tennessee, but Will never finished his degree there. It appears he completed his studies at Murphy College, which closed in 1935, and he entertained hopes he would be able to teach after the war was over. After Carol graduated, she became a dietician at the Scranton State Hospital in Pennsylvania. This connection to the hospital was what drove Carol toward military service when the American Red Cross requested her aid in the Sanitary Corps in 1918. Carol later found her way to Camp Greene and became acquainted with Will Sheffey. Despite their differences and their unique backgrounds, Will and Carol were drawn to each other and were married that same year. The marriage was held in Camp Green in the home of Reverend Pressley on August 28th.

The newly-weds were only able to spend a few months together as the war called Will away from Camp Greene. Will, who was now a prominent lieutenant, traveled to New York where he was to sail on the Mauretania to England. Will anticipated being able to aid in the battles in France but, by the time Will arrived, the war was over. The Armistice of November 11th had been signed before Will had reached his destination and all major warfare had ceased. Despite this fact, Will still tried to do what he could to perform the noble duty of serving in the Sanitary Corps. Will even continued to serve in the Corps for another year in France even after the official conclusion of WWI. Local newspapers of Blount County heard of his military career in the war and painted him as a war hero and thanked him for his service. Having completed his service, Will departed from France and travelled to New Jersey on the Leviathan, arriving on August 6, 1919. At this point, Will Sheffey resigned from his service in the military and was reunited with his wife Carol. The two decided to settle down but were undecided on where they should live. Sheffey decided to bring Carol to Maryville, TN where his beloved mother Ida had settled on a quiet, tree-lined avenue surrounded by neighbors and friends. Will soon began searching for a new job and was hired as a store manager at the Aluminum Company of America. For two years, the Sheffeys lived in their peaceful abode in the quiet landscape of Blount County. This peaceful moment only briefly lasted as tragedy hit the Sheffey family.

On February 8th 1921, Carol Sheffey gave birth to a son named William. This joyous moment was shadowed by the health complications that Carol was dealing with after the birth. That same day, Carol passed away. Will’s son would be later sent to live with Will’s mother at her home nearby. The incident impacted Sheffey and the life he had started to build. Two months later, Will met and quickly married a woman named Ruby G. McNutt. Considering Will’s status as a single parent with a newborn child, this was not an unusual event. Such occurrences tended to happen during this era in order to establish security for the child and the widower. Will was in desperate need of such aid. Ruby was an established local resident who lived on Court Street. Her family had been a part of the Blount County community for quite a bit of time and Ruby’s father rose to become a well-known real estate agent of Maryville. Ruby had just gotten out of a divorce of her own a month or two before she married Will. The fate of Will and Ruby’s relationship was not bright as Ruby left Maryville and Will in order to search for a home in Florida. In 1925, Ruby filed for a divorce from Will. Following these events, Will lost possession of his home and was forced to find shelter elsewhere for a period of time. Most of the time, Will resided at his mother’s home on College Hill, where his son had also come to live. Will attempted to continue moving forward in his life and remained as a store manager of the  Aluminum Company of America for a few years.

Suddenly, on a peaceful Saturday evening in downtown Knoxville in 1925, Will Sheffey was approached by the local police force on the streets of Knoxville. The Blount County officers Gus Davis and Charlie Hamon as well as the Knoxville detectives Day and Fogerty were on the scene and shortly after the encounter, they arrested Will Sheffey. Since 1922, the city of Maryville had been plagued with a large crime wave. The events that had started to occur in Maryville resembled the crime phenomena of Knoxville which had occurred a few years earlier. Rumors of a so-called Night Marauder had spread throughout Blount County and fear started to grow among the citizens of Maryville. Was Will Sheffey’s arrest related to these recent crimes? The police officers and investigators were given a tip from a private investigator from St. Louis claiming that there was a link between Sheffey and the crime incidents in Maryville. From this moment, Will’s life drastically transformed and the situation looked grim.

Sheffey’s portrait in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, April 14, 1925.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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