This post is based on a piece written by N. Locklin. It was edited by Katelyn Compton (MC ’24).
Dora Davis and Will Sheffey spent most of their teens living a mere few houses away from one another near Seymour, Tennessee. The two were known to be close acquaintances; they went to high school together and Sheffey even came to the Davis house to help with farm work, with some accounts noting that he had stayed over at their house on occasion.
Dora and Will both went to Carson-Newman College; however, Will had to leave the school for having improper relations with young women. One such relation was with a disabled 14-year-old girl, whom a friend of Sheffey said that he got pregnant. Despite this, it is believed that Sheffey wanted to settle down and in 1913, proposed to Dora. She rejected Will and eventually had to get her father, James Davis, involved when Will persisted. For months after Mr. Davis made clear that he did not want Will around, but nothing happened. When witnesses looked back on this, they felt that the last time Will saw Dora he left her with a threat: “I’ll see you another day.”
On the fateful night of September 1, 1915, Dora Davis was murdered while sleeping in her bed. The murderer stood on a chair outside of Dora’s window and fired at her through the open window, while her mother and siblings slept in the room with her. The first bullet struck Dora in the chest just below her throat. She was badly wounded but managed to scream. The second and third shots came after her mother attempted to close the window, and the shots shattered the glass and part of the sill.
According to the September 2, 1915 issue of the Knoxville Sentinel, police brought in bloodhounds to track the scent from the chair the murderer used. Hundreds of spectators followed the dogs as they went through a dense thicket where police thought the murderer could have hidden for a while. That night, the bloodhounds lost the scent and the search had to be postponed until the next day. The next day, the bloodhounds picked up the scent and followed it to Will Sheffey’s house.
Will Sheffey had been expecting police because of his ties to Dora. and it was no surprise when he was arrested later that day. Many in the town were shocked by the arrest because Sheffey was from a good family. Locals thought it to be more likely that it was a random drifter who committed the murder. Others were not so sure. Suspicion of Sheffey went beyond the rejected marriage proposal. The day before the murder, Will asked Mr. Davis if he could borrow a revolver for target practice and told him he’d return it the next day. He inquired about any other guns, possibly to ensure there would be no other weapons in the house.
Sheffey was brought to the jail in Knoxville, where he immediately began to try and charm reporters. He mentioned his inexperience with how “these things work.” He told them he was not surprised to be arrested because he had heard the rumors surrounding his request to borrow the revolver from Mr. Davis. One of the deputies that went to arrest Sheffey recalled that he said he did not care what happened to him, but he “hated it on account of his mother and sisters.”
Will Sheffey’s preliminary hearing began on September 17, 1915. His defense team at the preliminary hearing included his uncle, Judge S. L. Chestnut, along with other judges from Knoxville and Maryville, making it clear that the Sheffey’s were well-connected to the legal community of East Tennessee. Mr. Davis was the first witness called. He recalled the events of the night of the murder; how he heard Dora’s screams and the gunshots, and the moment she took her last breaths. He went on to talk about the conversation he had with Sheffey in 1913 when he made it clear that he was not to be around Dora anymore. Mr. Davis said this tense conversation ended with Sheffey saying he’d regret keeping him away from Dora. Sheffey stopped coming around Dora in person, but would still send her letters and cards. In his testimony, he confirmed that the house the murder took place in was not the same one Will used to visit. The family had moved and Sheffey had no way of knowing specifically where everyone slept. However, later reports suggest that Sheffey, upon seeing the diagram of the bedroom published in the papers, commented to a friend: “That’s not where Dora’s bed was located.”
The prosecution called a number of witnesses, including, Sheffey’s friend, Ben Clark, Clark said Sheffey was showing off a Colt .32 after the murder took place, and it was clear the gun had been discharged. Clark noted that when Sheffey joined in the search party later he oddly enough asked to borrow a gun from him, because for some reason he was not able to use the Colt he had shown off earlier.
Dr. Cusick said he was asked to come to the Davis house after Dora was shot and that as he made his way he passed by an unknown man riding a horse. When he asked the stranger his name, the man replied that his name was Joe Emery. Some other witness testimonies from neighbors mention seeing flashlights and hearing gunshots.
There were no witnesses in the defense of Will Sheffey at the hearing. Defense attorneys pointed out that there was two and a half years between the murder and Dora’s rejection of his proposal, during which, Will had become friendly enough again with the Davis family so much so that he felt he could ask to borrow a gun from Mr. Davis. The defense suggested it was most likely a robbery and that Dora had been shot because she tried to fight off the burglar. Still, Sheffey was sent to Sevierville jail where he was to await the murder trial. It was there that he made his first formal statement, where he denied any guilt:
“On the night in question, I was at home all the time, and slept with my younger brother, in the room where my mother was also sleeping. While it is surely hard luck to be locked up this way, especially since I am guiltless, it is particularly hard on my mother and sisters, and I am worried much more on their account than on my one, but everything will come out all right, I am sure, My past life, I think, does not warrant the making of such a charge against me. I am a church member, and although I have made some mistakes, as perhaps nearly everyone else has, I have never committed any crime, and most assuredly am not guilty of the one with which I am now charged. I could look any person in the world squarely in the eye and tell him that I did not kill Dora Davis. I could tell J. R. Davis, the father, that, and would like to do so, for I have heard that he believes me guilty.”
Sheffey believed that the only reason people suspected him was due to the interaction he’d had with Mr. Davis in 1913. Sheffey opened the defense case on October 6 stating that he and Dora had loved each other and he was hurt when her father came between them. He denied that she had ever rejected him, and produced letters written after 1913 between them. Will said that a year later her parents discovered they were corresponding and he decided they should put the relationship behind them. He said he moved on and considered Dora to be a friend, wishing her well with her teaching career and her potential marriage to someone else.
A couple of items introduced by the defense undermined the state’s case against Sheffey. The deputy sheriffs now stated that they were not sure that the revolver in Sheffey’s possession had been recently fired. Under cross-examination, Dr. Cusick revealed he was well acquainted with Will Sheffey, meaning if it was Will on the horse that night Dr. Cusick would have known it. He said that a few minutes after the stranger revealed his name to be Joe Emery he thought he could hear the stranger talking to Sheffey outside of his house. Sheffey corroborated this by saying that on the night of the murder he was woken up by the commotion in the neighborhood, when the stranger on the horse happened to pass by. The two exchanged a few words and then the stranger left.
Ida Sheffey, Will’s mother, and his siblings provided the biggest win for the defense. She stated that Will had gone to sleep next to his brother and that she had gone to bed in the same room not long after. She was woken up by a phone call at one in the morning from their neighbor who informed Ida of the tragedy. She woke Will to tell him what happened and claimed it was she that stood on the back porch and saw the man on horse approach and then ride back into the darkness. Will’s siblings supported her testimony.
On the morning of Saturday, October 16, 1915, Will Sheffey was acquitted of murder charges. In the October 18, 1915 issue of the Knoxville Sentinel, Will said, “Words cannot express how I feel at having my liberty again. It is a terrible ordeal to undergo a trial such as I did, and it is especially harrowing when one is entirely innocent of the charges against him. No more prison cells for me.” Sadly, for Sheffey, he would be proven wrong on that last count.