Luther and Ada Wells

This post is based on a piece written by N. Locklin, edited by Andy Kelly (MC ’23) and Sydnee Hansraj (MC ’23).

At eighteen years old, the young couple had only been married eight months when the terrifying Night Marauder landed on their doorstep and changed their lives forever. On the night of December 10, 1923, at 1:30 a.m., newlyweds Luther and Ada Wells were sleeping peacefully in their bed on Morganton Road in Maryville when the killer entered their home. Luther, an aspiring engineer, and his wife Ada both worked together at the Maryville Hosiery Mill. The two had just hosted a dinner party earlier in the evening, and Luther stayed up for a while to study before joining his wife in bed.

Ada and Luther had been sleeping when the attack happened. Ada, having been awakened by the feel of someone’s hand on her ankle, cried out to Luther that someone was in the house with a flashlight and a nickel-plated pistol. Roused by his wife’s cries, Luther stood to challenge the intruder, saying that if money was his purpose there was none to be found in the house. The terrifying figure then made “unspeakable demands” and ordered Luther to step away from the bed where his wife lay helpless. When Luther refused to leave his wife at the mercy of the stranger, he was shot three times.

As Luther lay unconscious on the floor, the intruder whispered fiercely for Ada to “be quiet,” and that if she “hollered or screamed” he would shoot her, too. Clutching to her blankets, she resisted the attacker trying to pull the covers away and began to scream as loudly as she could. The man wasn’t bluffing: he shot Ada, who continued to scream as the man fled the scene. Despite the terrifying situation, Ada endured the pain of her gunshot wound and pursued her attacker. She was shot again by the intruder but did not stop following him and screaming until she collapsed on the porch.

First on the scene was John Whitehead, a neighbor, who reported that the shooter was long gone by the time he got to the Wells’ place. Sheriff McCampbell was quoted as saying the Marauder apparently has the ability “to vanish into thin air.” He and his men had lain in wait so many nights and never got close to seeing him, let alone capture him.

Luther had been shot twice in the head and once in the arm. He lost consciousness immediately. Ada was shot twice in the abdomen, with one bullet lodged in her liver. At the Alcoa hospital, Dr. J. Walter McMahon reported that the two were in and out of consciousness over the course of several hours. They had both undergone surgeries to remove the bullets from their bodies, but their survival was not certain. The media caught wind of the attack, and one newspaper report went as far as saying Luther’s “brains oozed out his nose” from the shot that had entered his skull just above the right eye. Sadly, the Wells’ recovery process would take weeks and would cost a great deal of money that this newlywed couple just didn’t have. B. H. Kinsler issued an appeal on December 21st to raise funds to cover their hospital bills. He offered the services of the Maryville Enterprise newspaper to collect donations and to publish the names of all generous benefactors.

Once in a stable condition, Ada was questioned by the police. As she recounted the events of that night, she recalled being absolutely petrified during the attack. When investigators asked her to describe the attacker, she was only able to recall his approximate height and build. Ada admitted that she did not manage to get a clear look at his face due to her fear at that moment. Though she did offer that she might be able to recognize the attacker’s voice, but nothing more. However, Ada would contradict her statement in a later testimony, claiming that she lost all of her fear as soon as the man shot her, and she did look at him as he ran away. Still, for hours, she could not describe him clearly. Then, as she lay recovering from her wounds and from surgery, Ada claimed to see the man who attacked her. Others assured Ada that no one had come into her room, but she insisted that she could see him and could see his face. Ada’s recollection of the man’s appearance would be a key factor in the trials to come.

Detective W. E. O’Connor, head of a Knoxville detective agency, suspected “an insane negro man” was the Night Marauder who attacked the Wells. This was despite the testimonies of both Wells, who had described the intruder as white. Ada had supplied the names of four men she thought capable of the attack. The suspect Detective O’Connor targeted was an elderly black man in the community often described as “dim-witted” or “slow-witted.” Ultimately, the detectives dismissed the possibility of his involvement. Then, more serious suspicion was directed at Charley Reed, a former suitor of Ada’s who had jealously threatened the couple in the past. He was detained briefly but then let go. Detective O’Connor claimed to have arrested a number of suspects during the course of the investigation, but all of them had solid alibis and were released. The family of the couple also conducted their own investigations but nothing would come of their work.

One December 17, Sheriff McCampbell outlined how far he had come in his investigations. He reported that an intruder had maliciously entered two other homes that same night prior to the assault on the Wells. The first was the home of House Phelps, on Louisville Pike. Mrs. Phelps was still awake when she was alerted by her young daughter’s scream. Mrs. Phelps rushed into her daughter’s room to see a man standing over the girl’s bed. The trespasser shined a flashlight in Ms. Phelps’s eyes with one hand, and she reported being able to see a pistol in his other hand. Then, the attacker approached the second home in Bungalow Town, and attempted to enter the residence by trying to pry a screen off a window. There, the attacker was scared off by the screaming before he could even get inside. The one clue left behind was the assailant’s footprints in a size seven shoe, but still no one was able to get a good look at the man himself.

It is fortunate that Ada Wells was a brave and strong woman because her ordeal was not yet over. With the attack still unsolved, Luther Wells died less than a year later on September 20th, 1924. The Journal and Tribune of Knoxville reported on his tragic death, declaring “Marauder’s Shot is Finally Fatal.” Suffering from his injuries, Luther was in and out of the hospital over those nine months. In mid-September of 1924, Luther returned to the McMahon hospital for surgery to remove bone fragments that still pressed upon his brain. Once inside his skull, surgeons found a number of abscesses that had formed near his two original head wounds. Despite the grim outlook, Luther rallied once again and was well enough to eventually be sent home, much to the surgeons’ surprise.

Though doctors were astonished that he had survived not one, but two gunshots to the head, Luther nevertheless was unable to truly fully recover. Once home, he then contracted meningitis and died within just a few short hours. The young widow Ada Wells said her final goodbyes to her late husband at Calvary Baptist Church in Alcoa, where many gathered to attend his funeral. Luther Wells was laid to rest in a modest grave covered with flowers at Magnolia Cemetery in Maryville.

Luther Well’s grave stone, Magnolia Cemetery, photo by N. Locklin.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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