The State’s Case

Attorney General Peace had set a lot of weight on the identification of Sheffey by Ada Wells and the handwriting expert’s conclusion that Sheffey had written the taunting Emery Letter. However, with both of those pieces of evidence facing serious challenges by the defense team, the prosecution had to call on every possible witness to corroborate their case against Will Sheffey.

One key witness for the state was Jackson O. Law, owner of a general store and a neighbor to Lewis and Josephine Sheffey Irwin on Washington Ave. The defense would argue that Sheffey had stayed with his sister and brother-in-law the night of the attack, thus providing a clear alibi. Sheffey would claim that he never left the house during that night, but Law claimed that he did. Law testified that between 10 and 11 o’clock on the night in question, a car that Sheffey often used was backed out of the parking spot and its headlights reflected on his own second-story windows. He was awake at that time because his small child was sick. Law thought it an odd time to go out but did not see what direction the driver went after departing the parking spot. Kramer asked the witness to draw a diagram of the parking spot in relation to his home. After he had done so, Kramer pointed out that a car backing out and then heading into Maryville would not have shown its lights into his windows. Law countered that it would do so if the car had headed east on Washington, and it would afterward be possible for a driver to return to Maryville. (This set of homes would have all been across the street from the East Side School. At the time, there was no bridge connecting Washington Ave in Maryville to Hall Rd. in Alcoa, and the railroad ran between part of the neighborhood. It is true that most drivers heading in the direction of the Wells’ address would be most likely to start out heading west, but Law is quite right that there were other possible routes.)

Law claimed he knew it was the car Sheffey used because it was a Buick with a distinctive sound. He did admit, however, that there were many Buicks in town.

A very spiffy model of the Buick Six (1918)

The next controversy concerned a series of conversations Sheffey had with his friend, C. P. Bassett, concerning the Night Marauder attacks. In one conversation the morning after the Wells were attacked, Bassett remembered Sheffey comparing the assault on the Wells with earlier attacks. Defense dearly wanted to prevent the jury from hearing Bassett’s testimony on this conversation because it, like the Emery Letter, would continue to evoke the earlier cases. The defense was not happy but could not deny the presentation of the conversation because Sheffey agreed that the conversation had taken place just as Bassett presented it.

On the stand, C.P. said he was a long-time friend of Sheffey’s, though he would not describe their relationship as “intimate.” They both had boats moored at the Louisville Ferry. Bassett had a houseboat and Sheffey had a motorboat, and the men often rode there together. They were heading back towards Maryville some time after the Wells attack. Bassett recalled saying to Sheffey that he fit the description of the marauder, which caused Sheffey to laugh and agree. The two men went on to discuss the marauder and the attack on Mrs. Wells when Sheffey said there were more cases. As Bassett remembered:

Then (Sheffey) told me of two or three homes being entered in one night, and about one man being shot and his wife forced to submit to the intruder’s demand on the floor at the bedside, her injured husband being unable to protect her. He told me of several houses being entered and the matter being kept quiet.

The prosecution asked Bassett if he had heard anything about these other attacks and he replied he had not heard anything about additional attacks in Blount County. He went on to say that he “supposed they were general knowledge.”  He only added that Sheffey did not provide much detail on these attacks, so it was possible he was just repeating gossip. Still, it was Sheffey himself who linked the Wells attack to other cases.

Bassett’s name came up again after the December 1, 1924, attack on the Poes. D. W. Poague was a friend and co-worker of Sheffey’s at the Aluminum Co., and he was among those who had identified the writing on the Emery Letter as being similar to Sheffey’s. Poague testified that he started to become wary of Sheffey after the Sheriff showed him the anonymous letter in 1923. So, he tried to keep an eye on his old friend. The day after the Clyde and Lora Poe were assaulted, Poague made a point of stopping by Sheffey’s department throughout the day and said the defendant seemed very nervous. The day following that, Sheffey did not report for work. On December 4th, Sheffey returned to work, but Poague found him being treated at the Company Dispensary connected to the Employment Office. Sheffey said he needed help with a sprained arm.

Poague said he lingered a bit while Sheffey was being treated and that, quite suddenly, Sheffey started talking. He said he’d been duck hunting the previous day and had fallen off a cliff and hurt his arm. No one replied. Sheffey then abruptly shouted “Isn’t it funny how you meet some of these KNOW-IT-ALLS?” He explained to Poague and the doctor treating his arm that, having injured himself while hunting, he stopped to see his friend C. P. who owned Bassett Machine Shop located what was known as Calamity Corner. While he was there, Bassett started to complain about some “know-it-all” who was listing all the Night Marauder attacks starting with the attacks on Della Cunningham and Lindsey Bertie. Sheffey specifically called out the “know-it-all” for telling Bassett that the crimes in Knoxville, Maryville, and Alcoa were very alike and had to be connected, and that similar crimes in other states were noticeably different. Poague testified that Sheffey repeated the entire second-hand conversation in great detail. When Sheffey finished, Poague stated that he’d asked Sheffey if he knew who was talking about the crimes. Sheffey’s reply was, “Oh, he was just one of these know-it-alls. I did not know him, never seen him since.” Poague stated that he recalled thinking it odd that Sheffey would remember a stranger’s discourse with such clarity but not remember a thing about the man himself.

When the defense had their chance, they recalled C. P. Bassett. He said he had no memory of a “know-it-all” at his shop who said all the Night Marauder cases were connected. In fact, Bassett had no memory of ever discussion the cases with Sheffey beyond what he had already described. He admitted there was a man employed at his shop who had an interest in crime, but he had never described their conversations to Sheffey. 

It is not clear what this exchange proves for either side. For the state, Poague’s testimony about Sheffey’s “know-it-all” rant would seem to confirm Bassett’s earlier statements about the suspect’s familiarity with the series of attacks. What did the defense team hope to accomplish by getting Bassett to deny that the later conversation in his shop had even taken place? Maybe they hoped they could undermine Poague’s testimony as unreliable.  On the stand, Sheffey certainly claimed to have no memory of the conversation.  However, as with so much of the evidence, it would come down to who the jury found to be most believable. Let’s say Poague’s memory of Sheffey’s statements was accurate, but Bassett said the argument had never taken place. It is possible that Sheffey was so engaged in following the attacks that he fabricated the exchange as an excuse to go on a tirade against any “know-it-all” who claimed to know more about the attacks than he did. For whatever reason, Sheffey took pride in his knowledge about the Night Marauder.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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