Sheffey’s Day in Court

At 3 p.m. on Tuesday, August 25th1925,  William D. Sheffey stood up to be sworn in as the first witness in his own defense. As he seated himself in the witness chair, Sheffey folded his arms across his chest but otherwise looked unruffled. The courtroom seemed to become electrified. Men and women filled every possible space and even stood outside at the windows, straining to get a look at the man at the center of this dramatic case. He identified himself and confirmed he was 32 years old, employed as a storekeeper at the U.S. Aluminum Company, and that he had resided in Blount County at least seven years. Before that he lived in Sevier County, and he had been born in Hawkins County. He lived at his mother’s home on Wilson Ave in Maryville. His sister, Josephine, was married to Lewis Irwin and they lived together on Washington Ave.

Gamble asked Sheffey to describe the day he was arrested. Sheffey said he had worked at the office from 8:30-11:30 in the morning. After lunch, he took a walk in the Maryville College woods with his little boy. After that, he headed to Knoxville. He was arrested on Gay St. while out to meet friends.

Maryville College Woods today

Asked to describe his whereabouts on the night of the attack on the Wells’ home, Sheffey said he had spent the entire night at his sister’s house on Washington Ave. He said he knew the date for sure because they were discussing the disappearance of Reverand J.S. Jones, which had only been made public the day before. Rev. Jones was a Sunday school teacher from the First United Methodist Church in Maryville and a close friend of defense attorney Kramer. He would have been at least acquainted with Sheffey’s sister, Josephine, because he taught religion at the Springbrook school where she was employed as a teacher.  Sheffey explained that the Reverend had gone out on a solo duck hunt and had not returned. When he had heard about the situation, Sheffey went to his sister’s house and waited to break the bad news about her friend. Then, he spent the night in the couple’s spare room.

Gamble asked Sheffey to draw a diagram of the immediate neighborhood around his sister’s house. Sheffey readily drew a map of Washington and the closest intersecting streets, including the homes of Jack Law and George Mize. Sheffey explained that it was not unusual for drivers coming out of Maryville would pull into the Erwin’s driveway in order to turn around to go back into the city. Any driver completing that maneuver would have cast light onto Jack Law’s home. Cars coming from or heading in any other direction would not cast any light into the Law home.

Gamble proceeded to ask Sheffey outright if he knew either of the Wells, if he had gone into their Morganton Rd. home, and if he had shot them. Sheffey calmly answered “no” to each question, though his voice became louder with each answer. The Knoxville News reporter noted “his answer fell hard upon the ears of a thousand spectators, each one deathly still” He further stated that he did not leave the Irwin home at any time during that night, either on foot or by car.

Sheffey described what he knew of the handwriting analysis, readily identifying the letter to his wife and the letter to the father of Dora Davis as his. However, he absolutely denied having written the Emery letter and said he could not see the resemblance.

Sheffey was asked where he was on the Saturday night and Sunday morning after July 4th, 1923, when someone entered several homes in Alcoa. He replied that he was registered at the Atkin Hotel in Knoxville that night. He checked in around 8 p.m., went out into town, and returned to his room to sleep just after 11 p.m.  There had been an incident on the street outside the Riviera theater, which is why the night stood out in his mind. He denied entering the Reagan, Bible, and Roberts homes because, as stated, he spent that entire night in Knoxville.

Sheffey denied even hearing about the burglary at the Pace home on Sevierville Pike and couldn’t say if he got to his mother’s house particularly late on that date. The Pace attack had not even been in the papers. He often worked nights to catch up on paperwork at his office and had no recollection of the Sheriff running towards him on any night in particular. Sheffey said it was his habit to turn on the porch light when he got in at night. Sheffey said he knew former sheriff McCampbell only slightly and was not aware of his own feelings towards the man ever changing. He knew the man well enough to speak to him and knew of his position. Gamble asked, “You didn’t regard him differently after he followed you to your mother’s house on Wilson?” “Not at all,” was the reply.

He was asked if had gone to the doctor to get his arm patched the day after the Poes were attacked. This was the only time the Poe case was brought up in this or any later trials. Sheffey said he did once have a wound on his arm treated but had no idea if it was in 1923 or 1924.

The topic of his relationship with H. C. Conner came up. Connor had accused Sheffey of borrowing his car and leaving items in it that the marauder would have used. Sheffey admitted he had borrowed Connor’s car on multiple occasions. Once, he took his little boy to see a doctor in Knoxville. Another time, he took his wife to spend the day at Tate Spring.  He denied he had ever used the car to do any “marauding” and said the rag and flashlight were left in the car the day of the trip to Tate Spring. Sheffey said they had punctured a tire on their way home after dinner. He had used the flashlight to repair the puncture and the rag to clean his hands. Sheffey said he had no memory of ever discussing women or the Night Marauder cases with Conner. When asked if he ever talked with anyone about the Maurice Mays case and he said “Of course. Everyone talked about that case.” He stated he did believe Mays to be innocent of the crime he was executed for but had no recollection if Conner had been part of that conversation. He did express some bitterness when it came to his falling out with Conner and said he wished they had settled their dispute. Perhaps Conner would not have testified against him if they had.

Similarly, Sheffey had no recollection of a “know it all” at Bassett’s shop. As for his conversation with Bassett after his friend said he fit the description of the Night Marauder, Sheffey recalled that they both laughed at the absurd suggestion.

At the end of an afternoon in which Sheffey had maintained his composure perfectly, and had answered mostly in terse monosyllables, Gamble asked to recess for the evening. The Knoxville Journal noted that “at no point in the testimony given by Sheffey. . .did he falter or display nervousness. He was under oath to tell the truth—his life was at stake in the lawsuit that engaged the attention of all East Tennessee.” Soon, he would have to show the same coolness under fire from the state.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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