Sheffey’s Lurid Past Revealed

For the most part, Sheffey proved to be remarkably unshakeable when cross-examination began the next morning, August 26.  Attorney General Peace seemed intent on rattling Sheffey by first bringing up scandalous details from his past. The Johnson City Chronicle outlined how the “bespeckled young man” openly, though “not gladly,” shared tales of his romantic adventures that would have been “good material for a novel.” Sheffey had been married twice and had multiple relationships with women outside of marriage. The defense had presented Sheffey as a respectable family man and the state was determined to undo that impression.

Sheffey’s past with women was laid out for the packed courtroom—Sheffey had been asked to abandon his studies at Carson-Newman College when a group of students reported him for impregnating a classmate; he had a reputation for bragging about all the girls he had “handled”; his relationship with Dora Davis soured and, after her murder, Sheffey had stood trial for the crime; he married Carol Sykes before leaving for the war and reportedly had a relationship with a woman while he was stationed in France; after Carol’s death he quickly remarried but Ruby McNutt, his second wife, had run away to Florida and was rumored to be scared of him; a neighbor reported a tryst with “an unnamed Knoxville woman” at a house in Alcoa; and finally he was, at the time of his arrest, already seeing his “childhood sweetheart” who loyally visited him weekly in jail. Sheffey did not hesitate to confirm each of these relationships, but his attorneys kept him from having to go into any detail or comment on rumors.

Only once did Peace manage to get a rise out of Sheffey and Gamble had to intercede on behalf of his client. Peace asked about the Carol Sheffey and how she died. When Sheffey sadly stated that she had died in childbirth, Peace asked him loudly if he had not been very angry at the baby. Sheffey’s eyes flashed in anger, and he started to deny this when Peace roared, “Didn’t you try to kill the baby?” Sheffey stammered his denial when Peace roared again, “Didn’t you curse God?” Visibly trembling, Sheffey managed to get out in a weak voice that he only felt “it was a shame that a woman to live for her baby and then die on the first day of its life.” He said he remembered saying he just “couldn’t see the justice of it all.” Gamble stood and asked the judge to stop this line of questioning and Judge Blair agreed it was time to move on.

Other defense witnesses were there to attest to Will Sheffey’s fine character, which would be necessary after Sheffey’s reputation with women had been revealed.  R. L. Glascock, superintendent of the Aluminum Company, said he had known Sheffey ten years, and that the man was “worthy of full credit on his oath.” Mrs. Elizabeth Hutchinson, a neighbor on Wilson Ave, lived near his mother and not far from the home he had shared with his first wife, Carol.  She said she trusted him entirely and knew him to be highly respected. She admitted under cross-examination that she had not been present when Mrs. Sheffey gave birth, and that she gladly took care of the baby that night. She angrily denied that she accepted the baby because he was in some danger, just that Sheffey was shaken by the loss of his “sweetheart.” She was also insulted by the suggestion that Sheffey had some other “sweetheart” during his marriage. When the defense started to ask how the defendant had treated his wife during her illness, the judge barred the question.

Professor F. L. Proffitt, treasurer of Maryville College and neighbor to the Sheffey’s on Wilson Ave, also served as a character witness. Proffitt declared that “Sheffey’s general reputation for peace, good order and quietness was good for the community.”  Under cross-examination, Proffitt admitted that it was possible that Sheffey worked hard to maintain a certain image in his own neighborhood during daylight hours but live another life away from home. Profitt then added that the same could be said of any man. Proffitt said he was surprised to learn of the Carson-Newman affair and other things from Sheffey’s past, but it did not change his overall opinion of the man. He finished by saying he was very familiar with Sheffey’s writing style and that he saw no resemblance to the writing in the Emery letter.

Fred Proffitt house []

B. H. Rittenberg, chief clerk of the sheet mill at the Aluminum Company, testified that he generally had a good opinion of Sheffey and that, furthermore, he did not see any resemblance to Sheffey’s writing in the Emery letter. Rittenberg also volunteered that he thought if Sheffey did write something like the Emery letter, he would have done a better job of altering his handwriting. The prosecutor asked the witness if he would think less of someone who bought and sold pistols in violation of the law, and Rittenberg said “no.” He then asked if the witness would think less of a man who brought women to his house to spend the night, and Rittenberg said that yes, such an indiscreet act would make him think less of a man. Rittenberg went on to say he knew nothing of Sheffey’s night-time excursions, even though they were coworkers and neighbors in Alcoa. He did say, though, that Sheffey seemed to prefer his own company. He would never accept offers to join the Alcoa country club or join in company events.

L. S. Munch, Alcoa city commissioner, praised Sheffey’s general character. He said he had half-interest in a houseboat tied up at Louisville and was often there when Bassett, Sheffey, and other boat-owners came around. He said he knew of the cave that Sheffey sometimes used as a camp. When the prosecutor asked if he would think less of a man who made secret, night-time trips to the cave, Munch said he probably would. Defense objected and wanted to redirect, but Peace said it was an unimportant point and asked to move on.

In addition to establishing Sheffey’s good character, the defense team needed to undermine the rest of the state’s evidence, and the testimony of Ada Wells in particular. They called on eight different people who had heard Mrs. Wells say after the attack that she would not be able to identify the intruder: W. D. Seaton, Dan W. Proffitt, and Detective W. E. O’Connor were among those who remembered Mrs. Wells saying she was so upset she couldn’t tell a thing about the intruder, including whether he was Black or white. A neighbor of the Wells testified that he had overheard Mrs. Wells tell someone that the intruder whispered, “Ada, I ain’t going to hurt you.” Lewis Irwin testified that Sheffey had gone to bed at 11 p.m. on the night the Wells were attacked and was still in bed when Irwin got up in the morning. He stated he “did not believe” Sheffey left the house during the night. W. A. Anderson, manager of the Atkin Hotel, showed the jury the hotel register displaying Sheffey’s signature on the night several homes were hit in Alcoa.

Former Sheriff McCampbell declared he had worked hard alongside Detective O’Connor to investigate the crime at the Wells home. He said they had investigated the possibility that a suitor to the young wife might have been involved but they came to agree that there was nothing to that theory. Mrs. Wells never told him or the detective that the intruder called her by name.

Ada Wells took the stand last. She then emphatically denied ever telling anyone that the intruder had called her by name. The prosecutor asked if her neighbor, Whittemore, had shown her the article in the Knoxville Sentinel that first claimed the intruder knew her? She said she had never seen or heard any mention of that.

At that, court recessed in order prepare closings for the following day.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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