A New Suspect

This post was based on a chapter written by N. Locklin and edited by Katie Leming (MC ’23)

On Saturday, February 6, 1926, a new suspect was being held in connection with the Night Marauder attacks. The Knoxville Sentinel does not name him in their initial report, though he is later identified as Luther Jones. The paper reported that a private investigator from Cincinnati named Herman L. Glaze had been working the case and had identified the real perpetrator. Will Sheffey was still in custody in Loudon County, awaiting his third trial. The article stated that Glaze was working with Sheffey’s defense in the interest of freeing him and indicated that the Aluminum Co. of America (ALCOA) was funding his work.

The story prompted a reply to the Maryville Times from A. D. Huddleston, Assistant Superintendent of ALCOA. On Thursday, February 11, he wrote that in spite of what the Knoxville paper had claimed, the company had nothing to do with the case “for or against Will D. Sheffey now held for the crimes in question” and that they had no intention of taking an interest in any case on the docket. Huddleston’s letter concluded by thanking the newspaper for giving their complaint “prominent space,” explaining perhaps why a letter to the editor appeared on the first page of the issue. The public statement seemed to quiet any further speculation.

Rightly or wrongly, ALCOA had been thrust into the very heart of the trial of Will Sheffey. Representatives from among the company’s management and employees served as witnesses both for and against the accused. Former superintendent B. L. Glasscock was a character witness in Sheffey’s defense while a number of co-workers were witness for the state. Sheffey was a longtime employee in the plant’s store and samples of his writing from work were compared to the handwritten anonymous Emery letter. Some of those who would have regularly seen Sheffey’s handwriting at the plant said that it matched that of the letter-writer, but others claimed it did not. As far as the court and the public was concerned, ALCOA was neutral. Most people had no idea that V. J. Hultquist, construction division manager of the Aluminum Co. and city manager of Alcoa, had been the one to hire the detective known as “Ed Jones.” Ed Jones, of course, was the alias for Frederick Hinrichsen, former head of plant security at the company’s East St. Louis location. Hultquist was never involved personally with the investigations or the Sheffey trial, so the company was never publicly implicated in the case against Sheffey.

As for the new suspect, Robert Luther Jones, his life had been a somewhat tragic tale. He first appeared in local news stories on March 28, 1922, when the Knoxville Journal and Tribune reported that Jones, “One of the War’s Human Wrecks” was released from custody following a Habeas Corpus writ. He had long suffered from exposure to gas and from shell shock dating back to his service in Siberia and then the Philippines. The Knoxville Sentinel called him “living evidence of the grim tragedy of war.” Luther was the son of Mrs. Addie Jones of Maryville and had been arrested in 1922 by Sheriff M. H. Edmundson of Blount County.  The newspaper reported that his mother and young wife trembled and wept in the courtroom as their attorney plead for his freedom due to insanity. Meanwhile, the Sheriff insisted that Jones was faking his mental illness and should be held accountable for attempted grand larceny of a car and a previous charge of “wrongful disposition of a number of bathing suits.”  Jones had been sent to an army hospital for evaluation in Augusta, then in Nashville, and finally in Atlanta, but he escaped from each place.  In light of his erratic behavior, in general and in the courtroom, the judge decided that all previous charges were to be nullified and he should be released.

When Jones was arrested in 1926 during an attempted robbery of the Fincannon Radiator Co. and a drug store on N. Central St, detective Glaze jumped at the chance to prove Jones was the Night Marauder. Glaze contacted all of the law enforcement witnesses connected to the Sheffey case and invited them to see if Jones was their man. Alcoa police officer Sam Walker went to visit Jones in the Knoxville jail to see if he might have been the man he saw one night in Alcoa in 1923. On that occasion, Walker had encountered a man passing through people’s backyards with a flashlight, climbing onto porches and trying to open doors. The man ran when the officer called out to him, so Walker fired his pistol at him and thought he’d made contact. But, at the 1926 trial, Walker stated he was certain that Jones was not the man he had shot at years earlier. Jones bore the scars of a shotgun wound from a hunting accident involving his brother-in-law and not a pistol gunshot. Knoxville Chief of Detectives A. L. Wells said he had allowed Glaze to talk to the suspect but had no idea at the time what had passed between them.  It seems pretty clear that Glaze left the interview convinced of Jones’ guilt, persuaded Walker to see for himself, and Walker had come to a different conclusion.

The crimes that Luther Jones had committed or attempted since returning from the war were very different from the Night Marauder attacks. He was often confused and unpredictable, but he was mostly a thief. There had been one occasion, reported by the Knoxville papers, when Jones had approached a young woman from Maryville who was working in Knoxville. He tried to get the woman to leave with him, claiming her family was sick and had sent for her. Feeling suspicious, the woman called home and found that her family was fine. She told him to leave, and he did. Coworkers trailed Jones and later turned him over to the police. Once again, Jones was released to his family, who agreed to get him some professional help. In 1926, the family would tell reporters that Luther was often in trouble with the law but did not seem capable of doing the sort of crimes attributed to the Night Marauder.

Glaze was featured with some fanfare at the start of the April 1926 trial as someone brought on by the defense team after the December 1925 trial. The Knoxville papers reported that the detective had been hard at work for several weeks and that he had evidence that would vindicate Sheffey completely. Headlines across the region spread excitement about the upcoming trial and the groundbreaking new evidence that would finally clear Sheffey’s name. However, Glaze never made an appearance in the actual trial. After all of that anticipation, he disappeared from the record once the trial began.

The name Luther Jones would appear again in the news over the next several years. In 1929 his wife, Josephine Mason Davenport, petitioned to claim property owned by her husband. The Knoxville court declared that, since Jones was a resident at a home for the mentally insane in Lansing, Michigan, her marriage was null and void. Attorney D. S. Kramer represented Jones’ guardian, W. E. Parham, in safeguarding Jones’ property while he was held at the hospital. The marriage of Luther and Josephine had already been annulled by the courts years earlier but the two remarried not long after that. Later that year, when Jones was being sought for information regarding another case, Sheriff Pate was quoted as saying Luther Jones could not be located immediately but would probably show up eventually. The man was “incompetent” and liked to wander. In 1934, Robert L. Jones was arrested for the robbery of the Tom Wells grocery store on Broadway in Knoxville. This time, Jones was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in the state penitentiary.

Announcement in the Knoxville News Sentinel June 19, 1930.

It isn’t entirely clear what Sheffey’s defense team had in mind when they promoted Herman Glaze’s questionable work as a private investigator. Honestly, Glaze had been listed in the Cincinnati city directory as a “traveling salesman” up until 1926 when he was listed as head of a “Detective Agency.” Perhaps the plausibility that the real predator was still out there would be enough to muddy the waters and introduce reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. Heaven knows there were many vulnerable and suspicious figures on the streets who might be blamed for these crimes. Maybe any one of them would be a more likely suspect than the hardworking family man who still had one more trial to endure.

The Second Trial

After the mistrial was announced in August, both sides regrouped for to prepare for the second trial. It was decided that Sheffey would be tried again in the very next session of court, in December 1925. On November 28, the Knoxville Journal reported that that Sheffey was still being held in Loudon County for his own safety and that he “spends most of his time reading.” “His approaching trial does not seem to give up much worry. He makes no reference to his case but is willing to talk on other topics with visitors.”

Several news outlets speculated that perhaps the state would mix things up a bit and switch to the supposedly stronger case against Sheffey in the attack on the Poes. However, the prosecution announced that they planned to revisit the Wells case and then immediately proceed to try Sheffey for the attack on Mr. and Mrs. Poe. By December 19th, it was clear that two more charges were being added to the indictment—the breaking and entering of the homes of Miss Reba Jones [later Mrs. Reba Littlefield] on Tuckaleechee Pike on October 17, 1924, and the assault of Mrs. James Allison on Lincoln Rd. in Alcoa on March 23, 1923. The Knoxville Journal reported that Sheffey was “disconcerted” when he heard of the additional charges in the courtroom, but that he quickly regained his composure.

Everyone expected to hear new evidence, especially since now the defense team were well informed of what the state had in its arsenal. However, they would be disappointed. So much of what the first trial covered was going to be simply repeated, even read to the jury if the witnesses could not return to attend a second trial. The fact that so much of the first trial would be repeated, added to the approaching Christmas holiday, meant that far fewer people were interested. “Little Interest in Sheffey Trial” was the page two headline in the Maryville Times on December 24, 1925. Where there had been standing room only during the August trial, there were plenty of available seats this time around. The Maryville paper made special note that very few women were in attendance.

It took four days just find enough men to serve on the jury. Over those four days, over 650 men were summoned as veniremen to be screened for jury duty. Judge Blair dismissed quite a few, usually for family illness. Attorneys for the defense and the prosecution dismissed a few on other grounds. Anyone who did not responds to the summons was issued a fine. At one point, it looked like they would have to proceed with only eleven men, most of them farmers: Frank Dunlap; William L. Millsaps; Jesse Lawson, a carpenter; John Hembree; J. A. Thompson, a member of the county court; Roy Boring; John Lequire; C. W. Best; Steve Keeble; Ellis Gibson/Green; and C. B. Osborne, a mechanic; Just before arguments commenced, O. W. Downing took the 12th chair.

Having been through the evidence before seemed to introduce new frustrations for the defense team. When D. W. Poague and Mayford Cusick testified that they had seen the Emery letter and thought the handwriting looked like Sheffey’s, Kramer challenged them because there were discrepancies from their testimony in the first trial. Both witnesses stood by their statements, and the Judge told everyone to move on. This time around, Elizabeth and Martha Reagan said it was not just reflected flashlight illuminating the face of the intruder into their home; this time they said there had also been bright lightening that night. They said they had gotten a very good look at the man’s face. On cross-examination, the Reagans admitted they had originally said they did not get a good look at his face. Kramer further rattled the witnesses when he challenged Mr. Reagan about an encounter with “Daddy Croft”. The state objected and the jury was escorted out of the room. Mr. Reagan admitted that the day after the break-in, Daddy Croft told him his boys had broken into the house as a prank. At the time, he had accepted this and decided not to pursue any charges.

The most exciting thing about the second trial was that Judge Blair decided to allow the jury to hear evidence about the other break-ins and assaults, before and after the attack on the Wells. He said he would let that evidence be heard if it could be tied directly to Sheffey. The defense tried to object to every single witness, but the state was able to make its case. They even introduced the charges against Sheffey for the murder of Dora Davis because she was named in the anonymous letter sent to Sheriff McCampbell. Regardless, the most any of the new witnesses could say was that the intruder they saw, chased, or shot at was the same build as Will Sheffey and not much more.

Ada Wells was put through the same grueling testimony as in the first trial. This time, as before, she did not waver from her identification of Sheffey as the man who attacked her and her husband.

Will Sheffey took the stand in his own defense on December 25, Christmas Day. This time, he opened with a description of his life at the age of 6, when he lost his father. He talked about his education at Carson Newman College and the ten years he spent working at the Aluminum Co. before his arrest. He made a point of saying he never read lascivious books, but only great literature, and did not look at lewd pictures. He repeated his alibi for the attack on the Wells—he had gone to tell his sister that her friend, Reverend Jones, had not been found. She was at church when he went into her house, and he awaited her return. Afterwards, he spent the night.  On the night several homes were broken into, in July 1923, he had taken a room at the Atkin Hotel in Knoxville. He did not have any luggage at that time, but he checked out the next day. His sister corroborated his alibi for the night the Wells were attacked. The Atkin Hotel clerk produced the register with Sheffey’s signature.

An image of the Atkin Hotel at the corner of Gay and Depot St. from Knoxville Lost and Found

Since evidence of the other Night Marauder attacks were now put before the jury, the defense also had to produce as many counterpoints as possible. Most of their new witnesses addressed how many of the victims of home invasion had said they couldn’t even remember if the intruder they encountered was white or black. At least a dozen different people testified that Ada Wells, in particular, said she would not be able to identify her attacker. The defense even produced a few new witnesses who said Ada had said the opposite. Presumably, the confusion surrounding Ada’s state of mind in the days after the attack helped undermine the certainty of her identification.

Closing statements began on December 29 and followed the same script as in the first trial. To the state, Sheffey was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, laying aside his respectable life when the sun went down. To the defense, Sheffey was a long-suffering and hardworking family man.

The second trial of William D. Sheffey on one count of murder and one attempted assault ended in another mistrial. Nine of the jurors voted to convict and three (Boring LeQuire, and Downey) voted to acquit. None would budge in their decision. Judge Blair agreed to set a bail hearing for January 8, 1926 and postpone another trial until the April 1926 session. Sheffey was returned once more to Loudon County jail.

Closing Statements, Part II

After lunch, the trial resumed. General L. D. Smith of Knoxville spoke for the state.  He started by praising the defense team. “No man under our form of government should be deprived of the right to present his side of a lawsuit to a fair and impartial jury.” But he warned them, sympathy for the defendant and the words of his able attorneys should not steer them away from seeking justice. Smith said he had almost declined the opportunity to work with the prosecution in this case. But he realized that a man accused of such heinous crimes had to face justice, or fear would continue to run all their lives.

Smith agreed with the defense that Sheffey had the love of his elderly mother, his siblings, and of his little boy but otherwise he had no friends. Such a fine character should have had friends lining up to plead his cause but the best the defense could conjure up were some co-workers and neighbors, and a man capable of a crime like this one would never reveal his true nature to such people.  “Now, was there any reason why this little widow should pick this defendant as the would-be despoiler of her life, the slayer of her husband? I tell you the attack there made upon this couple just starting out in life was to satisfy the lustful passions of his nature, the refusal of which endangered her own life.” What motive could she have to ruin an innocent man’s life, he asked rhetorically, and what proof is there that the Sheriff had any motive to go after him? Sheffey was on trial because the evidence put him there. Smith finished by reminding the jury that Sheffey was a man who liked going out at night, a man who had guns and a flashlight, and no trustworthy friends.

Moses H. Gamble, portrait on Biographies in Blount County

Judge Moses H. Gamble closed for the defense, delivering what spectators called “one of the greatest addresses he has ever delivered in criminal practices.” Like Kramer, Gamble evoked the only “Superman” to have ever existed, the Lord Jesus, who also had been killed on an unproven suspicion. He expressed dismay that a man could be charged with murder, rape, and robbery and then challenged to prove himself innocent of any crime. That is not what the justice system is based upon, Gamble reminded the audience. He went on to accept the state’s compliments for having put up such a great defense of Sheffey. “Why have we fought,” he asked. “Why, for innocence, for truth not visions, for the life of an innocent man, and we will continue to fight as long as there is an inch of ground to stand on,” he thundered.

Gamble asked where the earliest descriptions of the marauder were—why were they not shared with the jury for comparison to Sheffey? Why was Mrs. Law not called to corroborate her husband’s observations of the Irwin home on Washington Ave? He challenged the state to justify the way in which the suspect was presented to Ada Wells. Why show her a printed photo including Sheffey and lead her to believe her assailant was in it? The cards were stacked against Sheffey from the moment Sheriff McCampbell considered him a suspect. The various law enforcement officers who reported chasing someone who returned fire could offer no better proof than that the man had the same build as Sheffey. Gamble also ridiculed the handwriting expert and finished with criticism of the shameful way in which Sheffey’s past life was trotted out for the audience. He suggested anyone with similar sins be invited to cast the first and second stones.

Thomas N. Brown, a member of the state legislature, got the last word on behalf of the prosecution. He said he often quoted a text when closing a case, but he needed no text in this one. He chose instead to remind the jury of Ada Well’s words—“I’ll die first”—in refusing the indecent demands of the intruder. The other quote he used came from the Emery letter: “Tell the women to scream; I can’t shoot a woman who doesn’t scream.”

Brown reminded everyone that for 60, for 80, for 100 years the people of Blount County could go to sleep at night without a thought about locking their doors.

But in 1919 there came a young man to the county from Sevier, and he did not have such a good reputation. You’ll find at the age of 17 he violated the age of consent and was not prosecuted. He faced a charge of murdering a young woman and was acquitted. After this young man came to this county, a home was entered, then another and for the next two, three, four years, homes were being entered and the community terrorized. That’s what you, the jury, are interested in. Then what happened? A young man was arrested, and there hasn’t been a marauding case since. The ‘know-it-all’, gentlemen, is before you—there he sits, Will Sheffey.

Brown went on to ask how many times Sheffey’s good sister would be prevailed upon to defend her brother. He also explained that there had been nothing unconstitutional about the manner of Sheffey’s identification. Nothing prohibits a victim being delivered to where a suspect will be present.

The jury left to begin their deliberations at 5:30 p.m. at the end of arguments on Friday, August 28.  It had been an intense and dramatic trial. Crowds continued to jam the courtroom, the corridors, and even the sidewalks outside the courthouse. Most were able to hear the explosive statements made by each side, even if they never got to see what was happening. Those lucky enough to get seats in the courtroom had taken to bringing lunches so they would not have to give up their places. The heat was so overwhelming that the jurors were given regular breaks in order to get some fresh air, but the spectators stayed put. After the jurors were escorted out of the room to discuss the case, Judge John Blair congratulated the audience for their patience and order. This was in spite of the fact that they had reacted to every piece of testimony as if they were attending the theater—laughing, crying, and gasping at what they heard.

After fifteen hours of deliberation, the jury returned with seven voting for acquittal and five for conviction. Those voting to acquit were Sam Hatcher, J. S. Helton, Richard Hatcher, Charles Kidd, W. C. Kirkland,, A. F. Tindle and W. H. Willocks. Those for conviction were Carl McTeer, R. H. Rules, G. W. Tullochs, G. W. Spradlin, and A. P. Roberts. Twice, the judge sent them to reconsider and twice they returned with no decision. By 9:35 a.m. on August 29, the jury was dismissed, and mistrial was declared. Sheffey was observed to take the news with “stoical calm.”

The judge decided against allowing Sheffey to remain in the Blount County jail. For his own safety, he stated, the suspect would return to Loudon County. This declaration caused quite a stir among the parties, however. The defense team first pressed for release on bail, which the judge refused outright. Then they asked for Sheffey to remain in Blount County for his comfort and the ease of visitation by friends and family. A.G. Peace urged against this, as the constant stream of visitors would stress the resources of Sheriff Pate and perhaps open up opportunities for the defendant to slip away. The defense team offered to let Pate decide and he wisely demurred, saying he’d abide by whatever the judge decided. By 4:30 p.m. on the day the trial ended, Pate and a deputy delivered Sheffey to Sheriff Miller in Loudon County and returned home.

Closing Statements

Typically, the closing statement is a lawyer’s moment to shine. Though they must stick to how the evidence supports their side in the case, they have a lot of room to shape the narrative. The closing is the last thing the jury will hear before they leave to deliberate. A powerful story will make an impact on any juror who has not yet already made up their minds. During the closing, no one may interrupt or object. Typically, in a criminal trial, the state makes the first closing statement, followed by the defense attorney, and in some cases today the state is permitted to make a rebuttal to the statement of the defense.  Much modern legal advice, however, suggests that a brief and clear closing has more impact than hours of speech-making. Unfortunately for jurors in the 1920s, it was common to allow each member of both legal teams to make a statement. Closing statements in TN v. Will D. Sheffey took the entire day on Friday, August 28, 1925. Recorded weather puts the temperature at a record high of 100° F that day.

Clipart from creazilla.com

Attorney General Peace was the first to make remarks to the jury.

“Men of the jury, there is in the confines of this town a beast, a fiend in human form, who answers that description, who in the small hours of the night has gone from home to home shooting men and women—nobody could find him, he was too smart for them; they watched for him night after night, and their reward was a call to ‘come,’ a home has been invaded, a husband shot or a woman ravished.”

Peace stressed the importance of the Emery letter and insisted it had been convincingly identified as having been written by Sheffey’s hand. He called out Sheffey’s “solitary habits” as being those that characterized someone who might be guilty of criminal acts. A killer does not want companions to inhibit his behavior. Peace challenged the alibi for the night of the attack on the Wells. With two women ready to declare Sheffey was the man who entered their homes, all we have against that is the word of the man’s own sister and her husband. “Why shouldn’t she swear that? She’s trying to save her brother.”

Peace simply ridiculed the testimony of Professor Barnes. He went so far as to say, “he would rather his children would be taught this new-fangled evolution stuff than such a contemptable theory of psychology as offered by Professor Barnes.” Peace stated he did not doubt for one moment that Mrs. Wells was able to recall the attacker’s appearance after she had recovered from her shock. He pointed out all the law enforcement officers and community members who saw, chased, even shot at the marauder agreed that Sheffey fit the description of the person they had encountered.  He urged the jury to find Sheffey guilty and not to let qualms about the death penalty prevent them from achieving justice.

T. C. Drinnen opened remarks for the defense. His aim was first to undermine former Sheriff John McCampbell’s testimony about Sheffey’s alleged hostile behavior towards him. Drinnen also criticized what he saw as shady decisions McCampbell had made. Why did the out-of-town investigator, “Ed Jones” work exclusively with the former Sheriff and not the present officer, Sheriff Pate? They had not even informed Pate they were working on the case. Why else but so that the investigator could pin it all on Sheffey and make a name for himself in the business?

Drinnen really tore into Mrs. Wells’ identification of Sheffey. She thought she saw Sheffey. “But she was dreaming. Are we going back to such things as witchcraft? Are we going to rely on such things as mere dreams to convict a man?” He said he did not doubt her honesty, but she had framed her identification while recovering from trauma, surgery, and anesthesia. Drinnen urged the jurors to think of Sheffey’s pain as a father, his elderly mother, and the family’s fine reputation.

Judge Sam Johnson replied to Drinnen for the state. He challenged the jury to recognize that Drinnen was asking them all to free a man because of his family’s reputation and the threat to society if we begin to accept evidence such as Mrs. Wells’ identification. Johnson reminded the jury they are not to think of all society in the future, but to decide the fate of one man accused of a crime based on evidence given by the state. He distinguished between a man’s reputation and a man’s character—Sheffey may have come from a fine family but his unscrupulous behavior with women was proof enough of his character. “He is a man of one type by day and of another by night.”

Johnson scoffed at Professor Barnes’ statement that there was no such thing as the subconscious. Johnson slowly and dramatically read Webster’s definition of the term from the dictionary. He reminded the jury that “the soul of Luther Wells cried out for justice under the trees of Magnolia cemetery.”

Russell R. Kramer replied for the defense, immediately making reference to the fact that only one of the twelve apostles failed Jesus Christ. “Jesus was the only perfect man of all times,” Kramer said, “sent to die for flimsy, unfounded circumstances. Much like this trial, in which the state wants to send a man to the electric chair for flimsy, unfounded circumstances.” Kramer utterly dismissed the Emery letter as a joke and the testimony of George Clark, the handwriting expert. The man was a paid witness, and a poor witness at that. Kramer then went on to call D. W. Poague as “the one disciple who forsook Christ.” Sheffey’s former friend had become a stooge of Sheriff McCampbell.

Kramer took a moment’s pause to then talk about the pity he feels for the widow Wells. He believed her to be an honest woman who had suffered terribly and then was swayed in her vulnerable state “by stronger minds.” Kramer challenged the method by which “Ed Jones” gave Mrs. Wells the photos of Sheffey and the sloppy manner in which he had Sheffey and other prisoners paraded before her in the Loudon hospital. Sheffey’s name, place of residence, and occupation were all in the paper before Mrs. Wells was taken to Loudon to finalize the identification. That same, week-old paper, featuring a photo of Will Sheffey, sat openly on the desk in the room where Mrs. Wells waited to see the suspects. “Why didn’t you play fair at the Loudon hospital?” Kramer asked the state.

Kramer then asked the jury for some sympathy for Sheffey. The man had bared his whole life before them, even though the law did not require him to. Kramer chided the state for bringing up some of the most painful and emotional moments of Sheffey’s life. He asked the how they would feel to have their grief thrown in their faces, for a young husband to be summoned from work to meet his baby son and say goodbye to his wife all in the same moment. Kramer said it was Divine Providence that Sheffey went to his sister’s home that night to talk about the missing Reverend Jones—“just one instance of God’s plan to take care of us”, allowing the family to recall with certainty where they were on that terrible day. Reporters described Kramer as having become a bit overcome with emotion at this moment, moving many spectators to tear up a little themselves. He reminded them that there was a little, motherless boy, counting on them to send his daddy home.

He finished with a quick reference to the case of Maurice Mays. Kramer said that he, himself, had often said that Mays was probably innocent. He imagined the state prosecutor had done the same, as many in the legal profession felt that way. And yet, having expressed that sentiment was now somehow evidence of Sheffey’s own guilt.

Once Kramer concluded his statement, the judge ordered the trial to recess for lunch.

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 [https://digital.lib.utk.edu/collections/]

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.

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.

The Mysterious Dr. Cusick and a Confused Mrs. Reagan

In a rare victory for Sheffey’s defense team, Judge John J. Blair agreed that the jury should not hear the testimony of Dr. Chad Cusick. With the jury out of the room, the state asked Dr. Cusick to describe his encounter with a strange man on horseback many years earlier. Readers may recall the Cusick had testified in the case against Sheffey for the murder of Dora Davis in Sevier County in 1915. However, by 1925, Cusick’s story had taken a dramatic turn.

Newspaper accounts, naturally, did not always agree in terms of detailed accounts. For that reason, we have attempted to corroborate accounts as much as possible by comparing newspaper reports for each trial. Most of the regional newspapers reported the same basic facts from Dr. Cusick’s testimony in 1915: having been summoned to attend to Dora after she was shot, Dr. Cusick encountered a man on horseback, coming towards him in the darkness. The doctor called out to the man, asking him who he was. “Joe Emery” was the reply, and then the man rode past him, heading in the direction of Sheffey’s house. Then, according to all accounts, Dr. Cusick testified that he’d heard the stranger talking to someone down the road and came to the conclusion that “Joe Emery” was talking to Will Sheffey. Later in that trial, Sheffey and his mother confirmed that Will stood outside their house for a few minutes and spoke with the stranger on the horse. For some reason, the Sevierville newspapers did not include Cusick’s testimony in their report on the trial.

Image from HorseRookie.com

By 1923, Dr. Cusick and his family had moved to Maryville, just as the Sheffeys had done. By some chance, Sheriff McCampbell encountered Dr. Cusick on Main St. in Maryville (now Broadway) and showed him the J. J. Emery letter. To the Sheriff’s astonishment, Cusick read the letter, saw the names “J. J. Emery” and Dora Davis, and revealed his own involvement in Will Sheffey’s earlier trial.  To the Sheriff, this was simply more confirmation that Sheffey had to be connected to the murders.

In the 1925 trial for the murder of Luther Wells and the shooting of Ada Wells, the prosecution wanted Cusick to testify “for identification purposes only.”  The defense objected and the judge ordered the jury out of the room.  As the Knoxville Journal reported on August 22, 1925, Dr. Cusick took the stand and explained that he had known Will Sheffey for many years, even before the trial in 1915, and he was familiar with Sheffey’s voice and manner. Their families lived within a mile on the same road in Seymour, outside of Sevierville. Dr. Cusick described the night Dora was shot and how he was responding to her family’s call when he encountered the rider in the dark. “Who’s there?” he said he called out and got the reply “Joe.” “Joe who?” he pressed and that’s when he got the full name “Joe Emery.” He was perplexed at the time, he said, because he was sure he recognized the voice but had never met anyone with that name. He hurried on to the Davis home and didn’t give the stranger any more thought until Dora’s father said, “It wasn’t robbers, it was Will Sheffey.” At that moment, Dr. Cusick said, he realized it was Will Sheffey’s voice he heard in the darkness. He went on the say he had “always known” it was Sheffey he spoke to on the road.

It is not at all clear why Cusick changed his story. It is also not clear why the difference between his accounts never came up. After Judge Blair had heard Cusick’s testimony, he agreed with the defense that the identification “had been formed through improper channels” and that it would be struck from the record.

Dr. Cusick’s son, V. Mayford Cusick, had been one of Will Sheffey’s closest friends growing up.  They had gone to high school and Carson-Newman together, until Sheffey’s dismissal. After the war, when the Cusick’s moved to Blount County, Will helped Mayford get a job at the Aluminum Company in Alcoa. Mayford was among those who identified Sheffey’s handwriting with the Emery letter. But, at some point he and Sheffey had a falling out and that seemed to taint his reliability as a witness.

The state called witnesses Martha and Elizabeth Reagan, the sisters-in-law who had identified Sheffey as the man who had entered their home in July 1923. There’s was an unusual caser because Lizzie got an unexpectedly good look at the intruder as he stood at the foot of the bed Martha shared with her husband, Allen.  Lizzie was in the next room, lying awake in the darkness, when she saw a man with a flashlight and a pistol walk towards the bed in the next room. She was afraid it was Allen who was threatening Martha, so she stayed quiet as she leaned forward. That’s when she saw the couple together, petrified, as the stranger pointed the flashlight in their eyes. From her perch to the side, Lizzie saw the light reflected from the polished headboard illuminate the face of the man with the gun. When the man saw that she was looking at him, he turned and ran out. Later, when the private investigator showed her a photo of a group of men, she picked Sheffey out and said he was the man who had pointed a gun at her brother and sister-in-law.

When she took the stand on August 25 1925, to testify, Lizzie described how she had been able to see the intruder. The defense objected that Elizabeth could not have had a clear look at the man who stood at the end of the other couple’s bed. At this, Mrs. Reagan was very confused and said the counsel for the defense, Mr. Kramer, had come to her house to look at the layout and admitted to her that it seemed plausible that she got a look at the man. When, on cross-examination, Kramer asked her again if it was not an impossibility for her to have seen out the door of her room. Loudly, she replied, “You know it’s not. You were there and you said it was possible.” The Knoxville Journal reported that Kramer retreated in a stunned silence.

There was some back-and-forth between the state and the defense over Reagan’s testimony, even as Martha, Allen, and Lizzie’s husband, Sam, corroborated it. However, only Elizabeth had gotten a clear look at the man’s face. The others could only swear to recognizing the stranger’s height and build.  So, Elizabeth spent the longest time on the stand, and the state walked her through photographs of the interior of her home so she could demonstrate the line of sight she’d had on that night.

The state tried to introduce photos of the house’s exterior when Gamble objected that those had not been entered into evidence and the defense had not even seen them yet. Attorney General Peace abruptly said, “You’ll see them,” and then turned away. Gamble addressed the judge to demand he be treated with respect, at which point the Attorney General bowed low in an exaggerated manner towards Gamble. Angrily, Gamble tried to chastise Peace, who told him to sit down. “I will not!,” retorted Gamble. “Then stand up,” said Peace. Gamble said that he would not take orders from Peace, who turned to the Judge and said he didn’t know what to do if Gamble didn’t like his options. The judge ordered them to move on.

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.

Sensational News!

This post was written by Myndalynn Word (MC ’21) and was edited by N. Locklin.

In the 1920s, journalism was changing. This was due to the changes in technology and emerging trends in radio. With all new technologies, previously popular modes of entertainment risked being old fashioned. Newspapers had to become more entertaining in the 1920s, “Jazz journalism brought with it sensational stories printed in a popular tabloid format. Modern media’s obsession with sex and crime has nothing on the era’s scandalous content,” says Rick Musser in his History of American Journalism. In the 1920s, people began to see a shift, where stories that evoked sensation were being published in order to keep newspapers relevant.

In the 1920s, the perfect storm for a chance to provide some sensationalism was a murder in town, especially a small town. While these murders were truly happening, sometimes the headlines were made more exciting in order to get people to read them. Murder in East Tennessee is something that people were not expecting. Personally, I do not see the reason to hype these stories up even more. Murder is crazy enough to hear about; why feel the need to make false claims? To closely examine sensationalism in the 1920s, let us consider three different news articles reporting on the Night Marauder case in Maryville. In looking at these three articles, it is important to make sure they are each from a different town: Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. That way, readers can see the pattern between these, and it will not just be by chance that it happened in one.

On August 22, 1925, a newspaper in Nashville, TN included information on the Emery Letter, an anonymous letter sent to the Blount County Sheriff, boasting of the crimes. At the top of the news column was the headline: SCRIPT ON NOTE SHEFFEY’S, SAYS WRITING EXPERT. Followed by “Shooting Women is Fun, Marauder’s Letters Avers.” Then below that, “Employer Identifies Hand: Victims are Listed.” These are all a part of the headline and byline. There are a few reasons why sensationalism is present here. First, the whole article does not concern the writing expert who testified. That expert appears in the last paragraph and is barely mentioned. It for sure was a tactic to get readers to stick around for the whole article. However, it seems unfair to make a claim about what the article is going to be about, all in bold, capital letters, when that is not even the main point of the article. There is sensationalism present here because readers expect that this means Sheffey is guilty.

The next aspect of this headline that is important to look at is: “‘Shooting Women is Fun’, Marauder’s Letters Avers.” The headline is claiming that the Marauder’s letter states, “Shooting women is fun” and actually has it in quotes. However, when looking at the actual document of the Emery Letter, it does not say this. It especially does not say this word for word. From a journalistic perspective, it may be a lot more interesting to people to see ‘shooting women is fun’ instead of what was written, “I wish you would tell some of those girls to holler so I can have the fun shooting them.” He is really saying that he only has fun shooting a woman if she will scream for him. Some may say that this is similar enough to not be sensationalism. I disagree. Either way, it is horrible. This could make women more scared, causing more pain than good.

Finally, at the very beginning of the paper, the article claims that the employer testified it was Sheffey’s hand who had written the Emery letter. However, when you get into the article, one finds out that there was not enough evidence to even make that claim. One person said that it was absolutely Sheffey’s, while another said they could not be sure. The article made it sound like there was more evidence against Sheffey when there was not. It is frustrating to see these types of headlines because it is very misleading for worried people in the community.

The next news piece comes from the Chattanooga Daily Times and was published on August 21, 1925. Unlike the previous source, this one actually has some good information, with reliable headlines. Such as: STATE SOUNDS OLD CASE ECHO AT MARYVILLE. Followed by, “Sister of Dora Davis Witness Against Sheffey.” Both of these headlines are not examples of sensationalism; they are both true statements that are not trying to mislead readers. The only area that may be a little misleading is the headline: LETTERS USED TO PROVE SHEFFEY’S HANDWRITING. There was a likeness, but it was never proven. Either way, this article seems to be fair and not mislead the people reading it.

The final primary source is taken from The Knoxville News from August 21, 1925. Across the very top of the newspaper, it reads: SAYS FIEND LETTER IS BY SHEFFEY. Immediately, this screams sensationalism. Using the word ‘fiend’ evokes a certain emotion. Also, as previously mentioned, it is not completely proven that the letter is by Sheffey. This exhibits sensationalism because it makes it seem like something is true when it actually is not and also uses flashy language that evokes the emotion of fear.

Knoxville News headline

Underneath the huge headline, there is a smaller article titled: EXPERT CITES LIKENESSES OF WORDS WITH HIS. Here, in much smaller writing, they are explaining that it is just a likeness. With the headline, they are provoking sensationalism, but the actual article title explains what is really going on. The expert says that they are similar, but there is not enough evidence to actually convict Sheffey.

It is always important to read these articles fully and carefully. Just because the headline says something, it may not be true. Unfortunately, sensationalism is not something that has disappeared. Regardless of what someone is researching, they should be very careful when looking at newspaper headlines.

What is in common with all three of these articles? Sheffey. In every single headline, he is mentioned. The even bigger question is…why? The media seems to glorify mass murderers when they should really be focusing on the victims and their families. One possible way to stop the glorification of murderers is to report on events and victims but avoid all mention of suspects until after their trials are over. This will keep the focus on those who suffered and the people who loved them rather than the violent criminals. Newspapers should not be naming the people responsible because it only gives them more reason to seek this negative attention.

Another way newspapers can stop glorifying the murderer is by stopping sensationalism. With the emergence of jazz journalism in the 1920s, different companies were trying to make the best stories. Unfortunately, this led to a lot of false headlines to get people to read through the story. A perfect example of this is when the Nashville newspaper literally made up a quote that was supposedly taken from the Emery Letter. In the end, the headlines should be about the women he murdered. There was literally a list of victims in the Emery Letter, yet everyone is still focusing on the suspect. Does it really help the victims’ families when they see all this news coverage about Sheffey, but their family members are still gone?

The Writing on the Wall

The prosecution in the case against Will Sheffey sought to introduce evidence on the Night Marauder attacks that had taken place in Knox and Blount counties. The defense, naturally, were determined to keep such testimony out of the trial. Attorney General Peace argued that he felt the other cases would support the investigation into the attack on the Wells home. The investigator hired by Hultquist to help build the case had prepared the state by citing People v Molineaux (168- NY 264):

Upon the trial of the defendant for the commission of a crime, proof of a commission of another crime is generally not admissible, but there are exceptions to the rule wherein such evidence may be given and are as follows: (1) motive, (2) intent, (3) the absence of mistake or accident, (4) a common scheme or plan embracing the commission of two or more crimes so related to each other that proof of one tends to establish the other, (5) the identity of the person accused with the commission of the crime on trial.

Descriptions of earlier attacks that were nearly identical to the attack on the Wells home would show that there was a pattern. Judge Blair listened to both sides and asked for a day to consider the issue.

Ultimately, the evidence of previous attacks was introduced in a roundabout way. The state introduced the fact that Sheffey had once stood trial for the murder of Dora Davis. They did this under the guise of collecting multiple samples of Sheffey’s handwriting. Ersie Davis took the stand to describe a letter Sheffey had written to her father in January 1915, six months before Dora was killed. Ersie said she no longer had that specific letter, but she still possessed several short notes from Sheffey and felt sure she could recognize his writing. Miss Davis was followed on the stand by Judge Ambrose M. Payne of Sevierville who had served as a counsellor in the Davis trial in 1915. He also recalled a letter written by the defendant to Mr. Davis, and judge stated that Sheffey had at that time claimed authorship. All of this was laying the groundwork with which to compare known samples of Sheffey’s writing with the “Emery letter” that had been sent to McCampbell when he was Sheriff. As the witnesses calmly referred to the murder trial that had taken place a decade earlier, Judge Blair entertained the defense teams persistent objections and overruled every one of them.

During the Friday session of court, on August 21, 1925, the state successfully had the Emery letter entered into evidence and called upon a handwriting expert to compare Sheffey’s writing samples to the anonymous letter sent to former Sheriff John McCampbell.  In seeking to enter the letter as evidence, Peace insisted that the letter represented a threat to women throughout the county.  “J. J. Emery” said he wanted women to “holler” so he could have the fun of shooting them. Mrs. Wells screamed and was shot. There was a direct connection.

The defense bitterly opposed including the letter at all. They cited precedents in which it was ruled inappropriate to compare a known writing, such as a letter signed and recognized by Sheffey, with a “questioned writing” such as an anonymous letter taunting law enforcement. They insisted that the letter was written before the attack on the Wells’ home, so it was irrelevant. They pointed out that it did not constitute confession of the crime for which Sheffey was being tried. Furthermore, they said that even if it could be proven that he wrote it that it would mean nothing because of how vague it was. The jury was excluded during these debates, but in the end Judge Blair decided the letter could be read to the jury with clear instructions.

Kramer persisted in his objection to allowing the jury to see the entirety of the letter. He maintained that it could not be a “threat” since it came four months before the attack on the Wells and did not mention the Wells. He, with the support of Gamble, asked if the court intended to reopen all of the Knoxville cases as well based upon this letter. “No,” Peace replied. The intent was simply to explore the Maryville and Alcoa cases for the purpose of revealing the identity of the local marauder. Gamble asked if the defense might be given more time to prepare to handle the letter as relevant, and the judge denied him more time. Gamble then insisted that the letter had to be rejected as it wasn’t a threat or a confession in the case at hand. The Judge merely repeated that the jury would receive instruction before hearing or seeing the letter.

When McCampbell was on the stand, he described his term as Sheriff, his acquaintance with Sheffey, and the delivery of the Emery letter. He described the letter as having been written in pencil and mailed from Knoxville to his P. O. box.  He was then asked if he had shown the letter to anyone and, in spite of the objections of the defense, he admitted he had shown it to D. W. Poague and to Judge Gamble.  This caused quite a stir, but Gamble clarified that he had not been attached to the case in any way when he saw the letter. Attorney General Peace commented that he had asked the question simply to reveal that the defense team clearly knew all about the letter and its contents when they had tried to stop its inclusion in court. Kramer asked that the question and answer about Gamble having seen the letter be stricken from the record, and it was.

George M. Clarke, handwriting expert from Chattanooga, took the stand in the afternoon. He was certified as an expert in the courts of Tennessee and Georgia and in Federal courts. Kramer objected to the use of handwriting expertise in court, citing Franklin v. Franklin and Powers v. McKenzie, the first two cases to set rules for handwritten evidence in Tennessee. The judge entered an exception but ordered the witness to continue. Clarke testified on his comparison of the Emery letter with samples from Sheffey’s workplace, samples from the Davis family, and a letter from Sheffey to his wife.  He outlined his methods, which included photographing and enlarging certain characteristics of each sample for clear comparison of shapes and patterns. Later objections would be made that the jurors were almost all illiterate farmers, but even the untrained eye can see the resemblance between a set of shapes. Clarke then declared that all of the samples had been written by the same person. He also opined that the “questioned letter”, the Emery letter, showed signs of the writer using unnatural movements to try and disguise his natural handwriting.

From Getty images

The defense requested an early recess to examine the letter and Clarke’s photographs.  When the session resumed on the next day, Gamble immediately went on the offensive, asking Clarke how much he would be paid for his testimony. The state objected and the court supported the objection, but the witness was content to answer. He would get $150 for his expert opinion, plus travel expenses and a per diem if his stay went beyond one day. After that, the session became a kind of writing lesson, with Smith for the prosecution and Gamble for the defense highlighting different aspects of certain letters on a blackboard for the jury. Apparently, this went on for hours and filled the entire day’s hearing. The judge closed the day by reminding the attorneys that he had a judicial deadline and he needed them to pick up the pace.