Psychology Experts Face Off

This post was written by Autumn Carroll (MC ’22) and edited by N. Locklin.

By now, we have seen that the grounds on which Ada Wells made her identification were a bit shaky. She was unable to make an immediate identification of Will Sheffey as the attacker, only being able to following a hallucination that took the form of Sheffey at the end of her bed, and the “line up” and photos she was given to identify him were not well developed, to say the least. However, her story and identification never faltered, so there was still reason for her statement to be trusted. Experts were called in from both sides to try to shape the jury’s trust of Ada’s identification.

On August 20th, the prosecution opened up the day with the introduction of medical experts. Dr. R. E. Lee Smith took the stand following Dr. G. D. Lequire, who spoke of Luther Wells’ injuries and death, and Dr. J. Walter McMahon, who tended to Ada and was present when she said that she had seen her attacker. Introducing Dr. Smith as an expert was a new tactic that surprised everyone. By the time of the trial, Dr. Smith had served as superintendent of Eastern State Hospital for eight years. Smith attended UT Medical School after receiving his undergraduate degree at Burritt College. He had taken one psychology course during his time in higher education, but he continued the study of psychology as it pertained to his patients. He was a member of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association, but he was not a part of the American Psychological Association. His testimony described how the brain functioned, particularly the way impressions were received and retained. Smith explained how it was possible for one to retain an impression in the subconscious mind and later develop it. According to Smith, it is possible that mental stress would cause an impression to be held in the subconscious mind for a longer stint of time before developing. In Ada’s case, her fear and other situational stress could have caused her to not be able to identify her attacker initially, but later reflection would cause the memory to be touched by consciousness, resulting in recollection. He further explained this process by touching on the typical occurrence of struggling to recall someone’s name but suddenly remember it after turning your attention to something else. When Attorney General Peace asked Smith to announce everything he knew about the self-conscious, he added that individuals have five senses, and it is the stimulus from one of these senses that pierces the mind of the ‘conscious’ and moves to the subconscious where it is reverted back as perception, then conception, and, lastly, memory. To give a better visual of this process, he presented a chart. The introduction of this chart received objections from Gamble, but Judge Blair overruled it. This chart shown the brain divided into three divisions: Intellection, Emotion, and Volition.

Dr. Smith’s explanation of the self-conscious, particularly the part about there being three divisions of the brain, is what we can now label as the triune brain theory. It was given the name in 1960 by neuroscientist Paul MacLean, but the explanation is centuries old, dating all the way back to Plato. The triune brain theory separates the brain into three hierarchical regions that formed through evolution. The idea is that there are three brains within one mind: the Reptilian Brain, Mammalian Brain, and Homo Sapiens Brain. The Reptilian Brain, which would be located in the basal ganglia, would have come first, and it is in charge of our fight-or-flight survival response and other primal activities. This would be the Volition part of Smith’s explanation. Next, there is the Mammalian Brain, located within the limbic system, which is in charge of our somatosensory and emotional experiences. This would be the Emotion division of Smith’s explanation. Finally, the Homo Sapien Brain, located in the neo (frontal) cortex, is responsible for intellectual and executive functioning, verbal language, conscious thought, and self-awareness. It is the Intellection division of the brain. This theory is mostly considered to be myth as of today. This theory tells us that there is a strict hierarchy in the brain and that brain regions are working separately when engaged in different mental activities, which we now recognize as being untrue. Modern brain imaging causes rejection of this idea because we have a visual of the various brain regions that are active during primal, emotional, and rational experiences. The brain is a solid unit that works together in our everyday tasks and experiences, thus showing us that there is not a strict hierarchy within the brain.

Source: Your Own Best Friend

The defense team attempted damage control by questioning Smith’s expertise in the realm of psychology of the subconscious. His credentials were questioned, and he was even asked a psychology question that was pulled out of a contemporary textbook on psychology. The state objected this, and the judge made note that the line of questioning was irrelevant. Smith was then excused as a witness. The defense got their time to bring in an expert on August 25th. Kramer and Gamble of the defense took advantage of their ties to Maryville College to call on Dr. J. C. Barnes who was dean of the college, a recognized psychologist, and a professor of psychology.

Dr. J. C. Barnes had a degree from Marietta College and a PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Chicago, which was second to Harvard and Cornell in prestige for a psychology degree at the time. His doctoral supervisor there was James Rowland Angell, who was one of the key founders of functionalism. Before becoming a professor and dean at Maryville College, he had teaching positions at the University of Ohio and the University of Tennessee. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, for which he was President of in 1916, and the American Psychological Association. At Maryville College, he taught several psychology courses, including the following: Elementary Psychology, Child Psychology, Advanced Educational Psychology, Experimental Psychology, Measure of Intelligence, Applied Psychology, and Advanced Psychology.

Dr. J. C. Barnes was the last one called to the stand, being brought up in an attempt to discredit Dr. Smith’s testimony which said that Ada Wells could have recovered her memory of the attacker after initially saying she could not identify him. When asked if it was possible for someone to suffer a trauma, originally be unable to recall details of it, but later recall them, Barnes confidently replied, “Absolutely impossible.” He further elaborated by saying that there was no way that someone could get an impression unless consciously doing so, dismissing the idea of the subconscious mind. In Ada’s case, Barnes said that if she had gotten a clear look at the intruder, then she would have been able to recall him immediately. He was questioned on how Ada picked out Sheffey in a group photo and when he stood before her, in which he responded, “… if the mind is full of a thing there comes an illusion of what one desires.” Furthermore, Barnes stated that there was no way for the mind to take in impression, have it be clouded by fear, and later recall the memory when the fear is gone.

The state brought in an expert that laid out a claim that was completely countered by the defense’s expert. It was up to the jury to decide who they believed more.

The State of TN vs. William D. Sheffey, opening day

As the August 1925, session of the Circuit Court in Blount County, TN, approached, the town was abuzz. The earliest reports were that the Sheffey defense team was hard put to get the state to reveal their evidence prior to its presentation at trial. There was no preliminary hearing. By August 11, it had been announced that the charge of the murder of Luther Wells would be the first tested in open court. It is not clear why the prosecution chose to open with the Wells case when most had speculated that the case against Sheffey was stronger in the Poe case. During the investigation, Lora Poe was prepared to describe the assault she had survived, and it is possible the state hoped to spare her that in open court. However, her baby, Clyde Pe Jr., had died of rickets and colitis just a month after Sheffey’s arrest. In spite of public efforts to raise money for the Poes, Lora must have struggled to make ends meet after Clyde died and their child suffered from malnutrition as a result. The death certificate for the poor child notes “dietary idiosyncrasies.” After tragedy upon tragedy, Lora might not have been up to the challenge of a drawn-out trial. Whatever the reason, the state pursued the Wells case first. Four of the five charges against Sheffey were capital offenses and the plan was to try each separately.

Maryville, TN, circa 1920 photographed from Maryville College hill. Photo on display at Blount County History Museum. The courthouse was built in 1908

The Knoxville Journal on the morning of August 18 lost no time in stirring up passions. Their coverage of the trial’s opening referred foremost to the expected testimony of the youthful Ada Wells.

Her story of that epochal, blood-soaked night when tragedy stalked through the humble little home which she shared with her husband and its fatal termination for him, will be told to a jury in the Blount County criminal court engaged in the trial of William D. Sheffey, accused and indicted for the murder of Wells. And it is upon that which Ada Wells will swear, in the presence of her God, the outcome of the notable criminal proceeding rests.

The paper went on to describe Sheffey as “clean-shaven, well-dressed, and educated for the business of life.” They also noted he seemed “cooly calculating” and “one of the keenest of minds.”

The courtroom was jammed to capacity. Seating an impartial jury had been difficult because of the deep divisions in town, but eventually both sides were content with the jurors. Russell R. Kramer headed up Sheffey’s defense team. Kramer’s opening gambit was to challenge the order of the charges, claiming the Poe case was the most critical and should have been tried first. Judge Blair stood firm and said they had already adapted the docket and had mutually agreed to hear the Wells case first.

The first witnesses were Dr. McMahon, who had tended the Wells the night they were attacked, and J. O. Law, who was a neighbor of Sheffey’s sister, Josephine Irwin. Sheffey’s alibi for the night in question was that he was staying at his sister’s house. Mr. Law testified that he saw Sheffey’s care back out of the driveway at about 11 p.m. on the night in question. He was up with a sick child and saw the reflection of the headlights on the wall of the room he was in. On cross-examination, Kramer was able to get Law to admit that it could have been someone else driving by.

Ada Wells was called to the stand as the third witness, but she was the one everyone had come to hear. The crowd surged to see her approach the stand. Widowed at just twenty years old and described as a “slight figure”, she made her way forward and spoke as clearly as she could. It was the biggest court day in the history of the County up to that time, and the corridors of the courthouse and the streets of the city were filled with people who had not been able to gain admittance into the trial.

As the state’s attorney asked her to spell out everything she could remember about the night of the attack, she mentioned a detail that Lora Poe had also described: the intruder carried his pistol and flashlight with his hands somewhat crossed, so that the flashlight both blinded her and illuminated the gun. The attacker would have had to switch his hands at some point since his signature move was running one hand up the leg of the sleeping woman. It was only after she had awoken her husband beside her that the flashlight was brought forth.

She stated that when the intruder told Luther to step aside so he could go to his wife, Luther refused. She also said that she told the intruder clearly that she would rather die than let him harm her. Luther stood firm, refusing to give way to their attacker. That is when the Marauder said to Luther, “I’m going to shoot you anyhow, just for the look in your eye.” At that point, the man shot Luther in the head. In telling this part of the incident, Ada broke into soft sobs for just a moment and then collected herself. She went on to relate how she had screamed and been shot, then followed the intruder to the front porch as he ran away.

The attorney general asked if she would be able to identify her attacker and she said she could. Kramer objected immediately. The defense team would need to brutally dismantle this woman’s confident identification and their best strategy would be to prevent the jury from hearing an “incompetent identification.” Kramer asked that the jury be removed while they cross-examined the witness and the judge complied. Without the jury present, the attorney asked Ada to identify her attacker. She looked directly at Will Sheffey in the courtroom and said, “That’s the man. He did it.” The Knoxville paper reported that Sheffey’s only reaction was to wipe his brow, but the courtroom was sweltering and “jammed to suffocation,” with people straining to hear every word. Upon her statement, the audience seemed to relax and settle in for the spectacle.

The defense team asked to be allowed to cross-examine Mrs. Wells without the jury present and this motion was declined. However, Kramer and Gamble were permitted to outline the reasons for their objection. They began with the manner in which she had first “seen” the man: hours after saying she could not describe the attacker, she dreamed or hallucinated a man at the foot of her hospital bed. After that hallucination, the investigator offered Mrs. Wells a few photos of groups of men. Will Sheffey was in all of the photos and she picked him out after several minutes of staring at them. And finally, without the suspect’s knowledge, the witness was secretly allowed to listen to a medical vocal examination from outside the room. The defense team argued that the irregularities in this “line up” should undermine the witnesses identification of the accused. Attorney General Peace assured the judge that due proof would be presented in support of the identification.

The jury reentered the courtroom and were allowed to hear Ada Wells identify Sheffey and explain how she had come to be sure it was him, with the defense team objecting at every possible moment. Judge Blair explained that he was confident that the testimony as presented was competent and that the defense would get their chance to challenge it in due time.

Much of the case would depend on how much the jury was willing to trust Ada’s identification of Sheffey. Once she had made the claim in court, she would never waver from it. The state would bring in an expert to explain how memory could be blurred immediately after a trauma but came back later. The defense would call on an expert witness to claim the opposite. The testimony of both experts reflected the state of the field of psychology in 1925 and will be the topic of the next post.

Pre-trial Debates

In the weeks leading up to Sheffey’s trial, factions developed in the community. Newspapers presented wildly different characterizations of the suspect, depending on who their sources and audience were. The Maryville papers tried to maintain a neutral stance because the community was so divided. Out-of-town papers seemed to run with whatever headline would be most eye-catching. The Evening Journal of Wilmington, DE, screamed “Suspect Man of 32 Crimes in Six Years!” The Indiana Gazette of Indiana, PA, exclaimed “Race Riot Case to Be Reopened” in reference to the fact that the anonymous author of the Emery letter claimed responsibility for the murder of Bertie Lindsey. Papers in distant cities focused on the sheer volume of attacks Sheffey might have committed.

The Chattanooga News highlighted some of the strange behavior ascribed to Sheffey by coworkers and neighbors. He was sometimes extremely withdrawn and at other times manically friendly. He often left late at night and returned in the wee hours of the morning with no explanation. And he was said to be wild about firearms. Most everyone in East Tennessee, especially in the 1920s, owned at least one gun. Sheffey was known to keep at least three handy—a revolver in his bedroom, another near the front door, and one “near his place of work.” He also owned an automatic .38 caliber Remington seven-shot magazine. A few days before his arrest, he was seen driving around Maryville with a high-powered rifle and got out on Main Street (now Broadway) to load it. He also kept “an exceedingly effective” flashlight in his car.

There were rumors in early April that the investigators had gathered a lot of evidence against Sheffey and were preparing to arrest him. One night before Sheffey’s arrest, there was an incident at ex-Sheriff John McCampbell’s home. McCampbell’s family remembers several threats, all allegedly from Sheffey, throughout this time period. During the incident in question, someone shone a flashlight into a window in the former Sheriff’s home, attracting interest, so someone in the house carefully approached the window and peered out. Someone was out there, lurking in the shadows, perhaps hoping to lure McCampbell out of the house. Everyone stayed put, waiting to see what would happen. Suddenly, a car approached at a high speed very near the house, paused as if to let someone in, and then sped off. This, naturally, suggests the help of an accomplice. There were similar incidents reported on two other occasions.

The investigative team, the officers who escorted Sheffey to and from the Loudon jail, and anyone who had witnessed the Davis trial in Sevierville agreed on one thing—Will Sheffey was cool, calm, and unshakeable. His friends and supporters took that as a clear sign of his innocence and clear conscience, while those who suspected him saw it as an indication that he was coldly capable of anything.

Thanks to the Aluminum Company of America, which covered all of Hinrichsen’s expenses and greatly supported the prosecution as they built the expense, the humble victims of the Night Marauder had a chance of convicting the suspect. The Marauder always targeted very small homes without electricity, meaning almost all of his victims were poor or at least living close to poverty. The Sheffeys, though not wealthy, were well respected and had connections to some of the most established and elite families of the area.

Will Sheffey had secured Russell R. Kramer and Thomas C. Drinnen as his defense team. They would be joined in court by Judge Moses H. Gamble. Judge Gamble was among the people John McCampbell had showed the Emery letter when he got it and had apparently begged Gamble to take the case as a Judge or prosecutor. Gamble had refused, and now served the defense team. That would lead to some heated arguments in court as the presiding judge considered what evidence he would allow from the bickering lawyers. But there were several other personality conflicts at play in this divisive case.

During the few days that both Wright Saffle and Will Sheffey were in custody for the attack on the Poes, the Sheriff and ex-Sheriff squared off. Political rivals through and through, Pate and McCampbell stood in opposite camps when it came to the latest crime.  Pate believed Saffle had attacked Clyde and Lora and that it was a single crime born out of jealousy. McCampbell was convinced that Sheffey was the Marauder, responsible for up to forty-four break-ins. Sheffey’s defense team would attempt to argue that their client was caught in the crossfire of political enmity between the men.

Among the oddities revealed in the steps leading up to Sheffey’s trial was that J. W. Poe, father of Clyde, testified that he had been offered $1000 to not press the case against Wright Saffle after the Poes were attacked. He said the man who offered him the money was named John Strickland and that he had no idea what Strickland’s connection to the Saffles might have been. Nevertheless, he refused the offer and pressed charges. Defense attorneys for Sheffey introduced this evidence in order to revive suspicion against Saffle and create doubt around the charges Sheffey faced.  Other supporters told the media that Mrs. Poe had first suspected Wright Saffle therefore he had to be the guilty party. Saffle, however, had a solid alibi for the night of the attack and the grand jury dismissed the charges.

Reports at the end of April were all over the place. Apparently, Hinrichsen and the prosecution were even out in the county looking for a cave near Louisville at “Sheep’s Pen Bluff” and rumored to be a hiding place for guns used in illicit acts. The defense, in the meantime, refused to make any other statement but that “some of the best citizens of the county” were prepared to give the suspect the perfect alibi for the night of one of the murders. In the meantime, Sheffey’s siblings made time to visit him in Loudon as often as they could.

The cave at Sheep Pen Bluff, Louisville. Part of the W. O. Garner Photograph Collection, UTK Library

On April 23, it was reported that Mrs. Poe, Mrs. Wells, and Mrs. Reagan were brought to the Loudon jail to take an opportunity to pick Sheffey out of a line-up. Understand, this “line-up” was not at all the sort of thing one would expect to take place today. Law enforcement did not yet have one-way mirrors to protect victims as they looked upon the suspects. Instead, the suspect and several other men were brought to a clinic where the prisoners were told they were being checked for some kind of fabricated illness. The women were positioned outside a clinic room as each prisoner was asked to speak at varying levels of volume. Then, the women were seated in the lobby to watch as the men were led out of the hospital. All three women identified Sheffey by his voice and also by his appearance. But, of course, the defense would have a field day at trial with the irregularities in this identification set-up.

At long last, a trial date was announced. Will D. Sheffey would be tried for murder and assault in the upcoming Circuit Court session in August, 1925. Both sides prepared for battle.

A Community in Chaos

The level of fear generated by the Night Marauder attacks cannot be underestimated. One example of just how rattled people were is the case against Mrs. Odie Leadford. (Sometimes Otis or Ollie, sometimes Ledford) She had two people boarding in the home she shared with her husband Maurice: Amos Dockery and his seven-year-old daughter. The men left quite early for work each day, usually around 4:30 a.m.  On March 14, 1925, at nearly 5 a.m., Leadford heard a noise and footsteps coming from the front of the house. Nervously she called out, as if addressing her husband, hoping to scare off the prowler. The man did not leave her front porch. So, she grabbed a .38 revolver she kept near her bed and walked to a nearby window. This time, she called out and asked who was there. When she got no reply and it seemed like the man was still trying to open the door, she fired a shot towards the noise. She ran to the neighbors to get help and only realized what she had done when everyone returned to examine the body. Her one gunshot had gone clear through Dockery’s neck. The doctor noted that Dockery would not have lived more than a few minutes with wound like that. It appeared that Dockery must have been stooped in front of the door, as if he fumbled with the lock or something when Leadford fired the gun.

Mrs. Leadford was beyond horrified to find she had killed a good man and left his child an orphan. The little girl had stood by her side as she fired the gun out of the window. But why had Dockery come back and why hadn’t he answered when she called out?   No one will ever know, of course.  Police found Dockery’s lunch pail on the side of the road. Mr. Leadford and Dockery had walked together every morning but parted ways where the road split, with Leadford heading towards a marble quarry and Dockery towards the sawmill.  Leadford said he had taken his leave of Dockery that morning at the usual place in the road and assumed Dockery went on to his job.  Presumably, Dockery simply forgot something, put his things down to be picked up later, and walked back to the house. Sherrif Pate suggested that Dockery was playing some kind of joke on Mrs. Leadford by refusing to answer when she called out. It was a risky game to play under the circumstances.

Headline in the Knoxville Journal, April 12, 1925.

Mrs. Leadford’s trial was on the docket for April 13, 1925, the same day Will Sheffey would be arrested in Knoxville. There were a number of cases scheduled during this session and Leadford’s hearing appeared alongside Wright Saffle’s hearing for the murder of Clyde Poe and the assault on Mrs. Poe. Sheriff Pate had taken the Poes on their word the night of the attack and had immediately arrested Saffle. However, at his preliminary hearing, Saffle waived his case to court and agreed to be tried immediately on the charges. He had been free since his first arrest and true to his word, appeared in court for his trial.  On April 16, the Grand Jury found no true bill against on the charges of murder and assault and ordered Saffle to be set free. They had heard testimony from Lora Poe herself clearing Saffle, though she was prohibited from speaking to the press after the fact. That same Grand Jury noted that those specific charges were now being leveled against Will Sheffey, arrested just three days prior, and that Sheffey’s case was still being investigated. They would report their decision the following day.

Sheffey’s defense team had hoped to get him out on bail leading up to his hearing. He had been granted bail in one of the murder charges but not the other and attorneys threatened to fight that up to the State Supreme Court. Nothing came of it and Sheffey was indicted by a Grand Jury on April 17, 1925, on five counts including the murder and attempted assault of Luther and Ada Wells, the murder and assault of Clyde and Lora Poe, and the break-in at the Reagan home. Judge Blair announced at that time there was no way the Circuit Court could proceed with a trial until July at the earliest. Other high-profile murder cases would take up most of the week of April 20th, and both sides wanted more time to prepare their cases.

Odie Leadford’s case did not come before the judge until April 26. No one doubted a word of the woman’s testimony—she had been terrified and hoped to protect herself and a young girl from some monster’s attack. The jury unanimously acquitted her of the charge of murder.

The county was in disarray following the arrest of William D. Sheffey. The Chattanooga Daily Times described it on April 20th as “the biggest, yet quietest sensations that has ever happened within (the county’s) borders.” Describing Sheffey as “a young businessman”, the newspaper listed the crimes Sheffey had just been indicted for. They also described him as a “war hero” who had “fought bravely” in WWI, in spite of the fact Sheffey had been a medic who arrived after the war was over. Perhaps they were trying to make sense of how loyal Sheffey’s supporters would prove to be throughout the ordeal. The Chattanooga paper also claimed that Sheffey had been arrested in Knoxville in “what was believed to be an attempt to escape from the court proceedings” as he was arrested at the bus depot. Some sources said he intended to flee the country. Hinrichsen’s notes do not mention any sign that they had tipped their hand while gathering evidence, but four men were sent to arrest him: Gus Davis and Charlie Hamon of Blount County and Knoxville detectives Day and Fogerty. That could suggest they worried he might run. Or that could simply be sensationalism intended to fuel the flames of controversy.

All media sources revisited Sheffey’s earlier trial for murder, and the killing of Dora Davis was rehashed in the pages of every paper in Tennessee and quite a few out of state papers as well. The papers also listed every known crime of this nature in Knox and Blount Counties since 1919.  They highlighted the fact that the investigator that led police to Sheffey lamented all the men accused, arrested, even electrocuted for crimes that may have been Sheffey’s doing, not the least of which was Maurice Mays.  The Indiana, PA, Evening Gazette on April 14 carried the headline, “Race Riot Case to be Reopened.” Investigator Hinrichsen had also stirred up frustration that John Honeycutt had been arrested, tried, and convicted in 1921 before mysteriously dying in jail. This, naturally, is the danger in being willing to “put the critter in the ground” like Urquhart tried to convince Hultquist to do. There had always been suspicion that Mays and Honeycutt were innocent of the Night Marauder attacks, but if those who had caught them had seized an opportunity to end the terror. . . well, let’s just hope that the one willing to bury a killer would be very certain they have the right suspect.

The Investigator

Victor Jonas Hultquist is known to some as “the father of Alcoa.”  The mayor of Maryville, Sam Everett, had welcomed the Aluminum Company of America to build a new site in what was then called North Maryville in 1914. Just a year after that, Hultquist was transferred from the company’s New Kensington site to oversee construction of a new plant along with a company town to house the many thousands of workers they were going to need. The new city of Alcoa was incorporated in 1919 and, until 1950, the city’s government was connected to the corporation. Hultquist was deeply involved in both the plant and the city, and he had a lot to be proud of. The town boasted of one acre of park for every one hundred residences and Hultquist oversaw construction of the pool and gardens that are still in use today. The company paid for schools for both the white and black residents, and the town included the area’s only hospital. It was a thriving and growing city, with many benefits for those who lived there. But schools and parks are no comfort when people live in fear. The Night Marauder attacks enraged Hultquist, and he would have done anything to protect his community.

Most Private Investigators were connected to one of a handful of agencies like the Pinkertons. But corporations also had their own, dedicated, investigators and it made perfect sense that Hultquist turned to ALCOA for help. On December 9, 1924, Hultquist sent a telegram to Aluminum Co. headquarters in Pittsburgh. He laid out the problem and asked if they knew of anyone who could come and help catch a killer. E. S. Fickes in Pittsburgh replied that he doubted the company could supply anyone. However, he forwarded Hultquist’s request to a Mr. C. B. Fox in Saint Louis. Fickes also confirmed that the company would “authorize any expenditure” and wanted Hultquist to “take whatever steps” he thought necessary. A separate letter, from P. J. Urquhart, head of accounting in the Pittsburgh office, added that they thought it would be good to supply the chief of Alcoa police with a few good bloodhounds. “Whatever (the dogs’) utility may be for tracking criminals,” Urquhart wrote, “their moral effect in the south is very great, even among educated people.”

Urquhart went on the express very clear feelings about the Night Marauder and how he should be dealt with:

If the crimes you describe are the work of one man, he is a very dangerous type of insane criminal, and if identified beyond doubt his captor should shoot him. The ordinary detective hasn’t either the ability to find his man or the guts to shoot him down if he does. One of your East Tenn gunmen had better deal with him, if you can find one to track him down or catch him.

It may assist in finding him if you will consult an able alienist or criminologist, regarding the peculiarities of men afflicted with this rather common but dangerous form of insanity.

When you start to hunt down any kind of ‘critter’, a knowledge of its habits and how it differs from others of its kind is mighty useful. On the staff of every big law or medical school or any modern insane asylum there is usually a man who has specialized on the criminally insane who would be able to advise you. Dr. Mac can doubtless guide you to one. By all means get this brute buried as soon as possible and don’t have a lynching, or worse yet, cause someone innocent of the trouble to suffer. Get the dogs at once.

(Emphasis in the original)

It was only a few days later, on December 15, that C. B. Fox wrote Hultquist saying he had the perfect man in mind for the job. There was a man who worked as chief of plant security in East Saint Louis, Illinois. Fred C. Hinrichsen (sometimes Hendricksen) was his name, and he was getting a little bored with his current posting. He was also eager to prove his worth to the company. “He has worked for us for over eight years on all sorts of jobs and we know he is absolutely safe and reliable and has splendid judgement,” Fox wrote.  Fox went on to explain the plan: Hinrichsen would travel by train to Knoxville and check into a hotel under an assumed name like “Smith or Jones or any other name that seemed advisable.” Hinrichsen believed his best approach would be to open a little sign-painting shop in Alcoa in order to get to know the community and for people to trust him. In his reply to Fox, Hultquist suggested Hinrichsen check in as Edward Jones. He also informed Fox that the man most recently shot by the Marauder, Clyde Poe, had just died and he was “very anxious to avoid a repetition of the affair.”

Hinrichsen arrived as instructed and immediately met with Hultquist to plan their best approach. Upon settling his headquarters in Maryville, Hinrichsen took former Sheriff John McCampbell into his confidence. And he did, indeed, open a sign-painting shop and got into that business seriously to cover his real purpose for being there. Hinrichsen had some keen observations of the former sheriff, who had operated a livery stable in the days before the automobile. “I have always found the Livery man the Pilot of the surrounding country to where he is located,” Hinrichsen noted, “his barn is the loafing place generally of the toughest element and it is at these places all news is first gathered. An ex-Livery man makes the best Sheriff in the rural districts.” Hinrichsen recognized the ex-sheriff’s zeal in solving the Marauder cases and believed he would have captured the villain if he had gotten full cooperation from the County and City. McCampbell had even spent a few hundred dollars of his own money and it was against his wishes that he had to discontinue his investigations.

Shortly after his arrival, Hinrichsen traveled with John McCampbell to interview Lora Poe. She was living with her brothers, “The Sullivan Boys” on the outskirts of Alcoa. Before reporting on her statement, Hinrichsen took time to wax poetic about Lora’s appeal.

From my observance of this girl, I formed a picture in my mind of Divine purity and innocence, and as I talked to this poor and unfortunate child, holding in her arms a fatherless babe of just a few months, I was delighted while questioning her to learn that the picture I formed was correct.

In some ways, Lora Poe had the advantage of being the ideal sort of victim. Small and feminine, quiet and demure, she was without a doubt the innocent victim of the worst sort of fiend. Perhaps Hinrichsen was worried she would be ugly and crass, presumably because such a witness would turn off a jury. But Lora would be sure to inspire sympathy and stir outrage at her assault.

Lora was the ideal witness in other ways, as well. Even in the presence of her brothers, the Attorney General Mr. Jackson, the former sheriff, and a complete stranger, she calmly and plainly detailed everything that had taken place during the attack. She was asked directly if she thought Wright Saffle was the man who shot her husband and assaulted her. She replied that she did not, that the more she thought of it the more certain she was that Saffle was not the intruder. While this did not rule Saffle out entirely in the mind of the P.I., it left open the possibility that Lora might ultimately identify Will Sheffey as her assailant.

Special thanks to Judge David R. Duggan for his loan of the Hultquist papers.

Private eyes

This post was written by Channing Bragg (MC ’21) and Cole Cleek (MC ’23) and was edited by N. Locklin.

The first thing that people tend to think of when tragedy strikes is to seek out the police, but what do you do when the police cannot help you? There is only one place to turn to and that is private investigators. Private Investigators are the ones who put their ear to the ground and try to solve the crimes for their respective clients. They accomplish this in any number of ways by searching for clues, conducting interviews, and surveillance just to name a few. The benefits of using a private investigator over the police is that they were able to employ more shady tactics to solve the case than your average detective. Private agencies also often had more resources available than did typical local law enforcement agencies.

The story of private detective agencies really develops leading into the time around the Civil War and especially after. The first of the most prominent agencies was opened by Allan Pinkerton in Chicago in the middle of the nineteenth century. The agency began early on by supplying help to companies and assisting politicians like Abraham Lincoln, but also taking action in other ways such as helping runaway slaves leave the country. After the war, there was more of a chance for work to pick up.

P.I.’s were originally little more than mercenaries and a private police force, given the price is right. In extreme cases P.I. were even private militaries that were primarily employed by private companies. The Pinkertons were a lot like the other agencies at the time, they acted as private security forces and in other situations they were a private militia. During the labor strikes of the late 1800’s the Pinkertons would be bought out by private companies to work as security or to quell the strikes if possible. They accomplished these jobs through strike breaking measures, though during 1892 several Pinkerton agents killed several strikers in an attempt to use these anti-strike tactics. The Pinkertons were also famous for hunting outlaws such as Jesse James and the Sundance Kid. They also had the capability to ignore borders when a suspect had fled into a country where there was no extradition treaty. The private detectives would just kidnap the fugitive bring and him back to the States. It has been said that at one point the Pinkerton agency had more members than the entirety of the United States Army.

Pinkerton logo

Another advantage private investigators had was their large network. In an era in which law enforcement in one town might not even be aware of crimes in the next town, PIs could keep in touch with their contacts across the country. Their prevalence began dwindling, though, as bigger cities began to develop their own detective networks. This development left the more rural parts of the country behind, but even that would come to change as more and more state agencies were established into the middle of the twentieth century.

During the 1920’s P.I. were often hired to investigate small cases such as infidelity, theft, or missing persons. Detectives in the 1920’s were pretty unreliable or even corrupt. Some P.I.s took bribes or rigged cases to get a certain outcome, for profit or for personal satisfaction. In The Man from the Train, Bill James offered a shining example of the wild and unorthodox methods that detectives in the early 1900’s were able to employ. James wrote about when a detective used a ventriloquist to get a man to divulge information to his “talking” donkey. In any context that previous statement is completely absurd, but this is real. The detective had utilized a ventriloquist to try and gain information from a man by having the ventriloquist throw his voice towards the man’s donkey. It worked and the detective was able to trick the man into giving information about the case.

Through the early 1930’s, during Prohibition, P.I.s got a lot of funding from the federal government and private groups to investigate bars and distilleries. Despite the national ban on the consumption of alcohol there were hundreds of secret bars and taverns scattered across the country. Many temperance groups would hire detectives to find and shut down these speakeasies. Although as was a staple for P.I.s at the time, many of them were bribed off or were directly profiting off of a bar. One of the biggest reason’s prohibition groups hired P.I. was due the simple fact that the federal government was unable to enforce the ban on its own. So many private groups tried to take it into their own hands. However, their efforts weren’t much more successful than government enforcement efforts. There was also a lack of incentive for detectives to hunt these criminals down as many of the bars were owned by gangs and mobs, such as the Chicago Outfit and the Irish mafia.

Private investigators did not have to have any particular training before they could take on clients. Their methods included simple surveillance—a task that requires patience. They also gather evidence through formal interviews with witnesses or the victims of crimes. But they also learn a lot by keeping under the radar and just listening to gossip. In such cases, it helped if they were not local so no one would suspect that they were being watched. The detective had to be careful to only gather evidence that could be used and shown in court. If he gathered evidence that couldn’t actually be used, then he was not only wasting his time but possibly his client’s as well. In some cases, detectives had an already predetermined outcome in their head and tended to stack the evidence in favor of their choice. Although as time went on detectives became more reliable and more people sought their services.

Well into the 1950’s there was a boom in popularity for detectives and private investigators. This was due to not only the rise in crime and the change in culture, but it was also heavily influenced by the rise of detective stories. During this time, a lot of movies, books, and comics featured detectives and private eyes. People still sought out detectives for their personal needs, like their husband is sleeping with the neighbor, or asking to investigate their brother for theft. However, during this spike in popularity many P.I. had to change the way they ran their businesses. With more and more people seeking them out, the increased pressure and high expectations would cause trouble for any agency that was involved in crime or corruption.

Eventually, the federal government and many states increased funding for formal law enforcement and investigative agencies. The FBI had been created in 1908 and for decades it was used to address whatever threat loomed largest at a given time—organized crime, Prohibition, communism, etc. The Bureau itself was not immune to corruption, but the high profile and required training gave incentives to improve.  Governments were also able to fund labs for forensic analysis and the first FBI lab opened in 1932. As communication and access to resources improved, fewer law enforcement officers turned to private investigators for assistance. Today, private investigators tend to have specific academic or professional credentials and might work with attorneys but are much less likely to be involved in criminal cases. PIs work for insurance companies or investors, but they can still be hired to investigate family issues.

The Poes

Warning: this post includes details of a sexual assault.

Clyde Poe was just 21 in December, 1924, and he and his wife Lora had been married a little over a year. He was listed as a laborer, a “hard working farmer,” in Alcoa. Clyde and Lora lived with their four month old baby boy near Duncan Station. Clyde had grown up in the Babcock addition to Vose Station. Lora Sullivan had grown up in Tuckaleechee Cove, later known as Townsend. Lora was an orphan and did not have a birth certificate but one of her brothers certified the year of her birth based on an entry in the family bible. By 1924, all of Lora’s brothers lived in Alcoa and worked at the mills. It was good that her family was close by as she would soon need that support system.

The marauder entered the Poe home on Monday night, December 1, 1924. As in so many other cases, the first sign that something was wrong was that Lora felt someone’s cold hands on her body. She spoke, thinking it was her husband, and the next thing she knew the intruder shined a flashlight in her eyes, blinding her. The man made “unspeakable demands” of her. Lora screamed. When Clyde realized there was a man in their room he rushed to defend his wife. He moved quickly to grab the intruder and the Night Marauder shot him. The bullet entered Clyde’s shoulder and lodged near his spine, partially paralyzing him. Undeterred, Poe dragged himself back to the bed and reached underneath for his shotgun. This took effort, of course, and it took time.

The intruder was already in the midst of sexually assaulting Lora when Clyde fired the gun. She would later report that the intruder told her to pull some blankets from the bed and put them on the floor. “Under threats of death” he then assaulted her on the floor. As she would later explain to the investigator, the assault took long enough that the man put his mouth on her breast and that was when she noticed something odd. As she was still nursing her son, her breasts were very sensitive, and she could tell her attacker had some kind of “eruption” just next to his mouth. She thought it might be a pimple. Excited, the investigator would ask if it might be a mole, since one of the prime suspects had a mole just next to his mouth. She said it could be so. At any rate, when Clyde fired the shotgun on the night of the attack, he succeeded in interrupting the assault.

The assailant then grappled with Clyde, who was weakened by his wounds and the loss of blood.  The intruder managed to wrestle the shotgun out of Clyde’s hands and ran out of the house. He left the shotgun leaning up against the house as he departed. Lora immediately sought to light the lamp and found the matches were gone from the bedside table. In fact, all the matches in the house were gone. She remembered clearly that she had asked Clyde to get out more matches before they went to bed and now every last match had been taken. She noticed a few embers in the fireplace and fanned them enough to light the lamp. Then, with great effort, she helped Clyde onto the bed and tried to make him comfortable. Lora threw on some clothes, and then, clutching her baby close, she ran for help.

Lora ran to a neighbor, Glenn Moore, and from his house the police were summoned. Clyde was taken to McMahan hospital in grave condition. While there, the Poes identified the man who had entered their home for Sheriff Pate.  John McCampbell had recently lost the election and his replacement was Walter Pate, a man who was his opposite in many ways. Among other things, McCampbell and Pate had distinctly opposite views on the Night Marauder’s supposed identity. While McCampbell set his sights on Will Sheffey, Pate listened in earnest to what the Poes had to say after they were attacked. They told the Sheriff that the man who had assaulted them was, or at least reminded them of, Wright Saffle, a local teenager who had been in love with Lora Poe.

Clyde Poe portrait (Newspaper unidentified in Find-A-Grave)

At first, it seemed that Clyde Poe would beat the same odds Luther Wells had, surviving a dreadful gunshot wound. However, the cold Clyde caught as he lay shivering on the floor, awaiting help, became pneumonia a week later. By the 17th of December, surgeons thought Clyde sufficiently recovered to attempt to remove the bullet from his spine, but he did not survive the surgery. He was prepared for burial at the McCammon undertakers in Maryville before his body was sent home to Copper Hill, in Polk County, TN.

Wright Saffle was scheduled to appear before Justices H. C. Jett and G. R. Henry.  Saffle insisted that he had a number of friends from Monroe County who would swear to his alibi on the night of the attack. Saffle is described in the Knoxville Journal and Tribune as a 15-year old student at the Bassell school in Alcoa. The newspaper further noted that Poe’s dying statement had been a reiteration of his belief Saffle was the man who attacked him. At his preliminary hearing, one witness claimed that Saffle had once boasted that if Lora didn’t marry him he wouldn’t let her live with anyone else. However, Saffle’s alibi stood and he was released by a grand jury on April 20, 1925, just as Will Sheffey’s trial was to begin. Some rumors stated that he had relocated to Ohio after his release.

Lora Poe would join Ada Wells as one of the most important witnesses in the trial of the man many people thought was the killer and rapist. They were in a very exclusive club, if you will, of brave survivors willing to name the crimes they had suffered and go on to live their lives. But first they had to weather the trials. And very soon, their best hope would arrive in the form of a private investigator known in most sources as “Ed Jones.”

A Trap is Set

This post is based on a chapter written by N. Locklin and was edited by Trey Hampton (MC ’24)

In the months after he had received the anonymous letter, Sheriff John C. McCampbell did not stop looking for the Night Marauder. Two people who had seen the letter—the Sheriff’s sister-in-law and old Dr. Cusick from Sevierville—linked Dora Davis from the list of murder victims to Will Sheffey. McCampbell was pretty sure he had his man and looked for any opportunity to build a case against Sheffey.

On March 3, 1924, the Night Marauder tried to enter the home of Jim Pace on Sevierville Pike, fired several shots without harm, and hurried away. Gus Davis was the Deputy on duty that night and he received a report about some screaming and the sound of gunshots. Davis called Sheriff John McCampbell who raced to pick up his deputy and get to the Pace home as quickly as possible.  They met briefly with Pace to make sure no one was injured, and then returned to Maryville as quickly as they had come.

The Sheriff had a plan. Now that he had Will Sheffey in mind as a suspect, he hoped to catch the man returning home from Sevierville Pike. Once he and Gus Davis got to town, they switched cars to avoid detection and told Fred Ballard, a taxi-driver, to drive them to Wilson Ave, where Sheffey lived with his mother.  Once they got to the street where the Sheffeys lived, Sheriff McCampbell and Gus Davis got out of the car and asked Ballard to stay parked quietly in the street while they approached the house on foot. For some reason, Ballard “misunderstood”, as the investigator later reported, and instead drove his car down the street. As another car sped down the avenue towards the Sheffey home, Ballard honked the horn. Distressed, the Sheriff got back into the car so they could get to the house more quickly. At that very moment, The Sheriff, Ballard, and the deputy saw Will Sheffey leap from the car and just about fly into the house. Once inside he locked the door and turned on the porch light. At that point, the Sheriff realized there was no reason to attempt to enter the Sheffey home. Sheffey would have had time to hide or dispose of any gun he had on his person, and they would only have the circumstantial evidence of his arrival after the attack. There were no grounds for his arrest. As McCampbell told the investigator, “I wanted to make a case, not a slip. . . it was just a chance spoiled by the chauffeur we had.”

McCampbell did take the time to look over the car Sheffey had been driving—it was not Sheffey’s car. Instead, it belonged to someone named Red Ownsby. At least, the plate on the car was registered to Ownsby. A co-worker of Sheffey’s at the Aluminum Company would later explain to the investigator that he had witnessed Sheffey and Ownsby swapping license plates in the company parking lot one day in March. Both men drove Buicks.

From this point on, Sheffey knew the Sheriff was keeping a close eye on his movements and the Sheriff was just waiting for Sheffey to mess up.

On August 8, 1924, an intruder entered the home of Mr. Tipton near Montvale Pike and entered the bedroom of a fourteen-year-old girl identified only as Miss Birchfield. The man held a pistol and a flashlight, and he whispered “unspeakable demands” to her. She screamed and he fired one shot at her, narrowly missing her. Then he ran off. A neighbor, Mr. Toole, came out onto his porch and saw a man running and called out “What was that shooting?” The unknown man in the dark called back, “There was no shooting” and kept running. The investigator noted in his report that the girl was now in Cades Cove and that she believed she could identify the intruder by his voice.

On October 17, 1924, a man broke into the home of Mrs. Reba Littlefield and threatened her. There are few details on this case, but it would be included later among the charges in Sheffey’s first trial as a “breaking and entering.” She identified Sheffey by his voice and the investigator considered her a credible witness.

John McCampbell was determined to stop the fiend but there would be one more tragic attack before V. J. Hultquist of Alcoa was able to get the assistance they all prayed for. As it happened, McCampbell was no longer the Sheriff when the next marauder attack occurred, as he had just lost the election to Walter Pate.  But Sheffey did not seem to care about McCampbell’s status and still resented his attention. On December 1, 1923, Will Sheffey spent several minutes standing across the street from McCampbell’s place of business, silently staring at him, before wandering off.

That night, the Night Marauder killed again.

Luther and Ada Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corrupt Coroners

This post was written by Danielle Abell (MC ’23) and edited by N. Locklin.

In being tasked with defining what evidence constitutes an investigation, which specifics define murder in an investigation, and how to defend those who have been victims of a crime, forensic pathologists and coroners are flush with power in the criminal justice system. Their position affords them a level of involvement in cases that is hardly ever reached by lawyers, judges, or any of the other occupations that are so common in the courtroom. In fact, coroners are probably the most involved in an investigation without being directly related to or being one of the plaintiffs or defendants. While today, we know coroners and forensic pathologists as knowledgeable, unbiased, evidence-producing professionals, the culture surrounding scientific crime investigation was not always the same.

In fact, as a profession and a tool in forensic investigations, that culture has only been considered as it is now for about a century. According to Julie Johnson-McGrath of Harvard University, “scientific crime detection has become an integral part of the criminal justice system, but its implementation and institutionalization were the invention of a specific historic period and were designed to serve particular professional interests”. The emergence of forensic science as a respected profession in the legal sphere was a long process. At the beginning of the 20th century, the increasing urbanization of the United States, coupled with absolutely none of the technological abilities of the modern criminal justice system, resulted in a largely political, corrupt, and ineffective system of justice. Not only were race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status a common determinant of cases, but “Victim and culprit alike remained anonymous”. A mess of a system in the midst of an already socially changing nation, criminal justice could only be loosely defined as such. Forensic pathologists had to prove the integrity and value of their profession, while being a part of a system which was corrupt and largely not respected throughout major population centers. Progressive-era reports, “revealed that the criminal justice system neither punished offenders or protected the public”, according to the historian Jeffrey S. Adler. Americans became increasingly disillusioned with the system, and violent crime continued to soar into the 20th century as the realization that a four out of five chance to be acquitted did not make the courtroom a scary place for criminals.

A report published in 1915 in New York City by a reformer named Leonard Wallstein revealed exactly how easy it was for incompetent individuals to become coroners. As in many cities, the office of coroner was an elected position and political party bosses could rig elections so that loyal supporters got the job.  There were no qualifications necessary to run for coroner. Some physicians were elected coroner, but they tended to be doctors who had lost their practices or licenses. Between 1898 and 1915, the list of men who had served as coroners included undertakers, politicians, real estate agents, saloonkeepers, and a variety of tradesman. Worse yet, coroners worked on commission and some, for the right price, were content to call a murder an accident or a suicide a heart attack. Some got kickbacks from funeral homes if they pressured grieving families to use their services. Some were even said to have signed the autopsy without ever looking at the body.

This era is, of course, when the Night Marauder committed his crimes. However, the Night Marauder would have not had an easy time remaining anonymous in such a small town as Maryville and early 20th-century Knoxville. However, we can also see the prejudices of the times in the Night Marauder case, not only with the eventual acquittal of William Sheffey, but also with the conviction of Maurice Mays on very little evidence. The undeniable power of a jury to convict or acquit on the basis of race and small-town politics in the case of the Night Marauder is a microcosm for the state of the criminal justice system across the nation during the interwar period, and marks yet another 20th century killer who went unidentified, and whose victims would never see justice. As we will see in Sheffey’s 1925 trial, handwriting experts, doctors, and psychologists testified for the prosecution but could not make their case. Not only was this case so representative of the justice system, but also representative of the low level of respectability that medical professionals and scientific experts held in the courtroom in the early 20th century.

Modern Forensic Science Lab (Wikipedia Commons)

Scientific evidence in criminal cases has only recently become a standard of operation for the legal system. While we may be able to guess, the technology and science of the early 1920s did not allow for this type of evidence against the Night Marauder, whether or not it was William Sheffey. Unfortunately, this means that the Night Marauder and many other violent criminals went unidentified or escaped conviction in the legal system of the early 1900s, and even past this point as doctors and scientists fought to establish their credibility as part of the legal system. In establishing that credibility, forensic scientists have had an uphill battle to the reputation that they now hold. The occupation has struggled to hold its own in the face of “its association with corruption – the physical corruption of long-dead bodies and the moral corruption of crime” (Johnson-McGrath). In fighting this stigma, the occupation has struggled, even in high-crime, low conviction time periods like the turn of the century. The process to establish the profession of forensic science as a valuable profession on its own and in the courtroom was a long one, involving increasingly strict medical certifications, a fight for the detachment of political power in the coroner’s office, and recognition of the sub-specialty of forensic medical examination.

For further reading, see Jeffrey S. Adler’s “Less Crime, More Punishment: Violence, Race, and Criminal Justice in Early Twentieth-Century America.” The Journal of American History 102, no. 1 (2015); Julie Johnson-McGrath’s “Speaking for the Dead: Forensic Pathologists and Criminal Justice in the United States.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 20, no. 4 (1995); and Deborah Blume’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (Penguin Books, 2010).