Bertie Lindsey, Maurice Mays, and the events leading up to the Knoxville Race Riot of 1919

This post was written by contributor Shelby Davidson (MC’21) and edited by N. Locklin. It has been split into two parts due to length and the complexity of the topic.

Knoxville generally prided itself on being an accepting and nonviolent area, but with the end of World War I, Black soldiers returning to lives where their rights were constantly up for debate, and a lack of well-paying jobs, tensions were running higher and higher with each passing day. When Bertie Lyndsey was attacked between 2 and 3 in the morning on August 30th, 1919, and Maurice Mays was arrested for the crime, it was simply the final match on a powder keg that had been brewing in the region for quite some time. The riot and the racism in east Tennessee may have allowed for the prolonging of the Night Marauder’s rampage, since Maurice Mays’ wrongful conviction delayed suspicion from falling onto other suspects.

Knoxville in 1919 had a population of 80,000 and was an epicenter of industry for Eastern and Central Tennessee. It was the intersection of railroads, highways, and interstates with an estimated 20,000 laborers, both Black and white commuting into the city daily. There were plenty of jobs with the Brookside Cotton Mill, Knoxville Iron Company and repair shops for the Southern Railway all situated in the bustling city. In addition to the number of jobs available in the city, Knoxville was praised, by those in power at least, as a shining bastion of race relations where Black citizens could not only vote but serve as policemen or hold public office. Despite the local pride in Knoxville’s unity, there were still signs that its citizens were capable of violence. In 1913 a white mob sought unsuccessfully to lynch a black man who was accused of killing a police officer. The industrial challenges that the first World War imposed only deepened tensions as employers looking for recruits were met with African-Americans who didn’t show the level of deference that many whites thought they were owed. Post-war recession setting in also made competition for jobs cutthroat as more and more migrants from outside the city arrived looking for work. Clashes grew more and more frequent as the summer progressed, with a chapter of the KKK rumored to be starting up as well as the NAACP establishing an office in town in early August of that year.

It is on this backdrop that the Night Marauder first made his appearance, beginning his tear through the darkened homes of Knoxville in the summer of 1919. Investigators were baffled and civilians began to suspect that legal officials were willing to let the Marauder run wild as long as his attacks didn’t hurt anybody too high profile. Black neighborhoods on the other had were preparing for the worst. They knew that something was coming their way, and they knew better than to be caught unprepared for it. On the day of August 29th, 1919 people were ill at ease. The hottest part of the summer was over and Labor Day weekend was set to be a raucous event, with people prepared for big events, with most of the city’s businesses closing to allow people the chance to celebrate the first Labor Day after the end of World War I. The Governor was in town to inspect the Tennessee national guard that was encamped at Knoxville, and parties and parades were scheduled to take place all over the city. The city’s white and Black populations were both ready to have an exciting holiday weekend.

The fuse that would eventually explode Knoxville into a riot was lit at just after 2:00 AM in the early morning of August 30th. Bertie Lyndsey, a 27-year-old married woman, was sharing a room in her Eighth Street home with her cousin, 21-year-old Ora Smyth.  Lindsey had been born Birdie Smith in Pennington Gap, VA, but by 1917 was living in Knoxville with her husband, Daniel P. Lindsey. After the war, Daniel left for Akron, Ohio to find work. That is why Bertie was alone with her cousin on that hot, humid night. The two women had the backdoor propped open to allow a breeze to come into the house. They were sleeping soundly, but they were awoken by an intruder at around 2:30 a.m. Smyth testified that her cousin was sitting up in bed, clutching onto her and shaking so badly that the bed frame shook with her. That’s when Smyth saw the intruder, who had a flashlight in one hand and a gun in the other. He climbed into bed with them and told them to be quiet, brandishing the gun at them. Several times Lyndsay tried to get out of bed and the intruder threatened her, saying to get back into bed or he would kill her. Finally, Bertie Lyndsey made her final escape attempt and was shot. After threatening Smyth for a while longer the intruder grabbed a purse off the dresser containing fifteen cents and made a break for it, leaving Smyth to run to the neighbor’s house for help. The next-door neighbors were a police officer and his wife, and the officer witnessed the intruder escape down an alleyway, leaving a trail of footprints behind him.

The only known photo of Bertie Lindsey, published in the Knoxville Sentinel

This pattern is one that would become familiar to the surrounding area in the years to follow. Maurice Mays was the first suspect in Bertie Lyndsey’s murder when the police were made aware of the attack. He was a local business owner, running the Stroller’s Café on East Jackson Ave, a club that was notorious for having both Black and white visitors on any given night. As a child, he had been adopted by the Mays family, but his real parentage was a hot topic of debate in Knoxville. His biological mother was a maid who left town shortly after his birth, and his biological father was rumored to be John E. McMillan, who was mayor of Knoxville in 1919. McMillan often bank rolled business ventures of Mays, and Mays helped garner Black support in McMillan’s political career. In fact, on the night of Lyndsay’s murder Maurice Mays was delivering Poll Tax stubs to African American voters since the campaign for McMillan’s reelection was heating up. The tax stub served as proof of eligibility to vote, and McMillan needed the black vote to secure his reelection.

Maurice Mays

When patrolmen Andy White and Jim Smith arrived at Mays’ residence two miles away from the scene of the crime, he was fast asleep, and they had to tap on his window to rouse him from sleep. After a search of the house a .38 caliber pistol was found, but no flashlight. Additionally, the alley that the perpetrator had escaped down, leaving footprints, was muddy and had knee high weeds growing in it, but Mays’ shoes were clean and there was not mud on his clothes or floor. White was still adamant to find a reason to incriminate Mays. He had a long-term hatred of the man that was well known on the police force.

Mays was placed under arrest and brought back to the scene of the crime for Ora Smyth to identify. When she was brought out to see him, she was held up by two officers, unable to stand on her own. In this shocked state, Smyth was asked to identify Mays. He was the only man presented. She said it was him, and immediately, Mays protested his innocence. He maintained his innocence until the day of his execution. Mays was brought to Knox County Jail, and a special edition of the morning newspaper was released detailing the events of the crime and reporting that an “Unidentified Negro” had been arrested in relation to the crime. In later editions of the newspaper, Mays’ name was released, and rumors were reported that Mays had assaulted Lyndsey.

Among civilians, anger was brewing rapidly, and crowds were beginning to form in market square as well as outside the Knox County jail, though things did not turn more violent until much later. Sheriff Cate, a worker at the Jail requested that Mays be removed from the premises and placed into protective custody in Chattanooga. Mays was removed and transported by train, disguised as a woman, just to be safe.

The First Night Marauder Attack?

On May 8 1919, Della Wagner (Sometimes Delia Waggoner, later Cunningham, later Whaley) was staying with her sister and her sister’s husband at Callaway and Crooked St., now known as Douglas Ave, in Knoxville. She told the police that she awoke to find a man standing in her room and screamed. The man showed her a pistol and warned her to be quiet. She quickly blurted out that she had no money, to which the intruder replied, “I don’t want money.” Frightened, Mrs. Wagner screamed again, and the man shot her, wounding her in her hip. Wagner went on to tell the police that the light from an arc lamp in the street had shone through her window and that she knew who had entered her home.

Robert McNish was described as a “Holy Roller” teacher, and Wagner insisted he had been following her for days. She was sure it was he who had entered her room. Police arrested the man, but he declared that he was never armed with anything but a Holy Bible and a song book. He swore he had not entered anyone’s room at night, and he never even visited that part of town except on Sundays when he attended the Holiness church services. McNish had been arrested before, on the charge of failure to register for the draft during WWI. In that case he claimed killing in war was contrary to God’s wishes. McNish was released on bond and Wagner would eventually “pray on it” and renounce her identification of the preacher.

This is often identified as the first of the Night Marauder attacks in Knoxville, but in fact the news of the day associated the attack on Della Wagner with several other recent break-ins. Few of these attacks fit any particular pattern. Most of the incidents speak of a man entering a home, usually armed with a gun.  The Spessard sisters suffered one such attack early in the morning on Saturday, May 3. Latissia, Julia, Eva, and Marie Spessard were asleep in their home on Asylum Avenue when a man entered. Police stated that they responded to reports of a gunshot and found the four young women hysterical. They had been sleeping and, upon hearing a noise, they stirred and woke one another up. Almost at once the figure shot towards Latissia and then ran away. He never said anything and he did not steal anything. The sisters described him as a white man but could not remember any distinguishing features.

Other home invasions involved a clear-cut burglary, such as the invasion of the home of Vance Stamps on Hannah Ave on May 10. Stamps and his family awakened to find an intruder in the house. However, in that case the intruder was carrying off Mr. Stamps’ clothing, and on the way out of the house, he dropped a pocket watch. It was the noise of the watch face breaking that woke everyone up. Stamps’ clothing was later found on the front porch. This sort of attack is similar to the work of a burglar eventually known as “Pants” in Knoxville. In this situation, robbery appeared to be the aim.

As time went on, the Night Marauder attacks became more common, more violent, and received a lot of attention. Della Wagner changed her story. She was called as a witness in the trial of a suspect in 1921, and by that time she had divorced her husband and gone back to using her maiden name, Cunningham. It had been over a year since she was attacked, and she now claimed it was June 10 when the intruder entered her home. She says she awoke to find a man standing over her bed. He immediately put a gun in her face and said if she screamed, he would “put a bullet in my brain.” She says she tried to get up and run away and he pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. He aimed the gun downward and pulled the trigger again. This time, he shot her in her leg. She stated that he had no flashlight. When asked about her past identification of the preacher, McNish, as the intruder and her claim that the intruder wore a long preacher’s coat, she said she was wrong. “As a good Christian”, she could not clearly remember the intruder and knew it would be wrong to convict a man of God.

In 1925, six years after she had been shot, Della told a private investigator in Blount County that she woke up at 3:30 a.m. during the night of June 5 because she felt hands on her body. Thinking it was her sister adding a blanket to her bed, she said “Please do not put any more covers on me. I am warm enough.” A man’s gruff voice answered her, telling her to be quiet or he would shoot her. She screamed and he aimed to shoot her. She said he had a flashlight in his other hand, so she fought with all her might to push the arm holding the gun away from her. He pulled the trigger three times before the cartridge exploded and that’s when she was wounded. After shooting her, the man ran off. Della says she then chased the man out of her house and only at her doorstep did she feel the blood running down her body. She told the investigator she was sure she could identify the man by his voice.

As a number of suspects faced trial for the Night Marauder attacks, Della’s story became associated with the series and was cemented as the first case. But in many ways, the attack she suffered bore little resemblance to the horrors that were to come.

The Forensics Challenge

This post was written by contributors Leigh Ann Brewington (MC’21) and Carrie Mitchell (MC ’23) and edited by N. Locklin.

Today, there is a long list of things that must be done before a murder trial can begin. This includes things such as gathering evidence, having witnesses give statements, deciding which charges to go for, and setting a court date for the trial. One important part of having a strong trial and argument against a person is having evidence from a forensics department. This could be fingerprints, blood spatter, DNA, or even could come from an autopsy or toxicology report. However, if we look back 100 years ago at what tools and techniques were available, we can see that there was hardly any forensic science to fall back on during a trial. Modern day technology would have helped solve a lot of cases from the 1920’s, as an estimated two thirds to three fourths of all murders during this period went unsolved, including the Night Marauder Case in Maryville and Knoxville Tennessee.

Before the 1920s, forensic science was still an up-and-coming field. In 1892, Sir Francis Galton of England had popularized a method of fingerprinting, which is still used to this day. Galton set about to categorize different types of fingerprint patterns into broad classifications: the plain arch; the simple loop; the central pocket loop; the double loop; the lateral pocket loop; the plain whorl; and the accidental.At the beginning of the 20th century, Scotland Yard adopted the system of fingerprint identification called the Henry System. By 1903, most European countries had begun to make their own versions of fingerprint identification, which eventually spread to the United States as the use for I.D. began to be used in prisons. Modern forensic science was introduced at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, paving the way for new ideas and discoveries. However, fingerprinting was not common practice in many parts of America until well into the 1920’s.

In 1901, Austrian born scientist Karl Landsteiner began to publish his work on human blood groups, which allowed investigators to determine if a sample of blood did or did not match a suspect. Landsteiner identified the four basic blood types: A, B, AB, O. Blood typing was not used as a law enforcement tool until 1923, when it started being used in West Germany and Italy. In America, it would be as late as 1934 before the first police chemical and toxicological laboratory would be established in New York. Even so, DNA was not even properly discovered until the 1950’s. This eliminates the ability to cross reference DNA samples from different crime scenes.

Without reliable evidence in the form of fingerprints, blood samples, or DNA, police depended on an outdated system referred to as either anthropometry or Bertillonage, a system which used a set of eleven body measurements to identify a person. These measurements in turn depended on reliable eye-witness accounts. So, investigations in the Night Marauder case made use of such things as the suspect’s physical build and way of movement. Race was of course a seemingly simple factor in identification, but the presence of soot on the bedding of some attack victims suggests a white man could hide his race by blackening his face.

Other than fingerprinting and DNA, the identification of firearms could have also really benefitted law enforcement in the Night Marauder case. The identification of firearms was developed and expanded during the 1920s by American ballistics expert Calvin Goddard. Each firearm is known to leave individual markings on a bullet and case when it is loaded and fired. Goddard used his passion for ballistics and justice to create his most famous invention, the comparison microscope. This microscope allows scientists to compare specimens side by side under one device. By 1924, the first American police crime lab was built in Los Angeles, California and began to publicize microscopic comparisons of bullets. However, Goddard’s microscope was not popularized until 1927, after the end of the Night Marauder case.

Another method that would have been useful during these murders is photographing the crime scene. Crime scene photography or “forensic photography” has been around as long as the camera. The use of popularized forensic photography was created in the 19th century by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon. Forensic photography includes taking photographs of the crime scene at different angles. This can be used to refer to the crime scene, but it leaves room for creative interpretation for what happened at the scene. Even though there is not any evidence that crime scene photos were taken during this time, it would be interesting to see if there were. If crime scene pictures were available in the Night Marauder case, it would make it easier to look back and interpret what happened based on the modern forensics we have now. What were the steps Maryville or Knoxville police took to secure the crime scenes? Are there pictures somewhere out there that depicts the gruesome scenes of the Night Marauder victims?

Knoxville and Maryville are small areas. Even Knoxville, which is today considered a decent sized city, pales in comparison to cities such as New York and Los Angeles. This often leads to quite large differences in the technology used between the largely populated cities and the smaller and rural areas. New technology starts in larger cities and trickles down into the smallest towns. This tends to be true even today. Forensics is no exception to this. Los Angeles was the first American city to have a crime lab but not many others followed in the footsteps of Los Angeles until later. New York, along with some other major cities, did not have any crime labs set up until around the mid 1930’s. This leaves no likelihood that the Knoxville or Maryville area would have had a crime lab to even collect and analyze evidence that would be at a crime scene. This means that any forensic science would not have been happening at all. Even if it had been, different police departments were not always communicating with each other, allowing for more criminals to get away with their crimes. The Night Marauder case relies solely on the statements and testimonies of victims.

Throughout all these witness’ statements, there are references to multiple things that would make the case easier to solve today. For one, now it is standard for houses to have electricity. The Night Marauder would have had much a harder time in preventing the residents from seeing his face, as he would need knowledge of where the breaker for the house is to be able to turn off all the lights. There is also security footage everywhere. In a number of cases, law enforcement pursued a suspect on foot or in their cars. Today the cars would have dash cameras and uniforms would have also had a body camera. Streets are covered from multiple angles by traffic, business, and home security cameras. Bystanders have cameras in their phones. Technology is something that has made it much harder to get away with crimes of this kind so easily.

Overview of the Night Marauder attacks

Between 1919 and 1926, east Tennessee was terrorized by a serial killer dubbed the “Night Marauder” by the press.  Up until 1921, his attacks were focused in and around the city of Knoxville. Most attacks followed the same pattern—the intruder would break into a modest home, one that did not have electricity, and approach a bed in which a woman slept with 1-2 others. In some cases, it was the bedroom of sisters, and in others it was the home of a young couple. During the attack, the Marauder would first silently take the matches from next to a bedside lamp. Then, he would awake the woman by putting his hands on her legs or body. Once she awoke, he would shine a flashlight in her eyes, brandishing a pistol in his other hand, and make “unspeakable demands.” If her companion in the bed attempted to intervene, the intruder would shoot that person and then sexually assault or at least attempt to assault the woman he had focused on.

One of the most controversial attacks took place in Knoxville in 1919, when an intruder killed Bertie Lindsey and then threatened her cousin before fleeing. The cousin said she believed the intruder to be a Black man. Immediately, the police chief of Knoxville ordered the arrest of Maurice Mays, a local politician. Mays was quickly convicted on the murder charge based on little evidence, leading to a Race Riot in the city in which several people lost their lives. Twice, attorneys would be able to appeal Mays’ conviction in the TN State Supreme court, but they were unable to save him. He swore his innocence up to his execution in 1921. Among the arguments during his appeals was that the murder of Bertie Lindsey was identical to several other attacks that, in fact, were ongoing during Mays’ incarceration. Efforts to exonerate the reputation of Maurice Mays have not yet been successful even though an investigator testified in court in 1926 that Mays had to have been innocent.

In 1922, another suspect stood trial for these attacks, a mill worker named John T. Honeycutt who sometimes went by the alias John Murray. Honeycutt had fled to Alabama with the wife of another man when a Knoxville detective found him and brought him back to Tennessee. When he was taken into custody, Honeycutt reportedly told the officers, “Don’t let them hang me.” Facing several counts of assault and murder, Honeycutt was first tried on the charge of firing a gun at police Captain J. J. Schneider while being pursued on foot. Witnesses identified Honeycutt as the man who shot at the officer, and he was convicted on that charge. Unfortunately, Honeycutt died mysteriously in the jail before he could be tried on the remaining charges.

In late 1922, the Night Marauder turned his attention to Blount County, in the towns of Maryville and Alcoa. Maryville was a small college town that included several mills. Alcoa was a company town built by the Aluminum Company of America, headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA. After the attacks began in Alcoa, the city manager contacted ALCOA leadership to request a corporate investigator come help him and the county sheriff catch the killer. Through their combined efforts, they gathered enough evidence to arrest a man named Will D. Sheffey, who had faced similar charges in 1915 in nearby Sevier County. Sheffey had been acquitted of murdering Dora Davis in 1915 before enlisting as a medic in WWI. In 1923, an anonymous letter taunting the sheriff and purportedly coming from the killer himself claimed responsibility for the murders of Bertie Lindsey and Dora Davis.

In Maryville, Sheffey would face three trials on the charge of killing Luther Wells and attempting to assault Ada Wells and then shooting her as well. The first two trials ended in a mistrial and the third ended in acquittal. In 1926, Sheffey was released after his acquittal on the Wells case even though he still faced charges in other cases. The last murder in Maryville happened after his release but before his departure for California to start a new life. He never returned to be tried on the remaining counts. After that, everyone in East Tennessee moved on and forgot about it.

Though many in the area today express surprise that attacks of this sort had ever happened here, a surprising number of people reached out to me with family lore about Sheffey and his trials. Maryville was deeply divided on the topic of his guilt or innocence at the time and the courtrooms were overflowing with spectators. Everyone had a story to tell. One local historian had a collection of documents detailing the activities of the private investigator in the case; he was happy to share those documents with me, saying he’d had no idea what they were about. Descendants of the county Sheriff who tracked Sheffey let me listen to an interview with the Sheriff’s widow recorded before her death in the 1970s. Archivists and librarians across east Tennessee have been happy to help me and my students with our research. On-line resources have allowed us to reconstruct the attacks, the efforts of law enforcement to catch the killer, and the public reaction to every development. This is still a work in progress, but we have so much to say.

Introduction to the Project

I had recently published a book, Murder, Justice, and Harmony in an Eighteenth-Century French Village (Routledge, 2019) and was pretty excited to talk about it with my students. The regulars, mostly history majors, heard so much about my work and especially how the histories of emotions, of violence, and of murder had opened my eyes to a whole new literature. I asked if they’d be interested in a class on the history of murder, and they were excited at the prospect. So, taking advantage of one of the benefits of a small and intimate program, I designed a whole new class. Once it was announced, I welcomed students from Criminal Justice, Psychology, and Writing/Communications majors as well.

The class was offered in the Spring term of 2021, and by early January I had most of the framework in place. I just needed to follow up on a couple of topics. One topic stood out to me as worthy of at least one lecture: a police force may pursue a certain line of inquiry simply because it is one they’ve seen before. It is very difficult to accept an innovative explanation for a crime that seems as old as humanity itself. Think about how bizarre it was when the first police encountering serial killers suggested that perhaps the killer chose random victims or simply hated women or something like that. Most of law enforcement scoffed at such ideas in the mid-nineteenth century. Everyone knew that murder was a personal crime and the killers were connected to their victims.

I had seen a reference to a headline from the local paper in 1926, a banner headline proclaiming that the Night Marauder had struck again. The details of the story revealed that a survivor of that night’s home invasion was recently divorced. The responding officers declared that her ex-husband had to be the attacker. The woman denied this suggestion outright but the officers insisted–only to find out later that the ex was innocent. I thought, “This is an excellent local example of the phenomenon.”

However, the local papers from the 1920s have not yet been digitized. The only way to get the details of this particular story was to head down to the Blount County Public Library in Maryville and take a look at the microfilm. Thus, the technology available to me forced me to scroll through years of issues, and revealed the extent of the Marauder’s attacks. I soon understood what I had before me, and began to dig into the whole, big, ugly story.

Our hero–the microfilm reader at BCPL

The class was a huge success, and that first batch of students analyzed primary source documents related to the case and pursued individual research topics on a wide range of background topics. As of the Fall term of 2021, I have a team of nine undergraduate research assistants, each tackling a single task they can work on at their own pace. In the coming Spring term, I will fold the students in my “Introduction to Methods and Theory in History” course. All in all, this will be an exciting learning experience for all of us.

In future posts, I intend to follow the timeline of Night Marauder attacks and, along the way, link to the various libraries, archives, and other partners who have helped us and walk with us on this path. Thank you for coming along.