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.