Matt Lakin Knoxville News Sentinel
Published 7:20 p.m. UTC Jun 26, 2018
Editor’s Note: June 27 marks 115 years since Harry Logan, who was known as “Kid Curry” escaped from a Knoxville jail. This article, which recounts his time in Knoxville, was first published on Jan. 29, 2012.
Bad guys can’t stand a camera, then or now.
The man in handcuffs balked as soon as he saw the photographer waiting for him in the jail office.
“You have got no use for my picture,” he snapped.
The man, who called himself Charles Johnson, turned his back and threatened to do worse when the Sentinel photographer wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“When something was said about taking a rear view of him, he glanced rather wisely toward the instrument, as much as to say that if a picture was taken he would kick the thing to pieces,” the Sentinel’s reporter wrote. “And that’s just what he would have done.”
The newspaper didn’t give up. Local artist Lloyd Branson slipped into the jail and scribbled a portrait of the suspect as a doctor stitched up the still-bloody head wound he’d suffered in a fight with the two Knoxville police officers he’d shot days earlier.
The “perfect sketch . … as good as any photograph” topped the front page of the Sentinel’s evening edition. Harvey Logan — the train robber, cop-killer and Western outlaw hunted from coast to coast — had come to town for the Sentinel’s most famous perp walk.
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Covering crime hasn’t gotten any easier since Dec. 16, 1901, when a Sentinel reporter and photographer showed up to greet Logan and a posse of Knox County deputies hauling him back to face state and federal charges. But the newspaper never gave up on a story as it entered the 20th century, which brought everything from manhunts, political fights and disasters to weddings, births and funerals.
The Sentinel looked a little different from its first edition cranked out by founder John T. Hearn on a snowy December night in 1886 — more pages, more editions and more photos and illustrations. Copies now cost as much as a whopping nickel per day — but still a dime for a week’s worth.
Here’s a sampling of some of the top stories the Sentinel covered over those 10 years.
The Wild West Comes East
The story of Harvey Logan’s Knoxville experience began in a pool room. Logan, alias Kid Curry, made a name and career as a bandit in a West giving way from old to new. He used at least half a dozen aliases in his career but came to Knoxville under the name Charles Johnson.
That’s the name he used when he stopped in Knoxville one December night in 1901. That’s the name he gave as he passed out bills stolen by him and other members of Butch Cassidy’s “Wild Bunch” gang in a Montana train robbery months earlier, a robbery that sparked a nationwide manhunt and had already left a Montana sheriff dead.
That’s the name he might have given if he’d come quietly when Knoxville police officers William Dinwiddie and Robert Saylor waded with billy clubs thrashing into a drunken fight in Ike Jones’ pool room on Central Street the night of Dec. 13, 1901. Logan drew a gun instead and opened fire.
The outlaw got away — beaten, bruised and bloody from the officers’ sticks — and left Dinwiddie and Saylor lying on the floor. The officers survived but died years later from complications blamed on the bullets they caught that night.
A passerby’s tip and the smoke from a campfire led an armed posse to Logan two days later, holed up in some woods outside Jefferson City. The Sentinel carried the full story — every detail from the shooting to the steps to Logan’s surrender and his return to Knoxville in handcuffs.
The posse and their fans couldn’t believe he gave up without a fight.
“You didn’t give me a chance,” Logan said.
A year and a half later — after a federal trial, a robbery conviction and jailhouse visits from fans all over East Tennessee — Logan got his chance. Just after 4 p.m. on June 27, 1903, Logan — still in jail awaiting an appeal — snagged a guard with a wire lasso, stole two guns and forced the jailer to let him out. He rode away across the Gay Street Bridge on Sheriff J.W. Fox’s personal horse, waving at children in their yards along the way.
Logan never returned to East Tennessee and died a year later — at least by official accounts — when he shot himself to avoid capture following a Colorado train robbery. He’d been a faithful Sentinel subscriber during his jail stay, keeping up with every story and editorial on his case.
“I see where the papers gave you a great deal of notoriety,” his lover, Anna Rogers, wrote to him in jail. “That is all a damned old paper is good for. … If I had them all in a bundle I could burn them and their darned reporters too, for they never did give me anything but the devil all the way thru.”
Overturning the Ordinary
While the city followed Logan’s adventures, a meteorologist at the local weather bureau quietly perfected an invention that would change the world.
Weston Fulton came to Knoxville from Alabama as an employee of what’s now the National Weather Service, then based locally in an office of the Van Deventer Building where the TVA plaza stands today. He wanted to perform some experiments on water vapor and electricity but needed a suitable vessel for the vapor.
His 1902 invention — a seamless metal bellows — trumped the results of his experiment. The device, which Fulton called the sylphon after the Norse weather goddess Sylph, proved revolutionary in its uses for regulating temperatures in everything from radiators and refrigerators to airplane engines and torpedoes.
“In the United States alone, more than 50 million are in daily use,” a 1940 News-Sentinel profile of the inventor reported. “They played an important part in helping win the World War and are being used in the present war.”
At first Fulton couldn’t find a backer for his invention, but he got enough capital to open a factory by 1904. Within decades, he was a millionaire with more than 125 patents in his name.
“All supposed experts said it was impossible to make it in the first place, and if I did make it (that) it wouldn’t be any good anyway,” Fulton recalled. “That is the general human attitude toward anything out of the ordinary.”
The ordinary varied from day to day, as improved technology made the transmission and publication of breaking news easier than ever. When President William McKinley fell to an assassin’s bullet Sept. 6, 1901, while shaking hands at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., the Sentinel rushed the news into print in time for the evening edition.
When fire and an earthquake ravaged San Francisco on April 18, 1906, the newspaper splashed wire stories from the scene atop the front page that evening and even localized the story via an interview with John Menzies, a Knoxville railroad man who once lived in the city and recalled enduring up to five tremors a day.
“When it gets sultry in this part of the United States, we look for thunder and showers,” Menzies said. “When it gets sultry in California, people look for seismic disturbances.”
The automobile and telephone allowed the newspaper and its competitor, the Journal, to expand their pool of correspondents and keep up with more news from outlying East Tennessee counties, such as the March 11, 1904, fire that swept downtown LaFollette. Reporters found plenty of news at home as well, from police beat briefs to government corruption such as the Potter’s Field scandal of February 1903, when Knox County officials discovered gravediggers billing taxpayers for bogus burials in the pauper’s cemetery.
The Sentinel leapt into action for two of the worst disasters in Tennessee’s history — the New Market Train Wreck of 1904, which killed 64 people in North America’s bloodiest railroad crash up to that point, and the Fraterville Mine explosion of 1902, when 216 coal miners died underground in the state’s deadliest mine cave-in ever.
Within hours of the Fraterville explosion May 19, 1902, the newspaper dispatched a reporter to the mouth of the mine in the Anderson County mountains while others handled interviews by long-distance phone call.
“As soon as it became known … a staff correspondent of the Sentinel left for the scene,” the newspaper wrote. “He is now on the ground, and the details, as obtainable so far, are being sent direct from the scene.”
Reporters and photographers stood by as searchers hauled body after body from the mine. By the third day, the newspaper published letters scrawled by some of the men who survived the initial blast but died waiting for rescue.
“We are all praying for air to support us,” Jacob Vowell wrote to the wife and children he’d never see again. “But it is getting so bad. … O, how I wish to be with you. Goodbye, all of you, goodbye. … O, God, for one more breath.”
The investigation that followed revealed mine company officials had ignored — and government inspectors had failed to enforce — warnings of poor ventilation, outdated equipment and spillover gases from a nearby abandoned mine. Editorials in the Sentinel demanded answers.
“We know little more of the causes than when it had first occurred,” the newspaper observed a week after the explosion. “Such an event strikes horror to us all. Its like must not occur again in a Tennessee mine. … The life of the humblest man is more precious than any number of cubes of bituminous coal.”
Business and Pleasure
In practice, life often proved cheap. Knoxville in the first decade of the twentieth century operated as a wide-open town for legal and illegal business alike.
City leaders trumpeted the growth of businesses, most of it textile industry such as the Standard Knitting Mill, which opened in 1900, and older businesses such as the Brookside Cotton Mill and the Knoxville Woolen Mills. U.S. Census Bureau figures showed more than a third of Knoxville’s workers made a living in the mills, some of which employed more than 1,000 people per day in round-the-clock shifts.
Even so, the city still ranked fourth for industry in Tennessee — behind the larger cities of Memphis and Nashville and the smaller city of Chattanooga. Somehow Knoxville couldn’t catch up, despite a vast labor pool drawn mainly from the farm families of the surrounding countryside.
The red-light district along Central Street, known as Friendlytown or the Bowery, enjoyed a bigger boom. Police rarely enforced the laws against prostitution, gambling and Sunday alcohol sales, except for periodic raids. Politicians like five-time Mayor Samuel Heiskell saw the saloon and the whorehouse as not just inevitable but sources of tax revenue.
The city directory even listed madams by name — more than two dozen by the turn of the century.
That many bawdy houses couldn’t go unnoticed. Heiskell hit on a solution of fining and harassing madams outside the Bowery and leaving those inside its limits alone. He proclaimed the result “one of the best, if not the best, regulated (vice) district(s) in the United States.”
Reformers weren’t satisfied. Rallies, sermons and letters to the editor condemned Knoxville’s saloons and brothels as cesspits that shattered families and devoured souls. Women’s suffragists such as Lizzie Crozier French and lawmen such as Knox County Sheriff Harmon Kreis joined the perpetual chorus of clergymen in calling for a ban on all sales of alcohol inside the city limits.
The city set a vote on the question for March 1907. The battle over the bottle that followed made for one of the most bitter political fights in the city’s history.
Heiskell and other members of the city elite warned against prohibition. The mayor, who swore he’d never drunk a drop of alcohol in his life, estimated a ban would cost the city more than $30,000 in tax money.
Prohibitionists responded by calling him a sellout to the liquor interests.
“There is not a boy in the city whose life is not worth more than $30,000,” one preacher declared to a crowd of a thousand-plus.
The Sentinel counseled caution, reminding both sides — wet and dry — that each would still have to live with the other after the election.
“Sobriety and temperance are to be sought (in the debate),” one editorial suggested. “Factional hatred doesn’t promote growth of a city.”
The drys ultimately rode a wave of piety to victory. Knoxville’s saloons closed their doors for the last time Thursday, Oct. 31, 1907, at 10 p.m. Some closed early with not a bottle left on the shelf.
“Notwithstanding the fact that more whisky was sold in Knoxville on Thursday than any other one day, there was less trouble than on an ordinary Saturday night,” the Sentinel reported. “During the last half hour, the time was counted off by minutes. … Hundreds carried (home) bottles, baskets, suitcases, bundles, etc., filled with liquor for future use.”
Tennessee enacted prohibition statewide two years later. Knoxville would stay dry — at least on paper — for 53 years.
Law and Disorder
Somehow crime didn’t stop. Shootings, stabbings and other violent crimes continued to make regular news. The Knoxville Police Department suffered the bloodiest day in its history just two months later when two officers died in a struggle with a suspect outside a Bowery bordello on New Year’s Day 1908.
Officers Mike Wrenn and O.L. Jarnagin were tussling over a revolver with Earnest Wells, a jailbird wanted on outstanding warrants, when the gun went off — repeatedly. Wells ran but later gave himself up to police, who hustled him to jail to avoid a gathering mob.
“There is not a home in the city today that does not feel bereft of brave defenders,” the Sentinel mourned in an editorial. “Like heroes on the field of battle, they fell at their posts.”
Wells insisted he fired in self-defense as the officers beat and choked him. He was convicted of first-degree murder — reduced to second-degree after an appeal led to a new trial — and sentenced to death — reduced after the second trial to 12 years in prison.
The reduced sentence spared Wells a dubious honor. A different cop-killer, John McPherson, took the spot in history as the last man hanged in the Knox County jail.
McPherson, 24, went to the gallows March 23, 1908, for killing William Walker, a deputy. Sheriff C.A. Reeder disappointed the gathered crowd that night by closing the hanging to the public.
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Only a handful of family, ministers and reporters stood by as McPherson fidgeted atop the trapdoor, grimaced and asked the sheriff to loosen the rope around his neck for one last breath.
“He drew a number of long breaths and inflated his lungs and held his breath when the trap was dropped,” the Sentinel reported. “He was a perfect specimen of humanity, and very strong.”
The state took over the duty of carrying out executions the following year.
A Deepening Divide
As the saloons went dark, prospects continued to dim for Knoxville’s black population. The city had enjoyed for more than a century a reputation as a haven for racial harmony. By the 1900s, the harmony was hitting sour notes.
Politics in Knoxville, where Democrats traditionally controlled the city and Republicans the county, had been renowned for viciousness since the days of Parson Brownlow. White politicians in a divided city courted the black vote by appointing black policemen and firemen and funding improvements to black schools and communities.
That vote lost power with every year of the new century.
Whites searching for work continued to pour into the city from the countryside, dwarfing the black population, diluting the power of the black vote and competing with black workers for jobs. Segregation laws across the South hardened at the same time.
Blacks rarely made the Sentinel’s pages in those days unless arrested.
On July 5, 1905, black passengers on the city’s streetcars found themselves forced to sit in the back, as required by a new state law. Protests and boycotts in Knoxville and across Tennessee failed to bring any change.
Cal Johnson, a businessman and former slave, donated land for the city’s first YMCA for blacks in 1906. A little more than a year later, the new dry law forced Johnson to close two saloons, one of them the oldest in the city.
Dr. Henry Morgan Green, a respected physician who helped organize Knoxville’s first black medical school, won election to the City Council in 1908. He served for four years, until the city switched to a commission form of government with all seats elected by citywide vote.
No black face would appear on the City Council for the next 62 years.
Birth in the Family
The curtain rose in 1909 on one of Knoxville’s longest-lived cultural icons.
The Bijou Theater opened March 8 after $50,000 worth of construction. A crowd of about 1,500 packed the aisles to see the musical “Little Johnny Jones” and have their picture taken from behind the stage by Sentinel photographer Jim Thompson.
The theater, which offered performances at the rate of a dime per head, “has had a most auspicious beginning,” the newspaper reported. “There is no doubt but that the large audience of last night will be followed by equally great and enthusiastic auditors at subsequent performances here.”
The early Bijou had no movie screen or projector. Those wouldn’t be installed until 1915.
Almost 50 years after those additions, the theater screened “All the Way Home,” based on the childhood of a boy born the same year as the Bijou.
James Rufus Agee was born Nov. 27, 1909, and spent the first 10 years of his life at 1505 Highland Ave. in the suburb of West Knoxville, now Fort Sanders. He’d be gone by 1919, when his mother, Laura, moved to Middle Tennessee.
Agee’s childhood in Knoxville and the death of his father in a car wreck served as the basis for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “A Death in the Family.” Stage and movie adaptations followed.
Agee’s novel chronicled a boy’s awakening to the harshness of the world around him and his attempts to understand it. The Sentinel would do the same for Knoxville in the decades to come.
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