Christmastime in Knoxville, 1910, Part 2

When Santa Claus had the grippe, and an unexplained promise of Amontillado

"The week before Christmas this year will be remembered as one of shocking horrors," wrote the Journal editor. He was likely alluding to the weird rash of big-city fires that had killed more than 100 in several Northern cities. Knoxville's horrors were quieter.

On the hillside just below the Catholic church on West Vine—in a locked coal shed, lying on quilts—was the decomposing body of an elderly man. Eventually identified as Jeremiah Gaines, he was a "handy andy" who'd been missing for a while. Police found no sign of violence, and concluded that he'd been sleeping in there, and died of natural causes, or froze to death in a recent cold snap. He was poor, and there was no call for an inquest.

The dead young athlete in the city jail was more of a puzzle. Edgar Adams, better known on baseball diamonds as "Dude," had been discovered unconscious in a toilet stall in the Southern station, in the wee hours of Dec. 22.

He'd played ball at Milligan College in Elizabethton, and had also attended St. Mary's College in Belmont, N.C. A bit older than first assumed, he was a veteran of the Spanish-American War. The scuttlebutt was that he'd been an addict, and that he'd taken "an excess dose of drugs."

That's impossible, his mother insisted. He was, after all, grandson of a Baptist minister. She did say that her son suffered both kidney and heart problems.

A coroner's jury didn't need to mull it over for long: "He came to death by natural causes unknown to this jury." Verdicts came quick in 1910, especially when there was shopping to do.

If authorities discovered why he'd carried nothing but a bottle of pills, or what kind of pills they were, or what he was doing in the train station long after midnight, they kept it quiet.

The Sentinel didn't report on it. But under "Funerals," in a space usually assumed to be paid classifieds, was the peculiar declaration that he "did not die under the influence of either whiskey or drugs, according to city physician Henry A. Smith."

Dr. Smith didn't make time for an autopsy. Dude Adams was buried in Greenwood Cemetery on Dec. 23, the day after he died.

***

The Tennessee Volunteers had fielded a team that year, but you wouldn't guess it by reading the Knoxville sports pages, preoccupied with the upcoming baseball season, and local basketball—and professional middleweight wrestling champ Walt Evans, who was shunning a challenge from Achmed, the Terrible Turk. Evans was Knoxville's athletic hero in 1910. Just after the holidays, his downing of the Turk—who was rumored to be merely Greek—would get national notice.

The holidays were once a busy time for vaudeville, but the Sentinel yawned, "The week antedating Christmas is unusually uneventful, theatrically." Kyrle Bellew, the British-Australian who'd played Watson in the first-ever screen adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes story, performed at Staub's, a few months before his death. On the 22nd, Staub's featured Metz in Ireland, featuring Al. H. Wilson, the singing comedian famous for his German dialect. He drew a small audience. After a show by Beulah Poynter, "the foremost petite American emotional actress," on her way to moderate fame in motion pictures, the Bijou was closed all week. A third vaudeville theater, the Grand—a block away, in what was Knoxville's Theatre District in 1910—was open with some random acts, featuring Leona Stephens, "the original Boogie Boo Girl," an impressionist and some jugglers, with a few unspecified "Kinodrome" movies for further variety.

Churches offered unusual competition. The First Cumberland Presbyterian Church opened a play called Santa Claus Has the Grippe, featuring the three kings, the Empress of Germany, St. Valentine, and Uncle Sam. On Christmas weekend, Ft. Sanders Presbyterian—the future Laurel Theater—put on a drama called The Birds' Christmas Carol, based on a popular novel about a kind girl who dies slowly of an unnamed disease. To brighten up the tragedy, Santa Claus showed up at the end.

Shopping madness reached its crescendo on Christmas Eve, the year's busiest shopping day. "The usual amount of hustling, crowding, and pushing prevailed," reported the Journal & Tribune, "but the crowds seemed to have the holiday spirit and even rough jolts did not loose them from their good humor." Market Square's vendors were obliged to stay open until 10 p.m. At that time, "the doors of the market were closed and the tired hucksters and stall keepers hurried to their homes to prepare their Christmas trees."

A mugging got people wondering about themselves. Arthur Kitts was walking on Clinch Avenue just after dark when two men jumped him and stuffed his own coat into his mouth so he couldn't scream as they took his money. During the scuffle, Kitts noticed pedestrians quietly stepping past the robbery in progress.

On Christmas Day itself, the Knights Templars hosted their "Christmas Libations" at 11 a.m., with multiple toasts. The Knoxville Bowling Club hosted its annual Christmas tournament at their club in East Knoxville.

Mrs. William G. Brownlow looked outside, from the East Cumberland Avenue house she'd shared with her Reconstruction-governor husband, the controversial Parson, dead these 33 years. She decided it was too cold to visit her son. The 91-year-old lady who had hosted Republican presidents tolerated a steady stream of holiday visitors. By the end of the day, her parlor was "a bower of flowers."

Two miles north of Mrs. Brownlow's house, in Edgewood, a man named Peter Hefner drank enough on Christmas Day to realize how angry he really was. He went over to have a word with his neighbor, James Johnson. The argument turned ugly, and Johnson, who was carrying a .32, shot Hefner twice in the chest. At issue was the charge that, on Christmas Eve, Johnson's little boy had dumped a bucket of water on Hefner's son.

The Stratford Hotel on Wall Street advertised a Christmas feast of multiple courses, including "Lamb Chops, farcied Tyrolese," Spanish mackerel, green sea turtle, Yorkshire pudding. Somehow they got away, in a dry state, with a promise of Amontillado.