The First Modern Christmas, Part I

The stimulants of 1908: Of bootleggers, grifters, and basketball on roller skates

If you got clobbered by the time-space continuum on the way home and woke up on the corner of Gay Street and Clinch Avenue 100 years ago, you might find some things weirdly familiar. One of the buildings on that corner, the one we know as the Burwell, was completed and ready for its Jan. 1 grand opening, as the Bank and Trust building. Suddenly Knoxville's tallest building, it boasted about 90 tenants. Just two blocks down the street, the Bijou Theatre was under construction.

Some of the headlines in the Knoxville Journal and the Sentinel were ones you'd recognize. The United States was still enmeshed in an apparently interminable overseas conflict, years after the apparently successful end of a war. The U.S. economy was in recession, though Knoxville boosters claimed the city's economy was so diverse it wouldn't see the worst of it. And in November, the United States had made history by electing a new sort of president. American voters had put aside generations of prejudice and bigotry to elect, for the first time in history, a 300-pounder. William Howard Taft was, in fact, the heaviest head of state in the world.

Knoxville was changing rapidly during the Christmas season of 1908. Reformist organizations were rallying to end air pollution—City Council had voted to empower an inspector to fine plants belching visible black or dark-gray smoke, though light-gray smoke was allowed—and handguns, which news reports suggest were already sharply restricted within city limits.

And Knoxville was getting the hang of prohibition, about a year after the city voted itself dry. Some, including Mayor John Brooks and Police Chief W.P. Chandler, thought it a wonderful new era, and quoted statistics to prove it. Crime rates had plummeted since the city closed its approximately 100 saloons. Murders were down 50 percent. Arrests for all charges had fallen from 150-300 per week to fewer than 50. Christmas had once been the drunkest, noisiest, most violent time of Knoxville's year. Murder was as much a part of Christmas as mistletoe. But by 1908, Christmas had suddenly become, as unlikely as it might seem, a family holiday. The number of public drunks arrested at Christmas had dropped from 80 in 1906 to 12 in 1908.

It was an astonishing turnaround for this once famously dangerous city. In 1908 Knoxville's dramatic statistics were being quoted in other parts of the country as proof that prohibition worked. With Knoxville's dramatic turnaround as a handy example, the State-Widers, a temperance movement to ban alcohol across the entire state, was gaining momentum, with well-attended rallies at the Market House, including a big one on Dec. 20.

With all the improvements, though, came some major losses and ironies: The big East Tennessee Brewing Co. was still in business near Mechanicsville, selling its brew to markets beyond Knoxville's restrictions. Prohibition boosted membership in privates clubs, like the new Cherokee Country Club, and a downtown organization called the Cumberland Club, a posh white men's club on Walnut Street.

Former saloon-goers found other things to keep them busy. Sports were a big deal during the holiday season of 1908, if not necessarily football. The Vols' season of the fall was the best one in memory—they posted a 7-2 record—but by December, football was old news, unmentioned in the papers even in retrospect. The University of Tennessee was considering organizing a team for the relatively new sport of basketball, but didn't have much going on yet. The YMCA, which hosted a yuletide basketball tournament at their downtown gym, was way ahead. And there was a golfing challenge between Highland Golf Club, a Fort Sanders-based club that kept a home course at what would later be called Tyson Park, and the Cherokee Country Club. Highland was beating Cherokee. The traditional Christmas Day Bowling Tournament was coming up at the Knoxville Bowling Club's capacious headquarters in East Knoxville, near Chilhowee Park. And, of course, the roller-skating rink at Gay and Main Street would be open throughout the holidays. The novelty of roller-skating hadn't worn off, and some daring young sportsmen decided to combine two novelties: The rage of 1908 was basketball on roller skates. There would be a big game on Christmas Day.

It was a healthy new era. The only crime that was on the upswing in 1908, and maybe the only business, was bootlegging. "It does seem that there are some people on earth to whom Christmas is not Christmas without a bit of ‘stimulant,'" reported the Journal. "To supply the wants and needs of these fellows, the bootleggers have been in their glory for a few days. It is the season for bootleggers, and they are working overtime." Six bootleggers were arrested on Dec. 20, plus two more for vending.

Police enjoyed telling the story of Will Cooper. He noticed a couple of guys on the South Central Bowery who appeared to be looking for something. They were indeed, as it turned out. Detective E.J. Haynes was in plainclothes. Lt. Will Jack was in uniform, but was wearing an overcoat.

"I'm the fellow you're looking for," Cooper assured them. "The officers hadn't a doubt that Cooper was right," deadpanned the Journal. When he brought them a pint of moonshine, he boasted, "That makes 49 I've sold today."

Lt. Jack responded, a little cryptically, "All right, I'll make it 50," as he arrested Cooper and escorted him to the city jail.

But for the most part, the Christmas season of 1908 was quiet, almost eerily good-natured. There was a knifing between friends on Market Square, a shooting down in the Bottom, on Willow Street. Minor scrapes, for the most part. Probably the most pitiful story was that of a middle-aged widow named Mollie who ran a boarding house downtown. She married a boarder she'd met the previous month, one Harry Walters, who convinced her she should sell everything she owned and move with him to Cincinnati. She readily agreed, sold all the furniture in her house, and gave him the money. Then waited for him to pick her up. He left her "barren of everything but the old Negro servant, a fire in the grate, and a cold lunch prepared for the journey to Cincinnati." Police believed him to be a local grifter.

Some sad stories, if not the usual crime wave. By Christmas Eve, nobody was even dead. It was right weird. But the murder holiday wouldn't last until noon on Christmas Day.

To be continued...