A Historic Christmas Murder for 2009 (Part I)

A dead man in the street wasn't all that common a sight, even in Knoxville, where a few years ago there were sometimes half-a-dozen killings in the week before Christmas. But that was back before the city banned saloons. Christmas had been more peaceful since then. A guy on his way to work just before dawn on Saturday, Dec. 18, noticed the young man lying there on Jacksboro Pike. Maybe this street had once gone to Jacksboro, or toward it, but by 1909 it was just a street on the downtown fringe of what was then known as the cotton-mill district, alongside the railroad tracks on the west side of the National Cemetery.

The man in the street had little family to shop for—the brother he lived with, and a mother out of town—but the last day of his life had been the busiest retail day of the year. Downtown was decked out for Christmas and newspapers speculated that Knoxville was becoming a major candy capital, that if all the candy manufactured in Knoxville just during the Christmas season were piled together, it would be a new mountain. The season offered a few surprises, like a couple of Japanese importers who had set up for the season on Gay Street in a space left by a failed department store. They sold Japanese art and home furnishings: vases, screens, pictures, scarves. Market Square was jammed, the greenest it had ever been, some remarked, with garlands and wreaths and trees for sale by farmers who, after the growing season was over, discovered city people will buy anything, even pieces of holly and ivy.

Shoppers poured in on the trains from all over the region and suburbanites jammed the streetcars. The city called for extra police to keep an eye on Gay Street's intersections, keeping men posted at the Union and Wall corners, historic trouble spots during the holidays for both traffic and crime.

They couldn't be everywhere. A midget who tried to buy a ticket home to North Carolina at the Southern terminal had a hard time getting the teller's attention. A stranger offered to help, then shortchanged him. A second man who observed the incident confronted the thief outside the station and, in a fight, got the small man's money back. But then he lured the would-be traveler into an alley and mugged him. People will tell you that Americans were nicer 100 years ago; they don't read old newspapers.

Patrolman John Keisling observed the body on Jacksboro Pike and found a corpse with bullet holes in the left breast and arm. He was already cold. Keisling called headquarters and they sent out a couple more patrolmen and two detectives. They had a good look, interviewed some neighbors, and escorted the body downtown to Frances Gardner's undertaking business on Union Avenue. There, the coroner convened a jury, and in the presence of the victim's body, they decided what would be done next.

The man who lay dead, they learned, was William Sanders, 31. That name was once famous here, but the man on the slab wasn't close kin to the Union general who'd met a violent end in Knoxville at about the same age, and who'd had a fort named after him. It was almost forgotten. Old Fort Sanders existed only in lumpy traces amid new suburban development known among the fashionable as West End.

The William Sanders who lay on the slab at Gardner's was originally from Hot Springs, N.C., but had lived in Knoxville for years. Once a railway conductor for the Southern lines, he'd recently worked as a foreman at the sprawling Coster Shops on the north side of town, Southern's huge industrial repair factory that served the entire railway. A large part of the business of Knoxville in 1909 was keeping trains in good repair. The landmark nearest where they found the body was the "old car-wheel factory."

Sanders worked in Coster's coal-chute section. He was single, but was drawn to a young woman named Carrie Taylor. That Friday evening he'd gotten off work, and apparently wasn't tempted by Tempest and Sunshine, the popular romantic play showing that night at the new Bijou. He turned up some liquor somewhere, and found himself with Carrie, at the home of a woman named Ella Weaver, who also went by the name Henderlight, or Wheeler. They visited happily for about an hour—another man named Thomas Dunn was with them—when, at about 10, there was a knock on the door.

Two men entered. One was Tom Rollins, a cotton-mill worker. The other was Luther Nelson, a 25-year-old who'd worked in a pop stand and a pool hall in the neighborhood, and who was known to have a keen interest in Carrie Taylor himself. He was drunk and armed.

The two men argued about Carrie until Ella Weaver had enough of it and ordered them out of her house. As the men left, beyond the door the women could hear Nelson say something like, "You are about to get your killing."

On the street, they confronted each other. At some point Nelson pulled his revolver and fired five times. Sanders staggered some distance—74 paces, as someone ascertained by means obscure—and fell. At least two people saw the shooting from their homes, but no one bothered to check on the health of the victim.

It was a handy spot for a killing. Nelson left the crime scene when he hopped a northbound freight.

The jury's advice came through just four hours after the discovery of William Sanders' body. Police arrested Tom Rollins right away. He claimed he'd hurried home during the argument and didn't know exactly what happened between Sanders and Nelson.

The coroner's jury called for the arrest of Luther Nelson, at large.

That afternoon, it began to snow. It coated the houses and trees, but melted in the streets. m

[to be continued...]