A Historic Christmas Murder for 2009 (Part II: The Verdict)

It was Christmastime in the city, and as usual Knoxville was keeping an eye out for killers. This time it was Luther Nelson, the 25-year-old pool-hall proprietor wanted for shooting William Sanders and leaving him to die on the pavement of Jacksboro Street, not far from Old Gray Cemetery. The unarmed victim's main offense was dating a young woman who also appealed to Nelson. Word was that the killer had hopped a northbound freight.

Knoxville had other things to worry about. Maryville minister LB Tedford, worried about another arrogant imposition from up North. "May the authorities of our institutions...duly consider the wish of our good people in general and call a decided halt all along the line of this time-killing, lesson-detracting, and demoralizing game...." he wrote in a Knoxville newspaper column. "I refer to the violent, degrading, and dangerous game of American football."

It was an idealistic era, a time of improving humankind. The Knoxville Association for the Prevention and Cure of Tuberculosis worked toward building a sanatorium. The Market House hosted a fund-raiser for a new orphanage and a feeding of "a small army" of the poor by the Salvation Army, which also maintained services at their headquarters at Florida and East Jackson, right in the middle of the red-light district, and took baskets into Cripple Creek, the dense slum areas on downtown's east side. The Elks' Club was right behind them, bearing food baskets and coal.

The Recreation Polytechnic Guild was a progressive organization for the working poor with accommodations in a boarding house at 511 Walnut Street, with a "public reading room" and a "parlor for social games." To women it offered classes in cooking, sewing, drawing, typewriting, bookkeeping, and medicine. The program for men was only slightly different, with scientific subjects substituted for cooking and sewing, and attempts to interest them in scientific studies via games, like chess and dominoes and one called "cro-ken-no," probably the trendy Canadian board game Crokinole.

"It has been proven without a doubt that you must provide recreation for the human mind," the directors asserted, confident they'd soon build a permanent hall to include a "garden for outdoor games" and a "dining room to provide lunch at all hours."

It was in some ways comparable to the higher-toned Lyceum and Art Museum, around the corner. Both the Lyceum and the Guild announced that they were "observing the obsolete custom of keeping open house on New Year's Day," inviting Knoxvillians to come visit, and be improved.

Everything was looking up. Maybe that's why Luther Nelson had a change of heart. His freight train stopped at Jellico, but he rode it into Kentucky. Freight cars are perfect for thinking things over. He considered what he'd done, and what he'd have to do. He got off at Corbin, and caught another train, the southbound L&N. The train huffed southward, back again across the Powell and Clinch Rivers, as the snow grew heavier, back into Knoxville.

Near the scene of the crime, he turned himself in to two Knoxville cops. Nelson admitted shooting Sanders, but claimed it was self defense, a plea undermined by the fact that no weapon was discovered on the victim's body. His lawyer was William Yardley, the elderly black attorney who had once run for governor. He was known for taking on hopeless causes.

The jury didn't buy it, of course, but juries often showed a soft spot for love-triangle killers. They convicted Nelson of second-degree murder, and gave him just 14 years at Brushy.

Christmastime was often the year's busiest month at the vaudeville houses and picture shows, but on its first Christmas, the new Bijou Theatre was dark. They'd booked a popular hypnotist to do a show all week, but he fell ill and canceled his tour. Unable to find a last-minute substitute, the theater closed for renovations—maybe an odd word to apply to a theater that had been open only since March, but nine months of vaudeville acts and cigar-smoking customers can age a place fast. It already needed a new paint job, and management took advantage of the holiday hypnotist's disappointment to take care of it.

Across the street at older, larger Staub's Theatre, the Manhattan Opera Company, Oscar Hammerstein I's struggling light-opera challenge to the Met, performed every night of the week, including Christmas Eve, to packed houses. The young touring company included a few singers who would later be minor stars on Broadway. They were in Knoxville all Christmas week, performing seven musicals, a different one every day.

The post office in the old Custom House closed at 10 a.m. Christmas Day, but remained very busy on the loading docks after that. The Market House closed at 10, too, to allow market workers "to spend the remainder of the day in luxurious ease." But some wagons outside the building kept selling all day, especially Christmas greenery. Some Knoxvillians were still decorating.

Christmas fell on a Saturday that year, but the newspaper remarked on the "Sabbath-like calm" of downtown, "except where broken by the notes of the mechanical pianos at the 5 and 10-cent theaters," adding, "Most of those in the streets seemed in a hurry to get somewhere and hastened along at a fast pace." Hotels served multi-course dinners on Christmas Day, often featuring lush French cuisine, and they were still packing them in that Christmas.

And of course, at the Auditorium Rink, the roller rink near the Bijou, "younger citizens…whiled the time away on wheels."

And it snowed. "A genuine white snow storm blew in" on Christmas, "and at intervals during the morning, during most of the afternoon, particularly in the evening, the air was thick with snow." The air was frigid, and the snow "fine and dusty."

It was 30 years before the popularity of a movie song about White Christmases, but the concept was already in place. "It was a real Christmas," wrote a newspaperman. "Many remarked on that fact, for it was the first snowstorm falling on Christmas for several years."