The Lamentable Tragedy at the Washington's Birthday Zouave Ball

"On more than one occasion we have called attention to the foolish practice prevalent, especially among young men, of carrying concealed weapons. It as fearful evil...a fruitful source of homicide.... Once more we call upon the proper authorities to suppress the practice.... If constitutional provisions stand in the way, let a constitutional convention be called and the obstructions be removed.... It is worse than nonsense to claim that such a practice is necessary in times of peace."

That unsigned editorial appeared in Knoxville's Republican paper, the Chronicle, in February, 1876. The handiest example of the homicidal fruitfulness of concealed weapons was just that week.

Knoxville was a town rapidly changing from a practical, sober war survivor to a regional industrial boom town with a flair for modern entertainments. Baseball was the rage; even the new cigar shop at the corner of Gay and Clinch advertised itself with a picture of a "base ballist" hanging over the sidewalk. Kern's brand-new emporium on Market Square hosted a Centennial Tea Drinking with a live orchestra, and singing.

Peter Staub's Opera House was still new, and over the weekend, had hosted a national celebrity, author-comedian Josh Billings, to whom the younger, less-famous author Mark Twain was often compared.

If the Zouave Grand Military Ball at Spiro's Hall wasn't the social event of the season, it was the liveliest thing afoot on the evening of Washington's Birthday.

The Zouaves may not have been directly associated with the flamboyant French adventurers who inspired the dress and swagger of some Civil War regiments. In 1870s Knoxville, the O'Conner Zouaves were mostly too young to have fought in the war, but could make an impressive show in every patriotic parade as a fraternal militia, dominated by young Irishmen. Their "Armory" was on Gay Street at Cumberland, adjacent to the opera house, and may have been the same place known as Spiro's Hall, named for the prosperous Hungarian merchants whose bakery was down the street.

Their Ball started at 8:30 on a Tuesday night. The public was invited, but at $1 a head, it wasn't cheap. The evening included a "Prize Drill" of the Zouaves, with a gold medal awarded to the best-drilled member, and a lot of dancing to a live band. "As a matter of course it will be a grand and joyous affair," went the announcement.

There were some bad feelings between certain visitors, and whiskey didn't help.

At about 2:30 a.m., according to the news reports, "the merriment of the dance was at its highest." Late-night amusements in the middle of the week weren't unusual. Many who attended were men and women of leisure who didn't have to report to work every day, and were happy to advertise that fact. That may have been the case with Thomas Atkin, son of a successful industrialist Samuel T. Atkin, who owned Knoxville's popular Atkin House hotel. It was almost certainly the case with Tom Sneed, 18-year-old son of prominent attorney, judge, and former Congressman Col. William H. Sneed. Sneed's family ran the Lamar House Hotel.

The two young men did not like each other, and it sounds like their antipathy ran deeper than their families' hotel rivalry.

Partiers came and went between the upstairs ballroom and the bar of Scherf's Lamar House Saloon, which occupied the same space as the modern-day Bistro, on the street level. By some accounts, Atkin was drunk and angry that night. He told one man, "Tom Sneed and John Baxter...think they are going to run this ball tonight, but I will show them better...." Others heard him to say he wanted to "cut some goddamned man's heart out."

But he might have gone home peacefully that night if not for an even stranger remark. Atkin had had his fill of liquor, and asked around for some water, which was apparently scarce.

He looked everywhere for some water, even in the cloakroom. Young Tom Sneed was there and replied, "Here's the water you want," and put his hand to his own breast. The gesture displeased Atkin, who got in a shoving bout with Sneed. When Atkin shoved his hand in his pocket, Sneed cried, "You're drawing a knife on me!"

"I am not," Atkin responded.

But Sneed pulled a pistol—just to show, at first—and put it back in his pocket. The sight incensed Atkin, the larger and stronger of the two, who grabbed Sneed by the lapel and shoved him against the wall. Sneed pulled the pistol again and shot Atkin in the face.

Atkin collapsed into a corner. He lived about six more minutes, without speaking. It was later discovered that he was carrying a small pocketknife.

"A general stampede and confusion ensued, and several parties were run over in getting out of the building," reported the Chronicle.

Sneed surrendered to a policeman. Rather than bothering the jailer at this hour, Sheriff Swan posted a guard to keep him in his own room at the Lamar House.

The newspapers headlined the killing as "A Lamentable Occurrence." The O'Conner Zouaves, once a proud outfit, broke up soon after that.

Sneed, the former congressman's son, got off the murder charge, but felt obliged to leave town. He never married, and spent most of his adult life in Mississippi, working as a "cotton classifier." Sneed died in Memphis at age 58, peacefully, "like a child tired of play." His family brought him back for burial at Old Gray, where Atkin had been buried 40 years earlier. None of the news reports in 1916 mentioned the Sneed scion's earlier troubles. But the Knoxville Journal closed its obituary with the perhaps ambiguous line, "Mr. Sneed will be well remembered by older citizens of Knoxville."

The murder victim's younger brother, Clay Brown Atkin, became a major figure in 20th-century Knoxville industry and development. In 1909, he was involved in developing a new vaudeville theater on the back of the Sneeds' old hotel, the Lamar House. The Lamar House / Bijou Theatre has a stressful history.