secret_history (2006-07)

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Notes on the first-ever Kid Curry Hurry

by Jack Neely

Just after dark, people were arriving on Gay Street for the opera. As we passed restaurants, people in fur were looking at their watches, considering whether to wait for a table.

The red lights were against us, but the blue lights were behind us, so we ran right through, along the sidewalk, dodging pedestrians. At first, we followed the man in the horizontal stripes at an easy pace. Near Church, someone shouted something at us from an upstairs window. I didn’t understand.

The police were almost alongside us when we reached Hill Avenue, where the county jail was, and is. The man we were chasing wore the striped uniform of a convict. As he reached the bridge, he shouted something irreverent, and he was off across the bridge like a stolen horse.

I ran after him in a dead sprint right down the middle of the street, faster than I thought a middle-aged man could, stretching my legs and filling my lungs with cold air, keeping my eye on the man wearing the black-and-white stripes.

The Gay Street Bridge, by the way, is lovely at night. There were no cars, as there were not then. There was a weird peace to the old place, lit up and bright between the dark sky and the darker river below.

But the Gay Street Bridge is longer than you think. Two-thirds of the way across, my lungs were burning. One shoe came untied, then the other, the ends of the laces tapping the pavement with each footfall.

When the man in stripes reached the far end of the bridge, I was afraid he’d keep going, on into South Knoxville, as the other escapee had, almost 103 years ago. But just before he reached Baptist Hospital, he slowed. I made one final push to reach him. When I did, I stopped and tied my shoes. Policemen looked on blandly from Sevier Avenue. We all walked back together. It was the anticlimactic conclusion of the first Kid Curry Hurry.

At the beginning of the last century, trainrobber Harvey Logan, a.k.a. Kid Curry, was among the last of the famous Wild West outlaws, once known as the vicious hit man of the Hole in the Wall Gang. There are various stories about what he was doing in Knoxville in 1901, in Ike Jones’ saloon in the old Central Street Bowery, where he found himself at the center of a disturbance and shot two Knoxville cops as they tried to arrest him and then fled across First Creek. A posse nabbed him a few days later, camping near Jefferson City. He spent the next 18 months of his life as the most famous prisoner in Knox County history, tried on federal charges related to one of his many crimes, the holdup of a bank train in Montana just before he came to Knoxville. At the Custom House, he was convicted and sentenced to 130 years, to be spent in a federal prison in Ohio.

Days after that conviction, Logan decided he’d had enough of Knoxville; he choked his guard, got out of jail onto old Prince Street, where he found Sheriff Fox’s horse, and took it. He rode east up Hill to Gay Street, took a right, and rode fast across the five-year-old Gay Street Bridge.

He was never seen again, or at least not positively identified again. Opinion is divided about his fate. Many believe he was the man found dead after a shootout in Parachute, Colorado, the following year. But there were also reports that he joined his old colleagues, Robert Parker and Harry Longabaugh, a.k.a. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in South America.

Regardless, the last time the authorities saw him alive, and knew for sure who he was, Kid Curry was on the Gay Street Bridge, riding to some personal version of freedom. That explains, or almost explains, why eight of us were there Friday night, running as fast as we could.

It was, for the record, an officially sanctioned event of the estimable Knoxville Track Club, an unusual sidewalk run of almost a mile, capped with a 200-meter sprint. The timing for the inaugural Kid Curry Hurry wasn’t ideal. A dark, damp Friday night with a forecast of freezing rain. There were basketball games and dinner parties and Madame Butterfly at the Tennessee. Even in ideal circumstances, downtown on a Friday evening is a sand trap. Some erstwhile runners didn’t make it all the way to the starting line, distracted by a pub or two along the way. You can’t blame them.

But I felt obliged, and at least there were eight of us, running in the hoofsteps of Sheriff Fox’s horse. The police obligingly blocked off the bridge for the exercise; their cooperation surprised me a little, but after all, the escape of Knoxville’s most famous prisoner, ever, didn’t happen on the watch of the KPD. It was the county’s error.

I hope they do it again; it has the makings of a fun annual event. And if they were to do it at the time of year that it really happened, it would be just after 5 in the afternoon, every June 27—not a bad time of day and year for a good sprint.

Anne Victoria, who organized the event, did get one complaint from a lady who thought it was inappropriate to glorify a criminal in that regard. But it’s nice to have an excuse for a historical run. And the sad fact is, there just aren’t that many legal motives to run really fast.

Kid Curry, like him or not, is our own Pheidippides. We finished at the Emporium and, with the costumed escapee, who turned out to be insuurance man Joe Bedford, we toasted the adventure with apricot brandy, said to be what the Kid was drinking when the Knoxville cops surprised him in Ike Jones’ saloon.

There are other opportunities, which I think the track club may consider for future events. One is that of possibly fictional bootlegger Luke Doolin, immortalized by Robert Mitchum, of mysterious provenance:

“Blazin right through Knoxville, out on Kingston Pike,” went the movie song “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” that got some radio play in the late ’50s.

“Then right outside of Bearden they made the fateful strike / He left the road at 90....”

Most rumors agree that the legendary crackup happened on the western foot of Bearden Hill. From downtown, the Thunder Run would be about an 8K, I think. In the song, the chase happened on April 1, a fine time of year for a good footrace.