secret_history (2006-34)

Receiving Friends

The day Clarence Bunch pondered the old graveyard/penitentiary dilemma

by Jack Neely

Roberts’ Undertaking Co. on Union Avenue was rarely a jolly place. It offered no attractions like the cowboy movies and loony burlesque at the Roxy across the street. But that hot August evening, it was downtown’s biggest draw. An excited crowd of teenage boys waved to cameras as they stood in roped-off lines to get into the mortuary.

Police counted about 10,000 of them, more than could have fit into the UT football stands in 1934. Among them were also young women, and some parents with children. They’d all come by to have a good look at one particular corpse. It was there on exhibit inside, an especially long, lean one. Some were miffed that the holes in his face had already been sewn up. “Those who expected to see a grisly spectacle were disappointed,” the News-Sentinel reported. “The embalmers had done their work.”

Everyone in the long line knew it was their last chance to get a good look at Clarence Bunch. Just that sunny afternoon, about a half-mile south of Chilhowee Park, in a tree-shaded front yard on Lay Avenue, the most famous gangster in East Tennessee had been torn apart by pistol and machine-gun fire.

Bunch was a legend much longer dead than alive. A country boy from Bunchtown, Claiborne County, he was commonly described in Knoxville as a “mountaineer,” but in photos the 23-year-old is always clean-shaven, wearing a coat and tie, dark and wide-eyed, bearing some resemblance to that piano player in the funny movies, Chico Marx. 

Some said he’d been with a gang of bootleggers that had shot their way past a phalanx of G-men in early ‘33. Arrested in Knoxville that spring, he was also a suspect in a bank robbery in Virginia when he busted out of the Newport jail, with the use of a smuggled .38, hoisted through barred window with a blanket rope. He shot his jailer, and helped two colleagues, including Gus McCoig of White Pine, who was in for forgery. They stole a Ford, and with the help of various others, commenced a robbing spree. It reached a climax in late July. In one, sometimes two Ford V-8s, Bunch, McCoig and the boys terrorized folks on the Asheville Highway, the Tazewell-Morristown Road, the Clinch Mountain Road. They’d drive up behind you, shoot your tires out, and rob you. As other people stopped to help, he’d rob them too, sometimes a dozen cars at a time, a traffic jam of robbery victims. He held up banks and stores and cigarette trucks. Sometimes he stole his victims’ cars, but if he didn’t like your car, he might just send it off a cliff to watch it crash.

When the Bunch gang got close to Knoxville late in July, they shot their way through a police roadblock near Burlington. By August, the story was that their cars, and they, had been shot up pretty badly.

Sheriff Sam Roach of Grainger County entered into an unusual relationship with the wounded Bunch. By Roach’s account, he “arrested” Bunch up in Bunchtown, and found him amenable to surrender—by terms of a plea bargain of three to five in the pen. Given the charges, it seems inexplicably light.

“It’s either the graveyard or the penitentiary for me,” Bunch had said, “and I’ll take the penitentiary.”

Roach’s arrest of Bunch was a lighthearted affair that apparently didn’t involve handcuffs or immediate incarceration. Roach drove Bunch into Knoxville, but stopped on the way, at Charlie and Cleopatra Epperson’s house in Park City, on the east side. “Well, Clarence used to work for Epperson,” the Grainger sheriff explained. “He wanted to stop there, and I didn’t want to rile him.”

They arrived there at noon on Tuesday and commenced a tense two-day wait, during which, according to Roach, they discussed the terms of Bunch’s surrender. By telephone Bunch was in touch with an old nemesis, Knox County Sheriff J.W. Brewer, a clean-cut fellow of 43 who didn’t put up with much nonsense.

Bunch had told Brewer he would call at 11. When he didn’t, Brewer fumed. But somebody else called, an associate of Bunch’s, who said that the boss was still going to surrender, but had decided to do it on Saturday. Brewer wouldn’t buy it.

Brewer had the call traced—to the same place Bunch had been arrested, five months before. Soon, the house on Lay Avenue was quietly surrounded by cops.

At 3:30, Bunch finally called Brewer, insisting on the extra days of freedom.

“I’ll see you Saturday,” Bunch said.

“You’ll see me in a few minutes,” Brewer said. “I’m coming out right now to get you.”

It happened right as Brewer arrived. Sheriff Roach emerged from the house, with Bunch following, to the right, not in custody.

Sensing some risk, Chief Deputy Tom Kirby said something about disarming Bunch, and ordered, “Take Roach’s gun.”

Bunch responded, something to the effect of, “Hell, no, you won’t.” He grabbed Roach’s pistol. Whether he squeezed off one shot or not was a matter of disagreement, but several officers opened fire with machine guns and pistols. By one account, the first shots came from Kirby’s tommy gun.

“I watched the bullets hit him,” Sheriff Brewer said later. He described it almost as if he saw it in slow motion. The first bullet, he said, hit him in the left eye. Bunch winced and ducked. Then 26 more bullets hit him.

“He sank to the street. I stooped over him, for he seemed trying to speak. I spoke to him, but he didn’t say anything. He drew a few breaths, and finally quit breathing.”

Brewer arrested Sheriff Roach for collaborating on the site.

“No, you can’t do that,” Roach protested.

“I have done it anyhow,” Brewer responded.

Roberts finally surrendered its most famous attraction, to be buried at Bunchtown. Sheriff Roach did some jail time for his collaborations with Bunch. In late 1935, Bunch’s associate, Gus McCoig, killed the Sheriff L.B. Hutcheson of Union County in a shootout on Highway 33 at the Clinch River Bridge. Arrested, he didn’t get any plea-bargain offers. In 1937, McCoig was electrocuted.

McCoig’s crime spree lasted longer, and included a murder conviction. Today, though, it’s Clarence Bunch that the old folks remember, who has his own thick file at the library. A spectacular death can make you immortal.