secrethistory (2007-44)

Liberty Day, Part II

Secret History

A killer afoot in a dangerous town

by Jack Neely

The scene must have caught the attention of the bleary late-nighters who were used to seeing everything in the Bowery: Knoxville police and uniformed soldiers alike, striding up and down Central and Jackson on a manhunt for a killer. Cops and doughboys fanned across downtown, going through the known haunts of Sgt. Frank Wright, accused of shooting Sgt. Wilhelm Gregerson in his bunk. Gregersonâ’s offense had been reporting that Wright was AWOL from his guard duty at the powerhouse, spending his time drinking in the darker corners of downtown Knoxville.

On a tip, the soldiers found the New Yorker having a late supper at an all-night restaurant near Jackson and Central. â“I am sick, very sick,â” Wright told them. Still he insisted, â“Iâ’ll swear I did not kill Gregerson.â”

The soldiers led him back to the Caswell Park camp where most of the soldiers whoâ’d been ordered to Knoxville to keep the peace after the streetcar-strike riots were staying. Blindfolded, Wright pictured a firing squad. â“Oh, God,â” he shouted, â“Donâ’t shoot an innocent man!â” For the next couple of days, he was kept under guard in a tent.

Held in Knox County Jail for a time, he was eventually sent to the military prison in Atlanta. It wasnâ’t clear at first whether he would be tried by military or civil authorities.

He missed the Vols game. There were several that week.

On Nov. 8, UT was playing South Carolina. Away games were set up a little differently in 1919; the whole squad didnâ’t always go on the road; sometimes it was just an elite corps of starters and a few subs who got tickets on the train. Only 16 Vols traveled to Columbia. The other 40 football Vols, including some star players, stayed in town, to play in an exhibition game of the Orange versus the White on old, bumpy Wait Field at the foot of the Hill on Cumberland Avenue. Vol fans, who sometimes numbered in the hundreds, were grateful for the gesture. Before radio, only those with access to wire service or those who could afford long-distance telephone knew the Vols and the Gamecocks struggled to a 6-6 tie in Columbia. The final score of the Orange and White game, played simultaneously with the varsity South Carolina game, was exactly the same.

Bored, the wallflower second-stringers would play nearly anybody. Two days later, a team from the Armyâ’s Fifth Division challenged the Vols to a weekday game at Wait Field, and won, 14-0.

It was all a welcome distraction from life in riot-torn Knoxville in the fall of 1919. UT President James Hoskins, acting president of the university since the sudden death of Brown Ayres earlier that year, released a statement condemning the â“serious unrest bordering...on treason and threatening to break into acts of violence and disorder....â” in Knoxville and elsewhere that strange year.

A week after William Jennings Bryan touted the League of Nations and the potential for permanent world peace, Bishop C.E. Woodcock spoke at St. Johnâ’s Episcopal Church. â“Wars do not end with peace,â” he said, â“but with preparations for other wars. The actual conflict is only beginning.â”

He could have been talking about Knoxville, where strikers kept up their attacks on streetcars, run by non-union hirees, with rocks and small bombs. Some bombs were found to be hidden in the dirt along streetcar routes, and set off by remote control. Passengers emerged unscathed, but some of the bombs broke windows and caused other damage to the streetcars.

Due to â“the present unrest,â” the Board of Commerce aborted plans for a veteransâ’ parade for the first Liberty Day. Gay Street merchants put out patriotic bunting, anyway, as if decorating for a ghost parade.

Itâ’s awkward to hold a celebratory veterans parade in a city under U.S. occupation. Mayor E.W. Neal pleaded for the city to observe Liberty Day â“quietly.â” UT students got the day off, but younger public-school kids didnâ’t. Officials said the kids had already gotten two circus days that year. Banks were closed, but stores and factories were ordered to remain open until noon. Gunfire was banned, but Mayor Neal said he thought sky rockets and Roman candles might be okay.

On the evening of the 10th, as the rumor spread that because the civil unrest seemed to be subsiding, and the troop occupation of the city might be reduced by as many as 900, an explosive hidden on Morgan Street between Third and Fourth Avenues rocked the Sixth Avenue streetcar, damaging the trolley without injuring anyone inside.

On the 11th, the first Liberty Day, word spread that union leader John L. Lewis was settling one of the civil anxieties, the national coal strike. That evening, the white citizens gathered at the Market Hall for a series of speakers. It opened with a group singing of â“America,â” then General Lawrence Tyson, whose son McGhee had died in a North Sea plane crash just before the Armistice, spoke about â“The Effect of the Signing of the Armistice on the Armies.â” Then a woman sang a song rarely heard on Veterans Day: â“La Marseillaise.â” More speakers followed, and more songs, including Crouchâ’s orchestraâ’s rendition of â“Dixie.â” None of it sounds as much fun as a parade.

And on the evening of Armistice Day, somebody set off a bomb on the streetcar line at Broadway and Caswell. It shattered the windows of the streetcar, and destroyed part of the undercarriage. Some women on board passed out.

Later, the War Department turned Sgt. Wright over to the Knoxville authorities. After the attorney-general had lined up 17 witnesses reporting theyâ’d seen the armed soldier drunk that night, and some of them had seen him drunk and armed and shooting Gregerson, Wright confessed to second-degree murder, and was promptly sentenced to 10-20 in the state pen. It was a light sentence for killing a guy in his sleep. They didnâ’t use the term â“post-traumatic stress disorderâ” much in 1919, but it may have been understood that some of the men just back from the trenches of France werenâ’t unscathed by the experience.

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