Free and Easy

Another old-fashioned Christmas, 100 years ago

A clammy fog enveloped the city. A reporter remarked that Market Square, festooned with holly and cedar, "looked like a forest: a cold, damp forest." Many of the people were selling trees, wreaths, and holiday foods. But somewhere deep in Market Square's cold, damp forest was police headquarters, where police were planning for what was often the most dangerous day of the year.

The Knoxville Police Department has never been more famous than it was that Christmas, 1901. Earlier that month, when a couple of Knoxville cops on the Bowery beat tried to break up a poolroom fight, the well-dressed stranger who was at the center of the fracas shot them both, then lurched out the back door into the darkness. A posse found the gunman camping near Jefferson City, quickly surrounded and caught him. Back in town Pinkerton detectives confirmed that their captive was, indeed, the famous trainrobber Harvey Logan, a.k.a. Kid Curry. It was national news. Western sheriffs had been after him for years. Knoxville cops figured those cowboys weren't as tough as they were cracked up to be.

The police chief doubled the police details for Christmas. Maybe it was pride that made the officers so agreeable to working extra shifts without pay. In the weeks before Christmas, police dealt with routine stuff: fires, vagrants, shoplifters. It was so cold people were stealing blankets off horses, breaking and entering houses and barns for warmth. A whole family from Texas was discovered living quietly in Chilhowee Park.

One morning, patrolman Asquilth fished a drowned man out of the Post wagon factory's mill run on First Creek. It turned out to be Michael "Pick" O'Connor, a popular saloonkeeper who'd been fired from his last job for drinking on the wrong side of the bar. Since then, he'd been on a "hard spree." The last time anyone had seen O'Connor alive was at dawn that morning when he'd been drinking at Badgett's Saloon on Clinch. They figured he'd been on his way home, trying to cross the creek on a wooden plank, when he fell in. Asquilth noted that O'Connor was "still warm about the heart."

And, of course, police had to enforce the city's unpopular holiday fireworks ban in place ever since the chaotic Christmas-week Saturnalia eight years before, which left several injured and a couple of buildings burned down. In 1901, city jurisdiction ended at the Gay Street Bridge. At the south end, A.C. Doyle ran a fireworks stand and was ready to help. It was hard to govern festivity.

There was a good deal of it that month. UT football players and their friends celebrated the end of the football season, perhaps with a little relief. Under arthritically disabled head coach George Kelley, a former Princeton gridder, they'd finished the season with a barely respectable record of 3-3-2. They played Alabama for the first time, and tied in a bizarre game in which the fans crowded around the teams as they were playing. The team, not yet called the Vols, celebrated the season at chemistry professor Charles Wait's house on the Hill with orange-and-white crushed-ice desserts and rounds of toasts. 0

The Elks kicked off the holiday season with their Christmas Parade, culminating in the Elks' Burlesque Circus—presented "In Three Mighty Spasms," which included "Fun, Frolic, and Freaks." Among the attractions was a female shootist who did impressions of Annie Oakley; a chariot race between Ben Hur and "Ben Him"; and, without further explanation, "an intoxicated giraffe." It was a sellout.

At the grand Women's Building on Main Street on the evening of Dec. 24, 40 young men and 40 young women attended the Christmas Eve Ball dressed in white sheets and pillowcases. For the young debutantes and their beaus, the ball hosted by elderly railroad tycoon Charles McClung McGhee was the event of the season. As the socialite ghosts danced, unseen figures climbed into a window of the Mechanics Bank building, two blocks away on Gay Street. Unable to get into the bank safe, they went up to the next floor, to the young architectural firm of Baumann Brothers. They found the firm's safe, knocked off a lever, and filled the hole with gunpowder.

It's easy to forgive police for not spotting the safecrackers; they were distracted that night. Patrolman John Hubbs had just left headquarters on his way home that night on Wall Ave. when he encountered at least a dozen men, several of them armed with knives and guns, fighting in the street. Hubbs waded into the melee and grabbed one miscreant only to watch in dismay as the rioter's opponents converged to pummel him. "I couldn't stand and hold a man and let another fellow beat him up," he said later. "All I could do was turn them loose as fast as I caught them." It beat anything he'd ever seen. He blew his police whistle, and blue coats swarmed from headquarters, just around the corner. They caught four of the rioters and scattered the others; one fired his pistol at the officers as he ran up Summit Hill.

Near the university, a cab driver fired his pistol at a fare who didn't pay his bill. Meanwhile, the would-be safecrackers at Baumann Brothers lit their charge. The bang joined all the other bangs in town that night. But it didn't open any safes. The burglars fled, with little to show for their yuletide adventure.

The police chief was relieved when Christmas Day turned out to be a gloomy one, gray and drizzly. Though Staub's Theatre was packed for both shows of the patriotic romance "At Valley Forge," the usual Christmas Day crowds didn't show up on downtown sidewalks. According to the Journal and Tribune, only two places had "the S.R.O. sign out... One was the theatre, one was the calaboose.... Naturally, the police were kept quite busy all day, especially in the evening, keeping the crowds in and about the many saloons moving."

Police made 25 arrests for public drunkenness alone: "just plain ordinary Christmas drunks," went the report. Police also collared Allen Norman for "carving" Hugh Bontine with a pocket knife. And they arrested Katie and Mary Meek. "The two damsels were acting in a manner that was far from that indicated by their names...."

Ed Camp, a well-off white man, was walking down Jackson near Central when he collided with a black man named James Evans, who blurted a "rude epithet." Camp responded by shooting Evans. Camp fled an angry mob of Evans' friends, but the beat cops caught up with him over in the red-light district, Florida Street, and arrested him for assault.

Evans survived. Other victims of Christmas violence did not. As usual, there was at least one Christmas Day murder.

The rear poolroom in Frank DeArmond's old saloon on Central was called the "free and easy." Back there, a couple of friends were enjoying a little Christmas-morning pool. One was Riley Matlock; the other, husky, compact John Morgan—Shorty, his friends called him. Morgan was a lightweight prizefighter. As they drank the two began "indulging in some rough jokes." Apparently some of the jokes got a little too rough for Matlock, who picked up a billiard ball and hurled it at Morgan.

Angered, the prizefighter knocked Matlock down and jumped with both feet on his chest.

When Matlock came to, Morgan was gone and something was wrong. He limped away, a couple of blocks north, to the home of a lady friend, who lived in an alley near King Street. She was concerned that Matlock's body, especially his face and neck, seemed to be bloating, inflating like a balloon. A couple of doctors left their Christmas tables to come have a look at him, but they couldn't help. Just after sundown, Matlock died.

Doctors performed an autopsy at the funeral home; it showed that Morgan's stomping had burst Matlock's right lung, and that his breaths had leaked through the lungs into his body cavities, pumping it with air: "much after the fashion of...a bicycle tire," commented one observer.

Before midnight, police had tracked the prizefighter down at his mother-in-law's house and arrested him for murder.

All day and all night before and after Christmas Day, there was the sound of fireworks, mostly from across the river in South Knoxville. But all in all, most agree it was an uncommonly quiet Christmas. "The rain kept the crowds from gathering, or it would indeed have been a rough time," remarked the Sentinel.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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