The Social Vortex

An 85-year-old murder mystery: Part 1 of 3

Every new American era brings a generation of technological marvels that convince people that nothing will ever be the same. It was that way 85 years ago, when the automobile, the airplane, and the motion picture were changing the world in ways that bewildered the old folks. But that summer, three stylish young moderns found themselves playing parts in a very old story. Their white-headed elders knew the story, and were tired of it.

Late on one quiet Monday evening in July, 1916, young people were heading home from the movie theaters and speakeasies of downtown. One of them was Sam Luttrell. Already a former city councilman at 32, Luttrell was especially popular in his home town, and was known to make the rounds of the early-prohibition nightspots.

He'd been to a Gay Street joint called the Pastime, variously described as a cigar stand and a poolroom, which was near his office on the 600 block of Gay Street. He'd been to the Cumberland Club. He and his bank-clerk pal, Joe Hacker, went to see a movie at the Gay Theatre; showing that night at the Gay was a silent melodrama, starring popular actress Billie Burke, called The Social Vortex. Then they strolled down Union, past Market Square, to the Masonic lodge, where they took a left on Locust.

As they approached Main, the headlights of a parked automobile glared in the young men's faces. Luttrell heard someone call his name and distinguished the features of his old friend Rush Strong. He'd known Rush for years. They'd been classmates at Knoxville's old Baker-Himel prep school, 15 years before, and had been friends ever since. Rush Strong was an interesting fellow, scion of a wealthy family, traveler and sometime aviator.

Seated beside the driver was Strong's wife, Bonnie. The petite woman—she weighed only about 100 pounds—had striking large eyes, so dark they were almost black and, sometimes, a Mona Lisa smile.

Somewhere within Strong's reach was a loaded revolver.

That nervous summer was peculiarly quiet. The papers were full of dread about the "impending war" in Europe, and an epidemic of infantile paralysis—polio—was spreading from New York, and had already reached Kentucky. There were more automobiles than ever before; rich and even some middle-class people had them now, and authorities were beginning to wonder about the number of accidents due to speeding. It had been only a few weeks since Jay Agee, father of two, was killed out on the Clinton Pike.

Society folks who were still in town were especially lonesome. Many of their friends were gone for the summer, to New York or Boston. The L&N and the Southern were both running $8.50 vacation specials to the beaches of Florida or Carolina. Some just rode up to Elkmont or the Wonderland Hotel.

Everyone else sweltered in town, drinking Chero-Cola and Coca-Cola and cheering industrial-league baseball games and watching new movies in one of the dozen movie theaters downtown.

The busiest place in town that summer was College Hill; UT was out of session, but the Summer School of the South seemed almost a bigger deal than the university. It was a two-month convention of over 1,600 teachers who met at the university and heard lectures by noted scholars, attended plays performed on the football field, and witnessed demonstrations of new inventions. Among them was Dr. Rose's "auxetophone," which employed "silver vocal chords" to produce "a beauty of tone never before reached" by standard phonographs.

Sam Luttrell had taken a week's vacation in Atlanta, but spent most of the summer in town. The young business executive and politician seemed to be following in his family's prominent footsteps. His father, his grandfather, and his uncle had all been mayors of Knoxville.

His father, onetime mayor Col. James Churchwell Luttrell III, had died not long ago and left his son, previously a salesman, with a respectable berth as an executive in the family's prosperous hardware company. Any handsome, wealthy, 32-year-old bachelor would have been a little unusual if he didn't develop something of a reputation as a playboy.

Some parts of downtown, like most of Gay Street, are easy to picture as they were in 1916. The West Main area isn't one of them. In 1916, Henley Street, unconnected to any bridge, was a narrow tree-shaded avenue of nice houses. None of the buildings that look old to us now were there then. The Baptist Church, the Medical Arts Building, the post office—none of that was even built yet. West Main was a neighborhood of grand residences draped with shade trees.

Mrs. Logan Reid lived near Main, at 809 Locust Street. In the cool of the evening, the dentist's wife was just back from the picture show. Having put her baby to bed, she was entertaining one of the Summer School's esteemed guests of honor, Dr. Joseph White, the U.S. surgeon. It was still hot, at 10:30 in the evening, so Mrs. Reid kept her door wide open to the street.

When Mrs. Reid heard the first bang, she thought it was a blowout. "They are quite frequent," she said. But then she heard one or two more. And then, after a "short intermission," eight or nine more shots.

The car left, wheeling east on Main. Mrs. Reid looked outside, a neighbor was calling, "Oh, Sam, are you hurt?"

She heard an uncertain answer in a muffled tone.

Luttrell was, in fact, bleeding from both his back, near his spine, and his chest. Luttrell somehow continued on his original course around the corner to his mother's house. He told his sister, Fannie, that he'd been shot. They called a neighbor, Dr. Walter Nash, who pulled trousers up over his nightshirt and came right over. Dr. Nash, a surgeon who'd practiced in Knoxville for years, was therefore something of an expert in gunshot wounds.

Luttrell told Nash he'd been shot, "but not very bad." Nash disagreed. He said Luttrell's wound was serious and he needed to be taken to the new Knoxville General Hospital immediately. There Dr. Nash cut into the victim to see just how serious his wounds were.

By midnight, there was a manhunt underway for Rush Strong. Col. Gideon Strong, his prominent father who lived in Knoxville, told police that if the suspect appeared at his door, he'd turn his son in.

He didn't have to. The sheriff and a carload of officers drove out to McMillan's Station, in the country several miles northeast of town. Rush Strong surrendered without a fight. He did acknowledge that he had shot Sam Luttrell. For a long time, he wouldn't say why.

They arrested Strong for felonious assault. His brother-in-law, Dr. Albert Kern, who had married Sophronia Strong eight years earlier in a gala ceremony at McMillan's Station, paid the $2,000 bond.

At the North Knoxville hospital, near a street named for his family, doctors studied Luttrell's wound. The bullet had passed all the way through Luttrell's abdomen, apparently piercing his liver. For three days, though, Luttrell seemed to be recovering. Doctors allowed him to speak only with his immediate family. Their reports were surprising. "So far as my brother is concerned," said Churchwell Luttrell, "Rush Strong will not be prosecuted. Sam said Monday night, just before he was operated upon, that no matter what happened to him, he did not want Strong prosecuted. They have been good friends for many years, and I am sure the trouble Monday night started as a result of boyish hotheadedness."

It wasn't until long after the shooting became a murder case that more than a handful of people would know why Rush Strong had shot his old friend.

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

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