The Social Vortex: Part III

Pondering the Unwritten Law

All that remains of West Main Street as Sam Luttrell knew it is the old brick Knox County Courthouse. It's still a courthouse, of course: bigger now, with lengthened wings, and even air-conditioned. But it's never, today, quite as exciting as it was in 1917, when Rush Strong came to trial for Luttrell's murder.

Spectators sat in the windows, crowded into the prisoner box, stood in the aisles. The courtroom was packed, they said, "almost to suffocation.... Rich and poor jostled elbows to get an inch closer." More than 500 people crowded into the standard-sized courtroom, with hundreds more in the hallways or on the lawn, waiting for stray bits of news. Many craned to get a look at Bonnie Strong, "the cynosure of all eyes," and wondered what the slight smile on her face conveyed, or didn't convey.

The victim and defendant were local celebrities, as were several of the lawyers. Sam Heiskell, for the defense, for example: for most of the last 20 years, he'd been mayor of Knoxville. Once a progressive firebrand who'd gotten in trouble for gunplay himself, he was, at 58, developing a reputation as a scholarly gentleman. Hugh Barton Lindsey, 60ish, was a popular Republican politician and former U.S. District Attorney. His party would soon nominate Lindsey for governor of Tennessee.

The judge was Thomas A.R. Nelson, former alderman and son of the congressman whose name he bore. Judge Nelson knew gunfights: about 45 years earlier, his brother David had shot and killed General Clanton in a gunfight on Gay Street.

Charles Cates, the attorney general, had prosecuted suspects in the famous Nashville assassination of prohibitionist Sen. Edward Ward Carmack.

But all their manly fame paled when the chief witness walked into the courtroom. Wearing a "chic little hat" and seemingly oblivious to the attention, Bonnie Strong testified that she had first met Sam Luttrell the April before the killing. With something like defiance, she acknowledged that, on two occasions, they had had sexual intercourse.

The first time, she told the capacity crowd, was soon after that first meeting. She and her husband had come to Knoxville to attend the circus, but got separated. Luttrell had offered her a ride, she said, but took an unexpected detour down a downtown alley to a private garage, ostensibly to get some motor oil. In his garage, Luttrell offered her a bottle of beer, which she accepted and drank. They chatted. Luttrell claimed he'd seen her husband headed north in an automobile "loaded with beer and women." Then he gave her a second bottle.

Exactly how he presented her that second bottle was a matter of considerable discussion. She said Luttrell took his time opening it and did so with his back to her. Anyway, she said she drank the second bottle and went into a "stupor."

Afterward, she said, Luttrell became obsessed with her: he told her he loved her so much that, if she ever stopped seeing him, he'd kill Strong, or himself, or even her.

After a country drive with her husband early that summer, Bonnie confessed her trysts with Luttrell. Enraged, Strong spent the next several days trying to find Luttrell, just, he said, to get his old chum's side of the story. Luttrell fled to Atlanta for a week, but Strong finally reached him by phone and arranged to meet him at the Pastime. However, he said, Luttrell didn't show up. So, with Bonnie in the car, he parked on Locust near the Strong house and waited.

When Luttrell happened by, Strong called him and said he wanted to talk. He asked him to get in the car; Strong wanted to drive somewhere else, he said, to drop off his wife before their man-to-man talk. Luttrell bolted.

Strong said he wasn't sure who fired first. Luttrell's bullet shattered Strong's windshield, but hit no one. Bonnie said it tilted her hat. One of Strong's bullets got Luttrell in the back. Dr. Nash testified to that fact; he had had much practice in tending gun wounds. "Knoxville is noted as a town for shooting up people," he said.

When a murder victim's shot in the back, self-defense is a tough sell. Strong's attorneys worked up another defense, reaching deep into the jury's psyches, the elemental motives that predated Tennessee criminal code and even English common law. Heiskell made dark hints about an "unwritten law." The unwritten law, as even non-lawyers knew, was something to the effect that a husband has a right to kill his wife's lover.

If they could prove that Luttrell deserved to die under the law, the fact that Strong had killed him might seem, to a jury, something less than homicide. According to attorney J. Arthur Atchley, "God did not intend for Sam Luttrell to get home that night."

The defense also made much of the different backgrounds of Luttrell—who was a city boy and therefore corrupt—and the Strongs, who they portrayed as right-living country people. They repeatedly referred to Rush Strong as a simple "farmer."

Annoyed, prosecutors charged that defense attorneys were trying to make war between city and country folks, and took pains to dispute the Strongs' country-ness. Strong did run a large estate owned by his father, but the wealthy, college-educated, widely traveled young man never lived a typical farmer's life. The prosecution noted that on his 1913 marriage license, Strong had called himself an "aviator."

And if Bonnie Strong were indeed an innocent "country girl," she was one who'd traveled cross-country with Strong, before they married, and had bet on the horses at Louisville. (She denied rumors that she'd worked in a cigar store.)

The defense made much of her apparent youth, repeatedly calling Bonnie a "girl-wife" although, by 1916, she was well into her 20s. The prosecution ridiculed the date-rape drugging allegation, noting that it would be difficult to slip an effective drug into the top of a full bottle of beer. Was it possible, they said, that she was just a little drunk? No, Mrs. Strong insisted. She said she regularly drank four beers at a time without feeling drunk. The defense attorneys must have cringed; Bonnie was undermining their simple-country-girl scenario.

Heiskell added suggestions that Luttrell had "hypnotized" Bonnie Strong or had merely used his powerful force of personality to overcome her defenses. The defense compared Luttrell to Napoleon, the Prince of Wales, and Stanford White, the maverick New York architect-playboy shot by a jealous husband. They insisted that society had the responsibility to protect "weak married women" from the guiles of "strong forceful men." Women, they said, "were as paper in his hands."

The prosecution responded with evidence that Sam Luttrell and Bonnie Strong had been, more or less, courting. Employees of a Clinch Avenue soda fountain testified they'd been there together on several occasions, drinking sodas and eating ice cream. Deputy Sam Russell, who lived in the alley overlooking Luttrell's driveway, testified he'd seen the two walking into that garage together five or six times.

Still, Heiskell said, if Strong were convicted of murder, we might as well just "send a brass band and fine flowers" out to Sam Luttrell's grave in Greenwood Cemetery, praise him as a hero, and declare that adultery was no crime. He predicted a "revolution in Knox County—anarchy would reign, civilization would be overturned."

Impressed with their duty, the jury deliberated for nearly 24 hours. They took three ballots; on the first, it was reported, nine men voted to convict of second-degree murder, but three wanted to acquit. They argued for a few more hours. Ultimately they reached a compromise. They returned, "all exhibiting evidence of needing a shave and clean collars."

The verdict, announced in the courthouse on that June evening in 1917, was guilty: but only of voluntary manslaughter. The sentence was two to 10 years in the state pen. The Luttrells said they were satisfied. Rush Strong's attorneys asked for a second trial. Judge Nelson listened, and turned them down. That fall, the state supreme court heard an appeal, but affirmed the lower court's verdict. Strong, who'd been kept in an unlocked cell in the women's jail, offered a half-million-dollar bond to leave for one week and tend to some business. The court turned him down.

That November, declaring he'd make his sentence as short as possible, Rush Strong rode a train to Brushy Mountain, just as many of his contemporaries were being shipped off to the trenches and mustard-gas fields of the most terrifying war in American history.

By the time of the 1920 census, Rush Strong is shown as a free man living in Knox County, with his wife, Bonnie. He listed himself as a "farmer."

What became of Bonnie Strong after 1920 isn't obvious in the records. Rush Strong seemed to rehabilitate himself. In the 1930s, he was a member of a powerful commission that investigated and approved TVA claims. When his brother, Joe, resigned from County Court, Rush Strong was elected to take his place: he was, officially, a Justice of the Peace.

By 1940, Strong was of the sort that newspapers called "Squire." On a Tuesday morning, New Years Eve, 1940, Squire Strong was sitting at the old family home he shared with his brother, enjoying a cigarette. He dozed off. When he woke, his clothes were on fire. Driving part of the way to Knoxville himself, he checked into the private Howard-Henderson Hospital on Kingston Pike, suffering serious burns. He died there that evening.

In the newspapers there was no mention of Rush Strong's part in an old murder trial, or of a woman named Bonnie.

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

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