Christmastime in the City, Part II
Some holiday tales of toy guns and real guns during the festive season
by Jack Neely
In December 1905, thousands of Knoxvillians were hunting for the same small piece of paper; it was a check for $50, and to thousands of working Knoxvillians, it was worth a month’s wages. The morning Journal had announced it was hidden somewhere downtown, in a location that could be found by connecting stray words in advertisements in the paper.
Alarmed by stories of random looting in connection to the holiday check hysteria, the Journal urged caution. “The overhasty city people may wake up to find that some out-of-town person has found the solution of the problem.” And that’s what happened, sort of.
Nathaniel T. Webb was a dapper young salesman for the McMillan & Hazen Co.; he and his wife were among the few who lived in Fountain City, a suburb then well outside Knoxville’s city limits. His wife may have been the only one in Knox County who had the patience to actually solve the puzzle—which turned out to be a 68-word roundabout trip by several of the Journal’s advertisers.
Start at Rosenthal’s, go north by a national bank, also Cook’s, Tobias’s, and Miller’s stores, until you reach Kuhlman’s, then go south along Gay Street....
Webb followed the instructions to the letter. At the end he peered behind a small wooden billboard on the corner of Gay and Main, across from Albers’ Drugstore. And there it was, behind a Woodruff’s advertisement, fastened to a wooden support, the check thousands had been looking for.
Knoxville muttered a collective dagnabbit. And worried about what to do about the latest of many plagues to beset the dark old city: a particularly sinister toy gun.
Boys discovered quickly that the realistic toy was about the right size for the shell of a .22. The cool thing to do, among schoolchildren, was walk around town with pistols loaded.
After the death of 6-year-old Roy Walker, his heart punctured by a bullet fired by a toy gun in a 7-year-old’s hand, adults raised the alarm. The boy who’d killed his friend wasn’t charged, but the dead boy’s grandfather swore out a warrant for the arrest of one Monroe Howard, the merchant believed to have sold the boy the gun. It came out that other incidents had happened before; just a couple of days earlier, a policeman’s son had sent a .22 slug through his own hand.
The night after Roy Walker’s death, “Daddy” White, the cop in charge of Market Square, wanted to demonstrate something to his colleagues at headquarters. He stepped out into the square and confiscated a toy gun loaded with a .22 shell. He handed it to Lt. George McIntyre. “Just to show you this pistol will shoot, try it,” White said. “But be careful.” McIntyre aimed it at a spare wall, and pulled the toy’s trigger.
As the lieutenant later described it, “The pistol exploded into half a dozen pieces, and I found just a little piece left in my hand. One piece struck the floor, after barely missing my head....” He pointed out dents in the wall where various pieces of the pistol had ricocheted, and summed up the matter. “We will consider that we had a most narrow escape.”
The police acted quickly to arrest or fine other merchants who were selling the toys, which the district attorney said were already illegal by state statute. In the wake of the tragedy, the editor of the Republican Journal saw no excuse for the things. “It would be a godsend if everything in the shape of a pistol could be banished for good.”
The genuine items were harder to control. Christmas was always a dicey time, as thousands of factory workers, many of them single young men, were given a paycheck and a day or more with nothing to do. The cops knew they’d be working extra shifts. Christmas Day was often the most violent day of the year; Christmas of 1905 didn’t disappoint anybody.
Saturday, Dec. 23, was declared the biggest shopping day in Knoxville history. When one clerk found that her evening’s receipts totaled over $5,000—equivalent to over $100,000 in 21st-century dollars—she called a policeman to escort her to the bank. That night, an unidentified man fired four pistol shots at another on the corner of Gay and Jackson; they were both lost in the crowd. But police collared a guy who was carrying brass knuckles, and another who had crudely insulted a female Salvation Army bellringer and refused to give his name; he was booked as John Doe.
Several downtown shopkeepers were so encouraged they decided to stay open on Christmas Day, for those last-minute shoppers. Even the post office was open on the 25th, as was Staub’s Theatre. It offered matinee and evening performances of Captain Debonaire , starring Paul Gilmore, later a lesser movie star.
That day at noon at Armory Hall, on Market Square, the Salvation Army fed 700 unfortunates. At Chilhowee Park, the Knoxville Bowling Club held its annual Christmas-Day extravaganza, gorging on pork, turkey and possum, and handing out bowling prizes that ranged from a bottle of Mumm’s, to boxes of cigars, to a 22-pound pig for “the most graceful bowler.” The bowling party, the biggest in the club’s history, went on until 11 o’clock that evening.
On South Gay, a woman accosted Sergeant Connelly; her husband, she said, was trying to kill her. Connelly told her to walk toward her house, east on Cumberland, ahead of him. From an alley near State Street, a man jumped out and grabbed her, putting a pistol to her head. When he saw the cop, he surrendered.
Early on Christmas afternoon, along Florida Street, the red-light district on the eastern fringe of downtown, Mark Tillery, a stonemason and father of five, was found shot to death behind Butler’s Saloon. “It appears to be the outcome of a Christmas drunk,” went the laconic report. A woman who witnessed the shooting refused to talk.
At the corner of Central and Vine, a 60-year-old man dropped dead of an apparent heart attack. At about the same time, on East Jackson, a teenage boy approached a couple of cops walking a beat, Patrolmen Montgomery and Gardner. He said he’d just been robbed, that a man had stopped him and, finding the boy was carrying nothing, stole his buckskin gloves. It had just happened, and the boy was able to find the man, a black fellow named Robert Williams, who didn’t care to be arrested. The cops chased him, firing pistols at his legs.
When the alleged mugger fell wounded in the calf, Gardner left to summon a patrol wagon; Montgomery stood guard by the wounded man. Soon the lone cop found himself surrounded by an angry crowd of 500 people, blacks and “Cripple Creek whites”—it was what they called a stretch of First Creek where Knoxville’s poorest lived. They apparently resented the policeman’s impertinence. Some were armed, one with a Winchester rifle, another with a “repeating shotgun.” The police wagon rescued Montgomery before he found out what the mob had in mind.
Patrolmen arrested 33 miscreants on Christmas Day. For Knoxville police in 1905, the Christmas holiday started on the day after.