Murder on Henley Street

A not-quite-forgotten public shooting in 1930 still resonates

Photo with no caption
Photo with no caption

Gamut

by Jack Neely

That Friday in the middle of May, nobody in town knew how bad it was going to get. That morning, just after 10, it was cool, cloudy and drizzling.

A pale-skinned young man in a brown suit and a tan overcoat stood alongside the Rodgers automobile dealership on newly widened Henley Street. Rodgers, which specialized in the then-stylish makes Nash, Graham, and Essex, was still run by Cowan Rodgers, the former tennis champ who, back in the '90s, had built the first automobile Knoxville had ever seen. In 1930, his company was already boasting it was the â“Oldest Automobile Dealer in the Southland.â”

Salesman J. Wesley Brewer noticed the well-dressed man on the sidewalk. Brewer, who moonlighted as a sheriff's deputy, had run for sheriff himself, but lost in the last Republican primary. His day would come, but for now he was trying to make the most of car sales, and couldn't afford to let a curious stranger pass by. He noticed that man and assumed he was there to buy a car. But the young man seemed preoccupied with a sign across the street, where they were building the grand new Methodist Church. When Brewer went down to meet the man in the tan overcoat, he was already gone.

A sign the young man saw across the street angered him, though there was only one word on the sign. The word was GERVIN. He noticed a Hupmobile he thought he recognized, and one tall man in a hat and raincoat standing on the construction site, looking over a pile of fitted stone blocks. The man in the tan overcoat crossed the street toward the construction site. In his pocket was a five-shot revolver, a nickel-plated .38.

What happened next has attracted the attention of several 21st-century Knoxvillians, among them a prominent attorney and a Methodist minister. They have each, in their own ways, made a study of that peculiar day in May.

It was just seven months after the Crash, and nobody knew for sure that they were in the earliest part of what would later be known as the Great Depression. About 500 nervous bankers were in town for the Tennessee Bankers' Association Convention at the new Andrew Johnson Hotel on Gay Street. Many of them would soon be looking for other work, but that day they were talking about the new Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Col. David Chapman, the druggist and conservationist anxious to obtain financing for the project, spoke to them: â“These are the oldest mountains in the United Statesâ. The greatest standing hardwood forest in the United States and perhaps in the world.â”

That national-park initiative, born in Knoxville, promised to boost the city. A massive urban design for downtown seemed to be disintegrating, after a low-tax revolt and the nervous breakdown of a progressive city manager. But the plan had at least yielded construction of a stylized boulevard-style Henley Street through what had previously been a neighborhood of narrow streetsâ"and the design of a new moderne concrete bridge across the river, by which millions of Americans would get their first look at the Great Smokies.

The grand new Methodist church would be right there, outdoing Ayres Hall, the decade-old university building on the next hill over, as the most conspicuous building in Knoxville.

Across the street from the Andrew Johnson Hotel at Blount Mansion that day, there would be a belated memorial service for Mary Boyce Temple, the pioneering preservationist who had died a year earlier. Gen. Cary Spence, the famous World War I veteran, would lead the proceedings, the ceremonial planting of a memorial oak tree on the Blount property. Lalla Arnstein, former county politician, first woman elected to Knox County Court and co-founder of the Jewish Community Center the year before, read from Joyce Kilmer's poem, â“Trees.â”

There were a dozen movies playing downtown that weekend. At the Strand on Gay Street, there was a second run of Cocoanuts , the first feature by the well-known vaudeville act the Marx Brothers, with a â“Micky Mouse sound cartoonâ” on the same bill. The Tennessee was showing The New Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu , with Warner Oland. The Riviera was showing Caught Short , â“the Uproarious Comedy of the Stock Market,â” with Marie Dressler.

On Market Square, fiddlers were tuning up for the big fiddlers' competition, an old Market Hall tradition. The famous Tennessee Ramblers would be there, along with Frank Murphy's Orchestra.

Sterchi Park, a.k.a. Chilhowee Park, was opening for the season, with a new $3,000 â“music machineâ” that played four hours' worth of records without needing to be changed.

Lots of stores on Gay Street and Market Square were having May sales on summer fashions: the fashionable new oriental-styled Mingtoy crepe dresses at Miller's; â“novelty rayon undiesâ” at Deitsh's; summer hats at Newcomer's; tropical worsted suits at Bickley's; Stetsons at Schumacher's.

Some stores were offering unusual discounts to certain lucky people. â“Bring balloon with magic number 38.â” â“Free Gifts From the Air!â”

That Friday, Knoxvillians were looking skyward, for signs of a first-ever and undeniably modern promotional feat. Art Bartlebaugh, â“Knoxville's   Premier Aviator,â” was a dashing-looking fellow with slick hair and a black mustache. He flew a new monoplane, a Curtiss Robin. That day at 2:30 he was to drop balloons all over the city. Each balloon was attached to a number, which had to be matched with advertisements in the morning Knoxville Journal .

It was in the 60s, a little warm for any sort of an overcoat, but there was a chance of showers or even thunderstorms that day, so it was prudent to be prepared. When he stepped out of the Colonial Hotel that morning, the young man wore a â“well-pressed natty brown suitâ” and a long, light-tan overcoat.

He was just in from Chicago, and had spent the night at the hotel. The Colonial wasn't quite as nice a hotel as the Andrew Johnson, nor nearly as big, but it was a respectable place, next door to the Lyric Theatre, and across the street from the Bijou, the old-fashioned vaudeville house that had closed a couple of years before. He had stayed there the last time he was in town. He had once lived in Knoxville, in fact, but hadn't been in town in almost a year. He had breakfast at a little counter across the street, probably the A&N Quick Lunch, part of what would later be known as the Bistro. Then he took a package of dirty clothes over to a laundry on Clinch, as if it were a normal day. And he walked down Main Street. He and his wife and stepdaughter had lived there, in an apartment building called the Caldwell, on Main near Walnut.

He would later say he was hoping to see one of them, his ex-wife, or his former stepdaughter. He hadn't seen either of them in a year.

After he puzzled the salesman at Rodgers, he crossed to the southwest corner of Main and Henley. The man on the construction site, the one who caught his attention, was Harry Gervin. He was a member of a family of stonemasons and contractors; one brother, Ed, was also a politician, a sometime state legislator. A World War I veteran who had served with the field artillery in France, he had earned respect as one of the city's premier building contractors of the 1920s, originally with the firm of Roehl & Gervin. Harry Gervin was now at work on what seemed like the job of the century, the construction of the new Church Street Methodist Church.

It was an enormous project. Knoxville's prestigious Barber-McMurry firm was in charge of the design; architect John Russell Pope, of New York, was a consultant. Pope hadn't yet designed the famous Jefferson Memorial in Washington. But Pope, known here for the Dulin house on Kingston Pike, was probably already the most famous architect who had ever worked in Knoxville.

Even when it moved to Henley Street, the Church Street Methodist Church carried its old name, almost as a memorial to the much-beloved church that been destroyed by a fire in late 1928. The congregation resolved to spare no expense in building an even more impressive one. In the late '20s, when they were planning it, people were thinking big.

The best place for a major edifice seemed to be the grand new boulevard called Henley Street. In drawings of the period, it looks something like the Champs Elysee, a broad boulevard uncharacteristic of narrow-streeted Knoxville, with a median, leading over a grand new bridge. Knoxville had never had a reputation for striking architecture, and even non-Methodists acknowledged that it might be the one building by which Knoxville would be known. The project was rumored to cost more than half a million, in 1930 dollars. The Methodist bishop declared the church they would build would last 2,000 years.

A tall, athletic man of 38, Harry Gervin was doing well; his own company was obviously booming. Gervin and his wife lived in a nice house on Glenfield Drive in Sequoyah Hills, with two cars in the driveway.

It was 10:20 a.m., and despite the threat of rain, construction was proceeding. Gervin was standing near his office, in a temporary building near the sidewalk, having a look at a load of stone blocks. Many of the stones they had ordered were fitted, and numbered.

â“I am looking for A-56,â” Gervin told foreman T.L. Yon. â“That's A-53,â” Yon said.

Neither paid much attention to the newcomer who had just crossed the street. The man in the tan overcoat stood right behind Gervin and spoke.

â“All right, Harry,â” the man said. As Gervin turned and began to stand up, the young man pulled out his pistol and fired into Gervin's side and back. His first two shots hit Gervin in the kidney. His third got him in the lung. His last ones went a little higher, getting him in the jugular vein and knocking his hat off.

When the fifth shot hit him, the cigar fell burning from his mouth. Harry Gervin fell near it, on a pile of construction sand. It's not clear whether he ever saw the gunman.

As construction workers wielding picks, shovels, and pipe wrenches surrounded him, the shooter threw up his hands, and said, â“I give.â” By this time, Deputy Brewer, for the moment no longer chiefly a car salesman, was halfway across the street.

â“You can do what you please with me, and I take it that it will be plenty,â” said the gunman to the deputy. Some heard him say, â“I guess I'll hang for this.â”  

An ambulance rushed Gervin to Fort Sanders Hospital, though everyone knew it was too late. Gervin was dead on arrival.

Rev. Bill Fowler of Church Street Methodist Church first heard about the case years ago. â“I was conducting a graveside service at Greenwood Cemetery when one of our elderly parishioners walked up to me just before the proceedings began, and pointed to a grave.â” The Gervin grave at Greenwood is unusual, lettered in a medieval font and shaped like an art-nouveau missile. â“She said it was a contractor shot and killed on the site of our construction.â”

Fowler continues. â“Several years passed by, and I had a wedding, and one of the groomsmen said, â‘My granddaddy was a stonemason on this site, and told me a long time ago that his boss was shot here.'â”

Fowler got interested in the case, and at the time of the church's 75th anniversary on that site, early last year, Fowler began investigating. He hasn't found anyone who actually remembers the murder, but one of his parishioners who moved in town as a UT student a few months after the incident remembers that the sensation of it was still in the air.

With help from a downtown librarian, an associate at Mann's Mortuary, and eventually a couple of attorneys, Fowler put some of the pieces together. Now the pastor wants to write a book about it.

The strange weekday-morning murder of a prominent citizen, in public, distracted the city so thoroughly that it's not clear how many were looking up three or four hours later for balloons with magic numbers on them. As Art Bartlebaugh's Robin droned overhead, a killer sat in his cell at the Knox County Jail and sobbed. Gene Blanchard, 30 years old, had never had any luck.

Born in Mississippi, his parents were both dead before he was 5. He spent much of his youth with his uncle in Spring City, Tenn., a sometime golf-club manufacturer who eventually settled in Chattanooga. At age 24, Gene had married a 28-year-old widow, a charming brunette named Iva Dearing. She had a daughter by her first marriage, and worked at Col. Chapman's drugstore, on State. Gene got a job as a salesman for the Crane Company on West Jackson, which handled plumbing and mill supplies. At first he was just a stock clerk, but he worked his way into sales.

He struck his colleagues as a simple country boy. He and his older wife lived simply, though they moved around town a lot, mostly in rental houses and apartment buildings downtown. They lived for a couple of years at the Glencoe on State, just two blocks from Iva's job, and also in a cottage on West Glenwood in North Knoxville. Their acquaintances said they seemed happy.

Hardly a year after their 1924 wedding, a cave-in in the basement of the Chapman company, a common hazard in a city built on a bluff of limestone Swiss cheese, had unexpected consequences. The man called to take care of it was the can-do young contractor Harry Gervin. Six foot two, 200 pounds, Gervin was a big, dark-haired, good-looking guy. Obviously successful, Gervin was the sort of fellow a flapper would consider a catch. If only he weren't married.

The charming brunette at Chapman's caught his eye. He struck up a conversation with her, and offered her a ride in his sporty Hupmobile.

In court she would claim that she resisted Gervin's advances, but the big man was persistent. He finally persuaded her to go on jaunts out of town. On the way back from a car trip to Rutledge, she finally gave in. The two commenced a sexual affair that lasted about four years. Much of it apparently took place in his car, but toward the end they were using an apartment on Walnut Street. They split briefly, but got back together, she said, under his insistence.

Blanchard was often out of town, but found clues along the way. During his long absences selling Crane's wares in the Deep South, he would try to call home at night, and no one would answer. Once, returning home early, he caught Iva dressed up, leaving the house. Another time, she got a phone call late at night; when he asked who it was, she said it was a furniture salesman from Miller's. Blanchard thought it was strange to get phone calls from Miller's at night, and investigated; the man his wife had mentioned told him he hadn't called.

In February, 1929, when he confronted his wife about his suspicions, Iva confessed the details of her affair to Gene.

Gervin's busy contracting firm was based in the architecturally unusual brick buildings that cling to the northwest side of the Broadway viaduct. One day soon after his wife's confession, Blanchard appeared at Gervin's door.

â“I guess you know what I want to see you about,â” Blanchard said. Gervin at first denied the affair, but when told Iva had confessed, he said, â“Do what you want. You got me.â” He offered to â“squareâ” the situation, apparently with money. Blanchard declined.

He just wanted to say something. â“She is the most precious possession that I have, that you could take away from me. I hope you will take care of her.â”

When he left her, she filed for divorce, citing abandonment, and changed her name back to Dearing.

Gervin didn't leave his family, and his and his relationship with Dearing apparently ended with the first whiff of scandal.

Blanchard attempted to sue Gervin for $50,000, for alienating his wife's affectionsâ"an option not unusual in 1930, but since abolished in Tennesseeâ"but justice was slow. After living in the Colonial Hotel for a while, Blanchard left town. For almost a year, wandered the country, living first in Gadsden, Ala., then Chattanooga, in Sarasota, Fla., then, briefly, in Chicago. He returned to Knoxville on May 15, almost a year after the divorce was final. The next morning, he shot Harry Gervin.

The trial at the courthouse was just four months later. The courtroom was so packed that spectators scuffled for space.

Murder trials were often sensational, but this one had the added element of sex. Knoxvillians of 1930 rarely had opportunities to hear sexual intercourse discussed openly, and seized the opportunity whenever they could. A courtroom window broke from the pressure of bodies within.

As with all sensational murder trials, the readers of both the Journal and the News-Sentinel became instant experts on criminal law. And there was talk, even among Knoxville lawyers, of the â“unwritten law.â” That phrase had come up a few years earlier, when, hardly a block from the Gervin murder, a wealthy young aviator named Rush Strong had shot City Councilman Sam Luttrell. By 1930, Strong was already out of prison. The Unwritten Law held that any man has a right to kill a man who'd been sexually involved with his wife.

It's the sort of case that appeals to attorney Donald Paine.   Senior partner in the firm of Paine, Tarwater, Bickers & Tillman, Paine is considered an expert on evidence law, and is an author of a book on the subject. Paine is locally famous for his unusual presentations, often featuring recreations of notable criminal cases. Cases with regional, and especially local resonance, appeal to him most.

Just last month, before a packed noontime crowd of Knoxville attorneys in the big upstairs banquet room at Calhoun's, Paine gave one of the dramatic seminars for which the personable and rarely inhibited attorney is famous. His subject was the interesting case of State v. Blanchard. As a couple hundred attorneys finished dessert, Paine was stage director for a recreation of part of the murder trial of Gene Blanchard. The title role of Gene Blanchard was played by the man whose curiosity led him to the case: Rev. Fowler, pastor of Church Street Methodist. He played the killer as some described him, a simple, straightforward fellow.

All cases are different, and Paine says this case offers several interesting irregularities. He seems particularly annoyed with some â“goofy rulingsâ” of Judge Stooksbury, who at one point seems to have a backwards understanding of attorney-client privilege.

â“The temporary-insanity defense is a pretty desperate defense,â” says Paine. â“His lawyers had little or no choice. He shot the guy, five times, in front of all these witnesses.â”

Perhaps to undermine motive under the Unwritten Law, the prosecution called Gervin's wife, Cleopatra, who claimed her husband was rarely away from home long enough to have engaged in a long-term affair. â“He loved his home and stayed there almost exclusively,â” she said. She said she'd never even heard of Iva Dearing.

The big question was whether Iva Dearing, who had returned to her first husband's last name, would be called to testify.

She was never pictured in the newspapers, and people always wanted to see the woman that a man had killed for. She did not give them that satisfaction. However, over the prosecution's objections, Judge E.G. Stooksbury's court admitted an affidavit, from Blanchard's civil suit, of Iva describing her illicit affair with Gervin.

Quoting someone who's alive and able to testify is usually dismissed as hearsay, Paine says. It was admitted in this case on the grounds that the evidence itselfâ"specific details of the wheres and whens of sexual encounters between Harry Gervin and Ivaâ"may have had a maddening impact on Blanchard.

The prosecution attempted to dismiss the affidavit as merely evidence of an extortion plot hatched by the Blanchards to milk the wealthier Gervin.

Blanchard did testify on his own behalfâ"rather early in the trial, an unusual tactic. Blanchard said he came to Knoxville with no intention of killing Gervin. He carried a loaded pistol, he said, as he always did, â“for protection.â” Blanchard recalled walking down Main Street, toward the Rodgers dealership, on a sort of sentimental journey by his former family's home.

â“I just came by the house there and didn't see anybody, and I thought I would walk on a little piece and come back up by the house and see if I could see anybody,â” he said. â“I saw where they were building a church, and saw a sign with Gervin's name on itâ. I saw Gervin's car and Gervin all at once, I guess it seems.â”

His lawyer asked what he did next.

â“I don't know,â” he said. â“When you next realized where you were, where were you?â”

â“In the Knox County Jail.â”   

Blanchard never admitted having any recollection at all of shooting Harry Gervin.

On cross-examination, Jennings stunned Blanchard with a question most judges wouldn't have countenanced: â“Isn't it true that you went to Dr. Frank Bomar while you were living with your wife and told him that you had been guilty of adultery so much that you had lost your power of adultery and asked him to give you some medicine so that you could go out and cut up some more?â”

Blanchard, whose own fidelity had not yet been questioned, answered with tears in his eyes: â“No, sir,â” he said. â“He treated me for the piles.â”  

One of the last witnesses called by the defense was a surprise, the famously idiosyncratic attorney John R. Neal. Fired from UT several years before, he founded his own personal law school. He had worked with Clarence Darrow on the Scopes defense in Dayton in 1925. Neal was there not as a legal expert, but as an old family friend. He had known Blanchard as a boy in Spring City, and had visited him in jail just after the shooting. He testified to Blanchard's mental state just after the shooting, that he was â“crying and talking incoherently and disconnectedly.â”

The defense had raised issues going back before Blanchard's birth, insinuations that his mother, who had died when he was small, was emotionally disturbed.

All along, the defense tried to insinuate that maybe Gervin deserved shooting. The defense, led by Joel Anderson, called Gervin a â“moral leperâ a sheik with a fine automobile and plenty of moneyâ.â”

Prosecutor John Jennings ridiculed the defense's desperate plea of temporary insanity as a â“lightning-bug insanity, the kind that just covers the time of the shooting and then goes out.â”

The jury apparently agreed with Jennings' assessment, but acknowledged there was more to it than that simple premeditated murder. Blanchard was convicted of first-degree murder, with â“mitigating circumstances.â” The state asked for the death penalty, but in the end he was sentenced to 25 years in the state penâ"but after a commutation by the governor, he may have served as little as 16 years.

Paine says the date when Blanchard got out of jail is a bit of a mystery. His name is absent from the discharge records. He was eligible for parole in 1946; his full sentence would have been over in 1949. In any case, Blanchard was probably still in his 40s when he was released. Records indicate that he settled in St. James, Fla., where he died in 1966, at the age of 67. The previous year, for reasons that aren't obvious in local records, he had written the Knox County Clerk, seeking to obtain a copy of his divorce decree.

Iva Dearing worked for decades at the drugstore founded by Col. David Chapman, the prominent Smokies conservationist, for whom they would name the highway that Henley Street became, when it crossed the river on the new bridge. She apparently never remarried. Fowler says one of his parishioners remembers visiting the State Street business as a little girl, and noticing a particular clerk, asking her mother, â“That lady is so beautifulâ"but why is she so sad?â”

Dearing died in Knoxville in 1982, at the age of 87.

Cleopatra Gervin endured. Her son, Harry Jr., died in 1955, at the age of 39, of causes unmentioned in his obituary. In her later years, she was active in Church Street Methodist Church. She lived more than half a century as a widow.

Fowler says some of his parishioners were close to Cleo Gervin in her later years. The minister says the book he is contemplating writing about the story is not so much about the murder itself, but its aftermath. â“I'm more interested in what happened to the descendents,â” he says.

â“It's a work of grace, and how people put these things back together after something rips them apart. That's what a church does.â”

Of the principals, Cleo Gervin was apparently the last survivor. She was about 90 when she died in early 1983. Paine attempted to find her gravestone at Greenwood near that of her husband. When he wasn't able to find an individual marker for her, he took up a collection at the bar association meeting last month to have one installed.

Just the other day, though, he found that she already had a marker, but the low grave was invisible, completely covered over with grass. He donated the money to her church, as a memorial in her honor.

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All content © 2007 Metropulse .

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