“Don’t think that Christmas is not your holiday because your religious beliefs don’t run that way,” ran the cheerful squib in the Republican daily, the Knoxville Journal, in December, 1911. “It’s your holiday, if you want it, and its religious significance is its smallest element.” Reprinted from another paper, it ran without comment. In 1911, maybe it wasn’t a controversial statement.
Christmas’ days of bloody mayhem, of drunken riots and fiery explosions and destructive pranks, were mostly behind it. The Knoxville Christmas was settling down a little. Since the closing of the saloons four years ago, Christmas had become almost eerily peaceful. Newspapers presented none of the usual gruesome yuletide murder stories of the Victorian years.
But Knoxvillians always had something to talk about. In 1911, it was the peculiar case of William Barton Weaver.
That was Mr. Weaver in the coffin unloaded at the L&N station before dawn on the Tuesday morning before Christmas.
A practical electrician, Weaver might have seemed an unlikely center of a melodrama. Once a lineman for Knoxville’s electric streetcar company, but moved to Atlanta, then to Cincinnati, chasing jobs. In Indiana, he wound up with a pretty, well-spoken young woman named Adeline Hill. On February 27, they married. A little over seven months later, she had a baby. Though they had little money, their life together in Hartford City had been happy and peaceful.
On a job working on a station to bring power to Hartford City and Muncie, Weaver had touched a live wire and died instantly. Adeline bought a coffin, made arrangements for a funeral, and had a grave dug for him there. She called William’s father, Dan, who lived on Tazewell Pike, to tell him the bad news. Later, William’s brother Wilfred surprised her in Hartford City. He insisted that his brother be put in a different coffin, and that he brought back home to Knoxville for burial.
By her account, they all came down to Knoxville together, she and her baby, her brother -in-law, and the coffin. She said Wilfred got her booked in a downtown hotel, and then left, saying he would return to take her to the Weaver home on Tazewell Pike near Fountain City. Dressed in black, she waited several hours alone in the hotel lobby. When he didn’t appear, she hired a carriage.
As they neared the house, an automobile—still a novelty in 1911—intercepted them. Three men were in the car, and one was Wilfred Weaver. He demanded that she go back to the hotel. Her presence would be too upsetting to his brother’s other wife.
Adeline said her husband had told her his first wife was dead. But Leslie Bishop Weaver, wife of William Weaver for the past eight years, had accompanied him to Atlanta and Cincinnati. She had returned to Knoxville without him in 1910, but they’d never divorced or legally separated; in fact, she had been living with her husband’s parents for more than a year, wondering when William would return. When Leslie Weaver heard about her husband’s other wife, she fainted.
Wilfred Weaver denied much of Adeline’s story. He claimed Adeline was just a “friend” of his brother’s. He claimed he’d never heard of her. He even denied that she had accompanied him on the train trip with the coffin.
As announced in the paper, the funeral was to be at 11 a.m. on December 20, on Tazewell Pike. Because she was “penniless and among strangers,” fellow hotel guests took pity on Adeline, chipped in and got her a carriage ride to the Weaver home for the funeral. But the Weavers were too quick for her. She was on her way to the ceremony when she was told that the family had conducted a surprise early funeral—the minister in charge was a Rev. Weaver—and quickly buried him that morning before 10 at the rural Gouffon Cemetery. There was nothing for her to see.
As the Journal described it, “with tears in her eyes, she said she believed that in the sight of God, she was more truly the wife of the dead man...as she had borne him a son.”
That evening, she took her baby to the L&N and caught a train back to Indiana.
If she’d stuck around, the weather would have suited her mood. “Men and women waded through sloppy streets and over sloppy pavements from store to store...all the time bewailing the fact that they hadn’t done it before....”
When Christmas was on a Monday, it always posed a shopping dilemma. Nothing much was open on Sunday, except the overwhelmed post office. Shoppers had to finish everything on Saturday, the busiest shopping day of the year. It would have been a crazy day even without the rain. The police doubled its force until 10 p.m.
One remainder of the holiday’s riotous years was the tin-horn tradition. Young men liked to blow them, especially late. A reporter captured the scene that night at midnight.
“The clock on the tower of the courthouse...had just tolled 12, the notes sounding resonantly against the revelry of merrymakers farther up the street, who were making themselves heard through the medium of 60-lung power horns. Boys were there with the idea that the celebration of Christmas meant noise, and communicating to the little world in which they live the fact that they were on earth....
“‘Here, you boys, none of that rough stuff,’ cried a big policeman, as the boys tooted an unwelcome message into the ears of a shopgirl who, utterly weary with standing behind a counter for 17 hours, almost staggered as she made for home.... she looked neither to the right nor to the left. Her feet lifted mechanically; her eyes were leaden....”
Stores stayed open much later than proprietors expected to. Well after midnight, thousands of shoppers were still hustling through the rainy streets.
The reporter overheard policemen in a patrol wagon on Clinch Avenue in the vicinity of the post office. “Can you beat it?” the driver asked the sergeant.
“Can’t even tie it,” the sergeant replied.