The Quest for a Late Reprieve for Maurice Mays

Last Monday afternoon, I was sitting at my desk overlooking Gay Street, working on clues for the crossword puzzle, and came to the word, MUD. It was raining pretty hard outside, and I looked out and wondered: If I wrote a clue that made reference to the downpour, would anybody remember the rain well enough, by the time the issue came out on Thursday, to get it? After all, downtown it was just a hard rain. I couldn’t see any mud, but figured there was probably mud somewhere in town.

Like some other people who live and work downtown, I didn’t hear about the worst local flood of the century until I read the news websites that night. Downtown, I did get my shoes wet, but that was it. Downtown has never flooded. Literally never. It’s high on a bluff. For downtown to flood would require a deluge of Biblical proportions, much worse than anything predicted in global-warming scenarios.

Sometimes developers complain about downtown’s problematic topography, steep in places, and the fact that it’s accessible mainly by viaducts. But back in 1791, that was one reason it seemed a likely place to build a new territorial capital; it was safe from the unpredictable will of the crazy river below it. There were once old-timers who would tell apocalyptic stories of 1867, when downtown was reportedly an island during a flood. But the water has never risen on Gay Street.

People have been asking me what downtown’s secret is, why so many people are willing to pay so much to live downtown. Usually the answer has to do with convenience to nice bars and the opera and concerts, or with a desire to not have to drive so much. Maybe it’s something more elemental.

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Guess who I ran into in the lobby of the History Center last month: It was Donald F. Paine, Esquire, none other. He was brandishing an unusual document, a Petition for Exoneration for a convicted murderer. It’s addressed to Gov. Bill Haslam.

No local lawyer needs any introduction to Don Paine, who has been an energetic and well-respected attorney and law-school lecturer throughout his long career. In later life, as a gentleman barrister, he has developed a reputation for researching old criminal cases, and figuring out who really dunnit, and why they did or didn’t get convicted. He’s known for enlisting lawyer-actors to stage dramatic re-enactments of controversial court cases for the annual banquets of the local bar association at Calhoun’s. I’ve been honored that he’s allowed me to witness some of them. For keeping you awake after a big meal, Don’s educational productions are better than any after-dinner speech.

One case that’s stuck in his craw all these years is that of Maurice Mays. It was a particularly atrocious case you’ve probably heard about, from various articles and books over the years; a young woman was murdered in her own bedroom, on 8th Avenue, about a mile and a half northeast of downtown. The news and rumors of it incited Knoxville’s most violent riot. The wild-eyed mobs that dynamited the jail and looted Gay Street and laid siege to black South Central Street, with the assistance of an apparently confused regiment of guardsmen, were largely inflamed by the fact that Maurice Mays, who was arrested for the murder that night, was black.

In fact he was probably not more than one-fourth black, but in those days that was plenty to count as “colored.” The murder of a working-class white woman was not all that unusual in those violent days, but when a plausibly black man was the alleged perpetrator, it was cause for insurrection. There’s a further complication to the story; it’s been pretty well-established that Mays’ onetime foster parent, Knoxville Mayor John McMillan, was in fact his natural father.

No legal scholar today would argue that Mays got a fair trial. That’s not at issue. Mays was tried for the crime twice, found guilty in two pretty weird-sounding judicial skits; both white juries deliberated for a combined total of 38 minutes.

Paine thinks the circumstantial evidence points to Mays’ near-certain innocence. “Maurice Mays was not the murderer,” he states flatly in the Petition for Exoneration.

Paine’s article outlining his conclusions appeared in the Tennessee Bar Journal four years ago. To my knowledge, he’s convinced everyone he’s encountered, with the aid of works by historians Robert Booker and Matthew Lakin, who came to the same conclusion. But as of today, Maurice Mays is still officially guilty of murder. Don hopes he can change that, for the record.

Hundreds of black and white Knoxvillians who knew Mays beseeched Republican Gov. Alf Taylor to intercede. But in the racially charged atmosphere of the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was resurgent and more respectable among middle-class whites than ever, and segregation was tighter than it had been since the Civil War. The 74-year-old Taylor showed some anxiety about the case, and did sign one brief stay, but reportedly responded to Mays that offering him any further help would lose 20,000 votes. He lost his race for re-election anyway.

Of course, Maurice Mays is unlikely to offer his thanks for this late effort to clear his name. Exactly 89 years ago this coming Tuesday, he was executed in the electric chair. His last statement was “I am dying to satisfy a few Republican politicians. I am innocent as the sun that shines....” Maurice Mays is buried in an unmarked grave at Oddfellows Cemetery, in East Knoxville.

Don Paine hopes for a positive answer from Mayor McMillan’s distant successor, former Mayor Haslam.

By the way, historic-property realtor Jennifer Montgomery, who has long been interested in the case—several years ago, I ran into her as she was riding a bike over to the murder scene—will give a presentation about Mays this Saturday, the 12th, at 10 a.m., at the Time Warp Tea Room. She’ll also discuss the very different story of Cal Johnson, the slave turned tycoon/philanthropist.

© 2011 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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