You can’t be too careful. In Knoxville of 1908, you needed to defend yourself and your property. That was the thinking of Monroe M. Stallings, who ran a double-front general store on North Central in Oakwood, the relatively new residential area on the north side of town. You could get to Oakwood on the streetcar. You could even walk there. But it was still outside city limits and didn’t have the amenities of a city, like sewers.
For an unincorporated community, a neighborhood general store was a necessity. Stallings’ place was divided into two: a grocery store and a drug store. It was a quiet place most of the time. But that February Stallings had found evidence that someone had tried to break in.
Knoxville’s saloon ban had gone into effect just three months earlier. People on both sides of the prohibition issue argued about how effective it was proving to be, but there was no question that things had gotten quieter in downtown Knoxville. Now people were doing most of their drinking at home, in the new suburbs, and a lot of their shooting, too.
Will Hatfield was originally from Campbell County, a former soldier in the Spanish-American War. He was a disappointed veteran of 35 who lived in an alley near the hospital, just north of Old Gray. He hung around with several younger friends who admired him, teenage boys up for a profitable adventure. One was Emmett Pitillo, a carpenter’s son who lived on Bernard Street. Another was Hubert “Ross” Brown, who lived with his widowed mother in Oakwood.
To poor kids who grew up hearing tales of Kid Curry, the life of crime was a glamorous draw—even though government did what it could to make it less appealing. John McPherson was in the Knox County jail awaiting his hanging for the murder of a sheriff’s deputy a couple of years previously, after getting in trouble earlier in the evening on the Florida Street red-light district. Sunny-side reformers were congratulating themselves on the fact that modern hangings employed humane measures, like binding arms and legs before the drop, believed to reduce suffering—and that hangings weren’t the gross public spectacles they used to be.
Old-timers remembered the hanging of John Webb 33 years earlier, which drew 12,000 witnesses to the site, on the edge of the city along Asylum Avenue. The carnival spectacle of the hanging was appalling even to some of the people who had gone to see a hanging.
But now it was the 20th century, and Knoxville was much more civilized. McPherson was going to be hanged inside the jail, invitation only.
None of it seemed to have much effect on a bored young man’s passion for crime. That Friday night, Hatfield let his young friends know he’d figured out how to get into Stallings’ store.
Stallings apparently didn’t have much to distract him that Valentine’s Day evening. He enlisted a couple of armed clerks, including a driver named Walden who had a double-barreled shotgun, to help him lay the trap.
Three armed guys loaded for burglars, they hid in the dark store that Friday night, and waited.
At 9:40 p.m., there came a scratching sound at the back door, then the sound of a latch springing. Hatfield had used a long piece of wood to do the trick. He and Pitillo and Brown were silhouettes moving through the store toward the cash register in the drugstore room. When they reached it, Hatfield opened the cash drawer. Just as he did, Stallings threw on the lights and began firing.
One thing Hatfield and Stallings had in common was a taste in pistols. They both favored the .32 caliber models. They were small, easy to carry, easy to conceal.
Although Stallings had the advantage of surprise, Hatfield was quicker on the trigger, and got off one more shot than he did. Stallings fired three times, and hit Hatfield three times. Hatfield fired four times and hit Stallings four times.
“Not an ounce of lead was wasted,” went the Knoxville Journal’s laconic assessment.
That was just a little bit of an exaggeration. The pistols were remarkably economical in their effect, but Stallings’ nervous assistant, the one with the shotgun, did waste some lead. When the shooting started, both of his barrels emptied at the ceiling. He couldn’t explain it. In the sudden excitement, the thing just went off.
Both the men who were shooting pistols at each other fell to the floor. The two unarmed teenage henchmen and the driver with the bad aim were unhurt.
The thwarted burglar was bleeding out of one fewer hole than the shopkeeper was, but of the two, the burglar was the one more badly hurt. Stallings’ best-aimed bullet had entered Hatfield’s chest near the nipple and gone all the way through his body, exiting below the shoulder blade. But it had missed his heart. He lay on the floor, saying nothing except that he was freezing.
Stallings was badly hurt, too. His worst wound was in his abdomen. A bullet had struck his pocket watch and ricocheted into his intestines. But he could talk, and move around a little bit.
Stallings’ armed assistants subdued the teenagers. One of the captive adventurers, Ross Brown, asked whether—considering he was there anyway—he could buy a nickel’s worth of chewing tobacco.
Although badly wounded in the abdomen, Stallings said that he would be fine, and took Brown’s nickel in exchange for a plug.
The store’s defenders called the sheriff’s office. Knoxville had a police force, but it didn’t operate outside of city limits into Oakwood. Deputies G.W. Suffridge, Abe Leek, and Os Gaines were there in no time. After a quick investigation they nabbed a couple more henchmen, teenagers who had been posted outside as lookouts.
Both shooters were painfully wounded, and both believed to be serious cases, at first. But as days went on, their conditions improved. The difference was that Stallings recovered at Knoxville General. Hatfield recovered in the Knox County Jail.