There’s a story people of a certain age tell this time of year, of the prominent lawyer who, wearing mainly a nightshirt, rode down Gay Street on a bull, as thousands cheered.
Carole Fields was just a little girl, 75 years ago, when she and her mother and sister sat on the courthouse lawn as they watched the spectacle. “It was quite an occasion,” she recalls. The man on the bull was her grandfather, Lockett C. Ely.
The man leading the bull, in the broad-brimmed flamenco hat, was Girtus Maples. Originally from Sevierville, Maples—a stocky, florid, cigar-chomping plumber— had political ambitions. “The Green Hornet,” as he liked to call himself, represented the “Working Man’s Platform” and ran for several offices over the years, often in hopeless races with multiple candidates. He’d been a sheriff’s deputy, long ago, and was once renowned for clubbing a rabid dog to death. By 1941, his main advantage over ordinary candidates was that he drove an old car with a loudspeaker on top. He employed it daily to proclaim unbecoming truths about his opponents.
In November, 1941, Maples ran for City Council. It was the first year another Sevier County immigrant, barely educated grocer Cas Walker, was elected, proving that anything might happen. Cas gave Girt hope.
L.C. Ely was Maples’ lawyer, and had a different opinion. “If you get more than 500 votes,” the elder Ely told Maples, “I’ll ride a bull down Gay Street in my nightshirt.”
He wasn’t serious. Maples was. He publicized Ely’s promise. Maples didn’t come close to winning, but he scored 777 votes. Some perhaps who wanted to see Ely in a nightshirt, on a bull.
At first, Ely tried to put the damper on the hubbub. He’d already paid his debt quietly, he claimed: He’d ridden a bull on quiet North Gay Street, at midnight. He didn’t offer witnesses. Maples wasn’t buying it.
Ely, a Yale graduate who was then a respected attorney of 56, was flabbergasted the citizens of Knoxville expected him to follow through. “The very idea of a puny man of my age, of sedentary habits, even attempting to mount an animal like a vicious bull—well, the idea was just too preposterous to think about,” he said. As anticipation built, he chose a worthy cause.
“I want to do something for the poor of this city,” he said. Not quite recovered from the Depression, Knoxville was still home to thousands living in extreme poverty. “I want to make the biggest gift, make the biggest sacrifice I [can make] for the needy in my life,” Ely said. “I want to ride down the middle of Gay Street in wide-open daylight in a nightshirt on a bull for the needy of this city. And I want to do it under the sponsorship of the Empty Stocking Fund, Knoxville’s most worthy charitable organization.”
Ely’s sometime courtroom opponent Ray Jenkins—already a nationally known criminal-defense attorney, he would later confront the red-baiters in Congress’s Army-McCarthy hearings—fanned the flames. He wasn’t just trying to embarrass a rival. He was chairman of the Empty Stocking Fund.
Considering all the lawyers involved, it shouldn’t be surprising the terms were spelled out in a contract. Ely would ride the half-mile from the courthouse to the railroad viaduct. Maples would lead the bull. His contract read, in part: “I will do nothing to agitate or inflame said animal, but agree to make such stops as are necessary for the rider to remount said bull, in case he is thrown therefrom, and will render all first-aid assistance possible in case he is gored thereby.”
Known that week as Toreador Ely, the lawyer went into training at the downtown YMCA, then began working directly with a bull volunteered by a local stockman. The Spanish bull was named Eric. Told that the bull liked to be sung to, preferring Spanish songs, Ely sang what he recalled of the Toreador Song from Bizet’s Carmen. Never mind that it’s usually sung in French, the bull responded.
“Eric’s head shot up in the air, he began to tremble all over, his eyes to sparkle,” Ely noted, “and soon I discerned the rhythmic and perfect motion of the Mexican tango emanating from and along the hind quarters of the bull.”
Ely could sing in French or Spanish better than most downtown lawyers. Fluent in several languages, he’d been appointed consul to Spain 25 years earlier, but couldn’t take his seat due to World War I. “The louder I sang, the more perfect and rhythmical his movements became.”
They set off at 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday, when Gay Street was typically packed with shoppers and moviegoers. “The people turned out,” recalls Mrs. Fields. “They lined the sidewalk.” Newspaper accounts back her up. Thousands were there to behold it.
That day it was Maples, the perennially disappointed office-seeker, who looked like a toreador. He led the bull, wearing a cape and a red Spanish flamenco hat, broad-brimmed with festive dangling balls. Astride Eric, Ely wore a long white nightshirt over red flannel long johns, and a fedora he tipped occasionally. The Knoxville High School marching band followed them, exhorting Eric the bull forward. Following the band were 25 Boy Scouts and four women in Spanish costumes, stretching a canvas sheet to catch contributions flung from upper windows as the bull and Ely rode by.
The route took them by the Tennessee Theatre, where organist Billy Barnes might have had a hard time keeping the kids inside for the Saturday matinée, featuring the usual kiddie talent shows and Sky Raiders, Chapter 11: Terror of the Storm. Could that compare with the chance to watch a distinguished attorney ride a bull in his nightshirt?
Ely and Eric got along well, perhaps with the help of Spanish songs, all the way to the viaduct. Volunteers collected $293 from the crowd, which adjusted for inflation would be today’s equivalent of almost $5,000, a successful inauguration to the weeks-long fundraising event coinciding with the Christmas shopping season.
Toreador Ely’s Ride might be better remembered if not for another event that overshadowed the vivid scene, just a few days later, far away at Pearl Harbor.