A sexual assault, a downtown lynch mob, and a sheriff’s forceful response
One century ago this month, an angry crowd gathered on Gay Street at Hill Avenue. Their objective was the old fortress-like jail known as the County Bastille. What happened there, during a few hours of an August night, would make national headlines.
It was an old story, the race-motivated lynch mob, and in fact might have seemed a sort of replay of what had happened on the same street almost exactly two years earlier, in the Red Summer riots of 1919, when another mob smashed open and almost destroyed the jail. But what happened here in 1921 was different, and in some respects, pretty weird.
It was a dramatic year in ways Knoxvillians had reason to expect would be positive. It felt as if Knoxville, and America, had turned a page, turned its back on a dark and deadly era of pandemic and war.
Men couldn’t drink anymore, at least not legally, but women could vote. More people than ever, albeit mostly the affluent, were buying and driving cars, just as national organizations were building the Dixie and Lee Highways through Knoxville, spawning a new era of tourist camps and other roadside attractions.
It was becoming more common to see airplanes overhead, many of them surplus Jennies from the World War, flown by daring young men. Airfields were popping up on Island Home, Whittle Springs, and Sutherland Avenue.
And in 1921, high-school kids were puzzling their parents with a new electrical toy called radio. It seemed just a matter of months before Knoxville would have its own radio station.
The part of town that was changing most rapidly and visibly was the old university’s campus. For as long as anyone could remember, UT had minded its own business atop its Hill. Its dark old Civil War-scarred buildings kept their own company. But in 1921, palatial Ayres Hall opened, drawing stares from streetcars, causing people to pull over and stop their Model T’s just to gawk. The same year, with some philanthropic support and lots of volunteer help, UT completed its first regulation football gridiron, known as Shields-Watkins Field. Embarrassing old Wait Field, with its slope and rocky patches, was a thing of the past. College football was more popular in 1921 than ever before, and finally UT was ready for it.
UT was an all-white school, of course. Some African Americans attended Knoxville College, smaller but with students from a broader geographical range.
But in 1921, education wasn’t for everybody. There was hardly any pretense about that. Fewer than 10 percent ever attended any college. It wasn’t unusual, on a typical day in 1921, to encounter people who couldn’t read or write. The city was still mostly a working-class factory town, and you didn’t need an education to load freight cars or shovel coal.
Just underneath the high-flying excitement about airplanes and radio and football and jazz was some low-grade anxiety. Knoxville’s new fear of foreigners, reflecting the national panic about Bolshevism and Anarchism, was reflected in a promise by the Chamber of Commerce: Knoxville was “free of the undesirable foreign element.”
And there had been a series of late-night burglaries and attacks on young women, attributed to the Midnight Marauder, said by some witnesses to be a Black or mixed-race man. Earlier that month, a midnight intruder shot teenager Ida Tilson to death in her own home on Baxter Avenue.
Historians have speculated that the Midnight Marauder was responsible for the 1919 murder of Bertie Lindsey–for which a mixed-race man named Maurice Mayes was blamed, touching off the deadliest riot in Knoxville history. Nearly everybody remembered that, though some preferred not to.
On Thursday morning, August 18, Jessie Parker, a young schoolteacher, was walking from her home in rural Dante to Inskip School. She’d been a teacher for about a decade, working for several county schools, including Bearden. She was probably happy to get work closer to her family.
Sometimes she took the train, the Southern 112, to school. People did that, jump on a passenger train for a short hop, one station to the very next one, for a few cents, as if it were a subway. But at the Dante station that morning she learned the train was running late. It was a nice summer morning, not hot yet, and she walked along the railroad tracks, as she had before.
A man approached her and asked directions to Knoxville. She passed him, but soon realized he was following her. When she began to run, he overtook her and dragged her into a corn field. She was beaten unconscious.
Later, distraught with a swollen neck and torn, bloody clothes, rural neighbors took her for a “crazy woman.” She said her assailant was a “Negro.”
At the crime scene, which investigators likened to a “horse wallow” in the cornfield, were several items that belonged to her, including a wristwatch band. The watch itself was missing.
A posse of 18 sheriff’s deputies deputized 300 men to aid in the massive manhunt. They were on the lookout for a man described as a “strange Negro.”
A nervous, hurried man appeared at the Dante station and used a quarter to buy a ticket to Knoxville. He was already gone, so they kept looking in Inskip.
Deputies cornered a young man hoboing out of town in a freight car. He said he was named Frank Martin, he was just 19, and he was from Alabama, riding freights through East Tennessee looking for work.
Parker was recovering from the attack at the home of a relative in Dante. The suspect was presented to Parker right away. She wasn’t sure. It could be him, she said.
She was still in bed the next day, her throat so swollen she couldn’t eat. Doctors worried about her developing pneumonia. Law enforcement wanted to wrap up this case. Deputies brought the prisoner to Parker’s bedside.
Parker looked at Martin and said, “You are the man. You know you are.”
Martin responded, “Girl, you know I am innocent of this.”
He was arrested for rape.
Almost immediately there were questions, some of them hard to answer.
The attack was all over the front pages of Knoxville’s two newspapers, much more coverage than the average murder. In fact, almost immediately, it was in dozens of newspapers, mainly in the South. Violent crime was commonplace, and usually a strictly local story. A typical murder would be described in a local paper, and often not prominently. But when it was a violent crime alleged to have been perpetrated by an African American against a white person–especially a white woman–somehow editors hundreds of miles away, from Miami to Montgomery, found it relevant to their readership and ran it with a bold headline usually including the fearsome word “Negro.” In that way the stories got amplified.
A lot was going on that summer weekend. Knoxville’s pro baseball club, the Pioneers, were playing Bristol at Caswell Park. An “Aviation Field” was being prepared out along Sutherland Avenue, for the landing of an amazing airship, “the Knoxville.” The new possession of the Knox Aero Club, this Curtiss Standard was different from the surplus Jennies affluent young men were flying around town: so big that it had room for a pilot and two passengers. People were planning to ride the streetcar out to Bearden to witness its landing.
Downtown that Friday night, most of the movie theaters were open, though it was a challenge to draw a crowd on a hot day. Air conditioning was still in the future, and windowless theaters were still hot on a day when the high had been 90.
Still, there were new Westerns at both the Queen and the Strand. The new Riviera Theatre, the biggest movie theater ever built in Knoxville, could hold a thousand, and often needed to. That night, the Riviera was showing a new movie, The Devil. Familiar actor George Arliss was in the title role, playing Lucifer himself.
At the Bijou, the theater nearest the courthouse was a live play, The Turning Point, advertised as a “double love story … about Old Virginia.” The evening show started at 8:15. As they came in the front door, the crowd must have been nervous about what they saw over to the left.
By then, in the dusk of hot evening when the temperatures still hovered around 80, a crowd was visible, gathering just a block and a half south of the Bijou, on the lawn of the courthouse and along Hill Avenue, where the jail was. It was a heavily male crowd, and almost all white, and mostly very young. Many were just boys.
They demanded to get into the jail. The County Bastille was on Hill Avenue near Market Street, which in those days descended from Main all the way to the riverfront.
By 9:00, more than 1,000 were in the street, facing police officers and county deputies. It was claimed that most were just “curiosity seekers.” But several outspoken members of the crowd wanted to hang Frank Martin, and do it that night.
The leaders of the mob weren’t recognized by reporters. “A stocky, dark-faced man openly harangued the crowd,” reported the Sentinel. “Something has got to be done or the Negroes are going to take this country,” he said.
A few leaders, unrecognized by reporters, demanded that Martin be hanged. One described as a “gigantic fellow” tried to speak to the crowd, but was shouted down by people shouting, “Let’s go!” and “Down with Negro lovers.”
By that, they were perhaps referring to Knox County Sheriff W.T. Cate. He had been sheriff two years earlier, and had been the one chiefly responsible for preventing a lynching the night of the 1919 Red Summer riot. He had spirited the murder suspect Maurice Mays to safety out of town. As a result, the frustrated white mob had his wrecked his jail with battering rams and dynamite, and looted his home, next door to the jail. Cate was still sheriff two years later. His repaired house stood next to the rebuilt jail.
Many of those shouting, a reporter noted, were just kids, boys not even old enough to vote. Some called for Martin to be lynched. Some called for five other African Americans in the jail to hang. Among them, reputedly, was Maurice Mays, himself. Two years earlier, his arrest had spawned a riot that wrecked the jail and resulted in several prisoners escaping. Mays was said to be in the same jail, having been convicted twice of murder, on whatever shabby evidence, and expecting execution.
Six policemen waded into the crowd and tried to scatter the demonstrators, only to be met with jeers.
Sheriff Cate prepared for trouble. He had called in a “cavalry” of state troopers under General P.I. Brumit, who was then Tennessee’s adjutant general. Brumit himself came from Nashville to supervise.
Soldiers manned big machine guns mounted on tripods. Two machine guns were stationed in sight of the crowd, one on Hill Avenue opposite the jail, another on the porch of a house on Market Street. That old steep part of Market Street was just below what’s now the long corridor bridge entrance to the City County Building.
At its height, the mob was numbered at 1,500-2,000. Originally there were several Black youths in the crowd, but, as one reporter drolly noted, they left, “seeking less exciting scenes.” Among the overwhelmingly male crowd were about 150 women.
Emboldened by their own numbers, they crept closer and closer to the police, who were warning them to clear the streets. Ignoring repeated orders, they hurled insults, jeers, and occasionally rocks.
No office worker, Cate stood in the jailhouse door with a riot gun. Since he lived next door, he was defending his jail and his home.
Law enforcement’s commanders, including Cate, Chief E.M. Haynes, and Gen. Brumit, shouted at the crowd, establishing a “dead line” between two telephone poles. The crowd teased the officers, sometimes breaching the line.
There was confusion when a woman who lived on lower Market Street, near the river, unaware of what the commotion was about, was trying to walk home. When she found herself at the center of multiple gun barrels, she fell apart, weeping and unable to move. She was allowed to pass.
Cate, Haynes, Brumit, and about 20 other officers armed with riot guns stood in the entrance of the jailhouse. Snipers were on the roofs of several buildings, and soldiers crouched at their machine guns.
Brumit tried to reason with the crowd. Lit by a bright arc light, Cate shouted at the crowd, asking them to go home and let the law take its course. “We do not want any trouble, but there will be trouble if you cross that line.”
The crowd ignored him, responding, “Let’s get ‘em all.” They denounced Sheriff Cate as a “Negro-loving rascal” as well as “unprintable names.” The crowd threw rocks at the policemen. A deputy was hit.
There was a shot. According to police, it came from the crowd up around the courthouse lawn.
Cate fired his riot gun above the heads of the rioters. Other officers followed.
“Following the first burst of firing,” the Sentinel remarked, “the crowd became more serious, more deadly in purpose.”
Police kept firing, an estimated 400 shots in all, a barrage lasting more than two minutes. The Journal described it as a sound of “continuous firing, punctuated by screams and cries.”
Some in the crowd fired back, an estimated 50 shots. But most fled, leaving hats flying. Straw boaters were the summer fashion in 1921. A reporter noted they left a trail of debris, straw hats “crushed shapeless by hurrying feet.”
They also left at least 28 wounded along Hill Avenue, some of them seriously.
Things remained unstable in Knoxville, with the crowd again swelling along Gay Street at Hill. At 10:30, the horse cavalry arrived with 55 soldiers. “The mob seemed to lose spirit,” the Sentinel remarked, “realizing the utter futility of attempting to reach the jail.”
However, many were bitter, claiming the police had shot first, and that as many as 20 rioters and spectators had been killed. There were claims that an old man had been sawn in half by machine-gun fire.
Police claimed that the machine guns had not been fired at all; that all the firing came from pistols and riot guns. And that no one had been killed.
By midnight, it was quiet. There remained, though, strong feelings within the courthouse and throughout the county about the man in custody.
As details emerged concerning the Parker case, police had a hard time squaring several oddities. Eyewitnesses reported that Martin was lying by a train track a mile and a half away from the crime, waiting for a freight, before and after it was supposed to have occurred. And a doctor’s physical examination of Martin, according to a report that did not make specifics public, suggest his involvement in such an assault was unlikely.
Another doctor who had examined Jessie Parker said it appeared she had not actually been raped. Parker, who was unconscious part of the time, believed the attacker had been distracted by a passing train. The DA shifted the charge to attempted rape, but seemed unbending in his certainty of Martin’s guilt.
Concerning the mob, the Sentinel remarked, “Many, if not all, of the wounded were mere curiosity seekers who did not realize the seriousness of the situation.”
“I wish to goodness I had stayed at home,” moaned one man with painful buckshot in his hand. “Oh, Lordy, I wish I had stayed at home. Next time I bet I won’t be found down here.” Some others were more seriously wounded.
A bullet broke Thomas Julian’s leg; another broke I.E. Hall’s arm. Charles McCall was shot in the head, Walters Sellers in the face. Not all of them were locals. A salesman from Alabama was hit in the hip. A Nashvillian was hit by six bullets.
Ambulances made repeat trips to pick up the wounded at Gay and Hill. Most of the injured went to Knoxville General Hospital, off North Central at Dameron. The two most serious cases underwent surgery there. At one time, four operating tables at Knoxville General were devoted to riot victims.
A Master Vandergriff, of Woodlawn Avenue—a juvenile who may have declined to give his first name–was shot in the mouth. He had to sleep with his face down, dripping into a tub to prevent asphyxiation on his own blood.
Clarence Leek, of Deaderick Avenue, had a bad shot through the abdomen. Doctors were most worried about him, but were guardedly hopeful after surgery. The fact that a man of the same name was in trouble for assault and bootlegging three months later may suggest the doctors were successful.
In all, 28 were said to be wounded, with claims that perhaps 20 more had been wounded without reporting it. Other reports circulated that maybe five, maybe seven, maybe 12 had died of their wounds. A Journal reporter gathered tales, concluding that a total of 317 witnesses claimed they had seen people die on Hill Avenue that night.
But reporters for both papers and police agreed no one had been killed at all.
They didn’t catch most of the rioters, but nabbed a prominent one. A man identified as a ringleader of the lynch mob, one of the loudest exhorting the rioters to break into the jail, was named J.R. Lewis. Upon his arrest for inciting to riot, Lewis was booked into the jail he never breached. Unable to raise the $1,000 bond—a lot of money in 1921 –he tried to use his belt to hang himself. He later used a rusty safety pin to poke holes in his arm, perhaps going for a vein.
When the jailer inspected Lewis’s clothing, his pockets disclosed some surprises. One was a British medal for valor in the World War. Another was a letter from the king of England. George V, himself, had wished Lewis “Godspeed from England.” There were papers describing him as “medically unfit” for further combat in Europe in 1917.
Police came to understand that Lewis was a Canadian citizen and a British subject. He had been in Knoxville for only three weeks, on business. He couldn’t quite explain why he joined a lynch mob, much less why he rose to a leadership position in the lynch mob. He claimed he suffered “shell-shock,” a post-traumatic victim of the World War, and that he didn’t remember the night very well. Something he said suggested he may have thought the sheriff’s deputies were Germans. Worried about what to do with an unstable British war hero, the sheriff wired the British Embassy.
Gen. Brumit made a statement the next day. “It is a great grief to us that we were forced to fire last night and cause anyone suffering. But a choice had to be made, and we made it.”
There were still threats of a worse riot Saturday night. Blocks away, on West Jackson Avenue, a gang of about 100 white men marched on the warehouses of C.M. McClung, the giant hardware wholesale house which carried firearms by the hundreds. During a confrontation with police, one of the men suffered a head injury that required his hospitalization. McClung immediately let it be known they had packed up all their arms and shipped them out of town.
Another 100 men gathered at UT’s new Shields-Watkins Field in an attempt to storm the university’s own armory. That mob was broken up by five policemen–and, as Capt. Lea put it, “sane suggestions, persuasions, and warnings.” He explained to them that the armory was well guarded, and that if they proceeded with their goal, they would die.
The Knoxville riot made national headlines, on front pages in dozens of papers in more than 20 states. Ironically, it shared some issues with another Knoxville crime story that caught the nation’s imagination, the capture of Maude Moore, who had skipped bond after murdering a prosperous auto dealer who made unwanted sexual advances on her in a car in Bearden. Famous for hiding out in a cave at what’s now Ijams Nature Center, Moore was discovered living in Tacoma, Wash., under the name Mrs. William R. Stubbs.
The day after the melee, one of the deputized volunteers who helped arrest Martin cited evidence that they caught the wrong man. The footprints—the assailant had walked backward out of the corn field to disorient anyone tracking him—were too short, and the shoes too new, to be Martin’s.
Still more people came forward to testify they saw Martin early that morning, at the time of the attack, lying alongside a train track at Sharp’s Gap, a mile and a half from the cornfield where the attack took place.
Then there was a bizarre development downtown. In front of J.B. Long Plumbing at 414 North Gay, on the day after the lynch-mob riot, was a cloth rag folded around a watch. It turned out to be the teacher’s missing watch. The note with it was so badly written as to be almost illegible, but it was transcribed to say, “Here is Jessie’s watch. Take that off the Negro. My face greased black. I am sorry. I am gone from here.”
The watch gave the note an authenticity its garbled syntax might not have suggested. To some, it was a suggestion that the teacher’s attacker was really a white man, or one of mixed race. For a time, deputies were on the lookout for someone of a “yellow” complexion.
There followed another note, then another, some of them from “the guilty man.” One included buttons allegedly torn from the victim. The victims said the buttons weren’t hers. In all, there were at least seven letters, at least one of them on hotel stationery–with little in common but that they were hard to understand. In 1921, a lot of East Tennesseans of both races had a very hard time making themselves understood on paper.
Through it all, Attorney General R.A. Mynatt maintained his belief that Martin was the guilty party. Knoxville’s Ohio-born mayor, attorney-grocer E.W. Neal, was convinced Martin was guilty, and didn’t mind letting the public know that. Both newspapers expressed skepticism; the community of Inskip was said to be convinced that Martin didn’t do it.
A planned meeting of the Grand Jury was delayed. A full week after the attack, Jessie Parker was said to be in no condition to testify. As days passed, and more witnesses confirmed Martin’s alibi, she admitted to a growing uncertainty. Doctors who tended to her after her painful beating administered morphine, and that may have clouded her mind when she identified Martin as her attacker.
Robert Ellis, a UT professor of psychology, testified that her certainty of identifying Martin as the attacker may have been a memory of seeing him shortly after the attack, when she saw him and fixed his image in her mind, but was uncertain about his guilt. He explained his theory in great detail, based on current science. It was said to be the first time psychology was used in a criminal investigation in Knoxville. In the era of Freud and Jung and mystery writers who were beginning to play with their ideas, psychology was the exciting new thing.
A grand jury met at the courthouse on Sept. 8 and returned a “No True Bill,” declining to indict Martin.
After three weeks in the County Bastille, Martin got the word he was a free man. He thanked Sheriff Cate for protecting him from the lynch mob. “I thank you all for your kindness. I am glad they didn’t find anything against me. I was sorry for the young woman. She looked hurt and scared the morning I saw her.”
He was a stranger in Knoxville, but members of the African American community took him to Vine Street and collected money for his return to his Tuscaloosa home.
It might be a challenge to track down what became of Mr. Martin after his return to Alabama. We know a little about a few of the other characters.
For Sheriff Cate, perhaps two nationally publicized lynch-mob riots were enough for one lifetime. He didn’t run for re-election the following year, and left the city, returning to his quiet, rural home in Riverdale. But his family remained in law enforcement. By the time he died at age 83, his son Carroll, who had assisted during those tense moments on Hill Avenue in 1921, and his nephew, Austin, had both been elected sheriffs of Knox County. But W.T. Cate, the “Negro Lover” who had defended his jail against two violent lynch mobs, had long since become better known as a farmer, and a deacon in the Baptist Church.
Jessie Parker went back to teaching, at West View School for many years, and later for Lonsdale. Although the appearance of her missing watch on a downtown doorstep remains a mystery, whoever assaulted her that August morning may have left the county before any shots were fired. No one was ever indicted for the attack on her in the cornfield. The riot it ignited was soon forgotten. Today, when it’s mentioned at all, the riot of 1921 is most often confused with that earlier one of 1919.
By Jack Neely, August 2021