Archive for March 28th, 2013

1913: Floyd and Claude Allen, for the Carroll County courthouse massacre

Add comment March 28th, 2013 Headsman

Today is the centennial of the electrocution of Floyd Allen, the wealthy patriarch of a Virginia clan, and his son Claude — for an astounding shootout right in the Carroll County (Va.) courthouse.

Before the unpleasantness, Allen was for Carroll County gentleman farmer, prosperous shopkeep, moonshine-distiller, and political operator. He was also a guy with a violent reputation.

That’s him on the right, but maybe you want to picture an Old Dominion Don Corleone instead.

“The worst man of the clan,” said a local judge who suspected that Allen had dodged other brushes with the law by intimidating witnesses. “Overbearing, vindictive, high tempered, brutal, with no respect for law and little or no regard for human life.”

Mix a guy like that with an innocent rustic harvest-produce ritual and bloodshed is bound to follow.

Matters began for the 50-something Allen with teenage hormones at a local cornshucking. Custom dictated that finding a lucky red ear of corn would entitle the corn-shucker who drew it to a kiss from any girl of his choice. A youth named Wesley Edwards, nephew to Floyd Allen, drew a red ear.

The girl he kissed happened to have a boyfriend. So here we go.

The next day, the jealous beau got his by jumping Wesley Edwards, which drew Wesley’s brother into the brawl, which led to assault and weapons charges against the Edwards boys. They were arrested over the border in North Carolina, but en route to returning them to the Hillsville, Va., lockup, Floyd Allen stopped the cart and liberated his kin. Allen would say later that he didn’t intend this to go full-outlaw; rather, his lordly sense of prerogatives was offended to see the boys tied up instead of treated with dignity, and a political foe of a sheriff rushing to get them in manacles when Allen full intended to post bail for them.

And that led to the March 1912 trial of Floyd Allen for interfering with an officer of the law. Allen was convicted on this count and sentenced to one year in prison.

“Gentlemen,” replied our put-upon paterfamilias to this sentence. “I ain’t a-goin’.”*

Literally, this is what Floyd Allen got up and said in court in direct response to the judge’s delivery of sentence moments before.

And with this, the Carroll County courthouse turned into a shooting gallery.

There’s a great deal of after-the-fact argument and finger-pointing about who started this mess. It must have been mayhem: the sheriff plunked Allen, who collapsed on his attorney; Allen fired back with the revolver that he was naturally carrying to his own criminal sentencing.

Fears and rumors had circulated that exactly this sort of thing might go down if the surly Floyd Allen drew jail time, so quite a lot of attendees in the crowded courtroom were jittery and packing heat. Now they all started crouching and firing. At least fifty spent rounds were later retrieved from the hall of justice.

When the smoke cleared, the Allen clan had absconded as a gang with the now-fugitive Floyd. Five other people left the room for their coffins: the judge, the prosecutor, the sheriff, the jury foreman, and a 19-year-old girl who had testified against Allen.

Considering the distribution of bodies, that’s less a shootout than a massacre. (pdf)

A massive manhunt brought the Allens in within weeks. This time, jurors nervous of retaliation handed Floyd Allen the death penalty, and a like sentence to his son Claude.** The eventual clemency appeals for the latter would focus on his honorable adherence to the family, complaining that Claude was condemned for doing “no more than any boy would do for an old gray haired Father without a moments [sic] time to consider.” The appeals for the former blamed the sheriff for starting the shootout and the entire affair from the nephews’ arrest on down on political rivalries among Carroll County’s elites. Between these and clemency opponents decrying the “maudlin sentimentality” that proposed to spare these murderers, the standard of Virginia manhood was thoroughly litigated on editorial pages throughout the Commonwealth — indeed, throughout the country, for the astonishing case drained newsprint ink from coast to coast.

And why not? From corn-shucking to the twisted family honor to the electric chair, every pore oozed Americana. Even a young woman who was described as “a mountain girl” descended from her haunts to appeal for the life of her betrothed, Claude.


From the Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times, September 13, 1912.
“They were men of the mountains; they were out of the beaten parts of civilization; they were untaught in the ways of the world outside. Their habits and training had led them to adhere to a code of almost primal instincts in many ways; to them the right to do as they pleased regardless of what custom or other people demanded was ingrown. And yet they had never been criminal at heart.” -From a profile of the family in the March 28, 1913 Miami Herald

Gov. William Hodges Mann‘s verdict on all this inclined against the maudlin.

Though the Allens managed a few short delays as their appeals percolated, Mann was steadfast in his refusal to mitigate the crime. The two went to Virginia’s electric chair eleven minutes apart on this date.

All that from a red ear of corn. Incidentally, somewhere in this whole timeline, Floyd’s nephews were themselves sentenced for the original brawl with the boyfriend (long before the shootout, and the resulting serious prison sentences they got for that). Their punishment was 30 and 60 days working the sheriff’s orchard. That, plus the destruction of their family.

A book and a DVD under the title Carroll County Courthouse Tragedy can be had from the Carroll County Historical Society. There’s also an out-of-print 1962 volume, The Courthouse Tragedy, Hillsville, Va.

* Allen had successfully refused to serve a one-hour jail sentence for a 1903 scrape. One measly hour.

** Several other Allens got long prison sentences eventually truncated by executive pardons in the 1920s. Most of their estate was seized and the family generally scattered across the country, far from Carroll County. (Floyd Allen’s brother Jack got into a barroom argument in North Carolina in 1918 about the notorious Hillsville events, and Jack wound up shot dead himself in the dispute.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,Politicians,USA,Virginia

Tags: , , , , , , ,


Calendar

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recent Comments

  • Fiz: I believe Rhonda was attacked but I don’t believe that Ted Bundy was her attacker.
  • Jason Nelson: Me too. I am from the UK as well. Apparently we can purchase the Snapped notorious Ted Bundy doc on...
  • polecam przeczytac: Thanks for sharing your thoughts about pelen raport. Regards
  • Kevin Sullivan: Hi Brad, That’s a good question, and I think his life might have turned out like this: First,...
  • Kevin Sullivan: Hi Jack! Thanks for the good words about my interview on the program. It was a fun shoot, and rather...