Monday, July 27, 2009





By James B. Jones, Jr.

Public Historian

In Tennessee history the term frontier most often brings to mind the period just prior to statehood, when Anglo- and African –Americans immigrated from the eastern shore inland, settled and displaced the indigenous Indian populations. In American history and popular culture the term often denotes the last period or the so-called “wild west” of the late nineteenth century. Images of deadly gunfights at the dusty O.K. Corral or in the streets of Yuma seem somehow familiar to all. But at least one east Tennessee city, Knoxville, shared this untamed characteristic with the towns of the wild west, where violence in Tennessee continuing from the Indian wars, the duels of Andrew Jackson, the battles of the Civil War, the coal miners’ strikes of the 1890s, to the murder of Edward W. Carmack in 1908, and labor unrest in Chattanooga in 1917. The violence in nineteenth century Knoxville expressed continuity with the state and national tradition of violence.

As in the surrounding mountains, a sense of familial honor and vengeance worked with the easy access to firearms to produce fatal conflicts. On Christmas Eve 1881, came the first of six murders revolving around the family and fortunes of General Joseph Alexander Mabry, a wealthy Knoxville landowner and speculator. (The title “General” was apparently a sobriquet inasmuch as Mabry never served in a martial capacity in the Civil War.)

The exploit, according to the Knoxville Daily Tribune, “has thrown a damper over the entire community, and the man who drinks his glass of whisky to produce gaiety does so with a shudder.” 1 Don C. Lusby, Constable of Knox County’s second district, engaged his friend Will C. Mabry in a horse race into town on Christmas Eve. Both, “chums you might say,”2 had earlier attended cock fights at Wade’s brick yard in North Knoxville and were flushed at the end of their galloping race at Alf Snodderly’s bar at Vine and Gay Streets. Mabry apparently harbored hard feelings against Lusby, who in his official capacity had earlier barred him from Mdme. Maggie Day’s establishment in Shieldstown, because of his rowdy conduct.3

Inside, an altercation developed in which Mabry refused Constable Lusby’s offer of a drink of apple brandy – hostile word were exchanged and soon he and Lusby fought a classic barroom brawl of the kind usually associated with cinematic depictions of the wild west. In the course of the row Mabry hit Lusby on the forehead with a one-half-inch thick coffee plate weighing a pound. Bleeding and enraged, Constable Lusby reached in his pocket and found his pistol. Mabry, realizing his predicament, straightaway ran for the door, chased closely by Lusby. Soon the antagonists were “out on the street. When Lusby shot the first time” said one witness, “I did not hear him cry. When the second shot was fired Marby grunted. The shots were simultaneous. Mabry dropped on Vine Street about thirty feet from Gay.” Dr. Sam Boyd testified at the preliminary hearing on Christmas Day that the first shot had lodged in Mabry’s neck while the second entered his left side, striking the seventh rib. He died of internal bleeding. Some fifty witnesses, exactly twenty five for each side, 4 would testify, but no clear picture emerged. 5 On January 11, 1882, Judge M.L. Hall determined that Lusby, while excited because of the blow to his head, “had brought his mind to the determination to kill him [Mabry] and under these circumstances he is entitled to no bail.”6 No verdict was reached.

General Mabry was a Knoxville land owner, of one of the areas oldest and most prominent families. During the Civil War he had offered to clothe many Confederate soldiers. Prior to the war he had been president of the Knoxville and Kentucky railroad. In that capacity and after the Civil War he worked with General Maney, President of the Tennessee and Pacific Railway Company. Mabry likewise was a lobbyist with great influence with his personal friend, Governor De Witt Clinton Senter (1869-1871). Generals Mabry and Maney worked together to secure public funding for their mutual railroad project, but Mabry’s expected payment for his influence with the State’s Chief Executive was not forthcoming. Subsequently Mabry took $25,000 from the T&P treasury as a loan. The subsequent lawsuit went against Mabry and he began selling land and his stables of blooded racehorses to meet his obligations. Nevertheless, the General continued to speculate in land and was still a noted businessman/developer in the city. In fact a street in Knoxville bears his name. He was said to have a terrible temper and prone to violence, 7 for example, “that during his career as a sporting man he killed a man whose name is not now remembered.”8 General Mabry was also in heavily in debt as so was engaged in nearly constant litigation. All his property, it was reported, “was involved in law and was time and again sold for taxes and to satisfy judgments, but somehow he always managed to hold on to it.” 9 General Mabry was a member of the decaying postbellum old south land owning aristocracy. Certainly he was preoccupied with maintaining his social authority and political influence and bequeathing it to his sons, one of whom was now dead.

By May, 1882, the criminal court again began proceedings in the matter of the State of Tennessee v. Don C. Lusby. The Criminal Court jury acquitted him of murder in the first degree but were divided on the question of whether or not his offense could be considered manslaughter. Ultimately finally was released on bond after a mistrial was declared. 10 One newspaper editorialized in response that when a citizen was approached by a peace officer known to carry a pistol, the smart man should “arm himself with a musket or double-barreled shot gun.”11 A yearning for justice by vendetta was growing in some rather prominent Knoxville circles, and the feeling of bitter enmity intensified between the two families. While many contemporaries may not have thought of it this way, blood feuds were products not only of the wild West and the Tennessee mountain clans, but occurred in more urban settings as well. Indeed, a “deadly family feud has existed between the two families” and soon the second chapter growing out of that feud would unfold. 12

On August 27, Don C. Lusby, who was out on bond, and his father, Moses, were shot while in the presence of General Mabry and his attorney son, Joseph A. Mabry, Jr., and others inside the Recorder’s Court chambers. The Knoxville Daily Tribune called the shootout “A Terrible Sequel to the Bloody Tragedy of Last Christmas Eve.” The General was told that morning that Lusby was “hunting him and would probably kill him and to keep him out of his way.” Apparently taking the information seriously, the General, although he was armed with a pistol, avoided Lusby when he saw him on the corner of Clinch and Gay streets around 10:30 a.m. Mabry went into McCampbell’s drug store to avoid a confrontation, and Lusby crossed the street positioning himself at the side door, facing Clinch Street, apparently watching for Mabry saying in no uncertain terms that he would kill the General. His father, Moses Lusby, was heard to have said “he would be damned if he (Don) did for he intended to do, it himself.” 13

It was at this juncture that Knoxville Police Chief W. Harper arrived. Lusby, complained the General was following him in a threatening manner. As Chief Harper left the drug store and stepped into the street followed by Mabry, Lusby called to the General several times, but the General paid no attention. Lusby’s fervor only increased as he began shouting curses at the General saying, according to Chief Harper, “You see he will not speak to me, the damned old scoundrel!” and other bitter words. It was then Harper placed Lusby under arrest. Lusby resisted arrest for some time, but was finally subdued and taken to the Recorder’s Court. His armed father joined his son in the chambers, where a warrant was taken out against Don Lusby for creating a disturbance. The General, his son – also armed with a pistol – Chief Harper, Moses Lusby, the City Recorder and a few city policemen were in the room. The warrant was sworn and Harper then moved to disarm Lusby, to take his pistol. In the ensuing scuffle some five shots were quickly fired. Moses was shot in the chest and because the bullet lodged near his spine, he was dead instantly, while Don was mortally wounded. It was 11:15 am Don was taken towards his home borne on a cot by friends who were unable to get any further than a private house, ironically on Mabry Street, where he died.14

Eye witnesses testified that while they had seen the elder and younger Mabry with pistols immediately prior to and during the shooting, no one testified that they saw either actually shoot them at the Lusbys. Sheriff C.B. Gossett arrested the two Mabrys on charges of murder and felonious assault. Both the Mabrys posted a $2,500 bond, yet as the newspaper paraphrased Knoxville Justice Alex Allison, “he would not presume to say that a jury would find them guilty.”15 Even though the Mabrys were indicted for the double murder, they were acquitted of the charge of murder in Criminal Court. While they were acquitted, 16 it was widely believed they had committed the crime.17 In summary, they had gotten away with murder.

Suddenly, on a rain-soaked Thursday morning, October 19, 1882, just after 10 am and within a period of two minutes, three leading Knoxville citizens lay prostrate on Gay street on the West side of the block, between Church and Clinch streets, “their life blood gushing from ghastly wounds.18” Shortly, only the cold, pallid, corpses of General Mabry, his son Joseph A. Mabry, Jr., and Major Thomas O’ Connor remained.

The General, after his business reversals and legal troubles, had never been the same man, and had been “of late years…drinking deeply.” His son Will had been murdered in the streets of. His other son, Joseph, Jr., was born and raised and for the most part educated in Knoxville, and was a attorney of local merit and recognition. It was said “recontre [sic] and altercation were distasteful to him.”19 Nevertheless, as events would demonstrate, he was at least competent with a pistol.

Major Thomas O’Conner, the third victim of this urban blood fued that day, was born in Virginia. He had come to Knoxville in the 1830s as a harness maker. His business improved, and at the time of the Civil War he enlisted as a Lieutenant of Captain Howald’s artillery. His unit after being held a prisoner of war at Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie. He made his fortune thereafter in Atlanta and returned to Knoxville and was acclaimed as one of the shrewdest politicians in the state, having been a member of the National Democratic Committee. The Major had also “rapidly risen among the monied men of the day” and became the major owner of the corporate giant Tennessee Coal and Iron Company. He lived in Nashville, in the Maxwell House Hotel, and in his home in Knoxville. He was a noted local philanthropist, a “whole-souled man” whose latest business venture was the formation the Mechanics’ National Bank on Gay Street.20 He was the epitome of the New South entrepreneur, whose thriving and preeminent class helped created envy and status anxiety among the remaining and rapidly displaced antebellum aristocratic class.

That the General and the Major would come to share such bitter enmity can be explained. Some time before Will Mabry’s death by Constable Lusby, Major O’Conner had purchased from the General a rather agreeable Knox County properties, the Cold Spring Farm and the Chevannes place, with the condition that the Major should at some later date give the farm to Will. Of course, once Will was dead there was nothing to hold O’Conner to the deal, or so it was reported that the General reasoned.21 Apparently the General’s mental capacities had been strained by his years of business failure, by the killing of his son, his alcohol abuse, the murder of the Lusbys, and now his anxious conviction that the Major had actually plotted his son’s death to maintain a claim to a piece of real estate. One paper reported that after the Lusby killings “the General has seemed to be further than ever off mental balance.” A hint of this animosity occurred during the double Lusby murder trial in September, when Mabry first gave utterance to accusations that O’Conner had been responsible for his son’s death. Yet there was more the sour relations between the two men. Jospeh, Jr. and O’Conner had been partners in an agricultural implement business which had failed. General Mabry had applied for a security loan from O’Conner’s Mechanics’ National Banks and had been denied the money on the grounds that he was over extended.22 Certainly this sustained and stoked the General’s status anxieties, but the first indication of unequivocal rancor came at the Fair Grounds, south of the Tennessee River on Wednesday, October 17, 1882.23

At the Wednesday afternoon races, at the Fair Grounds, an armed and incensed General Mabry, in the presence of many witnesses, confronted an unarmed and flabbergasted Major O’Conner and upbraided him, making loud threats against him, thundering that he was responsible for the murder of his son, calling him a “G_d d_d robber and murderer.” [sic]24 The General declared his passion to shoot the Major “then and there.” The Major replied calmly that the race course was neither the time nor place for gunplay. Later that evening a frenzied General Mabry sent word to the Major “that he would kill him on sight.” O’Conner’s supporters advised him, in light of these threats, he would be justified in carrying a weapon and shooting the General on sight. Forewarned was forearmed.

At very nearly ten o’clock on the rainy morning of the 19th of October, the General and a friend, Robert Steele, Esq., appeared walking south down the west side of Gay street toward Church street. [see contemporary diagram] Standing across the street in the doorway of his Mechanics’ National Bank was Major O’Conner. Suddenly, as the General reached a point across from the Bank, O’Conner brought out a double-barreled shotgun, stepped out on the pavement, cocked the weapon, raised it to his shoulder, took deliberate aim and fired at Mabry, who was about one step in front of Steele. Mabry fell instantly on his face “and as he fell O’Conner emptied the other barrel into Mabry’s body.”25 Steele ran to the nearby People’s Bank, failing to perceive that Joseph, Jr. had arrived on the site. After the younger Mabry saw his lifeless father he had reached a point on Gay Street, where he drew his pistol, took premeditated aim, and fired at the Major some fifty feet away. His marksmanship was excellent, and the Major was instantaneously hit with deadly effect. At the same instant the Major turned to the right and fired his shotgun at Mabry. Young Mabry sunk to the ground and before a second had lapsed Major O’Conner “sank to the pavement falling on his back, [throwing] his arm wide open and [dieng] without tremor. Young Joe Mabry attempted to rise but only got about half way up, then fell on his back and died in a few seconds without uttering a word and no struggle was perceptible except the twitching of the muscles and the death gurgle in his throat.”26 Four shots had been fired. One eyewitness newspaper account elegantly described the incident this way:

The reverberations from wall to wall of a few successive explosions, the curling up of a little sulphurous cloud upon this and that side of a narrow street and and forms prone upon the wet and slippery flagging [pavement], then the hurried tramp of curious feet and pale lips are busy with eager questions. The dead are carried to houses upon either side of the street, which is made dismal by rain and the gathering throng of funeral umbrellas that block the way. The first palsey over, I hurried and fragmentary explanations are given while the curious throng gather around the bullet hole in the wall and the horrid pool of blood on the pavement that is mingling with the descending rain.27

The scene was quiet after the shootout. Three of the most prominent men in Knoxville dead on the wet street. The frame of mind was subdued, “everybody was cool, calm, and sorrowful…All heads were bowed in sincerest sympathy….” The Daily Tribune, however, reported that it’s all time record breaking sales reached five editions before the public’s thirst for news was slaked.

What had been learned from this violence which had “never been approached before in our history, and which are never likely to occur again…”? There was something inherently awful in these events, and they were not held to be characteristic of Knoxville. Perhaps, philosophized an editorial in the Daily Tribune, it was a generational lack of respect for the old cultural canons. After all, up until the recent killings “not even the most bitter feuds – which have existed here as they do everywhere – have terminated so fearfully….The old code of adjusting difficulties is regarded by the rising generation here as something to be shunned, and personal animosities, if entertained at all, very seldom come to the surface of society.”28 The clash of the new and old social and entrepreneurial codes had borne bitter fruit.

Funeral services for the Mabry’s took place at their home on Mabry Hill, on Dandridge Pike on October 20. At about 10 o’clock two hearses conveyed the remains of General and Joseph Mabry Jr. to Old Gray Cemetery, where a double grave was prepared next to Will C. Mabry’s cenotaph in the family lot. There were but six of fourteen survivors. A Methodist service was held. Later, on the 21st, Episcopalian funeral obsequies were held for Major O’Conner at Melrose. He was survived by his wife, sister and a brother. His remains were attended by many friends from Nashville and across the state. He was laid to rest also in Gray Cemetery.29

The feud that terminated in the streets of Knoxville claimed six lives. That such a bloody lawlessness occurred in a Tennessee city in the nineteenth century seems somehow out of character, a temporary aberration not characteristic to the civilized East. Yet the allegory of Knoxville’s Mabry, Lusby, and O’Conner homicides were not affairs of honor. Instead they indicate that in our past violence was sometimes resorted to by established, conservative men of wealth to settle with irrevocable finality certain real or imagined economic, familial, and social disputes. President Harry S. Truman reputedly said: “There is nothing new but the history we don’t know.” Perhaps this sketch of the onerous and tragic Knoxville blood feud of 1881-1882 is an operative example of his opinion.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hey where can I find information on Robert Steele?