THEY COULDN'T BREAK THE "RULE." VIOLENCE AND JOURNALISM IN 1880s KNOXVILLE, OR, MARK TWAIN WAS RIGHT.
BY DR. JAMES B. JONES, JR., PUBLIC HISTORIAN,Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Violence involving newspaper men in Knoxville seems to have paralleled that in Memphis. William Rule, editor of the Republican Knoxville Chronicle, was accosted in the streets on the evening of March 11, 1882 by the editor of the Democratic Knoxville Tribune, James W. Wallace. That morning's Chronicle contained an article in which the youthful Wallace found offense. The trouble stemmed from intense political enmity but was sparked by an apolitical article in the Chronicle charging that the Tribune was guilty of unfair and even salacious advertising. According to Rule, "a few Sundays ago…after advertising that it would do so, published a sensational romance, and then, in order to escape punishment, lied out of it, and begged and whined like the cowardly puppies that they are." It was a variety of journalism the Chronicle would never engage in and "which no gentleman could take pride. But the Tribune boasts of its enterprise." It also branded the editors of the Tribune as "cowardly puppies," a common and insulting appellation of the day. Wallace met Rule on the street that evening and demanded a retraction. Rule refused and according to his account:
Thereupon the irate young man, who appeared to be writhing under some irrepressible grievance, hoarse with pent up wrath, trembling with excitement, commenced some sort of formal denunciation, which he had evidently been practicing for the occasion. In order to assist the young man in his explosion, we struck him a blow with a small cane about one-half inch in diameter at the larger end, about the neck, whereupon he drew a revolver and commenced firing. He fired two shots, the first at such close range that one side of our face was slightly burned with powder. We retreated a few feet behind one of the pillars in front of the store of Ross Brothers, when he fired again and then ran around the corner of the store, when we passed into the store, but came out, immediately and stood on the side-walk. Then Jim went in a dog grot across Gay street into the Tribune office, and thus the curtain dropped on the first act which was intended to be a thrilling tragedy."
Wallace had acted entirely in self defense, claimed the Tribune, and while Rule was not hurt one of the bullets had "went through his hair." Wallace turned himself in and "leading Republicans were on the streets soon after making all kinds of threats." William F. (the Governor) Yardley, the notable African-American Knoxville Republican attorney swore out a warrant for Rule's arrest while other Radicals "tried to make themselves equally officious." The reason for the altercation claimed the Tribune's editor was simply…we have advocated unswervingly the success of the Democratic party in national, State, county and city affairs, and shown up fearlessly the corrupt practices of the Republicans whenever and where ever they are in power. Our efforts to show the thievery and rottenness of some of our local politicians have no doubt won us the bitter hatred of the Chronicle and the Republican leaders in Knoxville. Rule's Republican friends and colleagues surprised him the next evening with the presentation of a brand new cane, the one used in the altercation having been broken over Wallace's head. "Capt. Rule acknowledged the presentation, replying that this occasion was much more embarrassing than the previous one." Apparently no legal action was taken for the incident and it was regarded as satisfactorily concluded.While one member of the Rule family had escaped physical harm because of an offending editorial opinion, it was only the first of a second similar yet more violent editorial encounter in the streets of Knoxville. William Rule's brother, James (Jim), city editor of the Knoxville Journal, found himself in a much more serious situation six years later, and in a matter of local politics and family honor stemming from an insult in the paper.At the services at St. John's Episcopal Church on Sunday, January 29, 1888, the church organ resonated deeply and thunderously as a matter of editorial commentary stimulated a street brawl that would leave one man dead and two wounded. Just minutes before, James P. Rule, city editor of the Knoxville Journal was escorting his spouse and daughter to religious services and had taken her to the door. Rule was advised that three men on the opposite side of the street wished to speak with him, His wife entered the church and Rule walked across the street to meet with John and William West, and their companion Goodman. The three had visited Rule's house earlier that morning, but were unable to find him. They were told "he was probably not at home as he had an engagement to sing at St. John's Episcopal Church." Rule was afterward warned that they were making threats to attack him. The cause of the threats was a letter printed in that Sunday's Journal in which a doctor complained that the current city physician was unqualified for the position. Indeed, a series of communications on the topic had been printed in the Journal. Now the matter had demanded drastic scrutiny, claimed a letter written by physician "XYZ."
The Board of Aldermen had earlier passed an ordinance requiring the city physician, whose job was to care for sick poor, must have recognized medical degree. They had not for a period of two and now Board of Aldermen had incredibly reappointed the notoriously incompetent individual who held the place during the past, for two years, instead of one, and at a salary increased from six hundred to one thousand dollars! And to accomplish this an ordinance was repealed that required the city physician be a graduate of some reputable medical school….rather than…someone else who might call himself "doctor" and perhaps make himself useful at elections for aldermen….Taking everything into account, the transaction as a slap in the face of the regular profession and certainly no physical, with proper self-respect can afford to countenance, much less give any assistance to the appointee. Not only has the board put an unqualified person in the office of city physician…but should such a calamity as a severer epidemic visit our city within the next two years, it might prove to be very unfortunate to have the place of city physicians filled by one made obnoxious to the whole body of the profession.
Dr. A. T. West was the city physician to whom the letter from "XYZ" referred. Some time about 8:30 am Dr. A. T. West his sons John and William and a companion, Will Goodman, foreman of the M. L. & Co. candy factory, called at the offices of the Knoxville Journal insisting they be given the name of the name of the physician who had written the scathing letter. He was told that he knew nothing of it, but the managing editor of the Journal, William Rule and he no doubt would give him the answer on Monday morning. "The doctor was very angry and replied that that would not satisfy him. "'This thing has gone far enough,' he exclaimed, 'and has got to be settled now, To-day.'" West would not wait until Monday, but William "Captain" Rule was home asleep "and could not be disturbed." In the meantime the West brothers and Goodman left the newspaper office. Asked again if he would wait for a clarification on Monday, Dr. West told the clerk: "No, the boys have gone over to settle it now, I am waiting on them."The hostile trio went to William Rule's house and demanded an audience which was refused. He was asleep at his regular hours and promised them an answer the following morning. Mrs. Rule added that Jim Rule, city editor of the Journal, would be informed of the matter and provides an explanation. They asked about Jim's whereabouts and were told he was on his way St. John's Episcopal Church where he was scheduled to sing. The three men hastened to the church and tried to call Rule out, but he was not yet at the church. They waited at the corner of Walnut and Cumberland and Rule, his wife and sister appeared one of the threesome was heard to say: "I will rip him from head to foot when I get to him." All three were now stationed at the church's Walnut street entrance. When Rule made his way to the church one of the hostile young men "accosted him with the inquiry: 'Is your name Jim Rule?'" The answer was in the affirmative. The man then said, "I want to see you about an article in the Journal."Jim Rule suggested the cross the street to discuss the matter as Mrs. Rule and Cora entered the church. They demanded to know "XYZ's identity but Rule declined, citing the newspaper's policy in such circumstances required notifying the author of the letter that complaints had been made. He promised to act with alacrity in the process. "This did not satisfy them and they said it must be done at once." Rule said it would be impossible as he was about to sing in St. John's and it was past time for him to be there and so it was impossible for him to discuss the matter further.They then began to parody him saying he was "a damned nice man to sing in a choir." The indecent epithets escalated and Rule continued to insist that in front of a church door was no place for settling the matter. But they could not be persuaded. Their threatening language and posture continued to intensify and Rule continued to suggest this was not the time or place to straighten out the question.John West drew a long knife and William a revolver. Probably forewarned, Rule likewise drew his revolver as the two West boys attacked.
Rule kept…kept backing down the street until he struck the hitching rack in front of Dr. Boynton's gate and fell. The two men then covered him, one of them beating him over the head with a pistol, the other striking him in the back with a knife.
Meanwhile, in St. John's church the congregation settled down for their hour of worship. The reverend rector read the opening sentence "The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth deep silence before Him." The choir had finished singing "'O' come let us sign unto the Lord,' the sweet melody made sweeter than ever by the added voice of Mrs. Rule, who for the first time was joining in the happy strains, when from the street came the awful sounds of the pistol shots with dull tones as if the brutal weapons had smothered their murderous throats before the awful Presence.'" Mrs. Rule immediately left choir and witnessed the melee.A churchgoer reacted first to the first of four gunshots as the thrashing was going on in the street. The second shot passed thorough Rule's wrists, while the third went wild. With great difficulty Rule found his pistol and, at close quarters, fired the fourth shot blindly at his attackers, mortally wounding John West. A bystander saw that Rule was struggling to his feet and took his pistol from his hand and offered to help him lie down. Rule said, no "I am not as badly hurt as your think I am", even though blood was streaming from his wounds. It appeared as though "the whole top of his head was shot off." But Rule, although wounded, was very much alive. He was taken home and his wounds attended to.The attackers left the scene with great haste thinking they had killed Rule, going in three separate directions. William West, following a circuitous route, was found by the constabulary on Central Avenue Pike. He was taken to City Hall in the midst of "an immense throng of people" where he was to be tried then next day. William Goodman had received a wound in the shoulder. He claimed to have accompanied the West brothers as a peacemaker. John West was taken to his father's residence on Mabry street. He was wounded in the abdomen. He lingered there, insisting on his innocence. In his deathbed confession he contended
I said to Jim Rule, if you don't tell me I will hold you responsible for it. I then said that anybody who would write such a slanderous piece and not sign the name was a black s___ of a b____. Rule then stepped back about four feet, drew his revolver and shot me. I did not go there for a fuss, but only to find out who wrote it. I was unarmed.
Question-Did you stab Rule?Answer-As it was to be seem I defended my _____Here broke completely down and was unable to speak again. He died just a few minutes after the clock struck twelve.A jury of inquest was held shortly after West died and decided that the dead man came to his end by a gun-shot wound at the hands of J. F. Rule. The remains were sent to Dandridge accompanied by a large number of friend and relatives.
Research and writing by
Dr. James B. Jones, Jr.,
He who giveth not attribution the curse of hell shall bear.
 Mark Twain, Journalism in Tennessee, (ca. 1871) Knoxville Chronicle, March12, 14, 1882. See also The St. Louis Globe, March 12, 1882, and The North American (Philadelphia), March 13, 1882. Knoxville Journal, January 31, 1888; The Daily Picayune, January 30, 1888; Milwaukee Sentinel, January 30, 1888; Boston Daily Advertiser; The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago), January 20, 1888;The News and Observer (Raleigh), February 1, 1888