More than a century after the Carroll County Courthouse Tragedy, reminders of the county’s most infamous day will return to the scene for a special presentation March 12.
The only known live round to survive the shootout, which left five people dead and several others injured, will be part of the display. More significantly, a document that hasn’t seen the light of day in several decades, one researcher Howard Sadler calls “the Holy Grail” of the courtroom documents relating to the shootout, will also be part of the presentation.
The Carroll County Historical Society will host the special presentation of “The Last Witness – A story of Friendship and Trust,” an examination of the Courthouse Tragedy in Hillsville on March 14, 1912. The presentation will be held Sunday, March 12 at 2 p.m. at the Historic Carroll County Courthouse and will be led by Blacksburg realtor Howard G. Sadler, who has a unique connection to the saga.
“The Last Witness” is a unique view into the lives of Judge Thorton Lemmon Massie and his friend and confidant, Howard Cecil Gilmer of Pulaski, and the tragic events of March 14, 1912 that changed the lives of those involved forever.
For over 100 years, the story of the Courthouse Tragedy has become legend in the oral history and mountain lore of Virginia. Books, pamphlets, newspaper articles, plays, academic studies, and historical research publications have reviewed and analyzed the event. However, the March 12 presentation will be unique. Attendees can expect to learn about Judge Massie and his life, while gaining insights about the tragedy through the Judge’s own words and from those who were there that fateful day. There will also be trial testimony and photographic evidence. Actual documents introduced at the ensuring murder trials, which have remained sheltered and unseen since the days of the event, will also be part of the presentation.
Sadler said the presentation is the culmination of over 1,400 hours of research he put in on the Courthouse Tragedy over the past two years. He’s always remembered his mother telling him a story about his grandfather, Howard Cecil Gilmer, being with Judge Massie when he died in the shootout. Traveling on U.S. 52 past the Sidna Allen House in Fancy Gap in recent years as a realtor, he started to remember a scrapbook in the attic of his childhood home that belonged to his grandmother.
“In it was a .38 caliber live bullet with a tag taken from the pistol of (then-Carroll County Clerk of Court) Dexter Goad the morning of March 14, 1912. The entry was by my great-grandfather and how he got the bullet I am not sure,” Sadler said. “But that got me interested in tracking down the bullet because it could be the real deal. When I began to dig into it I realized it was in fact the real deal, that Dexter Goad was the only person in the courthouse that was firing a Colt semi-automatic .38 caliber pistol. There were other .38s being fired that day, but they were revolvers and other semiautomatics, but they were .32 caliber pistols. The .38 caliber pistol bullet fired in a Colt could only have been fired in that pistol. It can’t be fired in a revolver because the casing would get hung in the cylinder.”
That finding piqued Sadler’s interest further. Eventually, it led him to find that his grandfather had a much deeper involvement in the courthouse shootout and the ensuing murder trials then anyone in his family ever realized.
As it turns out, Sadler’s grandfather, an attorney, and Judge Massie were friends and neighbors who also worked in the same courthouses. On March 11, 1912, the two traveled together from Pulaski to Hillsville. Gilmer actually had a trial on the docket that was supposed to follow Floyd Allen’s trial for forcibly rescuing his nephews from a Carroll County deputy. Sadler said Gilmer and Massie actually stayed at the old Thorton Hotel (also known as the Texas House Hotel) in the days leading up to the shootout. Gilmer was with Massie when the judge died and he would go on to testify about Massie’s shooting in the seven murder trials involving the Allen family in the aftermath of the Courthouse Tragedy.
As part of Sadler’s research, he said Carroll County Clerk of Court Gerald Goad let him look through old records in the “bowels” of the Carroll County Courthouse. There, he was able to find a number of documents “that had never seen the light of day,” including complaints against Sidna Edwards and Wesley Edwards for the schoolhouse “ruckus” in December of 1910 that ultimately led to the events that caused the courthouse shootings. Included in the records Sadler found were Judge Massie’s typed and handwritten notices, the jury instructions given to Floyd Allen’s forcible rescue jury on the late afternoon of March 13, 1912, as well as a second page of those instructions the judge gave early the morning of March 14 at the request of the jury.
Still, Sadler continued to long for the “Holy Grail,” the actual documents from Floyd Allen’s forcible rescue trial that started the shootout, as well as documents from his ensuing murder trial in Wythe County. He said he would go on develop a very friendly relationship with Wythe County Clerk of Court Hayden H. Horney and his staff, even though Horney had repeatedly assured him no such documents existed in the neighboring county.
“But then one day last May or June, Hayden elected to go back into the basement of the Wythe County Courthouse one more time,” Sadler said. “He began looking around and found one box that had a tag on it with a capital ‘A’ and a small ‘x’ beside it. So he pulled the box out, pulled the paper tag up and turned it around. And ‘Holy Toledo,’ on the tag on the back was typed “Allen Trials 1912.’”
On Sadler’s next trip to the Wythe Courthouse, he said Horney pointed to a file box underneath his desk. The clerk went on to say he thought he had what Sadler had been looking for.
“I think I said ‘Holy Toledo,’ or something with a little more of my Marine Corps parlance. My heart was pounding,” Sadler said.
And then he found the “Holy Grail” he had been searching for – Exhibit 1 or Exhibit A from Floyd Allen’s murder trial. He knew if he found it, it would have the written verdict of C.L. Charlie Howell, the jury foreman of Floyd Allen’s forcible rescue trial which resulted in the infamous shootout.
“I knew from trial testimony and other writings that Judge Massie interrupted after that verdict was rendered and said the legal form of that finding was not correct. I knew he directed at that point to Commonwealth’s Attorney William Foster to rewrite the verdict in its correct legal form. He took it from Dexter Goad, turned it on its side, and wrote out the corrected legal form of the verdict of Floyd Allen,” Sadler said. “Within 90 seconds of writing that I knew William Foster was shot dead. Here I am in the Wythe County Courthouse going through these files that had been lost for decades. I am finding all these exhibits and all of sudden, Holy Toledo, I found one that says Exhibit A.”
Sadler said he pulled that file out very slowly. He then noticed Charlie Howell’s handwriting, thinking to himself nobody knew what Howell wrote incorrectly because nobody had seen the document. Sadler said he couldn’t believe his eyes as he read Howell’s handwriting stating “We the jury find the defendant guilty as charged and sentence him one year in the penitentiary.”
Sadler knew he was reading the words that Judge Massie interrupted.
“Now I am really shaking because it looks like I am holding the Holy Grail. I turn it over on the back side and sure enough William Foster’s handwriting is there and then I know what the document is,” Sadler said. “I roll it over and Foster has written, ‘We the jury find the defendant Floyd Allen guilty as charged in the within indictment and sentence him to one year in the penitentiary of this state.’ Howell left out Allen’s name and left out guilty as charged within the indictment and he said one year in the penitentiary, but he didn’t say which penitentiary , the penitentiary of this state. The form is handed back to Howell, he signs it a second time, Dexter Goad reads it again, the judge accepts the verdict, and shortly after all hell breaks loose. So I have found the holy grail.”
Sadler said within 30 minutes of the finding, he returned to his car and called Ron Hall, a local author of books about the shootout and the man considered to be the foremost authority on the tragedy.
“Ron said, ‘I can’t believe you found that.’ We talked about it at some length and he asked if I understood the significance of it,” Sadler said. “I said, ‘Well sure, it’s the Holy Grail, the original indictment of Floyd Allen. If it were not introduced, we wouldn’t have had the trial in the first place that led to the shootout.’ He said, ‘That is true, but the other thing you need to understand is you are the only person living to see that document. And not only that, probably the only person who has seen the document since it was introduced May 8, 1912 at the murder trial of Floyd Allen.’ It stunned me when he said that in such a profound way.”
Sadler said the presentation he will give March 12 will last about two hours. What began as a casual curiosity about his grandfather’s involvement soon turned into something much deeper and much more impactful for Sadler.
“I think the essence of the whole thing for me was realizing that my grandfather was heavily involved in the days before, during and after the courthouse tragedy, and yet he is almost unknown. He was with Judge Massie when he died. The judge uttered a message my grandfather never revealed. My grandfather took the judge’s body in a wagon and he accompanied Massie’s body 10 miles north to Sylvatus to the Betty Baker Train Depot in Sylvatus to bring back to Pulaski. My grandfather helped unload the judge’s body. He helped the funeral home staff undress the judge’s body to prepare for proper burial, and he then went on to testify in the murder trials about the bullet wounds in Judge Massie. So what began as a casual thing begins to transform into an obligation, not only to my family and Judge Massie’s family, but to everyone connected with the courthouse tragedy, and doing what I could in these presentations to preserve as much as possible in the recreation of what happened as factually as I could do it supported by actual testimony and actual documents and so forth.”
Sadler originally gave “The Last Witness” presentation in Pulaski on Oct. 25, 2016. The Carroll presentation will be his second time presenting the material.
“I’m very grateful for the reception I have received in doing the presentation and I am honored to be able to come down and do the presentation in the room where it all happened,” Sadler said. “These documents have never been shown in Carroll County since the days of Floyd Allen’s forcible rescue trial.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN