HILLSVILLE — Howard Sadler held the last words of a dead man in his hands.
The handwritten note, scribbled hastily in pencil on a folded piece of paper, read:
“We the jury find the defendant Floyd Allen guilty as charged in the within indictment and fix his punishment at confinement in the penitentiary of this state for one year.”
Sadler knew that William Foster, the chief prosecutor in Carroll County, had written those words at the behest of a judge. Sadler also knew that, minutes after Foster laid down his pencil, he was dead. So was the judge. The men were gunned down during one of the most notorious events in Southwest Virginia history. That day was March 14, 1912, the day five people were killed in a shootout between members of the Allen family and court officials on the floor of a small-town courtroom, an event forever known as “The Courthouse Massacre.”
Sadler knew that tragic story, and he understood his family’s connection to it. His grandfather, Howard Gilmer, was a young attorney who had been in Hillsville that day, and he was one of the last people to comfort the mortally wounded judge, Thornton Massie, Gilmer’s neighbor and mentor back home in Pulaski. Most significantly, Sadler knew that he was reading a document that had been missing for more than 100 years.
Most of the documents from the subsequent murder trials that followed the shootout had been lost — or were thought to have been lost or stolen. But there they were, hidden in a drawer in the basement of the Wythe County Courthouse, where a longtime clerk discovered them in the fall of 2016. Most likely, someone had intentionally hidden the drawer to keep people from pawing through and perhaps removing the papers.
Sadler looked at Foster’s cursive handwriting of Floyd Allen’s conviction and understood the document’s gravity. Allen had been convicted of a serious offense — interfering with a deputy (beating up a deputy was closer to the truth) to release his nephews from custody — but nothing so serious that rose to the level of instigating a deadly shootout.
That verdict, those words uttered by a jury foreman and re-written by Foster, were what prompted the freshly convicted the defiant Allen to stand up and pronounce, “Gentlemen, I just ain’t a-goin’,” or words to that effect, right before the courtroom filled with smoke and lead.
“To see this handwritten verdict, I knew it was the Holy Grail and Exhibit One in the commonwealth’s case against Floyd Allen,” Sadler said. “There’s Foster’s handwriting … and then you realize that within five or six minutes, he was dead. He was shot dead in the courtroom.”
A few weeks ago, that trove of documents related to the shootout and subsequent trials made its way back to Carroll County, where the whole mess started. Gerald Goad, Carroll County Clerk of the Circuit Court, engineered the transfer of the documents from Wytheville to Hillsville. Those documents include indictments, judge’s instructions, grand jury indictments, trial transcripts, letters and other courtroom exhibits — all words left by ghosts.
“This is the actual foundation of all of the story,” said Goad, whose own great-great-uncle, Dexter Goad, was a Carroll clerk of court who traded bullets with the Allens on that tragic day. Gerald Goad said the documents needed to be back in Carroll County.
“We are the court of record. It was a huge goal to get this back in Carroll. It lays the foundation of the events of that tragic story from March 1912.”
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An unexpected discovery
To be honest, nothing in the more than 180 pages of court papers adds any new information to the well-researched story of the shootout and its equally tragic aftermath. The documents don’t answer the seemingly unsolvable questions that have lingered in the air like gun smoke for 110 years. Who fired their pistol first? An Allen or a member of the court? Who shot whom? Autopsies were not conducted on the dead nor was any meaningful forensic investigation of the crime scene undertaken — even though the science such studies existed in 1912 — which only generated more questions, arguments, fights and conspiracy theories over the decades. Generations of Carroll Countians would grow up and grow old hearing about the shootout, arguing over who the true perpetrators were, creating and dismissing wild theories and resolving nothing. The discovered papers do little to shed new light in the darkended corners of the tragedy.
But the documents do bring humanity to a story often told through tintype pictures, brittle newspaper clippings, hazy memories and fables passed down through generations. Sadler said that reading Foster’s handwriting gave him chills. There it was, the script of a doomed man, written in the final minutes of his life. The flood of indictments that came just days after the shootout wail with pain, the typewritten words seething on the page while claiming that the Allens “unlawfully, feloniously, wickedly and maliciously” killed the sheriff and others. A jury foreman’s handwritten verdict in blotchy ink condemns Claude Allen to death.
The documents found their way to Wytheville because that was the site of the ensuing trials that followed the shootout, the venue having been moved from Hillsville where anger against the defendants boiled. The trials happened quickly in 1912 and early 1913. Barely one year after the courthouse shootout, Floyd Allen and his son Claude were executed minutes apart at the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond.
Sadler, a real estate broker in Blacksburg who lives on a family farm in Pulaski County, had taken an interest in the shootout story after looking at old scrapbooks kept by his grandmother, Howard Gilmer’s daughter. Sadler knew the family lore that Judge Massie had died in his grandfather’s arms, and that Gilmer had helped transport the judge’s remains back to Pulaski, and he even helped a mortician examine the corpse.
In 2015 or so, Sadler also found a .38 caliber bullet among the keepsakes. His grandfather had taken the round from the courthouse the day of the killings. Again, no thorough investigation of the courtroom happened, and the scene was almost immediately compromised by people who dug bullets out of the walls with pocketknives to keep as souvenirs.
Sadler’s research took him to the Wythe County Courthouse, where he befriended Hayden H. Horney, the longtime circuit court clerk. Sadler pored over available documents from the murder trials, but he lamented that many original 1912 exhibits were lost. He teased Horney about Wythe County losing such valuable historical artifacts.
“How can you have seven murder trials in Wythe County and not have any exhibits whatsoever?” Sadler often asked.
Those old papers were lost or stolen, Horney replied.
One day in the fall of 2016, when Sadler was in Wytheville doing more research on a Friday afternoon, Horney called him into his office. He pointed toward what appeared to Sadler to be a metal file.
“What the hell is that?” Sadler asked.
Horney told Sadler he decided to take one more look in the basement for the lost documents, moving more than 700 boxes. Atop a shelf, he saw what looked like a drawer among the boxes. The identification label on the drawer bore a large “A” and an “X.” Horney pulled the label out from its slot, flipped it over and read the typed words on the other side:
FLOYD ALLEN CLAUD ALLEN
SIDNA ALLEN ET ALS.
(Claude’s name was frequently spelled with and without an E.)
Below the words was scrawled “1912.”
“Howard, I believe that’s what you’ve been looking for,” Horney said.
Sadler took the file drawer to a vault in the courthouse and dove into the trove. He found the murder indictment against Sidna Allen, Floyd’s brother who would be convicted and serve more than 13 years in prison. He found trial transcripts. Then he found the original Floyd Allen indictment that bore William Foster’s final written words.
People who have researched the shootout long knew that Judge Massie had instructed Foster to re-write the jury verdict in proper legal language just minutes after it had been handed down, but no one knew precisely what Foster had actually written until the discovery of the Allen documents.
Ron Hall, a local historian who has written a book about the shootout and is considered one of the best sources for factual information about the story, told Sadler that he was probably the first person to see those documents in 100 years. Hall himself had asked Horney, who died in 2020, about the whereabouts of the trial exhibits while doing his own research.
“Maybe he didn’t want anybody else rifling through those things,” Hall said.
Maybe so, but people just keep coming back to this story.
* * *
Seeds of a shootout
The tale of the courthouse massacre is lengthy and complicated, covering more than two years beginning with a fight in 1910, followed by Floyd Allen’s trial and the shootout and culminating in Floyd and Claude Allen’s executions in 1913. But the story’s roots go further back and involve politics, rivalries, clannishness, thuggery, vengeance and even a little geography. And the story’s controversies, conspiracies, debates over justice and moral lessons have long outlived the verdicts and punishments that sought to settle matters more than a century ago.
What follows is a genuine effort to accurately summarize the tragedy and the events that led to the bloodshed. Much of the information was gleaned from Hall’s book, “The Carroll County Courthouse Tragedy,” and other sources.
Floyd Allen grew up in a large family in southern Carroll County, raised on a farm wedged between the North Carolina border and the front wall of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Being from “below the mountain,” as Carroll Countians described the community, the Allens and neighbors were cut off from the county seat in Hillsville, which in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a two-day horse ride over the peak through Fancy Gap. This sort of isolation probably meant that Floyd and his siblings grew up independent, resourceful and perhaps overly prideful and defiant.
Far from the backward, murderous mob of hillbillies as they would later be portrayed in sensational news accounts, Floyd and his brothers were farmers, business people and even occasional lawmen — who sometimes had their own run-ins with the law, usually stemming from their participation in the illegal liquor trade. The Allens could be a rough bunch, who fought with and shot at enemies — which they had no shortage of, apparently — and even each other. Floyd once got in a tangle over a business deal with his younger brother Jasper “Jack” Allen, who might have been the toughest Allen of them all, and the two men shot and wounded each other. Another younger brother, Sidna, was a successful businessman who had prospected for gold in Alaska, operated a store, owned a considerable amount of land and built a lovely Queen Anne-style home in Fancy Gap, and yet he was accused of being a counterfeiter who barely avoided jail time even though one of his associates was sent up the river.
As the late Roanoke writer and broadcaster Seth Williamson wrote in The Roanoker magazine in 1982, the Allen men “were not a race of mild country squires.”
They were proud men, perhaps none more so than Floyd, who it could be said carried a log-sized chip on his shoulder. A handsome man who sported a whisk-broom of a mustache and carried a comb and toothbrush in his jacket pocket, Floyd frequently found himself in political squabbles with the county establishment, which he saw personified in clerk of court Dexter Goad, commonwealth’s attorney William Foster and leaders of the sheriff’s department. The Allens were unreconstructed Democrats, the county fathers were mildly progressive, albeit still conservative, Republicans.
The battle of tradition against modernity seemed to be the heart of the rivalries: Would Carroll County be a 20th century civilized bastion of law, order and rules, or would the hidebound rugged frontier individualism of taking law into one’s own hands and the bucking of authority prevail? The answer would soon become obvious.
Allen and Goad had butted heads before. Allen once accused Goad of running liquor, which forced the clerk to resign from a prestigious post as federal commissioner. Perhaps to get even, Goad charged Allen with falsifying expense reports when he worked as a county deputy. Allen also had political run-ins with Foster, who switched parties from Democrat to Republican in order to defeat an Allen relative for the prosecutor’s post. Floyd said Goad and Foster were part of a “privileged clique,” according to Hall, one that would never include the likes of Floyd or his family.
So, in late 1910 when two of Floyd Allen’s nephews got in a little trouble with the law, the consequences would be deadly.
The Courthouse Tragedy
The trouble started with a kiss. A stolen kiss.
Brothers Wesley and Sidna Edwards (not to be confused with their uncle, Sidna Allen, Floyd’s brother), attended a corn-shucking party, a country frolic where folks played music, drank liquor on the side and, yes, shucked corn. A local tradition maintained that if a boy discovered a red ear of corn, he had the choice to kiss any girl at the party. Wesley, the story goes, shucked a red ear of corn and proceeded to kiss the girlfriend of a Thomas boy who he did not like. Later, the Thomas boy and others scrapped with the Edwards boys outside a church service, with the Edwards brothers getting the best of their rivals. Wesley and Sidna would be charged with assault, but before they could be arrested, they dashed across the state line, where Carroll County lawmen could not apprehend them.
Eventually, Carroll County deputies Thomas “Pink” Samuels and Peter Easter nabbed the brothers in North Carolina, shackled them and loaded them on a wagon for the long ride up the mountain, passing by Sidna Allen’s home and store in Fancy Gap — where they were met by none other than a hot-tempered Floyd Allen, who was angered that his kinfolk were hog-tied in a wagon like livestock being carted to market.
Floyd freed his nephews and took them himself to the Hillsville jail two days later. Now, the manner by which he freed them depended on who was telling the story. Floyd said he did it peacefully and lawfully, claiming that the deputies did not have proper warrants for arrest. The deputies, though, accused Floyd of forcibly freeing the brothers, assaulting the lawmen and smashing Deputy Samuels’ pistol against a rock. Floyd admitted that he might’ve gotten rough with Samuels.
Despite taking his nephews to jail himself, Floyd was accused that he did “feloniously and forcably [sic] rescue” his nephews, according to a grand jury indictment. Floyd Allen was going to trial.
(Interesting Southwest Virginia side note: Initially, Floyd’s nephew Barnett Allen, the grandfather of legendary Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer, was charged along with his uncles Floyd and Sidna for taking the Edwards boys from the deputies. Seems like everybody from Carroll County has some connection to this story. Charges eventually were dropped against Sidna and Barnett before the trial.)
March broke cold and rainy in the mountains. Floyd Allen’s case had been continued a couple of times before he finally appeared in court for a two-day trial that started on March 12, 1912. Nearly impassable muddy roads and a raw wind that carried snow flurries did not stop nearly 100 people from jamming the 1873 courthouse to see the spectacle of Floyd Allen possibly being led away in handcuffs.
Late in the day March 13, the jury had not reached a verdict, so Judge Massie sent them to the nearby Thornton Hotel for the night. Floyd spent the night at his brother Sidna’s splendid new home in Fancy Gap, about 7 miles away. The next morning, the jury quickly returned a guilty verdict and a sentence of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The courtroom buzzed. Massie had been urged by Foster and Goad to disarm the throng before the trail began. Massie refused, saying he was there “to prosecute, not persecute.”
Everybody was packing weapons, it seemed. Not only the sheriff and deputies, but Goad and Foster. Even the accused, Floyd Allen, carried a pistol.
As Foster followed the judge’s instructions to re-write the verdict on the indictment, Allen’s lawyer, W.D. Bolen, asked for bail and for Allen to be freed as they appealed the case. The judge refused. He told Sheriff Lewis Webb to take the prisoner.
Floyd stood up, his hands fidgeting with the bottom of his sweater, and he spoke his defiant words.
“Gentlemen, I just ain’t a-goin’.”
As historian Ron Hall wrote in his book: “And for a moment, the world stopped.”
One shot. The pop of a single revolver. Then a cacophony of gunfire.
Ninety seconds later, 57 bullets had been fired. People were struck, some were wounded, some killed instantly.
To this day, 110 years later, nobody who has studied this notorious event can say with any assurance who fired that catastrophic first shot. Hall thinks that Sheriff Webb, who was carrying a borrowed gun, might have fired accidentally. The Allen clan believed that Goad shot first. One local historian interviewed by Williamson for The Roanoker magazine in 1982 stated unequivocally that Claude Allen, Floyd’s son, fired first. In the 1960s, a boisterous flea market and liquor store owner in Cana named Rufus Gardner took up the Allens’ cause and found two men who claimed one of Goad’s assistants admitted to firing first at Floyd Allen.
Again, no investigation was made at the scene. No autopsies were performed. Maybe the county leaders didn’t want to find errant bullets from their own guns in the bodies of the dead, some county residents whispered.
Massie, Foster, Webb and juror Augustus Fowler died in the courtroom. Betty Ayers, an 18-year-old witness, was hit in the back while fleeing the courtroom and died the next day.
Most of the Allens and their cohorts escaped initially, but an emergency call to Virginia Gov. William Hodges Mann from Hillsville’s one outside line brought the famed Baldwin-Felts detectives to town the next day. The agency, infamous for busting coal miner unions, breaking strikes and shooting people in West Virginia, were led by Thomas Felts from just down the road in Galax. Felts and his team strode into action, quickly arresting a badly wounded Floyd Allen at a Hillsville Hotel during a staged scene for newspaper photographs.
The “grand posse,” as Sidna Allen would mockingly call them in his memoirs, rode horses, carried shotguns and rifles and posed for pictures — even though they spent a lot of time flailing through the woods in search of the Allens. Eventually, most of the clan was captured, although Sidna Allen and his nephew Wesley Edwards, whose fight in a churchyard had lit the fuse on this powder keg in 1910, made it to Des Moines, Iowa, where they worked and lived under aliases. They, too, were captured by Felts and his men, as Sidna Allen came to believe that Wesley’s girlfriend back home had betrayed them.
Justice came swiftly to the Allens, perhaps a bit too swiftly for those folks who began to believe that a grave conspiracy among county officials had provoked the Allens in order to bring them down. Two months after the shootout, Floyd Allen was convicted in Wytheville of killing Foster, the commonwealth’s attorney. Three trials were needed to finally convict Claude.
Claude had become a cause celebre in his final days, perhaps for his handsome looks that were regularly featured in newspaper photos and the fact that he was leaving behind a grieving fiancé. Thousands of people wrote letters to Gov. Mann asking either that the Allens be given clemency or be executed swiftly.
On March 28, 1913, barely a year after the bloodshed in Hillsville, Floyd and Claude Allen were executed in the same electric chair.
Floyd, 56, a once proud man now destroyed, was strapped to the electric chair, a leather mask placed over his face and four, 1-minute bursts of 2,000-volt electrical shocks were sent coursing through his body until he was pronounced dead at 1:26 p.m.
Claude, just 24, was electrocuted in the same chair 12 minutes later.
A ghoulish spectacle occurred when the bodies of the two men were placed in public view at a Richmond funeral home, where as many as 5,000 people lined up to gawk at the mountain outlaws they had read about.
More leniency was given to the other Allens and their family members. Sidna Allen received a 35-year prison sentence, his nephews Wesley and Sidna Edwards and Friel Allen got lesser sentences. All men were pardoned by Gov. Elbert Lee Trinkle and Gov. Harry F. Byrd Sr. in the 1920s.
When Floyd and Claude Allen’s bodies were brought back to the family’s house in Cana, Frances Allen — Floyd’s wife, Claude’s mother — entered the room dressed in black and fell across her son’s coffin, embracing his body like a child. Witnesses said she never looked Floyd’s way. One can wonder if that was a sign that she blamed her husband for the tragic calamity that befell the family.
When the men were buried, it was beneath one final statement of defiance. According to local legend, a headstone placed atop their graves read: “Sacred to the memory of Claude S. Allen and his father, who was judicially murdered in the Va. Penitentiary March 28 1913 by order of the Governor of the State over the protest of 100,000 citizens of the state of Va.”
The legend also claims that the marker was removed as a condition of Sidna Allen’s pardon in 1926 after he served 14 years. Sidna was released from prison, but he never set foot in his fine house again. He wrote a memoir, made beautiful furniture from delicately inlaid wooden pieces and spent the rest of his life telling people that the Allens did not shoot first. He died at his daughter’s home in Hillsville in 1941.
Aftermath, pain and healing
After years of being privately owned, Sidna Allen’s house was given to the Carroll County Historical Society in 2014 by siblings Stanley Widener and Bonnie Wood, whose mother, Marlene, often opened the house to the public for tours.
The historical society has raised thousands of dollars and conducted much-needed remodeling work in order to resume free tours, with the next public opening happening June 4-5.
The historical society’s museum resides on the first floor of the old courthouse, which no longer is a government building but still majestically commands the high ground of Main Street like it did in 1912. Two bullet holes — Floyd Allen’s final shots in the massacre — are still visible in the wooden steps. You can also see some of Sidna Allen’s furniture craftsmanship and Claude Allen’s banjo on exhibit in the museum.
The spotlight returned to the story of the shootout when the centennial of the tragedy was marked in 2012. The historical society held a symposium that featured several speakers, and a play about the tragedy called “Thunder in the Hills,” written by Carroll County author/playwright/orchardist Frank Levering, was performed before sold-out audiences in the courtroom of the old courthouse where the shootout happened. The play was still occasionally performed before the pandemic.
Interest in the story never wanes, even though, as the historian Hall said, “we’ve about beaten the thing to death.”
That’s why the discovery of the trial exhibits and documents in Wythe County is significant. The words, the handwriting and the language remind us that these people — long dead and seemingly characters set in stone like the Confederate statue that still stands in front of the old courthouse — were human beings caught up in a cataclysmic tragedy.
Howard Sadler’s grandfather, Howard Gilmer, who died before Sadler was born, carried the enormity of the tragedy with him throughout his short life. Sadler said that his grandfather’s reputation was that of an attorney who possessed a great gift of gab and was a prolific letter writer, but he never left behind any record of what he saw or heard that day in the Hillsville courtroom.
“He never wrote a damn word about the most significant event in his life,” Sadler said.
Howard Gilmer had traveled to Hillsville with Massie because he had a case pending in court. He was not in the courthouse during the shootings, but immediately ran to his dying friend and mentor. Gilmer accompanied the body on a short train ride from Sylvatus to Pulaski, where a throng of mourners awaited, Sadler said. Howard Gilmer testified during the subsequent murder trials about the judge’s fatal bullet wound.
And then, he apparently moved on with life. But it turned out that he actually had left behind one document about what he saw and heard on March 14, 1912.
As Sadler studied his grandmother’s old scrapbooks, he found a copy of a letter that he had written to state legislators nearly 20 years after the shootout. He wrote urging that the state should pay a stipend to Judge Massie’s widow, who had become destitute in the years since her husband’s death. He also wrote that as the judge lay dying, he told his young protégé, “Tell my brother Robert to take care of my family.”
Sadler, who said he spent more than 1,700 hours researching the story, spoke to a gathering in March that commemorated the 110th anniversary of the tragedy. In a presentation he called “The Last Witness,” he recounted his grandfather’s story and reminded people that, with the return of the trial documents to Carroll County, they were all watching history unfold.
“The significance of this event to Carroll County is profound,” Sadler said. “In some ways, the county never recovered from that day. Now, thanks to Gerald Goad’s interest in this, the return of these documents can be part of a healing process. Because of his vision to preserve and protect these exhibits, they’ll never be lost again.”
The 1912 documents referred to in this story were scanned and digitally archived by Delilah Brady, a volunteer and director for the Carroll County Historical Society and Museum. Those documents can be found at www.ccva.digital/1912-historical-courthouse-tragedy.html.