Fifty-seven shots in 90 seconds, five people dead, seven others wounded and it all happened inside a courtroom on a cold March day in 1912. Lives and fortunes were lost over what most believe was a senseless tragedy.
The echoes of the gunfire have long since disappeared, but the wounds left behind in the quaint little town of Hillsville, Va., have continued to fester. The political drama that led up to the shooting has divided families for generations. Some say the shootout was self-defense, others murder. Many of the questions surrounding that day have yet to be answered. Fifty-Seven shots in 90 seconds. Who fired the first shot?
SEE ALL THE EPISODES BELOW IN THE VIDEO ARCHIVES
JULY 5, 1865: Floyd Allen is born in Cana, Carroll County, Va.
SUMMER, 1889: Floyd and his brothers Garland and Sidna Allen were tried for assaulting a group of 13 men. The Commonwealth dropped the charges against Floyd. Garland and Sidna Allen pleaded no contest and were fined $5.
1904: Floyd Allen was convicted of shooting and wounding neighbor Noah Combs. He would later be pardoned by Gov. Andrew Montague.
1908: Floyd Allen held the position of special county deputy.
FEBRUARY 1, 1908: Deputy Floyd Allen and relative Henry Allen were found guilty of assaulting a prisoner in their custody and sentenced to 10 days in jail. One month later the Allens were granted clemency from Gov. Claude Swanson.
1910: Sidna Allen was tried in federal court for making counterfeit money. His accomplice was found guilty and served 5 years in prison. Sidna was found guilty of perjury.
1911: Floyd Allen’s nephews, Sidna and Wesley Edwards, attended a corn shucking in Hillsville where Wesley kissed a girl who was dating Will Thomas. The kiss led to a fight among the brothers and Thomas the following day outside a church. Wesley and Sidna Edwards were charged with assault with a deadly weapon, disturbing a house of worship and disorderly conduct. The brothers fled to Surry County, N.C., and began working in the Mount Airy Granite Quarry. Carroll County Deputy Clerk of Court Dexter Goad issued an arrest warrant for the Edwards brothers. Carroll County Deputy Sheriff Thomas Samuel and a driver picked up the brothers from the Surry County Sheriff who had arrested the two at work. On the way to the courthouse, Floyd Allen met the buggy and became upset by how the Edwards boys were being treated. One was handcuffed to a seat and the other was tied to the buggy. Deputy Samuel pulled his gun on Floyd and a fight began with Floyd beating Samuel. Floyd released the boys but stated he never wanted them to be freed just treated better by deputy Samuel.
MARCH 14, 1912: A jury found Floyd Allen guilty of assaulting Deputy Samuel and sentenced him to 1 year in prison. Allen stood up and told the court “Gentlemen, I ain’t goin’.” Gunfire began. Fifty-seven bullets were fired in about 90 seconds that would leave five people dead and seven wounded.
APRIL 30, 1912: Floyd Allen’s murder trial begins in Wytheville, Va.
MAY 18, 1912: Jury finds Floyd Allen guilty of murder and sentences him to die in the electric chair.
JULY 17, 1912: Floyd’s son Claude is found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in the electric chair.
AUGUST, 1912: Friel Allen is sentenced to 18 years in prison.
NOVEMBER, 1912: Sidna Allen was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
MARCH 28, 1913: Floyd and Claude Allen are electrocuted in Richmond.
1922: Friel Allen and Sidna Edwards are pardoned by Gov. Elbert Trinkle.
APRIL 29, 1926: Sidna Allen and Wesley Edwards are pardoned by Gov. Harry Byrd.
- Thornton Lemmon Massie, judge (deceased)
- Lewis Franklin Webb, Carroll County sheriff (deceased)
- William McDonald Foster, Commonwealth’s attorney (deceased)
- Augustus Cezar Fowler, juror (deceased)
- Nancy Elizabeth Ayres, witness (deceased)
- Floyd Allen, defendant (wounded)
- Sidna Allen, defendant (wounded)
- Dexter Goad, clerk of court (wounded)
- Christopher Columbus Cain, juror (wounded)
- Andrew T. Howlett, spectator (wounded)
- Elihue Clark Gillespie, deputy (wounded)
- Stuart Worrell, spectator
(Compiled by the Carroll County Historical Society)
Floyd Allen had a long history of serving the law in Carroll County as a deputy sheriff and was, in fact, a special policeman at the time of the tragedy.
Sidna Allen, in addition to being a well-traveled and successful businessman, had been a newspaper editor and a schoolteacher.
William McDonald Foster, commonwealth’s attorney in 1912, had been a Democrat but turned Republican when he ran for the post. He defeated the son of Jasper “Jack” Allen for the position.
In 1912, the Carroll County courtroom was some 20 feet shorter than it is today.
Carroll law enforcement officers did not cross into North Carolina to arrest the Edwards brothers as has long been claimed. They were arrested by Caleb Haynes and Oscar Monday of the Mount Airy Police Department and taken to the state line.
Arresting officer Oscar Monday was the step-brother of the Edwards brothers.
Floyd Allen was tried in 1903 for shooting his first cousin, Noah Combs, and was sentenced to spend 1 hour in jail and pay a fine. He refused them both.
To illustrate the volatility of turn-of-the-century mountaineers, when Jeremiah Allen died in 1898, Floyd and Jack Allen got into a ruckus over a barrel of brandy when the estate was being divided. Floyd shot Jack in the head and then began to beat him in the head with a rock while he was out cold. Jack came to and shot Floyd which ended the incident. Neither died, but Jack had a silver plate in his head until he died. Neither was prosecuted.
Oldtimers said that when Wesley kissed the McCraw girl at the corn shucking, it wasn’t out of affection for her, it was to irritate her boyfriend, John William Thomas. The animosity derived from a feud between Thomas’ father, George W. Thomas, and Floyd Allen. It was Thomas and his father who swore out warrants for the Edwards brothers as a result of the fight at the schoolhouse/church the next day.
William Sidna Edwards, the nephew of Floyd Allen, was sentenced to 18 years in prison as a result of the Courthouse Tragedy, although he never fired a shot. His mother was afraid they would find him guilty of first-degree murder, which carried the death penalty, so she convinced him to plead guilty to second-degree murder, which did not.
Sidna Edwards’ presence at Floyd Allen’s trial was requested by Floyd’s lawyers. Floyd called home to have his son, Victor, bring him to court on Wednesday, March 13th. Otherwise, neither Sidna Edwards nor Victor Allen would have been present.
Claude Allen did not take a gun when he went to Hillsville to Floyd’s trial. He only picked up Victor’s gun when he left it in the hotel room on the morning of March 14th. Otherwise, he would not have been armed.
Commonwealth’s Attorney William McDonald Foster was a brother-in-law to one of Floyd Allen’s defense attorneys; Walter Scott Tipton. Foster married Katherine Tipton in 1894 and had five children by 1912. Katherine survived until 1960.
William Foster’s daughter, Aline, married George Ellison “Bud” Edwards in 1917. Edwards was one of those involved in the fight at the church with the Edwards brothers and went on to be county sheriff for numerous terms.
Nancy Elizabeth “Betty” Ayers was shot in the back just about the beltline and just to the right of her spine. The bullet came up under the skin of her right breast. She was shot on Thursday morning and lived until early the next morning. Although some stories say she didn’t know she was shot and some say she said “I am killed,” no documentation exists to confirm either. Court testimony says she was outside throwing up on the lawn when Doctor Nuckolls came by. He asked her if she was “hurt or mashed” and her sister-in-law responded that she was just scared.
Almost everyone in Carroll County is related to everyone else. For example, Betty Ayers, who was killed in the courthouse tragedy, was a fourth cousin to Dexter Goad (clerk of court), fourth cousin, twice removed, from Woodson Quesenberry (deputy clerk), second cousin, twice removed, from Floyd Allen’s wife and a third cousin to the Edwards brothers, Wesley and Sidna.
Thomas Franklin “Pink” Samuel, the deputy from whom Floyd Allen released his nephews, moved to Amelia County and never testified at the trial. He only lived 7 years after the trial. He was called “Pink” because of a birthmark on his cheek.
Lewis Franklin Webb, the sheriff killed in the Courthouse Tragedy, had just taken office in January of 1912, but had been a deputy numerous times. He never carried a gun as a matter of course, but on his way to court, the first day of Floyd Allen’s trial, his cousin, Allan Webb, advised him to borrow a pistol. He borrowed a .38 automatic from another cousin, Church Alderman.
After his release from prison in 1922, Friel Allen came back to Hillsville and had attorney John Alderman arrange a meeting with Dexter Goad. Mr. Alderman said Friel and Dexter met privately for about half an hour and shook hands at the end of their meeting. Mr. Alderman said he was not privy to what they discussed.
Friel settled in Inglewood, Calif., where he married twice, but never had any children. He worked for the Edison Lighting Company. He died there in 1953.
Andrew Howlett, one of the spectators who was wounded during the Courthouse Tragedy, was a brother to Mack Howlett, who shot and killed Carr Allen in 1898. He was with his brother when the shooting occurred and was in jail with him when a vigilante mob took his brother into the jail yard and killed him. They didn’t find Andrew because the cell was dark and he had climbed up between the chimney and wall near the ceiling.
After the shootout ended, people in Hillsville were afraid the Allen family would come back into town and kill everyone in sight. Floyd Allen jury member John W. Farris remarked that they wouldn’t be back until they were brought back. He proved to be right. He lived to be the last surviving member of the jury, dying in 1963.
As a result of the deaths that occurred in the courtroom in 1912, the entire estates of Floyd and Sidna Allen were seized in settlement of wrongful death suits by the families of Massie, Foster and Webb. The law provided that everything could be seized with the exception of a few bare essentials necessary for existence, for example, one cow, one pig, etc. In the case of Sidna Allen, one of Massie’s relatives complained that the raw bacon that was seized needed to be sold before it spoiled.
Reporter – Chad Tucker
Chief Videographer/Editor/Producer – David Weatherly
Executive Producer – Kevin Daniels
Digital Content Producer – Stephanie Doyle
Graphic Designer – Kenny Meade
Special Thanks – Carroll County Historical Society