HILLSVILLE, Va. — On a cold March morning in 1912, this Blue Ridge Mountain town would change forever when gunfire erupted in the Carroll County Courthouse.
“There were five people murdered in open court that morning,” historian Howard Sadler said. “Still to this day it remains as the most egregious crime to occur during an open court proceeding in the history of the United States.”
The shootout made headlines across the country, with most newspapers calling it a massacre.
“There were 57 shots fired in probably about 90 seconds,” author Ron Hall said. “It was front-page news across the country until the Titanic sank and knocked it off the front pages.”
Today, the town is much like any small southern town but in 1912 it was much more like the scene of an old Western movie.
“Everybody carried a gun for the most part,” said Hall. “You had to, people were mean in those days. If you look at some of the old records, there were murders every week.”
And then there were the politics.
“There was a tremendous amount of tension about whose side you were on, were you a Republican or a Democrat,” said Frank Levering, who has written several plays on the shooting. “There was a long history of conflict between these two sides.”
The leaders of the two sides were Clerk of Court Dexter Goad and local businessman Floyd Allen.
“Floyd Allen was a Democrat, he was a staunch Democrat and kind of a leader of the Democratic faction below Fancy Gap mountain,” said Hall. “But the county was run by Republicans.”
On the day of the shootout, Allen was on trial for an altercation with a Carroll County deputy.
“He’s got a big mouth and a hot temper and he’s going around the community saying, ‘I’ll tell you one thing, if they convict me, I’m going to shoot a big hole in that courthouse,'” said Tom Jackson, a local author who also played Allen in local plays about the shootout. Because of the political tension, Jackson says the Allen family and court officials had come that day armed and ready for trouble. “We are in this electric courtroom situation with the Clerk of Court having shown up, contrary to the law with two pistols, and the commonwealth attorney armed and all the Allens armed.
Trouble came when the jury found Allen guilty.
“Floyd Allen was an older gentleman and he made his way through life by doing whatever it took to make things work,” local historian Mark Harmon said. “He was sentenced to a year in prison and he stood up and said, ‘I ain’t a going,’ and 57 shots were fired in 90 seconds.”
When the smoke cleared, the sheriff, judge and prosecutor were all dead. A juror and a witness would later die too.
“I think the environment the day of the shootout was a joint effort,” Jackson said. “There was a lot of electricity in the air that day that was a result of a lot of high energy, ‘We are going to get these guys from the Republican establishment,’ and a lot of high energy from the Allens that ‘By God, there is no way we are going to put up with this if they try to put us in jail.’”
The shootout was the tipping point.
“There probably was blame on either side, if you really get to the story of it, it’s a situation that probably just got out of hand,” said Shelby Puckett, with the Carroll County Historical Society and Museum. “Nobody intended for this to happen and there are probably a lot of good lessons in this story if we would learn them.”
The divide between political parties and families continued for generations.
In our next episode, we’ll look for the answer to the one question that has haunted this community for more than a hundred years: “Who fired the first shot?”
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