Who fired the first shot? – ’57 Shots in 90 Seconds’ episode 2

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HILLSVILLE, Va. — On March 14, 1912, the peace and tranquility of this rural community was rocked by the eruption of gunfire inside the Carroll County Courthouse.

“There were 57 shots fired in here in about 90 seconds,” said Ron Hall, who has written several books about the shootout that killed five people. “Who fired the first shot? Everyone wondered about that question.”

On that day the courtroom was packed.

“You got to realize that opening day of court was the best cinema movie, best country store gathering, the best of everything tied into one,” said Tom Jackson, a local attorney and actor in the local plays about the shooting. “It was the best of everything because you got to come in here and sit and watch everyone who got in trouble.”

But this opening day was bigger than normal. More than 100 people had come to see the politically explosive case against a man named Floyd Allen who had beaten a deputy and taken his nephews from custody. To make things even more interesting there had been a long-standing feud between the Allens and county officials.

“Primarily between Dexter Goad, the clerk of court and Floyd Allen,” said Hall. “When Floyd was a deputy Dexter had done all kinds of things to get to Floyd, like claiming that Floyd had falsified some expense records when he took a prisoner somewhere and conversely Floyd turned Dexter in for selling illegal liquor that Dexter’s father was making.”

Back in those day everyone carried a gun, even to court.

“The sheriff and the clerk of court had gone to the judge before the trial started and said to disarm the Allens and the judge said ‘no that would appear as the state is afraid of them,” so, he elected not to disarm anybody that day.

And everyone came to court packing.

“The sheriff didn’t normally carry a pistol,” said Hall. “But on his way to court that morning, he stopped at his cousin’s to have a shoe tightened on his horse and the cousin says, ‘You should borrow a pistol, the Allens liable to kill you,’ and so he did. He borrowed a .38 pistol which was fairly new in 1912.”

The jury came back with a guilty verdict and sentenced Floyd Allen to a year in jail. Witnesses say Floyd stood up and said “I ain’t a goin’.”

Bullets started flying in every direction.

“Floyd’s lawyer claimed Claude Allen fired the first shot, some claimed Sidna fired the first shot but no clear answer who did,” said Hall, whose grandfather heard what really happened by an eyewitness. “The sheriff went to pull his pistol and it got caught in his handkerchief and it fired and that was the first shot.”

Hall says some people claimed it was all arranged by the Allens or the county but if they did, they arranged it poorly as Floyd was shot in the middle of the crossfire. 

While Floyd’s injury wasn’t life-threatening the judge, sheriff, prosecutor, juror and a witness were killed in a shooting that possibly started by accident.

“I hope that’s not what started all this,” said Jackson. “That would make this tragedy even worse.”

No matter how it started, Carroll County, Virginia, would never be the same.

Check out the FOX8 57 Shots in 90 Seconds Digital Exclusive page here.

For episode 1, click here.

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