South Pittsburg, Tenn.—After dark, the hush of Christmas night had fallen over Main Street. Most of the 2,400 citizens were gathered in the warmth of their homes, surrounded by family and the tranquility of the season, not knowing that armed men were squaring off downtown.
At 9:00, shotgun blasts shattered the silent night. Within minutes, several men lay lifeless or bleeding to death on the street. Police never responded. They couldn't. The principal members of city and county law enforcement were dead or wounded that Christmas Day in 1927—shot by each other.
The Christmas Day Massacre story made the New York Times, which headlined a "Street Battle of City and County Police," declaring that "virtually all local law enforcement officers [there were] dead or disabled."
Six of community's finest were killed: the Chief of Police; the Sheriff; a deputy; the City Marshal; the Night Marshal (a former Sheriff); and a special policeman. Several others were injured. According to the Times, none of their service revolvers had been discharged. Each had carried a shotgun.
When I ran across this story, two questions stood out in my mind. The obvious question was: How could this have happened? How could those who are expected to keep the peace and to protect the public violate their sworn duties in such an unthinkable way and on what should be the most peaceful day of the year? Christmas—on a Sunday, no less.
Members of law enforcement consider themselves part of a brotherhood. Yet here was mass fratricide on an incomprehensible scale. In fact, actual brothers in this Cumberland Mountain community had been at war with each other. The Times wrote that "brother was arrayed against brother in the fatal feud":
Thomas Connor, a deputy sheriff and brother of Police Chief [James] Connor, whose account furnished the only known coherent story of events leading to the shooting, said that city officers had drawn pistols on him in an encounter earlier in the evening and that the fight began when Sheriff Wash Coppinger and several deputies later sought to arrest members of the opposing group for displaying their weapons threateningly.
News accounts reported that the officers involved in the shooting were accompanied by civilians—from both factions of the strike—bringing the total number in gun battle to around twenty.
After some cursory research, I was never able to fully answer that first question: How could peace officers have resorted to murder, the most violent crime of all? Which brings me to the second question, which is less obvious but, to me at least, more bothersome: Why wasn't there more information?
And what ever happened to law and order in South Pittsburg? The only resolution I could glean was that the National Guard had been summoned to restore order. And the slain Sheriff's son assumed the top lawman's post, but not without resistance. The City Administration was set on ousting the Sheriff's family from county authority. The City unsuccessfully supported one of the few surviving officers of the South Pittsburg Police Force. The Attorney General was supposed to investigate, but I could not find any follow-up to this announcement in the New York Times: "An investigation has been started by Attorney General Tom Stewart, who said today that a hearing probably would be called soon to fix responsibility for the fray."
Among the four New York Times pieces I located, one story acknowledged that details of the shooting were "meager." That was reported two days after the police massacre. Eighty-one years later, information is still scant. The South Pittsburg Historic Preservation Society has archived one local story. Usually local papers have the most in-depth information. But aside from a basic summary of events, all the South Pittsburg Hustler had to report 10 days following the shooting was that "no investigation has been made of the horrible tragedy."
A story appeared in the Nashville Banner and likely other papers as well, but none of the stories I read revealed any meaningful details. I could not find a single quote from a witness, and there were survivors and bystanders, according to the Times, which noted that "[s]pectators held back for fear the firing might be resumed." (The shootout took place next to a hotel, whose guests might have been roused by the gunfire.)
Any substantive fact-gathering efforts or accounts of the incident have been recent. Perhaps the most comprehensive account is a scholarly article in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly co-authored by two professors from Middle Tennessee State University in 2004. Researchers at MTSU have been trying to recreate events surrounding the shooting. According to a news story highlighting their work, they consider the Christmas Day Massacre "an important milestone in what happened to unions in the south." (See the video clip below for a documentary encapsulating their research.) In 2005, the South Pittsburg Historic Preservation Society sponsored a presentation on the "Infamous South Pittsburg Shootout," which was attended by the fallen Sheriff's granddaughter and other descendants of those who lost their lives in the gunfight. The co-authors of the scholarly article, professors who spoke at the event, are still looking for information, as is the Society.
Why was there so little contemporary reporting? I believe one factor might be the shroud of secrecy that surrounds investigations into members of law enforcement. There's a reason it's called Internal Affairs. But in a case of such historical import, I don't believe officers' affairs should be kept internal. The public deserves to know exactly what led to the fatal feud that claimed so many lives. The survivors should have that knowledge available.
I don't blame the police. The fault lies with the press. Even if a collective perhaps subconsciously selective amnesia gripped South Pittsburg in the days after the shootout, reporters should have stayed with the story, continued to dig, and to update the public.
Journalists and authors delve into the minds of killers, dissecting their psyches and revealing their personal histories. Why does there seem to be a reluctance to examine that backgrounds of killers who happen to carry badges? Especially, as in this case, those who murder their own?
These ghosts of Christmas past deserve to have their stories told. If you have information on the Christmas Day Massacre of 1927, please contact the South Pittsburg Historic Preservation Society at email@example.com