Thursday, December 25, 2008

Reviving Ghosts of Christmas Past

by Vanessa Leggett

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.
Why had the city officers menaced the county deputy with guns? The conflict was not born that night. This was not a Southern Christmas brawl that developed out of a lethal mix of Jack Daniels and testosterone. The tragic event was the culmination of an industrial strike that had been brewing tension in the town for a year. A local stove manufacturing plant that employed 75% of South Pittsburg's population was attempting to dissolve its unions.

As happens in disputes that polarize communities, law enforcement became involved. In this case, the two major agencies took opposing sides. The Marion County Sheriff and his men supported the union strikers, while the South Pittsburg City Marshals and his deputies backed the stove company and attempted to break up the strike. The County union sympathizers believed their efforts were being undermined by City lawmen. The Sheriff's men accused them of helping special policemen who had been assigned to guard locations.

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


Dennis Lambert said...

Well written story about the 1927 Christmas night shootout in South Pittsburg, Tennessee and interesting questions raised in regards to its participants. Being a small town that was not use to national attention, it is likely that the local residents that witnessed the event were reluctant to share their testimony with the press. I don't believe there was any kind of cover up on the part of local law enforcement, but simply local residents trying to do damage control by keeping it local and contained. It was indeed a sad day in South Pittsburg's history, but one that had its roots in the storied past of the often poor relations between unionized labor and the manufacturing sector of the United States. Unfortunately, it came to a head in our town and some others across America where people lost their lives. The thing that sets this event apart from the others is the fact that law enforcement officers were involved and were the primary participants. The story of the shootout is still a painful memory for some families in the South Pittsburg area despite the passage of 81 years and it may be another generation or two before that pain ceases. I would like to thank Ms. Leggett for the story she did on the event and Drs. Barbara S. Haskew and Robert B. Jones for their research into the infamous 1927 Christmas shootout and for publishing their findings.

Dennis Lambert
South Pittsburg Historic Preservation Society

Vanessa Leggett said...

Thanks, Mr. Lambert, for sharing your thoughts. What you wrote makes perfect sense, especially in a community of that size in those days. It would be natural for townspeople to circle the wagons under those circumstances. Still, I would expect at least one patient reporter to stick around, blend in--and become the walls that could talk. That person would not have been appreciated at the time. But what s/he recorded for history would sure be appreciated now. Thanks again for your insightful comment.

Anonymous said...

The events in South Pittsburg can only be taken into context by examining labor/management relations all over the American South during the 1920s and 1930s. The events that unfolded on Cedar Avenue that night were just one in many violent acts between both sides all over the United States. Why wasn't there an invesitigation? The newsprint in the area was heavily biased toward management. Knowing the political nature of the area, both the city and county law enforcement officials were probably acting outside their lawful duty. I think it is safe to assume that the ringleaders on both sides were uncontrollable. Neither the city or the county leaders could control these men, and when all the smoke cleared they did the best they could to move on and forget the incident. Considering the situation, State officials should have been called in long before the shootout.

Unknown said...

The impression I've gotten was, in keeping with southern custom, the event was viewed as shameful and best not dwelled on, disacknowledged. Move on, forget that dirty laundry. That would be any town 1927, but something that could be thought embarrassing or a poor reflection, in Southern society? Nobody saw nothing. It was between them (actually a quote just like that).
Inconceivable to us in the information age.
Have been told even today,nearly a full century later, townsfolk really don't like to talk about it.
Maddening to me, as a lifelong student of police/civilian shootouts, true crime (especially 20s/30s), and great grandson of Lafayette Nelson.
Both of his daughters passed in recent years, before I could pick their brain for any info on the massacre or the man. Not sure how much I could find out among the relatives still living. I really need to make a road trip and walk the town, find out what I can. To even see a photo of him would be a major victory. So far can't even get birth and death dates. Actually not even seeing my grandpa, his son, online.
I do know he had been hit with pistol rounds, that were not surgically removed, according to aunt Lucy, his daughter (1925-2016)