Sheriff Killed During Bloody Tragedy in Tuscumbia, Alabama

[As written in the Florence Times on Friday, April 11, 1902]

Bloody Tragedy in Tuscumbia – April 6, 1902

Nine Men Shot by a Desperate Negro.
A Battle Lasting Half a Day.

Tuscumbia, April 6. —

  1. Charles Gassaway, sheriff, shot through the bowels and arm fractured, mortally wounded.
  2. Wm. Gassaway, brother of the sheriff, shot through and through, also fatally wounded.
  3. Pat Prout, shot through and through will die.
  4. Jesse Davis, shot through the head, will die.
  5. Bob Wallace of Riverton, killed.
  6. Hugh Jones of Sheffield, killed.
  7. James Finney, flesh wound in the arm.
  8. Robt. Patterson, shot in ankle.
  9. Jim Payne of Sheffield, shot through left lung; seriously injured.

The foregoing represents the bloody work of a desperate negro with a Winchester rifle in this city today.

About 12 o’clock, Sheriff Gassaway went to the home of Will Reynolds, for whom he had a warrant charging him with obtaining goods under false pretenses from the furnishing store of James Isbell. The sheriff was accompanied by Isbell and, calling to the negro that he was wanted, the latter came to the door and, remarking that he would be ready to go with the officer in a moment, stepped into an adjoining room. When he emerged he had a Winchester rifle presented, which he fired twice at the sheriff. One of the bullets penetrated his bowels and the other shattered the officer’s right arm. After being shot down the officer returned the fire with his revolver, but without effect.

Intrenched For War.

After shooting Gassaway the negro sought refuge in the upstairs of the building, where he intreated himself and, from the partially hoisted windows, poured a deadly fire into those who exposed themselves.

Wm. Gassaway, the sheriff’s brother, was shot while standing behind a tree with a rifle in hand, fully 300 yards distant. The negro proved himself a perfect marksman, and with nearly every shot wounded or killed the person aimed at.

Prout was shot in the back, the ball passing entirely through his body, the same bullet penetrating Payne’s left lung.

Young Patterson was an interested spectator, and in an unguarded moment exposed himself and a bullet from the brute’s rifle crashed through his ankle.

Finney, a boy about 15 years of age, was shot through the arm while endeavoring to get a shot at the negro from a vacant building just across the street and Jones, peering from the corner of another building, received a bullet in his brain.

The excitement was intense as the bloody work continued, the citizens being powerless to dislodge the negro. A rush upon him meant the sacrifice of possibly a dozen lives more, and for hours the crowd seemed at a loss what course to pursue. The building occupied by the negro was in a hollow, with every advantage in favor of the fiend. Dynamite was resorted to without avail and, fearing that darkness would come on and the negro escape, the Governor was wired to order the Wheeler Rifles of Florence to the scene of carnage.

Military in the Battle.

Under Capt. Simpson a score of military reached Tuscumbia about 3 o’clock. Taking positions behind buildings, trees and fences, they poured volley after volley into the windows and all apertures of the hiding place where the negro was barricaded, literally riddling the house, but the negro kept up his deadly firing. About dark, as a last resort, it was decided to burn the adjoining dwellings, and by this means force him out. Balls of cotton saturated with kerosene and turpentine were lighted and thrown upon the buildings, both houses being destroyed, but failed to ignite the house in which the negro was secluded.

After the destruction of the two houses the efforts of the determined crowd were directed to the building occupied by the desperate negro, but it was not until nine o’clock that their efforts to fire the house were successful. Two or three members of the Wheeler Rifles bravely exposed themselves to the negro’s unerring aim and rushing to the front and rear galleries, poured buckets of kerosene upon them, and dropping burring balls of cotton on the oil, soon started a conflagration. Hundreds breathlessly watched the courageous men, expecting to see them shot down, but the escaped, fortunately doubtless for them the negro having taken a position in an outhouse while the fire raged in the adjoining buildings.

At this juncture Jesse Davis and Bob Wallace rushed to the east end of the burning house, and while the former was firing through the upstairs window he was shot through the head, falling in his tracks. Wallace shared the same fate.

Negro’s Tragic End.

A glimpse of the negro was secured by scored of armed men as he attempted to get out of his perilous hiding place, which was by this time becoming unbearable on account of the intense heat, and in a moment hundreds of shots were fired into his body. He fell dead, never a muscle twitching. Instantly the infuriated crowd rushed upon him, firing several hundred more shots into his lifeless body, piled burning faggots around hime and left the scene.

It has been the bloodiest and most exciting day in the history of this city, and the memory of the awful experiences will not soon be forgotten. Men and women thronged the streets from the moment the first shot was fired until the tragic end of one of the most brutal, fiendish and desperate negroes brought to a close the day’s events.

Sheriff Gassaway has a wife and several children, and was a brave, fearless, popular officer. His brother was unmarried.

Jones was a man of family and an iron molder at Sheffield. Davis was also married, and a young man esteemed by all who knew him. Prout is unmarried. Wallace came from Riverton yesterday to accept a position in Sheffield tomorrow. All of the dead and wounded except Payne, Jones and Wallace are citizens of this county, where they are all well and favorably known.

The negro who sold his life so dearly was formerly a brakeman on the Southern Railroad, but more recently from Birmingham. He was about 35 years old, of medium build and was known as a crack shot with either a rifle or revolver.

Relic-Seekers Busy.

Relic seekers cut off the negro’s fingers and such parts of the body as could be procured.

No fear of an uprising among the negroes is anticipated.

Several horses were killed in the battle. So deadly was the negro’s aim that it was possibly an hour before the body of Prout could be recovered. Not a shot was fired by Reynolds that did not tell when those whom he was firing upon could be seen.

Fully 2,000 people from Florence and Sheffield were here and every surgeon in the two towns were pressed into service.

Sheffield, Alabama’s Spring Creek Lighthouse or Malaria Control Base?

What many locals refer to as Sheffield, Alabama’s Spring Creek Lighthouse is actually a Malaria Control base that was utilized by the Tennessee Valley Authority to combat the malaria outbreak plaguing 30 percent of the nearby population in the mid-late 1930s.

During the construction of the Nitrate Plants during the war, the population of Muscle Shoals skyrocketed to become the fourth largest town in Alabama within a matter of months. The population went from just 300 in January 1918 to 21,000 people by August of that same year. During the peak of activity at the nitrate plant site, there were 23 mess halls employing nearly 1,000 to prepare meals. Conditions of the rapidly expanding town were initially difficult, and the area became plagued with pneumonia, typhoid, malaria and the Spanish influenza.

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill that created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) on May 18, 1933. This law gave the federal government a centralized body to control the Tennessee River’s potential for hydroelectric power and improve the land and waterways for development of the region. An organized and effective malaria control program stemmed from this new authority in the Tennessee River valley and one of the 4 bases of operation was right here in Sheffield on Spring Creek.

Malaria affected 30 percent of the population in the region when the TVA was incorporated in 1933. In 1938, about lO,OOO deaths and staggering economic losses were caused by malaria fever. The Public Health Service played a vital role in the research and control operations and by 1947, the disease was essentially eliminated. Mosquito breeding sites were reduced by controlling water levels and by intensive insecticide applications.

TVA’s efforts to combat this malaria outbreak involved the largest collection of engineers and experts working to fight malaria in the United States. As malaria rates began to decline, the TVA began to receive praise for its strong efforts. The CDC even lists the TVA’s accomplishments on its malaria history website.

On large reservoirs like Pickwick, it was necessary to supplement “biological control” of malaria-carrying mosquitoes with larvicidal measures. Facilities for larvicidal measures were constructed for the Pickwick Reservoir under the planning and supervision of the Malaria Control Division of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Two principal larvicides, an oil (kerosene-based) and a dust called “Paris green” (arsenic-based, see recipe below), were used on the Pickwick project.

The oil used was a mixture of 4-parts kerosene and 1-part black oil. The purpose of adding the black oil was to give the mixture a color in order for TVA to observe and measure the rate of it’s application. The kerosene-oil mixture was applied with knapsack spray cans as well as in “water-oil” boat units. For the Pickwick Reservoir, a total of fourteen of these water oil boats were constructed along with four warehouse bases and docks located about the reservoir from which to carry out the larvicidal program.

Dusting the Tennessee River with Paris Green to kill mosquito larva
Dusting the banks of the Tennessee River with Paris Green to kill mosquito larva
Using a knapsack-spraycan to apply Paris Green dust in front of the Malaria Control Base
Using a knapsack-spraycan to apply Paris Green dust in front of the Malaria Control Base


The dust was applied with a knapsack hand dust blowers and mechanical dusters placed in boats. The Tennessee Valley Authority also had available two Stearman Biplane dusters for this mosquito control operation on the Pickwick Reservoir.

One of these four malaria control bases is still standing on Spring Creek in Sheffield, Alabama. Each of the bases were equipped with a floating boat house, a dock, a tool storage building, a 1,OOO-gallon gasoline tank with pump, a 6,OOO-gallon larvicidal oil storage tank and small tools that were necessary for minor repair work. Each base was provided with a safe water supply and sanitation facilities conforming to Health Department regulations.

At dawn, a dusting plane spreads insecticide on the Tennessee River to destroy malaria carrying mosquitoes
At dawn, a dusting plane spreads insecticide on the Tennessee River to destroy malaria carrying mosquitoes

The Paris Green Dust Recipe:

The mixture called “Paris green” contained at least 50 percent arsenious oxide (Arsenic) and it’s recipe specified: “no more than 3-1/2 percent being soluble in water, and of such fineness that 100 percent will pass 200-mesh screen, and 85 per cent pass 300-mesh screen, and that; the product be toxic to Anopheles larvae (mosquitoes) in natural breeding places.”

Ancient Native American burial mound uncovered in East Florence, Alabama

Lo! The Poor Indian.

The Tide of Development Disturbs His Peaceful Sleep,
On the Banks of the Rolling Tennessee

August 15, 1891

Gentlemen: We have been digging up prehistoric men for about a week, thick skulled fellows. Today we discovered a skull in place that ante-dates the others by a “long spell.” I have been making measurements but am entirely unequal to the task. Can’t you have a good surgeon come here and investigate the subject while it can be done. I think it will prove one of the most interesting cases of the kind.
Yours truly,
DANIEL KING

This month marked 125 years since the accidental discovery of an ancient Native American burial mound picturesquely lying in the fork of Sweetwater Creek and the Tennessee River in East Florence. Workers from the Philadelphia Furnace, located just West of the Florence end of today’s Singing River Bridge, were digging a pit to dump their rubbish, when they began uncovering prehistoric human remains. A total of eight graves were found in a mound that measured four feet high and thirty feet in diameter. All the bodies, except for one, were buried with their heads toward the Northeast.

Below, I have included a complete transcription of the Florence Times article that ran on August 15th, 1891. More research needs to be done to find out if any further documentation was made, any more excavations were uncovered, and whether or not the bones have been preserved with city records. My gut feeling is that this entire discovery has been completely forgotten in the name of ‘progress’ as the workers made way for the Philadelphia Furnace’s refuse dump.

Burial Mound location
This is the approximate location of where the burial mound was discovered. The image on the left is of the Philadelphia Furnace as it was located on an 1899 map. The image on the right is a current view of the same area from Google Maps.

TRANSCRIPTION: August 15, 1891 – The Florence Times

In compliance with the above invitation from Mr. King, the General Manager of the Iron Department of the Cotton and Iron company, a Times representative, in company with Dr. Percy Price, went down to the Philadelphia Furnace on Wednesday, and along with the crowd dug around among the decayed bones of the “prehistoric men” whose bodies have lain for lo, these many years in a mound in sound of the surging waters of the Tennessee.

The workmen at the furnace, engaged in excavating a dumping place for the refuse of the great establishment between the cast house and the river, had come upon a mound, about four feet high by thirty feet in diameter, round in form and ascending from the base all around to the top. In the work of removing the earth they found eight graves, or places where graves had been, each distinctly marked in the red clay soil by the outlines of the bodies in the dark-colored earth; and in several of the graves the bones of the Indians were found, though in the larger number of graves, every vestige of flesh and bone were gone and only the distinct dark outlines of earth in the red clay showed where, years ago, the bodies had been laid. In one grave a hollow thigh bone was found and in two places were discovered skulls still in shape, with teeth almost perfect. A measurement was made of one of the skulls by Mr. King, which showed a large, broad, flat head, the figures showing the proverbial high cheeks, with heavy jaws. This latter feature called from Mr. King the reflection that his chief business in life seemed to have been to eat. All the bodies (excepting one) were buried with their heads toward the Northeast.

The men engaged in these excavations and whose interest was naturally aroused relative to their interesting discovery are Messrs. Daniel King, general manager, Daniel Knepper, foreman, and G.W. Thomas and G.F Merrill.

How long have those Indians lain here? What is the history of this pretty little mound, so picturesquely lying in the fork of Sweetwater and the Tennessee? Who can unravel the mystery that appeals so strongly to one’s curiosity?

The natural scenery around the Philadelphia Furnace is strikingly beautiful. With the clear rippling Sweetwater creek on the West, the swift-flowing Tennessee river on the South, and North and East the ground rising abruptly and with natural terraces and undulations to East Florence Heights, it must have been, before the hand of the “Pale Face” mutilated it, a romantic spot indeed.

View from Lover’s Leap on the Tennessee River

In the late 19th century, a traveller revisits the area around this scene of “Lover’s Leap” after being gone 22 years. He beautifully recounts the horrors of the Civil War mixed with the unmistakable beauty of the Shoals area on a trip down memory lane searching for the name of his first love carved into a tree a quarter century before.

“On the bluffs overlooking the Tennessee is one of the most beautiful landscape views, looking north, vision ever beheld. The heaven-reaching church spires, and church bells a ringing, viewed and heard in the beautiful glint of a Sunday sun — what more would mankind desire to prove the existence of an Almighty Being? But in the ramble I came across some very forcible reminders of the 4-year disagreement.

In my search for a name engraved on the bark of a beech tree that had been cut there twenty-two years ago, I found several others that may be of interest to your readers:

“R.M. Rasser, Lumsden’s bat’y, ’62 Tusk., Ala.”
“W.N. Rubanbo, 1864. 6th Reg’t, Co. C.”
“W Merchant, Drummer. [Balance of inscription unintelligible.]”

Where are these soldier boys now? Possibly their bones are bleaching on one of many fields of conflict, and again they may be occupying the position of good and useful citizens.

There on that little rise 300 feet from the edge of the cliff is where a Federal officer committed suicide by hanging. His body was not discovered until it was very badly decayed. When the citizens found it they made away with it, fearing that if it was discovered by Federal soldiers that they would not believe the “suicide” part of the story and wreak vengeance on them.

But in the rambling search we are again brought back to the grand river, and what a grand sight bursts on the vision! An unbroken panoramic view of Florence from Canaan to Hotel Lauderdale — more than three miles. Then as the needle points from the river to the University with the big water tower as the background. The picture is one the masters would hesitate to transfer to canvas.

From the ledge to the water below, perpendicularly, is at least one hundred feet, with not a shrub to obstruct the view. It is just such a place as the romancer would select for a “lovers leap” and tell how some great young Chieftain cleft the atmosphere chanting his death lullaby, because some aboriginal princess had been bitten by a rattle snake — or words to that effect.”

Shoals Innovation – A history of patents in the Shoals, Alabama

For as long as people have lived in the Shoals area, there have been innovators. These are citizens who took that next step and helped put Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals on the map as an area of innovation and entrepreneurs. We are still an area of innovators. All it takes are your ideas. Get your ideas out there. Take that next step.

Posters are available for sale of each of these. Contact us for details!