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.

1896 Colbert county map shows “South Florence”.

Notice in the above 1896 map of Colbert County, that there is a “South Florence” on the other side of the river near the current TVA Nature Loop/old Railroad Bridge.

Also, this section from an even older 1863 map shows a “South Florence” in Colbert County across the river from Florence.

1863 map showing South Florence

Blackburn People Disturbed by Unusual ‘Varmint’

The people of Blackburn (just North of St. Florian) in the northern section of Lauderdale county, were disturbed by an unusual wild animal that was seldom seen, but often heard, roaming in that area during the early Spring of 1912. So unusual, in fact, that it produced several reports in local newspapers of the time. This ‘varmint’ was scaring the people in the Blackburn area to such an extent that they had voluntarily inaugurated, by common consent, a kind of ‘curfew law’ among all the people, keeping close to home as night came on. Esq. Silas L. Bradley described the situation, and was firmly convinced that they were favored with an unusual visitation. The animal was described as being the size of a large shepherd dog, reddish-brown in color, with a streak of white along its throat. It had seldom been seen, but many people heard it, and its voice was said to be a wild yell, “like a woman scared, and then low.” Its scream could be heard for over a mile or more, and it was said to be fearful in the extreme. Esq. Bradley described the effect of this nocturnal visitor to have kept the people of Blackburn in their homes at night.

Several weeks after the initial report of this strange, nocturnal ‘varmint’, it was seen and killed. The person to do the deed was Mr. Plummer Daniels of Blackburn. Mr. Daniels and his pet dog encountered the wild animal in the road one afternoon. Mr. Daniel made his dog attack the wild disturber of the peace of that community, and while the fight was on he stabbed him to death with a knife. It was a brave deed on the part of Mr. Daniels. Once killed, the initial reports and descriptions of the ‘varmint’ held true. The animal was as large as a New Foundland dog, with reddish-brown hair about three inches long. It looked like a dog, but was not exactly like one. It was an aged creature, and because of its age, could not put up a better fight for its life. Mr. Daniels reported that its growl was something startling, and shook the very ground with its roar.

Following the report in the news that the ‘varmint’ had been killed, a citizen from Center Star with the pen-name of ‘Scribe’ began an effort to secure a hero medal for Mr. Daniels. ‘Scribe’ brought forward some new information about this unusual ‘varmint’. He reported that the same animal has been in Colbert county for the past eight or ten years, and due to the infirmities of old age, has been fed by mountain people living south of Tuscumbia. The ‘varmint’ left its old haunts in October of 1911 and was next heard of when it was spotted in the Blackburn area of Lauderdale county.

Google Map of the Blackburn area of Lauderdale County, Alabama
Google Map of the Blackburn area of Lauderdale County, Alabama