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.”

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!