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.

History of the Florence, Alabama Fire Department

Florence Fire Department was founded on April 25, 1828 as a volunteer fire company made up of every male in Florence between the ages of 18 and 50. It decreed that each house must have its own ladder and its own leather bucket with a capacity of two gallons to be used only for fire-fighting.

With this equipment the men of Florence put out fires by forming a double line to pass buckets of water back and forth between the burning building and the nearest well or cistern.

The act also took steps to prevent fires by forbidding the keeping of more than 25 pounds of gun powder within 100 feet of a house and by forbidding the building of stables with hay, fodder, or hemp within the limits of the business district. Perhaps the most valuable clause in the act was fining anyone who turns in a false alarm ten dollars (equivalent to about $220 today) during the day and twenty dollars (about $435 today) at night.

By 1902, Florence’s fire equipment consisted of a hand-drawn two-wheel cart carrying a hose and a hook and ladder wagon pulled by horses rented at Jesse Pattons’ livery stable, located where the Negley Hotel was.

Wells and cisterns were obsolete. The town’s water system had been installed in 1890. The fire alarm system, however, was the same as it had been in 1828. When a fire broke out, someone would have to shoot a gun or run into town to announce the fire.

In 1915, the Fire Chief, Donald White, purchased its first motor vehicle, a type 20 American LaFrance (pictured in the above April 1915 photo). A phone was also installed in the fire station to be used for social calls as well as announcing fires.

In 1918 Gamewell Fire Alarm Company installed a modern five-circuit automatic repeater and positive non-interfering system of Fire Alarm boxes and a six-circuit Fire Alarm switch board. This equipment would be automatic even if all the city current were turned off.

The Florence Hotel & Lamar Furniture Building

Now housing the Abstract Company, this downtown Florence building is full of historic ‘firsts’ for Florence. As seen in this late 1940’s picture, the Lamar Furniture store resided here and was the first to be fully air-conditioned and electrically heated in downtown Florence. During renovations in 1944, the Lamar family unearthed 16 fireplaces hidden behind walls, which lead to the discovery that this was the original Florence Hotel building and was built in 1887 by William Basil Wood. The Florence Hotel was the first in the area to introduce both electricity and the telephone in 1888. In 1910, the building served as the temporary home of Rogers Surprise Store after Rogers experienced a devastating fire to their retail building on Court Street.

Southern Frigid-Dough – Florence, Alabama

Thomas McGough (1906-2001) purchased the Florence bakery from M.P. Curran in 1941 and 5 years later, phased out the baking side of the business when he incorporated the Southern Frigid-Dough company.

Operating as a licensee of American Frigid-Dough, they wholesaled a line of frozen and ready to bake meat pies & dinner rolls. The plant on the corner of Poplar & College streets in Florence was specially built & occupied 11,250 square feet. They used the tagline “World’s Largest Bakery Without An Oven”.
In the late 1950s, the Southern Frigid-Dough company produced 65,000 pies per day with 90 employees. In 1958, McGough undertook a $200,000 remodeling & expansion program that would increase the plant’s capacity to 172,000 pies per day.

McGough retired and went into the real estate business as a home builder and one of the developers of the English Village Shopping Center.

Heartbreak – Wilson Dam, Muscle Shoals

This editorial cartoon was featured in the April 13, 1933 issue of the New York World-Telegram newspaper. It shows a well-dressed fat man (labeled “Power Trust”) weeping into his handkerchief, a rolled-up piece of paper labeled “Plans” at his side. Behind him looms a huge dam bearing an American flag and a sign reading “Government Operation of Wilson Dam, Muscle Shoals.” In April 1933, President Roosevelt reversed the policy of his Republican predecessors and asked Congress to approve, not only the government operation of the Muscle Shoals Dam (built by the government during World War I), but also the establishment of a Tennessee Valley Authority. Private power interests, who had hoped to acquire the dam for a nominal sum, were outraged.

Heartbreak - Muscle Shoals Editorial Cartoon, 1933