A Case of Prejudice: Maurice Mays and the Knoxville Race Riot of 1919
"Since the Civil War, Negroes in east Tennessee had been celebrating freedom. We had a history of thinking we lived among the best white people in the South. But when the summer of 1919 came around, we found out it wasn't true." — 98-year-old Y.D. Bryant of Knoxville, in a 1982 interview
The administration of capital punishment in America has taken many forms since the beginning of European colonization nearly 400 years ago. Convicted criminals have been put to death by beheading, strangling, burning, pressing, sawing, hanging, shooting, gassing, poisoning, asphyxiation, electrocution, and lethal injection. No complete records exist to show how many people have been executed, but Watt Espy, a researcher in the University of Alabama Law Library, has documented more than 13,500 legal and official killings dating back into the early colonial period. (These should not be confused with lynchings, or illegal and unofficial executions. Statistics compiled at Tuskegee Institute indicate that an average of 146 lynchings a year took place in the United States in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, that 1,799 blacks and 196 whites were lynched between 1900 and 1962, and that the overwhelming majority of lynch victims were black men in the Southern and border states.)
Tennessee can be seen as a typical Southern state with respect to capital punishment. Espy's research shows that nearly 200 people, a majority of them black, were legally hanged in the state before 1913. In that year, an electric chair was installed at the main penitentiary in Nashville. The state legislature abolished capital punishment in 1915, but restored it four years later. Since then the state, which is 85 percent white, has executed 86 blacks and 38 whites, all of them males from the bottom end of the socio-economic scale. The last Tennessee electrocution took place in 1961. Thirty men are on Death Row in Nashville now.
Twelve of the 124 electrocuted Tennessee offenders — eight blacks, four whites — were residents of Knox County, which is more than 90 percent white. One of those Knox Countians, the eighteenth man to die in the state's electric chair, was 34-year-old Maurice Mays, a black man from Knoxville; he was pronounced dead at 6:16 a.m. on March 15, 1922.
August, 1919: Fresh from victory in the war to make the world "safe for democracy," the United States seemed headed for an era of social progress on the domestic front, and Tennessee was a willing partner. Across the country, public education was reaching the masses; automobiles were replacing buggies, and paved roads were extending in all directions to accommodate them; the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution had been ratified as a national response to alcohol abuse, and the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, had been passed by both houses of Congress. Even the sensitive issue of race relations was receiving some attention, in part because black war veterans who had risked their lives for democracy were determined to share in its fruits.
Tennessee was not laggard. For nearly two decades, the state had been pushing to reach all its children with public schools. Tennesseans owned more than 75,000 automobiles — triple the number three years earlier — and the development of a highway network was deemed second in importance only to the schools. Prohibition had been a statewide law since 1909. Women were already allowed to vote in state and local elections — and in 1920 Tennessee would become the state whose ratification of the suffrage amendment would make it the law of the land.
White moderates on the race issue in Tennessee (there being no liberals or radicals of note) were encouraged by the fact that lynchings and other atrocities by white mobs had declined from 10 a year to two, on the average, since the turn of the century. The Law and Order League was organized by a group of white citizens in 1918 "to combat the evils of lawlessness" — particularly lynching. And when Chicago was staggered by an outburst of racial violence in July of 1919, Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts welcomed black refugees from that city with these words: "We need the Negro here, and I do not fear that Tennessee will ever be the scene of such troubles as are now existing in Chicago."
Like the rest of the South, Tennessee lived by a rigid set of segregation laws and customs, but its white self-image was one of patient and kindly paternalism toward the black race. White supremacy was simply taken for granted, as if it were a divine right; as long as blacks were submissive to the status quo, unprovoked acts of aggression against them were publicly frowned upon as unkind, unwise, and unnecessary.
The state did not so much deny blacks the right to vote as it discouraged them with poll taxes and party primaries; likewise, educational opportunity was not denied, so long as it was dispensed in isolation from whites. The most benevolent white citizens of Tennessee in the postwar period tended to be fearful of just two things: the social elevation of blacks, individually or collectively, and the prospect of a sexual attraction between black men and white women. (Sexual contact between white men and black women was a widespread and long-standing occurrence, though it was seldom discussed publicly.)
If Tennessee thought of itself as different — more segregationist than its Yankee neighbors, but more tolerant and charitable than its Rebel cousins — then Knoxville could claim to be the most different of its cities. It was an urban oasis in the mountains, a busy city of brick streets and electric trolleys, of telephones and theaters and trains. "Staid old Knoxville," as an out-of-town editorial writer called it, was the principal city in a region that had stood with Lincoln and the Union in the Civil War, a region that remained staunchly Republican. The city's 80,000 people included fewer than 12,000 blacks — not even half as many proportionally as Memphis or Nashville or Chattanooga. The state university was also there, and it lent an air of serious and responsible maturity.
The last place anyone — least of all a Knoxvillian — might have looked for signs of impending racial violence was surely in this east Tennessee city where Mayor John E. McMillan, a Democrat, had denounced the Ku Klux Klan and gained a following among blacks as well as whites. The formation of a local branch of the NAACP — considered a radical and possibly subversive group even in the North — may have given Knoxville's white establishment some cause for concern, but the chapter was small and ineffectual, and it included none of the accepted local black leadership.
White Knoxville was quiet and complacent, proud of its supposed tolerance, sure of its basic goodness. Only an outrageous and sensational breach of racial laws and mores could have provoked either blacks or whites into violence.
And then, in the early hours of Saturday morning, August 30, 1919, a young white woman was shot and killed in the bedroom of her home. Before dawn, a black man had been arrested and charged with the crime — and the peace of Knoxville was no more.
Bertie Smyth was 23 years old when she moved to Knoxville from the mountains of southwest Virginia in 1915. That same year she met Daniel B. Lindsey, a 21-year-old carpenter and a migrant from neighboring Jefferson County. They were married in December, 1916, and later bought a three-room frame house at 1216 Eighth Avenue in north Knoxville.
In late May of 1919, Daniel Lindsey left Knoxville for a job in Akron, Ohio. His wife stayed behind, living alone in their home until mid-July, when her 21-year-old first cousin, Ora Smyth, moved in from her parents' farm on the Clinton Pike in Knox County. Several weeks later, as the rainy and humid night of Friday, August 29, edged over into Saturday morning, Bertie Lindsey and Ora Smyth were asleep in a double bed in the front room when someone entered. The women were awakened, and a pistol shot was fired, striking Bertie Smyth Lindsey in the chest. She died almost immediately.
After the intruder fled, Ora Smyth ran next door to the house of Emmett Dyer, a Knoxville policeman. Her frantic calls roused Dyer's wife, who let her in. As soon as she had told the couple of the shooting, Dyer called the police station and summoned help. By 2:30 a.m. — less than half an hour after the incident — several officers had arrived on the scene.
One of the policemen responding to the call was 37-year-old Andy White. He and the others questioned Ora Smyth, who identified the intruder as "a colored man" with a gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other. Patrolman White then got his superior officer's permission to go with three others in search of a man White considered a prime suspect. The man's name was Maurice F. Mays.
Maurice Mays, age 31, was a familiar and somewhat controversial figure on the streets of Knoxville. His light complexion, his dapper appearance, and his smooth manner had won him both strong friends and bitter enemies among whites as well as blacks. Handsome and articulate, he was often seen in the company of women of both races. Though he was married, he did not live with his wife — or with his mother and stepfather, Frances and William Mays. He was known to have connections among gamblers and prostitutes, and he was adept at delivering black votes to white politicians. He had a ninth-grade education — above average for blacks in that time and place. He had once been a pistol-carrying deputy sheriff, and before that, at the age of 15, he had been convicted — and quickly pardoned — for killing another black man.
One white person who especially disliked Mays was Patrolman Andy White, who on more than one occasion had been heard to threaten him for associating with white women. One who had a special fondness for Mays, on the other hand, was Mayor John McMillan; it was rumored about town that Maurice Mays was the mayor's illegitimate son.
White and his fellow officers went first to the home of William Mays on Campbell Street, a mile or so from the scene of the crime. There they learned that Maurice Mays had his own house at 313 Humes Street, a few blocks away in the same neighborhood. At 3:30 a.m., less than an hour and a half after the murder, the policemen found Mays in bed there.
He let them in, and White immediately asked to see his pistol. Mays pointed to a dresser drawer. White picked up the gun, a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson five-shot revolver. It was fully loaded. He sniffed the barrel and then put it back in the dresser. The police asked Mays a few questions, examined his clothing, and then, without telling him the reason for their call, ordered him to get dressed and come with them.
Mays got in the patrol wagon with White, the other three officers, and William Mays, who had followed them there from his home. They drove to the corner of Eighth Avenue and Gillespie Street, a few houses away from the murder scene. While Mays and his stepfather waited there under a street light with three of the policemen, Andy White went to get Ora Smyth. He led her out of the shadow to within a few feet of Mays and asked her if he was the man she saw kill Bertie Lindsey. She replied that he was. It was the only "lineup" Mays ever got.
Dawn was just breaking as Maurice Mays was taken on to the police station and booked for murder. Within hours, the one indisputable fact in the case — that a woman had been shot and killed in her own home — was embellished by an outpouring of rumor and speculation. A "flower of Southern womanhood" had been robbed, possibly raped, and certainly murdered in cold blood — and the man who stood charged with the crime was Maurice Mays, a notorious "bad nigger."
By noon, milling clusters of agitated white men reacted to the crime on street corners throughout the central city. Their mood was angry, menacing; trouble was in the air, as palpable as an approaching summer storm. Sheriff W.T. Cate, in consultation with other criminal justice officials, decided to move Maurice Mays to a jail in Chattanooga for his own safety. The sheriff and some of his deputies spirited their prisoner away in a heavily guarded automobile to a nearby town and caught a train there for the 100-mile ride to Chattanooga.
Late in the afternoon, the scattered groups of men began to congregate in the downtown market square. Guns were everywhere in evidence. The crowd became a throng, then an angry lynch mob; it swarmed down Market Street in the hot and muggy air, headed for the county jail on Hill Street.
At the jail, leaders of the mob demanded that Mays be released to them. Deputies insisted that he was not there. Three times, delegations of men were allowed to enter and see for themselves that the prisoner had been removed, but the mob was not satisfied. Just before eight o'clock, in the last hour of daylight, fighting broke out in the streets, and shots were fired. Two squads of National Guardsmen from a nearby training camp had been called in to reinforce outnumbered policemen and deputies, but their presence seemed only to heighten the mob's anger. More guardsmen from the same unit — the Fourth Tennessee Infantry — were summoned, but their support was too little, too late. As darkness fell, the mob stormed the jail.
A telephone pole was brought up as a battering ram to smash down the main door to the building, and the men surged through the hallways. Most of the white prisoners were released, including three under murder charges; the black prisoners were neither freed nor harmed. Law enforcement officials and militiamen defending the facility were quickly overwhelmed. From a store room, the mob seized a large quantity of confiscated illicit whiskey as well as all the guns and ammunition. In the sheriff's residence next door as well as in the jail itself, virtually everything that could not be taken away was vandalized and demolished.
Governor A.H. Roberts had been called in the meantime, and he ordered the entire Fourth Tennessee Infantry into the city and declared martial law there. The 1,100 National Guardsmen who responded, together with nearly 300 special policemen and deputies, joined the 200-member Knoxville police force on the side of law enforcement, but the mob still outnumbered them.
Responding to rumors that armed blacks were roaming Vine Avenue eight blocks away, the mob turned up Gay Street and headed in that direction. The intersection of Vine and Central Avenue was the heart of black Knoxville, the crossroads at which large numbers of blacks commonly gathered in the evenings. While the white mob was smashing windows and taking more guns and ammunition from hardware stores and pawn shops along the way, soldiers rushed to set up machine guns at Vine and Central and at other points in the vicinity.
Accounts vary widely on what happened in the battle that raged there into the night. Officially, the death count was placed at two — Joe Etter, a black man, and Lieutenant James W. Payne, a guardsman who was accidentally riddled with machine-gun fire by his own men. Unofficially, the count was much higher; one sheriff's deputy estimated that 25 to 30 men died.
By dawn a nervous calm had settled over the empty streets. Throughout the long night and on into the days that followed, the tyranny of the mob was gradually transformed into repression by the military forces. The effect on the black community was devastating. Blacks were placed under curfew, relieved of what civil liberties they had, and subjected to personal abuse by patrolling guardsmen. Homes were entered and searched, sometimes forcibly. All blacks entering the city by train were questioned and searched, and many were mistreated. Hundreds of black residents fled the city, some never to return. Between the violence of the mob and the repression of martial law, black Knoxvillians could hardly make a distinction.
Whites, on the other hand, were generally left alone by the authorities. Thirty-six white leaders of the mob were arrested and charged with felonies, but when they were tried before an all-white jury six weeks later, 31 of them were acquitted and the other five were freed after a mistrial was declared in their cases.
The daily newspapers of Knoxville and other Tennessee cities did not bestir themselves to deplore the outburst of white violence in any specific ways. On the contrary, the tone of the news coverage and the sparse editorial comment implied that Maurice Mays was guilty and that the crime was outrageous enough to justify the actions of the mob and the military. One state official, Senator John C. Houk of Knoxville, dismissed the violence as "merely a mob . . . a white mob engaged . . . in disturbing the peace." A month later, when racial violence erupted in the town of Elaine. Arkansas, the Nashville Tennessean blamed it on "organizations at work preaching the doctrine of social equality and urging the negroes to stand up for their rights." The Tennessean had made no editorial comment at all on Knoxville's tragedy.
But the force of law was much more swift and relentless in the case of Maurice Mays. From the moment of his arrest he had steadfastly maintained his innocence; the state, with equal steadfastness, moved rapidly to convict and punish him. A grand jury indicted him four days after the crime, the jury declaring that Mays had "unlawfully, feloniously, willfully, deliberately, premeditatedly and maliciously" assaulted and murdered Bertie Smyth Lindsey, "against the peace and dignity of the state." On Wednesday, October 1, 1919, a month after the murder, Case No. 508 — The State vs. Maurice Mays — commenced in Knox County Criminal Court.
With Judge T.A.R. Nelson presiding, the names of 520 white men were drawn from the jury pool, and from them 12 were chosen to hear the evidence and decide the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Governor Roberts had appointed former Knoxville mayor S.G. Heiskell as special prosecutor to handle the state's case against Mays. He was assisted by R.A. Mynatt, the district attorney-general, and Fred C. Houk, a Knoxville criminal lawyer.
The defense team was headed by Reuben L. Cates, a former district attorney-general. His principal assistant, curiously, was Lincoln C. Houk, the father and law partner of prosecutor Fred Houk. (John Houk, the state senator who had dismissed the riot as a mere disturbance of the peace, was Lincoln's brother.) Three others "signed on" as defenders, but questioned no witnesses: W.F. Yardley and John W. Huff, two of the three black attorneys in Knoxville, and James A. Fowler, one of the city's best known public figures. Fowler had run for governor in 1898 and had served as a top official in the U.S. Department of Justice under Presidents Roosevelt and Taft from 1908 to 1913.
Clearly, Maurice Mays was not without able counsel. It was rumored at the time that the national NAACP was paying for his defense, but the temper of the segregationist times suggests otherwise. Another speculation now seems more plausible: that the white defense attorneys acted out of friendship for — or perhaps with payment from — Mayor John E. McMillan, a banker. (The story that Maurice Mays might be McMillan's son was never mentioned at the trial or in press coverage of it, although allusions to their relationship had been printed in the local papers some years earlier. On the afternoon before the Lindsey murder, Mays and his stepfather, William Mays, had been campaigning for the mayor's re-election. A week later, when Maurice was in jail, McMillan was soundly defeated at the polls.)
During the first two days of testimony 15 witnesses were called, including the husband of Bertie Lindsey, the doctor who examined her body, and several police officers involved in the investigation. But the most attention by far was paid to two people: Ora Smyth, the eyewitness, and Andy White, the arresting officer. Under questioning by Attorney General Mynatt, Ora Smyth said that when she was awakened by her cousin's voice, she saw a Negro man standing beside the bed. He had a gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other. The man threatened her, she said, and told her to lie still, and she never moved. In the reflected light of his flashlight, she said, "I saw him in the face . . . I could see his face plain." Further, the young woman said, "He laid his hands on me . . . on my private parts." Bertie kept getting up, she testified, and the man kept making her lie down again; then she took a step toward the door, and when she turned to look back, he shot her.
Again, Mynatt asked Ora Smyth if she had seen the man's face clearly. She replied that she had, several times, as he changed the flashlight from one hand to the other. And was that man now in the courtroom? Yes, she answered firmly, pointing to Maurice Mays at the defense table. "Could you be mistaken?" Mynatt asked. "I could not," Ora Smyth responded.
After the shot, she said, the man came back and put his hands on her again, and she told him to "spare my life, but take my money." She directed him to the dresser, where he took some loose money and Bertie Lindsey's pocketbook. Then, she said, the man left the room and went out the back door. She then ran to the front door, she testified, and there she heard the man fall and get up in the dark yard, and in a moment she saw him run past and cross the street in front of the house.
An hour or so later, when the police brought a man to the corner of Eighth Avenue and Gillespie Street and asked Ora Smyth to come and look at him, she testified that she twice identified Maurice Mays as the killer. "By his form, by his face and by his voice, and his clothing," she said, she was positive of her identification.
In his cross-examination, defense attorney Reuben Cates concentrated on whether or not a flashlight in the hand of the intruder could have given Ora Smyth a clear view of the person's face. He asked no probing questions about the appearance or actions of the intruder, or about her identification of him under the street light. The questioning was quickly over, and Ora Smyth was never called back to the stand.
When Andy White testified, he claimed that his suspicion of Maurice Mays was prompted by his questioning of Smyth and her description of the assailant. He said he had then asked permission of Captain Joseph Wilson to go in search of Mays. In a patrol wagon driven by a black policeman named James Smith, White and two other officers went first to the home of William Mays and then to the Humes Street address of his stepson. It took several minutes of loud knocking and shouted calls, White said, to induce Mays to let them in.
White first asked for his pistol, and Mays said it was in the dresser. "I smelt a faint smoked powder on it," he testified, adding that he kept the fully loaded gun. White also claimed that Mays's shoes had fresh mud on the soles. He said that the officers then told Mays to get dressed so they could take him to "let some people see him."
When they arrived at the corner of Eighth and Gillespie, White said, he and another officer walked to the Lindsey house to get Ora Smyth. Then, according to White, the young woman twice stated that Mays was the killer.
During the officer's testimony, several disputes arose between the opposing attorneys — over whether or not White had coached Smyth before she saw Mays, over whether or not Mays had denied her accusation, and finally over Mays's alleged possession of photographs of white women. With the jury out of the courtroom, prosecutor Heiskell told the court he wanted to ask about such pictures. Mays, he said, "is a negro, considered to be such. His association naturally would be with negroes, and if he got to running after white women that would be something unusual, at least in this part of the United States. That would indicate . . . a state of mind in which the defendant was, that he was running after white women." Judge Nelson ruled that such evidence was inadmissible because it would "unduly prejudice the jury against the defendant and it would not throw any light upon the homicide at all."
Cates, in his cross-examination, drew from White some seemingly important admissions — that he had looked for but failed to find a flashlight in Mays's house; that he had not, in fact, kept Mays's gun, but had returned it to the drawer; and that he had accused Mays of having a second pistol, the implication being that the first one appeared not to be the murder weapon. Cates also suggested that White had long held "unkind feelings'' toward Mays, which White denied.
In fact, another officer did take Mays's gun to the station, but it was never positively identified as the murder weapon. The bullet extracted from Bertie Lindsey's body was never matched to that or any other gun, and no spent shell was ever found. No reports on fingerprints or ballistics or an autopsy were presented in evidence.
Lindsey's pocketbook was found in her yard, but it was not linked in any way to Mays, and no flashlight ever turned up. White and other police officers testified that Mays's trousers were damp — presumably from running through wet weeds — and that his shoes matched prints found in the mud at the Lindsey home, but the testimony was directly contradicted and shown to be highly circumstantial, even speculative. In the case of the shoe print, the prosecution contended that a badly worn left heel print matched Mays's shoe, but the defense introduced his only pair of shoes in evidence to show that the heels were barely worn at all.
As the trial entered its third day, Cates called White back to the stand for more cross-examination and attempted to show that he had nursed a long-standing grudge against Mays and was attempting to frame him for the Lindsey murder. White had focused his suspicion on Mays even before his investigation, Cates suggested. Anger rose on all sides, and the judge also seemed to be disturbed, but Cates persisted: "Before you ever had a description, didn't you . . . state that Maurice Mays had committed the crime?" White categorically denied having made such a statement to anyone at any time.
Shortly after that exchange, the state rested its case. It had failed to establish a motive linking Mays to the crime, failed to show that he was ever at the scene, failed to prove that his gun had been fired or even that it was of the same caliber as the murder bullet. There had been much discussion of muddy footprints and damp trousers and the faint smell of powder in his gun barrel, but the state's case held nothing of substance — nothing except the word of Ora Smyth that she saw Mays fire the shot.
The first defense witness was Mays himself. In a soft-spoken but confident manner, he described his activities on the day of the crime — an afternoon of campaigning with his stepfather on behalf of Mayor McMillan, an evening of casual socializing among black friends. Between 12:30 and 1 a.m., he said, he went home, undressed, read the paper, and went to sleep. At three o'clock, he was awakened by loud voices and knocking. He said he went to the door and found three policemen. They came in, searched his room, looked at his gun, asked him some questions, told him nothing; then, he said, they ordered him to dress and follow them.
His stepfather had arrived in the meantime and was allowed to ride with Mays in the patrol wagon. At a street corner in north Knoxville, Mays said, he waited under the watchful eyes of the other policemen while Andy White went alone to a house up the street. "Someone has been shot by a colored man," one of the policemen finally explained to him. When White returned with Ora Smyth, Mays said, she accused him of the crime. Then he said to the court:
"I told her she was mistaken. I said, 'Mr. White, please bring the lady back and let her look at me better than that,' and I said, 'Certainly I am not the man,' but she didn't come back."
Under questioning by Reuben Cates, Mays testified that he had known Andy White for three or four years, that White had been unkind to him, had cursed him several times, had called him a "little black son of a bitch" and a "little yellow negro." White hadn't spoken to him in four or five months, Mays said, and he quoted Jim Smith, the black driver of the police wagon, as saying that White "thinks you would do anything."
It was then S.G. Heiskell's turn to cross-examine Mays. Against repeated objections from the defense, some of which were overruled by Judge Nelson, the prosecutor established that Mays had three indictments pending against him, that one of them was for carrying a pistol, and that the pistol in question had been taken from him by the police. He also got into the record a hint that Mays had once shot and killed a man, and an assertion that he sometimes followed white girls.
Heiskell pressed hard with questions about Mays's whereabouts at the time of the crime, the condition of his pants and shoes when he was arrested, and his confrontation with Ora Smyth under the street light. He also suggested — and Mays denied — that he once had interfered with Andy White's attempt to arrest some men who were gambling in a cafe run by Mays.
The prosecution objected to three witnesses called by Cates. Judge Nelson sent the jury out while he heard the three, all white women, say that they had been assaulted in their homes by black intruders after Mays was in jail. One of the women said her assailant threatened to "shoot me like he did Bertie Lindsey." The judge excluded testimony from all three. The defense called 20 more witnesses to support Mays's claim of innocence. Among them was a 29-year-old black lawyer, George McDade, Jr., who said that he knew both Mays and White and that he had heard White call Mays a "little yellow son of a bitch" who was shielding thieves and ought to be put in jail. Another witness was Dave Saunders, a white police officer and former deputy sheriff, who said he examined Mays's pistol at the police station and detected no smoke or powder smell. Saunders also testified that he and his wife had conducted an experiment with a flashlight in a dark room and found that the holder of the light could not be seen. (Earlier, a police witness had claimed a similar experiment produced the opposite result.)
Perhaps the most effective witness in Mays's defense was James Smith, the black driver of the police patrol wagon and an employee of the department for 12 years. On the way to the Lindsey house to investigate the crime, he said, Andy White had "guessed Maurice Mays was the man who killed the woman." White hated Mays, Smith testified; he cursed him often, called him a "yellow bastard" and a "dirty nigger," and vowed to "catch him with his britches down and put him in the penitentiary."
Under cross-examination by Mynatt, Smith denied that he had a personal dislike for White. He claimed that others had also heard White curse Mays, but he declined to name them.
Some brief and inconsequential rebuttal testimony followed. Then the questioning was over, closing arguments were heard, and finally, late in the afternoon of Saturday, October 4, Judge Nelson gave his charge to the jury. The participants and spectators then settled back to wait for a verdict.
It was a short wait. In less than 20 minutes, the jury was back. They had found Maurice Mays guilty of murder in the first degree. The judge had already indicated that the penalty for such a finding was death.
The defendant, in the words of one newspaper, "maintained the most perfect appearance of calm." He was quoted as saying to those who had helped him in the trial: "I want to thank you all for what you have done for me, but I don't want you to get it into your head that I am guilty of the crime. . . . I want to proclaim standing here that I did not commit the crime. It is simply a case of prejudice."
Two weeks later, the defense moved for a new trial on five grounds: that racial passion and excitement in the community had prevented a fair trial, that defense testimony concerning three similar assaults had not been permitted, that the judge had incorrectly charged the jury, that the sentence had been incorrectly fixed, and that late testimony contradicting Ora Smyth's sworn statements had not been allowed.
In denying the motion, Judge Nelson asserted that Maurice Mays "had an absolutely fair trial. He was ably defended. He was given the benefit of every single doubt. The jury having heard all the evidence returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree, and returned it in only a few minutes. And that verdict meets with the hearty approval of the court. I am convinced beyond a peradventure of a doubt that he is the man who committed the awful atrocious crime." He directed that Mays be taken to the state penitentiary in Nashville, and there electrocuted on November 28, 1919.
In separate statements made that same week, Judge Nelson and Attorney General Mynatt deplored the action of another jury which in the meantime had freed all of the white men charged in the August 30 riot. But in the case of Maurice Mays, both men appeared satisfied that justice had been done, swiftly and surely.
The state took just 35 days after Bertie Lindsey's murder to arrest and convict the only suspect and prescribe his punishment — but two and a half years would elapse before it administered that punishment to Maurice Mays. Through appeal, reversal, retrial, and reconviction, renewed appeal, and final verdict, Mays remained imprisoned but ever hopeful — even confident — that his innocence would finally be declared. Three times he was taken from the Knox County jail to the penitentiary in Nashville to await execution, only to be returned to Knoxville for more waiting.
The Tennessee Supreme Court's consideration of the first conviction postponed Mays's November, 1919, execution date, and in January, 1920, the court reversed the conviction on a technicality in the fixing of the death sentence. More than a year later, on April 18, 1921, another criminal court jury was chosen to retry the case in the court of Judge Xen Hicks. The same two teams of attorneys returned to battle and called most of the same witnesses. Once again, Ora Smyth (the eyewitness, since married to a store clerk named Ray Parsons) firmly asserted that Maurice Mays was the man she saw shoot Bertie Lindsey — and just as stoutly, Mays repeated his declaration of innocence.
But the outcome was the same. On April 23, the jury found the defendant guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to die in the electric chair. Six months later, the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the verdict, finding no trial errors and no technical flaws to warrant another reversal. The execution was scheduled for December 15, 1921.
In the meantime, Tennessee had elected a new governor — Alfred A. "Uncle Alf" Taylor, a 72-year-old Republican from east Tennessee. A former member of Congress, he had earlier waged and lost a campaign for governor against his brother, Democrat Robert Love Taylor. With his election in 1920, Alf Taylor inherited the final responsibility for the fate of Maurice Mays.
As soon as the state supreme court upheld Mays's conviction, Taylor was swamped with letters, phone calls, telegrams, and petitions on the highly emotional and controversial case. Some urged him to permit no delay in the execution; others, with equal fervor, pleaded for reconsideration and reprieve. Taylor responded by appointing three prominent Tennesseans as a commission of "disinterested" counselors to study the case and recommend a course of action to him. He also granted a 90-day postponement of the execution — to March 15, 1922 — to allow petitioners for Mays to examine purported new evidence in the case.
Sentiment in Knox County was reported to be "about equally divided" between those who were convinced of Mays's guilt and those who believed he was innocent. The three-man commission concluded that he had committed the crime but suggested that he might have been insane at the time. Governor Taylor, saying that he had read the entire case record and listened carefully to all sides, announced that he would render final judgment before the scheduled execution date. He would, he said, be guided "by a sense of justice and conscience."
The weeks slipped by. Mays, ill and on crutches in the late winter of 1922, saw his hopes fading. Finally, on March 14, the governor ended a long silence. He had seen no new evidence to indicate that the court had erred, he said; therefore, he would not interfere with the verdict. Maurice Mays would die at sunrise.
The Nashville Tennessean reported that the decision caused the governor to be "besieged with visitors pleading for the life of the man convicted of one of the most brutal crimes in the annals of the state." One such petitioner was James A. Fowler, then a special assistant to the U.S. attorney general in Washington and formerly one of Mays's defense lawyers; others included prominent black Tennesseans who, the newspapers reported, had raised "a fund of $10,000 or more" to provide Mays with "capable counsel in his legal battle."
But these pleas were made to no avail. The governor issued one last statement concluding that "the responsibility for the fate of Maurice Mays rests with the courts and juries of Tennessee, and not upon me." Two criminal court judges, two juries, the state's highest court, an independent commission, and two governors had rendered their collective verdict: Maurice Mays was guilty as charged.
"The only statement I have to make," said defense attorney James Fowler when all hope was gone, "is that they are electrocuting an innocent negro."
William Mays went to the death house in the state penitentiary to be with his stepson for the last time, and he was a tearful witness to the condemned man's baptism by two black Methodist ministers. With tears in his own eyes, Maurice Mays assured his stepfather once again of his innocence.
As the night wore on, Mays twice asked to be taken on to the chair. He had made his last appeals; he was resigned to the inevitability of his death. "I am to die to satisfy a few Republican politicians," he said. "The governor hasn't man enough in him. You might as well talk to a rock. Some Republicans told him he'd lose 20,000 votes if he helped me."
In his final statement, Governor Taylor had said that the case "turned upon the testimony of Ora Smyth," and that the defense had been unable to discredit her. "Therefore," he said, "she stands in the case unimpeached and unimpeachable." The defense attorneys had, in fact, passed up numerous opportunities to challenge the truthfulness of Ora Smyth.
Maurice Mays understood clearly that the young woman's testimony would determine in the end whether he would live or die. He had written an open letter to Ora Smyth Parsons, begging her to admit she was wrong. "My life," he wrote, "is to be taken from me solely upon your word alone. God knows and I know that I am entirely innocent. . . . After I am dead, it will then be too late, but God will teach, and may make your life miserable. He will bury it in your heart as long as you live that I died innocent upon your word alone." No response ever came.
In the early morning hours of March 15, people waiting in the death house with Maurice Mays said they heard him "pray to his Maker to cleanse the sinful hearts of men who have dipped their fingers in my innocent blood." Then, one newspaper reported, "It was almost uncanny, the way Mays fixed a smile on his face, walked to the chair from the death cell, and, upon sitting in the chair exclaimed, 'I am as innocent as the sun that shines.'"
At 12 minutes past six, the first electric shock was sent surging through his body. It continued for four minutes. When the current was turned off, the attending physician quickly determined that Maurice Mays was dead.
William Mays took his stepson's body back to Knoxville for burial. An estimated 2,000 of the city's 12,000 black citizens filed past the open casket at the Wheeler Funeral Home on Vine Avenue.
For many months, the people of east Tennessee, white and black alike, found it difficult to rid themselves of the bitter aftertaste of murder and execution. In some quarters, Maurice Mays was remembered with contempt as "an underworld figure" and "a bad nigger." In others, he was praised as "a martyred victim of white racism." There would never be agreement on the question of his guilt or innocence, but on one conclusion there was virtual consensus: the "capital offense" of Maurice Mays was that in a society of unremitting white supremacy, he had dared to assume the liberties of a white man. And for that "crime" he paid with his life.
Assaults similar to the one that cost Bertie Lindsey her life continued in the Knoxville area for more than five years. By the end of 1924, a total of 32 such crimes had gone unsolved; eight women had been murdered and about two dozen others had been raped or robbed. At one point, a private detective claimed that a single white man had committed all of the assaults, including the one on Bertie Lindsey, but no convictions were ever obtained.
The segregationist status quo prevailed in Tennessee and throughout the South. Finally, in the fullness of time, the wounds of William and Frances Mays, of Daniel Lindsey, and of the city of Knoxville scarred over and healed. At length, no one spoke any more of the murder and execution that had stirred such emotions and caused such deep divisions in the community.
Then, in August, 1927, five and a half years after the execution, a 28- year-old white woman walked into the police station in Norton, Virginia, and calmly told the officer in charge that she was the murderer of Bertie Lindsey. In a signed confession, Sadie Mendil said that she had suspected her then-husband, John Roddy, of carrying on an affair with Daniel Lindsey's wife. Seeking revenge, she had put on men's clothing, blackened her face, and entered the Lindsey house, where she had shot Bertie Lindsey as she lay in bed with another woman. Then, Mendil said, she had made her escape.
The Norton authorities were impressed with the sincerity of the confession and with Sadie Mendil herself, who said she had decided to make the statement because of a "troubled mind and heart." But Knoxville police chief Ed M. Haynes quickly discredited her story, saying that "confessions" were commonly made after sensational crimes. There were, said Haynes, some serious discrepancies in Sadie Mendil's account of the murder. He advised the police chief in Norton to release her.
Four days later, a man who identified himself as Mack Mendil appeared in Haynes's office and said that his wife Sadie had given a false confession to the Norton police because she had "become temporarily demented from brooding over her baby," a two-year-old son who was being cared for by another family. That explanation satisfied the Knoxville authorities, and the matter was promptly considered closed.
Sixty-four years after Bertie Lindsey was murdered and 56 years after Sadie Mendil claimed responsibility for the crime, it was still possible to find a few uninvestigated leads in the musty pages of the Knoxville public record.
Some of those frail clues quickly evaporated. Ora Smyth Parsons and her husband apparently had moved out of the city after Mays was executed and could not be traced. Mayor John E. McMillan, for all his visibility at the time, is all but invisible in the city's recorded history now. Governor Alfred A. Taylor's public papers include none of the extensive and voluminous materials generated in his office by the Mays case. Attorney James A. Fowler left an extensive memoir, but it contains no mention of his role in defending Mays, nor any acknowledgment of the murder, the riot, or the execution.
And what of Sadie Mendil? She would have been 84 years old in 1983, and her son would have been 58. Were they still alive?
Before her marriage to Mack Mendil, Sadie had divorced John Roddy in a Tennessee mountain county courthouse. I found the record there, dated June 30, 1926. Along with her single status, Sadie had also taken back her maiden name. Then, in another county soon thereafter, she had married Mendil. Might she have eventually left him too, again resumed her maiden name, and returned to the rural county of her childhood and youth?
The name was a common one in that mountain community. I won't use it here; instead, I'll call her Sadie Brown. In every courthouse office, I asked if anyone knew a woman in her eighties named Sadie Brown. Finally, a middle-aged clerk said the name rang a bell. She sent me to the next town down the road, and there I met a woman who seemed to recall the recent death of a Sadie Brown in yet another town nearby.
I called at the local funeral home. The records showed no funeral for anyone by that name. But, said the undertaker, "There's a Reverend Buell Brown around here. You might ask him."
When I spoke Sadie Brown's name on the phone, the Reverend Buell Brown's voice turned suddenly cool. Who was I, he demanded; why did I want to know about Sadie Brown? He found my answers unsatisfactory. "Yes, I know Sadie Brown," he said at last, "but I won't talk to you about her, or tell you where she lives. It's none of your business where my mother lives." He hung up.
I rushed to the local post office and asked a friendly clerk for directions to Sadie Brown's home. Within minutes I stood at the door, knocking. A short, white-haired woman appeared. "Are you Sadie Brown?" I asked. "Yes, I am," she replied. I took a deep breath and began to talk, spilling out the story as I had pieced it together, trying not to frighten or offend her.
She listened politely. Her pleasant expression did not change. I came at last to the key question: was she that Sadie Brown, the one I had described?
"That was my sister-in-law," she answered. "She was born Sadie Brown; I got the same name, but by marriage. She confessed that killing, but she didn't do it. She was afraid of her husband, Mendil. He kept her under close watch, and she wanted to get away from him, so she ran to the police and said she was the one that killed that other woman. They locked her up, and then my brother went and got her out, and that's how she got away from Mendil."
I waited for her to continue, but there was no more. "What finally happened to Sadie?" I asked.
"She married again — and then she died about two years ago."
"Where did she die, and what was her name then?"
"She died in Knoxville, but I can't remember what her married name was."
I tried another tack. "The newspaper story said she had a son before she was married to Mack Mendil. Do you know where he is, or what his name is?"
"I think he may be dead too," she replied.
We stood in the shade of Sadie Brown's front porch, looking calmly at each other, showing no outward emotion. I glanced over my shoulder, wondering suddenly if the Reverend Buell Brown was on his way there. With a feeling of barely controlled desperation, I searched my mind for the right questions to unlock the mystery. No words came. The silence filled the space between us.
Sadie Brown stepped back inside. "Goodbye," I said lamely. "And thank you." The door closed. Walking back to my car, I thought about the whole story, the long-buried mystery, and wondered if I had found the end of it — or another beginning.
John Egerton is a Nashville-based freelance writer. His fifth book, Generations: An American Family, will be published in 1983 by the University Press of Kentucky, after being turned down by more than a dozen commercial publishers.(1983)
John Egerton’s latest book is Nashville: The Faces of Two Centuries. (1980)
Tennessee free-lance writer John Egerton is teaching magazine journalism at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg this year. (1978)