The Gay Street Shootout (19 October, 1882)
In the annals of Knoxville history, the Gunfight on Gay Street is quite a conundrum. In 1882, the city was practically the metropolis of southern Appalachia. Railroads connected this otherwise remote region to almost every corner of the country. Local quarries were exporting tinted blocks of Tennessee marble to places as far away as New York City and St. Paul, Minnesota. Knoxville even had an opera house- a sure sign of the cultural sophistication to which its citizens aspired.
Yet the day with the most telegraph traffic that year-and indeed in all of Knoxville’s history-was October 19th, 1882, a day when three prominent citizens gunned each other down in front of the Mechanic’s Bank on Gay Street. How could such a barbarous act have taken place in such a civilized locale? If Joseph A. Mabry II, the first man to perish on that day, was to be believed, it all started with a land deal gone awry.
In May of 1881, Mabry agreed to sell several hundred acres of personal property to Thomas O’Conner, who was not only the president of the Mechanic’s Bank but also a longtime associate of Mabry’s. According to Mabry, however, a gentleman’s agreement between the two stipulated that one property in this transaction, the Cold Springs Farm, would return at some point in the future to the Mabry family, specifically to Mabry’s son, Willie. A few months after this deal, on Christmas Eve, Willie was doing what a lot of young men in Knoxville still do to this very day, despite convention prescribing Willie be at home with his family. He was hanging out at Snodderly's Bar near Gay and Vine Street, drinking to excess, and getting himself into bar fights. In was in such a brawl that he was shot by Don Lusby, a Knoxville constable.
Joseph met the news of his son’s untimely demise with a conspirator’s eye. He thoroughly believed that Thomas O’Conner had arranged Willie’s murder. The motive was simple. With Willie gone, there was no legal mechanism to compel O’Conner to return Cold Springs. While no physical evidence of such a conspiracy has ever been found, Mabry nonetheless believed it. For a year, he simmered on these thoughts. His already legendary temper grew shorter. Alcohol became something of a salve, one that he prescribed to himself in excess. Paranoia pervaded every inch of his being, and by October of 1882 all he wanted was revenge. On October18th, he confronted O’Conner at the fairgrounds south of the Tennessee River. In Mabry’s mind, a duel was the only thing that could remedy the injustices committed against him. The company of the would-be combatants realized two important things at that moment, however. Per the state constitution, dueling was illegal. Thus, whoever won this challenge would lose their right to run for any form of state office. Additionally, and like of most importance to O’Conner was the fact that he was unarmed. The two were separated for the evening, but Mabry and O’Conner continued to send messages to each other. The last note came from Mabry, and it read, the next time he saw O'Conner, "I will shoot you on sight.”
O’Conner treated Mabry’s threat with upmost severity. When he saw Mabry and a friend of his strolling down Gay Street from the doors of the Mechanic’s Bank the very next day, it was clear to him that Mabry sought to provoke. O’Conner acted first, grabbing a double barrel shotgun from behind the doors of the bank. As Mabry was crossing the street, O’Conner unleashed the fire power of the first barrel. Mabry fell to the ground, mortally wounded. Not one to leave a job only half finished, O’Conner took aim with the second barrel and executed Mabry before he hit the ground. Buckshot sprayed into the surrounding crowd near Mabry, hitting several bystanders.
At 10 o'clock in the morning on a Thursday, this violent bloody act was perpetrated while banks and the downtown were filled with people conducting their business. As the sound of the two shots rang across Knoxville, people poured onto the street. Just across from the Mechanic’s Bank, at the courthouse, a young lawyer was concluding a meeting with a justice and came outside to bear witness to the events himself. Whereas everyone else saw only a fresh corpse and O’Conner demanding for Mabry’s associate to come out and face him like a man, the young lawyer saw his recently deceased father. This was Joseph A. Mabry III, Joseph II’s eldest son.
The younger Mabry knew that he had to avenge his father’s death at the hands of O’Conner, and he immediately brandished his own pistol. In the chaos after killing Joseph II, though, O’Conner had grabbed a second double barrel shot gun from behind the bank counter. Unaware of the danger, the younger Mabry moved on O’Conner and aimed. But as Joe Mabry aimed, O’Conner saw Joseph III coming at him from out of the corner of his eye. Just as Joe Mabry fired a single shot, O’Conner unleashed his third shot towards the young man. Both men fell dead at nearly the same time, bringing the gunfight to an end after a mere two minutes.
News of the gunfight began to spread immediately. And as much as a story could in the nineteenth century, it went viral. For three weeks Knoxville papers published stories on the gunfight, including everything from memorials for the fallen to dramatized re-tellings of the events. The telegraph ensured that the story became national, with well-known papers like the New York Times publishing their own articles on the gunfight. Even in Boston, one could read of the Knoxvillian affair in publications like the Illustrated Police News. Indeed, it is from this very publication where the only known recreated image of the gunfight appeared. The story was immortalized, though, by Mark Twain, who included it as a grand example of southern chivalry in his 1883 memoir Life on the Mississippi.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Carleton Young famously evoked, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” While there are elements of the gunfight on Gay Street that elude historians to this day, it is certainly fair to say that the event has become an integral part of Knoxville’s folklore. Even if the details are fuzzy, there is still a historical lesson to be gleaned, however. Years after the official end of the age of pioneers in Knoxville the frontier lifestyle continued to pervade everyday life, but it certainly was in its last days by the time the Mabrys and O’Conner exchanged gunfire. Even calling it the Gunfight on Gay Street indicates a grandiosity. This is the moment that we, as citizens of Knoxville, have chosen to mark as the gunfight to end all gunfights. Once it ended, so did the age of pioneers and frontiersmen in Knoxville. Incensed denizens chose to end their personal disputes not with bullets but with litigation and gossip. In the history of the Mabry-Hazen House, this is certainly true. Evelyn Hazen sought to separate herself from her fiancé of 15 years, Ralph Scharringhaus, through the court system. Even when she suggested that she outright murder him, her friends suggested that she seek a more civilized means of retribution. The gunfight is thus more than a historical novelty. It rather illuminates the growing pains of a city during the industrial revolution, and the fact that we still view it as an affair alien to our own time is a reflection that we are still unconsciously adhering to the lessons that it left us on that rainy October day in 1882.