The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Good People I Have Known

By William P. Swartz, Jr. © 1985

Issue: June, 1985

Probably Carroll County gained prominence the quickest of any county in Virginia at the time of the courthouse tragedy. At the same time, the county residents chose to avoid the subject. My mother never wanted to talk about it. This was understandable. It was a traumatic event. The Allen family was not unknown. In fact, my mother attended a summer normal at one time when Sidna Allen was in the class. I came to know him in the years before he died.

The first time I met him was in 1927. After he had been pardoned and released from serving the remainder of his sentence. For several years he traveled and exhibited the novelty furniture that he had made during his time in the penitentiary. It was while he was doing this that I first came to know him.

He would come to a city, rent a vacant store room, set up his exhibit and advertise in the local newspaper that he would be showing his furniture for a week. My parents and I visited him and he was glad to see us. He and my mother spoke of some of their Carroll County friends of former days.

Sidna said people would ask him about the tragedy. He always said, "I never allow myself to be insulted nor to take offense. I simply say that I made a mistake for which I will always be sorry. I have paid a heavy price. I am glad to be alive. I prefer not to discuss it further." I thought that was a good attitude for him to show and a good position for him to take. We never discussed it further. As I recall, the last time I saw him was after I finished college. I was employed for a period of time as a salesman. While calling on merchants in the Leaksville, Spray and Draper area in North Carolina, now the city of Eden, I came to his store. That was my last contact.

Another person whom I came to know very well was the late Judge Draper, who was circuit court Judge for many years of Pulaski and Wythe Counties. I asked him on one occasion what his biggest court case was. He answered immediately, "When I represented the state in prosecuting the Hillsville court criminals." I asked him how he came to do this. He said, "The day after the tragedy the Governor called me. I was then the Commonwealth Attorney for Pulaski County. He asked me to represent the state, go to Hillsville, restore order and represent the prosecution for the county. I accepted and I requested an able attorney to assist me. The Governor immediately appointed one of Richmond's most qualified lawyers and we worked together. When I reached Hillsville, the Judge, the Sheriff and several others were dead and wounded. The county officials were demoralized and in shock. I appointed an acting Sheriff and some new additional deputies. I then contracted with the Pinkerton Detective Agency to act as Deputies and to stay on the case until all the criminals were brought to justice. In some way, W.A. Baldwin and T.W. Felts, who formed the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, took over the case and handled it until it was completed. I was on the case for two years before I finally wound it up."

W.A. Baldwin retired in the late '30's. He purchased a farm near Troutdale, Virginia and moved there. He made it somewhat of a show place and named it "Shadowland." His health failed and he suffered an extended illness. My next-door neighbor in Roanoke was a registered nurse and attended him everyday for several years until his death. I visited Shadowland and from several sources, pieced together how Sidna Allen and his friend Wesley Edwards were apprehended.

It took them about six days to escape from the county after the tragedy. They made their way to Winston-Salem disguised as loggers. There they took on a new disguise, never shaved nor had their hair cut. They went on to Cincinnati and Chicago. For some reason, they selected Des Moines, Iowa as their final destination where both found jobs. Both vowed to write no one and tell no one where they were. Sidna Allen kept his vow, but his friend Edwards, after three months, contacted a friend whom he knew he could trust and requested that he get a letter from his girlfriend Maude Iroller and send it to him, which he did. Soon she learned his address and wrote to him.

In the meantime, Baldwin-Felts had learned that Miss Iroller was a female acquaintance and visited her, but learned nothing. They set a watch on her however. In about six weeks, something slipped and they learned two things. First, Allen's and Edwards' assumed names. Secondly, "General Delivery, Des Moines, Iowa." Previously they had a false lead to Boise, Idaho, but this lead proved genuine. In 36 hours they were in Des Moines and set about trying to find Allen and Edwards boarding house, preferring to try to apprehend them there. In the end, they decided they had no choice but to watch the Post Office. Years later, I learned how the detectives worked it out.

They met the Post Office General Delivery Clerk outside the building and revealed their purpose. He immediately became quite frightened. He had read about the Hillsville tragedy and he did not want any part of a repeat performance. The detectives calmed him and assured him that this would not happen if he would do only one thing. When their man came to the window to ask for his mail, before reaching to the right where the letters were encased, he was to first reach directly above the window for a pink card, lay the pink card on the counter, then reach to the right for the encased letters. He agreed to do this.

The detectives took up their stand about ten feet from the General Delivery Window. Nothing happened for two days, but the third day, the Postal Clerk reached above the window and before he had time to lay the pink card down, the two detectives had two pistols against their man's head. The three then went to the boarding house where, with the information newly obtained, they soon had their second man and the case was ended.

These two were the last of the participants in the tragedy and there the excitement ended. Their trial, conviction and sentencing was big headline news in all the newspapers, but as Judge Draper said, "By the time Allen and Edwards were brought to trial, a year had passed, things were back to normal and although there was much trial publicity, the actual trial went pretty much in a routine manner."

I am sure I knew other details, but years have passed and I am now at an elderly age. Details are not as clear to me as they were at one time. I recount them as best I can.

Two of my most cherished friends whom I have mentioned previously, were Mack and Tucker Goad. Their father was the Clerk of the Court at the time of the tragedy. He carried a pistol and when the shooting began in the Court Room, he suffered a wound which was not fatal. By the time the criminals had escaped down the stairs and were in the court yard, he had gotten himself together enough to make his way to a court room window. The court room was on the second floor of the courthouse. From the second floor window, he began shooting at the escapees, two of whom stopped and returned fire.

Tucker told me, "I was an eight year old boy on my way to school that morning when the shooting broke out. It sounded like fire crackers. I did not know that it was the Allen gang shooting at my father and he was shooting at them until someone came to the school house to get me and Mack and take us home. They said, "Your dad has been shot. We do not know how bad. The doctor is with him and your mother wants you to come home." My Dad got well and was Clerk of Court almost until he died."