Oct. 19th, 1882 Gunfight on Gay Street

Willie Mabry

Gen. Joseph A. Mabry II

Blog Post #33

by Jane Van Ryan

October 19, 1882, was a bloody day in Knoxville – the day of the historic gun battle involving Joseph Mabry II and his son Joseph Mabry Jr., and their foe Thomas O’Conner on the city’s famed Gay Street. In the space of only two minutes, all three men were lying dead on the sidewalk and several bystanders were wounded or had their clothing pierced by stray shotgun pellets. The cause was a feud involving a real estate transaction and the death of Will Mabry, who was killed in December 1881.

This tragic story will come to life on Oct. 16, at the third annual Lineage and Legacy event at the Mabry-Hazen House. The one-act play, written by Knoxville residents Becky Brewer and Douglas McDaniel and presented by the Tennessee Stage Company, also will touch on the confrontation between Joseph Mabry II and Thomas O’Conner at the fairgrounds the day before the shootout. More information is available here.

One of the most striking aspects of the gunfight is the fact that everyone involved was a notable figure in the community. O’Conner was believed to be the wealthiest man in the region. He was president of Mechanics’ National Bank, a partner in the O’Conner & Co. harness and saddlery manufacturing company, and the owner of a significant amount of property, including the Melrose estate.

Joseph A. Mabry III

Gen. Mabry II had made his fortune in railroads, real estate, and as publisher of the Knoxville Whig newspaper. After the Civil War, his wealth diminished, forcing him to sell his blooded horses and some of his property. Yet he continued to be a well-respected or even feared member of Knoxville’s elite.

According to a Knoxville Chronicle newspaper article published Oct. 22, 1882, titled “Terrible Treble Tragedy Enacted on Gay Street Yesterday,” Gen. Mabry was known as “a brave, fearless and dangerous man, towards an enemy bold and aggressive to a fault, yet to a friend he was a friend indeed, open-hearted and generous to a fault.”

The younger Mabry was only 27 years old, unmarried, and was believed to be an up-and-comer in Knoxville. He was a lawyer who was handling a lawsuit at the offices of Esquire Allison when he heard the first gun shot and ran to help his father. After his untimely death, young Joe was remembered as “genial, sociable and affable…but he would never shirk a conflict, when honor was involved.”  His courage got him killed.

The loss of three of Knoxville’s most prominent citizens was a shock to the community. As the Chronicle wrote, “The tragedy was the sole topic of conversation for the rest of the day and nothing else was thought of, hardly. The streets were thronged with men and boys taking no notice of the rain and slop for the rest of the day and knots of men were to be found at frequent intervals discussing the matter and viewing the scene of action.”

Those who witnessed or heard of the shootout spread the news to other communities quickly. “It was the busiest day in the history of the Western Union telegraph office at this place. Hundreds of messages were received and forwarded, and the wires were kept busy all day and night.”

One can only imagine the pain inflicted on Gen. Mabry’s widow, who lost both her husband and one of her sons on the same day. As the newspaper article noted, “Mrs. Mabry has certainly been subjected to the most excruciating bereavement, which would be calculated to rend the very heart strings of any human, and the most profound sympathies of an appreciative community go out for her and the peculiarly bereaved family, in their hours of deep and agonizing grief.”

After the coroner’s inquest and the viewing of O’Conner’s body at the bank, his remains were moved to Knoxville’s West End for a funeral and burial. The Mabrys’ bodies were carried to the Mabry-Hazen House, where legions of admirers, business associates, and family members filed past the bodies to pay their respects prior to burial.

Gen. Mabry’s and Joseph Mabry Jr.’s funerals were among several held at the family’s residence on the crest of Mabry’s Hill. In 1932, Evelyn Hazen, the last resident of the Mabry-Hazen House, attended her father’s funeral at the house on the crest of Mabry’s Hill.

Evelyn outlived all of her immediate family members and most of her contemporaries. When she died in 1987, she was buried after a small graveside service at the Old Gray Cemetery near her long-departed ancestors.