Blog Post # 17
by Jane Van Ryan
“I always went up to see Mr. Hazen,” Laura Harrell Douglas said as she lounged in a recliner and smoked Camels during our interview in April 1988. “He was always glad to see you, but he never came out of his office.”
Laura said she met Evelyn Hazen’s father Rush Hazen when she about 10 years old. At the time her father Walter William Harrell was a partner in Hazen, Trent and Harrell Co., the wholesale grocery distributor on Jackson Avenue in Knoxville.
I visited the building that housed the grocery warehouse last fall when it was home to a coffee shop. Narrow and deep, the building backs up to a wide expanse of railroad tracks, which in the early decades of the Twentieth Century were the main transportation arteries for freight and passenger travel alike. Overhead at the mezzanine level is the company’s office surrounded by windows, giving the owners the ideal location to survey the warehouse’s operations while conducting business.
Laura said Mr. Hazen and her father were the “finest-looking men” in the city. She remembered Evelyn’s father becoming ill and being sent to the sanitorium in 1932, where he died in June. Several months later, Laura’s father accompanied Evelyn and her mother to Covington, Ky., for Evelyn’s celebrated suit against Ralph Scharringhaus, her former fiancé.
Laura said her father went to Covington because Rush Hazen never wanted his daughter or wife to travel alone. But she added, “He thought the whole thing was a farce.”
In Laura’s opinion, Evelyn could have married Ralph whenever she wanted, but her mother prevented the union. Laura believed Evelyn’s mother thought Ralph was not good enough for her daughter. Ralph was “below her,” Laura said, because Ralph lost his family’s big clothing company during the Great Depression. Instead Ralph had a small cleaning establishment.
“There wasn’t a thing wrong with the Scharringhauses. Mrs. Hazen didn’t think it was very elegant to be the cleaning business,” Laura said.
Of course, the Hazens fell on hard times during the Depression as well and their situation grew decidedly worse after Rush Hazen died. Hazen, Trent and Harrell Co. closed in 1935, and according to Laura, what was left of the business was sold to Payless. She suspected the remaining partners were not enamored with the idea of working with Evelyn’s mother, who survived her husband and likely inherited his stake in the business. “I guess none of those partners wanted to deal with Mrs. Hazen,” she conjectured.
Meanwhile, Evelyn and her mother continued to live on Mabry’s Hill where they were isolated from the rest of Knoxville. Laura said eventually Evelyn’s friends “drifted away.” According to Laura, many people believed “it was almost dangerous to be close to Evelyn.”
“She had a tragic life,” Laura said about Evelyn. “Part of it was her own doing. Part of it was her mother’s doing.”
When I met Laura, she was living several miles from Knoxville in Morristown, Tenn., but she said she had spent part of her childhood in the Harrell family home near the Cherokee Country Club. Hugh and Elizabeth Goforth lived in that area, too. It was Elizabeth Goforth who supposedly had an affair with Ralph Scharringhaus and bore him a daughter. Today both the Harrell and Goforth homes are gone and have been replaced by condominiums near the golf course.
Laura did not believe the Goforth baby was Ralph’s child. She said the girl looked just like her mother. If she had been Ralph’s, she wondered, why would Hugh Goforth “lavish” so much attention on her? Yet Evelyn was convinced the little girl was Ralph’s daughter based on letters she obtained that had been written between Ralph and Elizabeth prior the trial. In them Ralph swore his dying love for both Elizabeth and the baby.
As Evelyn put it, “Many of the letters indicate that the defendant [Ralph] and the young woman [Elizabeth] intended to have their ‘future together,’ and that they would let ‘no obstacle stand in their way.’…The extremes to which these long letters go in personal matters between them…are almost incredible and have to read to be appreciated fully.”
I was given access to the letters for my book The Seduction of Miss Evelyn Hazen. The book is available at the Mabry-Hazen House and independent bookstores in Knoxville.