Blog Post # 20
by Jane Van Ryan
My last blog post focused on the 1927 Battle of the Barrel—the University of Tennessee vs. University of Kentucky football game. The game was held in Lexington, and several Knoxville’s young and affluent elites traveled by train to attend the contest, including Evelyn Hazen and Ralph Scharringhaus.
That year also marked the beginning of the Ford Motor Company’s Model A automobiles. The Model A replaced the Model T, which had been in production for about 18 years. But the Model A was hardly the only car on the road. There also were cars built by companies such as Peerless, Elcar, Overland, Davis and many more. And by the mid- to late-1920s cars were changing from the small, open-air, carriage-like configuration to larger, enclosed vehicles that offered greatly improved comforts, including heaters.
Ralph and his father Edward Scharringhaus could afford some of the best cars available. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the elder Scharringhaus had a chauffeur-driven limousine that quite possibly had been custom-made to his specifications. Apparently the chauffeur was armed as well. Evelyn had been told to avoid both Ralph and his parents because they had given the chauffeur a gun, and he had been told to shoot her if she attempted to approach them.
Ralph drove a flashy roadster of some type, commensurate with his noveau-riche lifestyle. Although he was engaged to Evelyn, he also was seeing other women, gambling and drinking with his friends, attending parties at the Cherokee Country Club, and portraying himself as the young, available bachelor.
Evelyn also had a car, but it’s likely it was fairly modest and was suitable transportation for a school teacher. Her family would have frowned on any model that would have been too pretentious. As Southern aristocrats descended from landed gentry, they did not believe in flouting their ancestral wealth and social positions.
Mildred Eager, who taught school at Old Knoxville High with Evelyn, had a red roadster. In the early 1930s, she lived with her mother, earned her own money, and was able to afford such a car. Mildred’s car played a prominent role in Evelyn’s court case against Ralph.
Mildred claimed Evelyn had tried to involve her in a murder plot against Ralph. She said Evelyn asked her to drive to the Scharringhauses’ home where Evelyn planned to hide behind the bushes and shoot Ralph. Mildred said she refused to participate in Evelyn’s scheme because her red car would have been too “conspicuous.” Mildred was one of Ralph’s so-called “subsidized witnesses” at the trial, and her testimony against Evelyn fell apart under cross-examination.
One car was particularly notable in my book The Seduction of Miss Evelyn Hazen. It was the brand new Auburn automobile—it might have been the model called a “speedster”—that Ralph drove to take Evelyn on a drive through the country in May 1932. During their long conversation in which they reviewed their 15-year-long engagement, Ralph reiterated that he couldn’t afford to get married. Evelyn fired back that if he could afford a new car, he certainly could afford a wife. Ralph became flustered and responded that he didn’t own the car, but rather a salesman had allowed him to test drive it for the day.
To Evelyn, the new car was another piece of evidence indicating that Ralph had been lying to her for several years. It was one of the many reasons why she filed her scandalous suit against Ralph for seduction and breach of promise to marry. Her suit set the court precedent for similar suits in Twentieth Century America.