Oct. 19th, 1882 - Gunfight on Gay Street

Blog Post #26

by Jane Van Ryan

Whenever a major news event occurs, it’s rare when the eye witnesses agree on the same set of facts. Several recent shootings in the United States have illustrated this point, indicating how perceptions can affect the way in which tragic events are described.

Gen. Joseph Alexander Mabry II

This is hardly a new phenomenon. It also was true during the infamous shootout on Knoxville’s Gay Street in 1882, when General Joseph Mabry and his son Joseph A. Mabry III were killed by Thomas O’Conner and an accomplice.

According to a newspaper article published by the Associated Press Telegram and reprinted in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, the shootout occurred just after 10:00 a.m., on October 19.  It supposedly was triggered by an argument between O’Conner and Gen. Mabry at the fairgrounds the day before concerning the transfer of property from Mabry to O’Conner. Mabry allegedly warned O’Conner that he would shoot him the next time he saw him.

Joseph Alexander Mabry III

On the 19th, O’Conner, who was the president of the Mechanics’ National Bank and believed to be the richest man in Tennessee, spied Mabry walking down Gay Street on the side opposite to the bank. O’Conner grabbed a shotgun from the bank and fired at Mabry, striking him in the left side. “Mabry fell dead,” according to the article, but O’Conner fired again and hit him in the thigh as he was falling to the ground.

Apparently hearing the commotion, Gen. Mabry’s son Joe “came rushing down the street, unseen by O’Conner until within forty feet of the bank’s entrance, when the young man fired a pistol.” He struck O’Conner, and the bullet passed through his chest. Before he died, O’Conner spun toward Joe and fired a second shotgun at him. Joe was hit by about 20 pieces of buckshot in the right side of his chest. The blast was fatal. Joe fell to the ground, tried to rise, and then died.

The entire shootout lasted about two minutes and left the bodies of three of the State’s most notable businessmen lying dead in the center of Knoxville’s business district. At least two bystanders were injured by flying buckshot. A few others luckily avoided injury but had their clothing pierced. O’Conner’s accomplice got away. Thousands of people reportedly “thronged” the street.

We don’t know whether the eye witnesses gave conflicting stories to the authorities, but there’s no doubt that different tales were told about the shootout’s cause. The Mabrys, including Evelyn Montgomery Hazen whose mother was Joe Mabry’s daughter, claimed the dispute was the result of deep-seated resentment between the Southerners and the so-called Carpetbaggers after the Civil War. As one family member explained, “O’Conner had ‘cooperated with the ‘Yankees’ for some time, no doubt for considerable profit.” Evelyn’s family asserted that “jealousy and spite toward wealthy, aristocratic persons” such as the Mabrys were common practices among the “newcomers” to the South after the war.

But the Associated Press Telegram article drew a far darker picture. It claimed the shootout occurred just a few days after Gen. Mabry and his son Joe were acquitted for the murders of Moses and Don Lusby, who were father and son. The Mabrys had been accused of killing them a few weeks earlier, possibly to avenge their killing of Gen. Mabry’s son Will during a bar brawl at Christmas in 1881.

Actors from Lineage & Legacy, 2015

A one-act play about the shootout will be presented during the Lineage & Legacy gathering at the Mabry-Hazen House on Oct. 16, which will feature additional details surrounding the gunfight. The event is free, and guests will be treated to live music, refreshments, and tours of the historic home.

Dixieghost performs for Lineage & Legacy, 2015

Getting back to Twain, he wrote about the Gay Street shootout to refute the notion that the South had the “highest type of civilization this continent has seen.” In his view, shootouts and bloodshed did not equate with civility. But he neglected to consider that the Mabrys were hardly representative of the entire Southern culture.

In fact, the Mabrys were said to have violent tempers, which was a family trait passed down through the generations. At least one person who knew Evelyn Hazen, the last resident of the Mabry-Hazen House, told me she had inherited this family flaw. She said several people had seen Evelyn fly into rages that were frightening to behold.

But Evelyn also could be generous, kind, funny and endearing. She also was very intelligent. Luckily for Knoxville, she wisely recognized the historical value of her home and its antiques, and she requested that her estate be turned into a museum if at all possible. Thanks to the efforts of Lucille LaBonte and Judge Howard Bozeman, both deceased, the antebellum Mabry-Hazen House stands today as an example of life among the Southern elite in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.