A Bloody Night in Downtown Asheville, Part 1

by Bruce Whitaker

The morning of Tuesday, November 13, 1906, was gray and cold. Snow clouds were gradually moving in. A muscular young man walked up South Main (now Biltmore Avenue). He walked across Pack Square to North Main (Broadway) and entered the Swartzberg and Son store. J.R. Roberts, a clerk at the store, met him and asked the man if he could help him. The man told him he was interested in overalls and walked over to a table stacked high with blue bib overalls.

Roberts later estimated that the man was about 160 pounds. He was stocky, short and tough-looking. Roberts went over to another pile of overalls and pulled a pair out of the stack. He told the man, “These would be about your size.” The man took them and put them under his arm. He told Roberts that he wanted a pair of shoes.

The clerk took the man across the store to an area where shoes were stacked to the ceiling on shelves. The customer sat in a chair and pulled off his shoes. Roberts started to measure the man’s foot. The man stopped him and told the clerk “nine and a half.” The clerk asked what kind of shoe he was interested in. The man told him “yellow brogans.”

Roberts got a pair of brogans and handed them to the man. The man put on the high-topped, yellowish-tan shoes and laced them up. He stamped his feet on the floor. He was satisfied with the way they felt. He then handed the overalls back to the clerk and asked for a size larger. Roberts took the pants back and got a larger size. The man picked up a pair of dark pants and a brown coat while the clerk was gone.

When Roberts returned with the overalls, the man handed the clerk the coat and pants and asked for the total for all of them. “$32 dollars,” the clerk told him. The man pulled out a large roll of bills and paid the bill.

Roberts thanked the man and asked if he wanted him to put his old shoes in a box. The man told Roberts to throw them away. He then left the store with what he bought.

The man crossed back over Pack Square and went down South Main to Finkelstein’s pawn shop. Finkelstein greeted the man and asked if there was anything he could help him with. The man said, “I want a rifle and a box of shells.” “What kind of rifle?” Finkelstein asked. The man told him “high-powered.”

Finkelstein showed him a 303-caliber Savage that someone had pawned. The man hefted the gun to his shoulder and sighted along the barrel. The store owner could tell he was familiar with rifles. He told the store owner, “I’ll take it.” Finkelstein put a box of 20 steel-nosed cartridges on the store counter. The man reached in his pocket pulled out the large role of bills to pay. He picked up the items he purchased and left the store. The man, who called himself Will Harris, went to Pearl Maxwell’s place next.

Pearl Maxwell lived in a basement apartment of a home on Valley Street, near its intersection with Eagle Street. She knew this person who called himself Will Harris and was afraid of him. He claimed to be from Charlotte. Pearl knew him by a different name: James Harvey from Forest City, Virginia. Pearl’s sister, Mollie, met him in Virginia the year before and lived with him for a short time. She lived in Hendersonville now.

Pearl was home when Will Harris/James Harvey came to her apartment. He was carrying a bundle of clothes, a rifle and a bottle of whiskey. Pearl could see that he had already drank a couple of inches out of the bottle. The way Harvey handled the rifle frightened Pearl. He would point it at her and say “Bang!” She pretended to laugh, even though she was scared of what he might do to her. He wanted to know where Mollie was. Pearl thought about telling him, in hopes of getting rid of him, but she was afraid of what he might do to her sister.

Pearl fixed supper for the both of them. He just played with his food. He ate a little but was more interested in drinking the whiskey. It made him moody and less talkative. Around 9:30 pm, Pearl’s boyfriend Tony Johnson came home. She met him at the door and introduced him to the other man as “James Harvey.” This angered Harvey, who gave them a frightening look and said his name was Will Harris and that he was from Charlotte.

Johnson had heard of Harris. He knew he was a murderer who had escaped the NC State Prison. Harris had been serving a 20-year term for robbery and arson in Charlotte. Johnson had heard that Harris killed several men and had been declared an outlaw by both the state and Mecklenburg County. This meant Harris could be shot on sight by any person, whether they were law enforcement or not. Johnson tried to make the best out of a frightening situation.

Harris was only interested in drinking his whiskey. Around 11:30 pm, Harris/Harvey tried to grab Pearl. Johnson yelled for him to leave her alone. Harris/Harvey turned on Johnson and reached for his rifle. Johnson ran out the front door and fell off the porch. Then he jumped up and ran for the police station.

Bruce Whitaker documents Fairview area genealogy. To get in touch with him, contact the Crier at [email protected] or 828-771-6983 (call/text).

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