A Bloody Night in Downtown Asheville, Part Three

by Bruce Whitaker

C aptain James Bailey fell to the sidewalk just as the fire bell at Asheville City Hall began to ring. He breathed for a minute as the men he had just deputized reached his side. He then died. Will Harris ran down South Main Street firing at everyone he saw. He shot into Pelham Drug Store and the Buffalo Saloon. A man staying at the Swannanoa Hotel raised his window to look out and see what was going on. Harris shot at him, chipping the windowsill and sending him to duck for cover.

A man from Haywood County, William Coyle, who was also spending the night at the Swannanoa Hotel, had taken a late-night walk around downtown. He was returning to the hotel when he met Harris in the street. Coyle broke into a run and Harris turned and fired at him twice. Lucky, he missed, firing in haste. Coyle was so frightened that he fell on the sidewalk. The bellboy at the Swannanoa Hotel ran out, grabbed Coyle by the legs, and dragged him to safety inside the hotel.

Harris reached the bend in South Main just before Hillard Street and turned to the left. At the time, this area was wooded, and Harris was able to escape in the darkness. He left behind four dead men and another dying in the doorway. The fire bell rang loudly, calling the town to arms.

Police Chief Si Bernard picked up his phone at home. “Chief,” the caller shouted. “This is Allison! A man just shot and killed Blackstock and Bailey and wounded Captain Page! All hell has broke loose up here!” Bernard hung up and ran out into the night. He ran three-quarters of a mile back to the police station.

He found a crowd gathering on the Square, responding to the alarm bells. People were frightened and angry. He entered the police station and demanded to be filled in on what had happened. He sent officers to Pearl Maxwell’s apartment to bring her in for questioning. He told them to take Blackstock’s body to Hare’s funeral home.

Bernard went back out on the Square, where Bailey’s body lay on the sidewalk. Over a hundred men had already gathered. Chief Bernard resolved on the spot to spare no effort to capture the man who had killed two police officers and three other men.

The officers returned from Pearl Maxwell’s apartment. They said the woman had fled but they found a half-empty quart bottle of whiskey on a table. Chief Bernard asked his lifelong friend, Dr. Owen Smith, to go tell the dead officer’s wives what had happened. Dr. Smith refused. “You ought to get someone closer to them,” he said. Chief Bernard said, “No, I want a medical man. They might need help.” Dr. Smith reluctantly agreed. He left with a uniformed officer to perform the terrible task. Chief Bernard knew there would be no sleep that night. The crowd of restless men on the Square was growing by the minute. Chief Bernard said, “Dammit! I won’t rest till we’ve caught that man!”

Bernard went out on the Square to organize a posse. The chief had forgotten to call Sheriff Henry Reed, who was home asleep. The crimes had occurred in the city where he was to uphold the law. Bernard wanted the job of running down the man who dared to commit them in his town.

Many of the men that had gathered on the Square were unarmed. They had responded to the bell not knowing what happened. One man said, “We can’t go after a mad man barehanded.” Harry Finkelstein stepped forward. “I have arms,” he said. “I have arms in my store yonder!” He led the crowd the short distance to his store. In the next 10 minutes, he handed out 50 firearms: rifles, shotguns and handguns. He also passed out boxes of ammunition.

The crowd wanted more guns. Someone mentioned Asheville Hardware on the corner of the Square where Bailey had died. Chief Bernard authorized the confiscation of the guns. Several men forced open the lock on the store. Just then, Claybrook James, the store’s manager, arrived. He turned over 25 guns and ammunition to the police chief, who passed them out.

Chief Bernard had 75 men armed to the teeth. He did not want them to run all over the countryside shooting everything that moved. He said, “First thing, men, we’ve got to seal off the town. I want armed men on every bridge, at every road leading out of town. I want patrols combing those areas where he might slip through between guarded points. I want this town sealed off so tight a rat can’t get out.”

The chief gathered the armed men together. He gave each man his assignment. He sent two men to stop and check all traffic crossing the bridges. He sent men to block the road over Beaucatcher Mountain. He sent others to patrol the banks of the French Broad River. Men were sent to guard the railroad tracks where they crossed the river. The chief sent men to the north and others to south.

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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