by Bruce Whitaker
Chief Bernard was receiving reports of Will Harris sightings from all over Buncombe County. Harris was seen near Fletcher. A man from Swannanoa saw him crossing a pasture there. Someone saw him coming out of a church in Alexander with a gun in his hand, and Dr. Clontz told Sheriff Reed that this eyewitness was reliable. Reed gathered up a posse and headed toward Alexander. Policeman Earl Hall was told to take another policeman and go to the Asheville side of the railroad track and watch for Harris, in case he came back south toward Asheville.
The entire county was up in arms. All roads in and out of Asheville were being watched by armed men. Bands of men were searching every valley and hill in the county armed to the teeth. The militia gathered in front of the Buncombe County courthouse awaiting orders. Bernard believed there were enough armed men roaming the county and was afraid they might open fire on each other. Bernard told the militia commander to hold his men in the Opera House in case they were needed to guard Harris if he was brought back alive. The militia commander was not pleased with his orders. He told Bernard there was a “fat chance” of that happening, but he reluctantly followed orders.
Searching for an Outlaw
James H. Caine, the editor of the Asheville Citizen, heard that Judge O. H. Allen had declared Harris an “outlaw.” He called the judge to ask what exactly that meant. Caine quizzed Judge Allen for several minutes. He then sat at his typewriter and wrote a story about what the judge had told him. The article appeared on the front page of the paper the next morning (November 15, 1906).
Chief Bernard returned to his office after his meeting with the judge. He looked out the window as large snowflakes began to fall. The snow fell hard for an hour and was soon three inches deep on Pack Square. The chief knew the bloodhounds would not be able to follow the criminal’s trail in the snow.
Bernard had not slept in 30 hours and was almost asleep when John A. Roebling III came in. His grandfather, John Roebling, Sr., had designed the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling and two men had been searching the Olivette section. Roebling told the chief that he was convinced Harris was in the Olivette section. He asked for some more men to help with the search.
Before the chief could respond, Will Penland came in with a young man. Penland said he caught the man, Dennis Wilson, going door to door on Montford Avenue wearing a fake police badge. Penland said he was telling all the women on the street not to come out of their house until 2 pm. Chief Bernard asked Wilson what he was doing that for. Wilson said he just did it. Bernard told Penland to put Wilson in jail. The chief was in no mood for any foolishness. Patrolman Ballenger and Dr. Smith came in. They said they wouldn’t be able to track Harris until it stopped snowing. Bernard told them to get some sleep and continue the search in the morning. He told Roebling to check back with him in the afternoon.
Harris had doubled back to Biltmore. He apparently stayed there instead of crossing the Swannanoa River to the Biltmore Estate. He was familiar with the Biltmore area and hid there until around midnight. Chief Bernard got a phone call around that time from the night watchman at the Biltmore Station, who said he just saw a man with a gun jump from an empty freight car and run toward the river.
Bernard called the night station of the Asheville Street Car Company and told them to send a streetcar to Pack Square. The chief put the bloodhound and its trainer in the streetcar, along with a load of armed men. The streetcar hurried to Biltmore, and the hound picked up the sent immediately but lost it at the river. The streetcar brought the men back to Pack Square, and the majority of the men returned home. A few went back to Biltmore in hopes of shooting Harris and getting the reward.
Around 5 am, Fred Jones and Bailes Gasperson came back to the police station. Bernard told them to go back to Biltmore to the place where the bloodhound lost the sent. He hoped they could find Harris’s tracks in the snow. They searched along the river, and finally, Jones found footprints leaving the river going south. They followed the footprints.
Around that time at Buena Vista (near present-day Crowfields), George Frady went into Tom Stevens’s barn to milk the cows. He surprised Harris, who was sleeping in the hay. Harris pointed a rifle at Frady, who rapidly backed out of the barn, and fled. Jones and Gasperson arrived a short time later, and Frady told them they had just missed Harris. Jones called Chief Bernard and told him, “He’s here! He threatened this man with his rifle and ran into the woods heading south. You might alert the posses out that way.” Around noon, the two posses converged on an area bordering the Westfeldt estate in Fletcher near the Henderson County line. The posses put themselves under the command of Frank M. Jordan, a former chief of police in Asheville and at that time special agent for Southern Railway.
Jordan told the men to “keep cool.” There was no hurry. Among the posse members were Dr. Lloyd Russell, N.B. Baldwin, Harry M. Roberts and C.W. Gasperson, all from Fletcher. They first spotted Harris in a laurel thicket on the Robert Blake estate. They fired two shots in the air and begin closing in. James Caine, editor of the Asheville Citizen, spotted Harris as he crossed the road. Standing on the porch of a house next to Cunningham’s Store, Caine pulled his revolver and fired at Harris three times as he ran for a laurel thicket on the Westfield Estate. Harris fired one shot at Caine but missed. He then plunged into the thicket. “All right!” Jordan yelled. “We’ve got him. Carefully now. Close the horsemen in. Dr. Russell, take your men around to the rear to close the backdoor. Quickly now. The rest of you—those on foot—form a V and follow me.”
Slowly, carefully, guarding against unnecessary exposure, the posse closed in. Harris fired at Jordan and missed. Jordan held his fire for fear of hitting one of his men circling behind Harris. Harris fired at Horace Wells and Jim Miller, who were riding toward him in a buggy. They jumped out of the buggy and returned fire. Harris emerged from the thicket on the back side, squarely into the guns of Dr. Russell’s men. The four men fired in haste and missed. Harris drove Gasperson behind a stump with a close shot. Dr. Russell fired at Harris with his shotgun and hit him in the side of the head with bird shot, knocking him down. Harris managed to get up and plunge into the thicket again. The entire posse opened fire on the thicket, more than 500 rounds. “Cease fire!” Jordan yelled.
They waited out of caution to make sure Harris was dead, then they closed in very carefully. And Harris was dead, sprawled on the ground with over 100 bullets in him. Jordan looked down at the bullet-riddled body. He said, “No cheering. He is dead.” He checked his watch. It was fifteen minutes past noon.
The phone rang at Chief Bernard’s office. Jordan told him, “The murderer is dead. He is lying on the floor of my office.”
“Thank you,” Bernard said. “Sheriff Reed and I will be there as soon as a horse can bring us.” Bernard stepped out onto the street. Seeing Sheriff Reed, he yelled, “They’ve got him, Henry. Let’s go bring him in.” Reed and Bernard got on their horses and headed for Fletcher. The nightmare was finally over.
My connection to these events is that I have several pieces of Frank Jordan’s furniture in my house.
To read the first four parts of this story, go to fairviewtowncrier.com, click on “SECTIONS,” then “DAYS GONE BY.”
Bruce Whitaker documents Fairview-area genealogy. To get in touch with him, contact the Crier at [email protected] or 828-771-6983 (call/text).