Floyd Allen And The Hillsville Courthouse Massacre

Old Carroll County Courthouse
Old Carroll County Courthouse, Hillsville VA
Photo: National Register of Historic Places

It started with a kiss and ended with a courtroom shootout. Five people died, and seven were wounded. A year and two weeks later, Floyd Allen and his son Claude were executed in Virginia’s electric chair for the courthouse murders.

The kiss lit the fuse on a pre-existing political powder keg. Two of Floyd’s nephews, Wesley and Sidna Edwards, were at a corn shucking when Wesley kissed a rival’s girlfriend. Tradition held that if a young man shucked a red ear of corn, he got to kiss the girl of his choice. Corn shuckings were social events where neighbors pitched in to help each other, and it was typical for a jug of moonshine to pass among the men. Wesley, who had a reputation as a troublemaker, must have had one nip too many. He kissed a girl he should have left alone.

The next day, the girl’s boyfriend showed up at a church meeting with his brother and called Wesley out to fight. Wesley’s brother Sidna joined in the melee, and with the help of some brass knuckles, the Edwards boys prevailed. Charges were pressed against the Edwards boys. The boys who started the fight were not charged; the local State’s Attorney was a relative of theirs. The boys fled down the mountain to nearby Mt. Airy, NC, to escape prosecution.

A Politically Charged Event

The State’s Attorney was a Republican. The Allens were Democrats. Democrats had ruled in Carroll County, VA, since before the Civil War. Strong supporters of the Southern Cause during the war, the people of Carroll County hated Lincoln and his Republican party. Slowly, one election at a time, Republicans gained a foothold in the county.

The Allens had lived in Carroll County since the American Revolution. They were prosperous by local standards and politically influential. At the turn of the 20th Century, Floyd Allen was the patriarch of the Allen clan. Floyd was a county farmer, storekeeper, and sometimes Deputy Sheriff.

For all their power, the Allens had a reputation for feuding, law-breaking, moonshining, and violence. A dedicated moonshiner, he once brawled with revenue officers. In another instance, arguing over a barrel of brandy, he got into a gunfight with his brother Jack, leaving both wounded. In other instances, Floyd was charged with shooting a man in North Carolina and later shooting his cousin. Floyd was sentenced to a $100 fine and one hour in jail for wounding his cousin but refused to go, saying that he “would never spend a minute in jail as long as the blood flowed through his veins.”

Sidna and Wesley Edwards were eventually captured in Mt. Airy and brought back up the mountain to Hillsville to go to jail. Each was in a separate wagon driven by deputies. The wagons were intercepted by Floyd, who didn’t like the way his nephews were being treated. An altercation with the deputies ensued, and Floyd bested the deputies. Floyd was later charged with interfering with the deputies in the execution of their duties and arrested.

Fearing that Floyd would not be fairly tried by his political enemies, the Allens were determined that Floyd would not serve jail time. On the day of Floyd’s trial, the Allens filled the courtroom armed with pistols. Court officials, fearing trouble, also showed up armed. When Floyd was found guilty and sentenced to one year in jail, he rose and said, “Gentlemen, I just ain’t a-goin.” At that point, bullets began to fly. It is not clear who fired the first shot. Judge Thornton Massie, Sheriff Lewis Webb, State’s Attorney William Foster, juror C.C. Fowler, and witness Betty Ayers were killed.

Baldwin-Felts detectives in Death Special
Baldwin-Felts detectives in the armored vehicle Death Special
Photo: Public Domain

Manhunt, Trial, and Execution

Floyd Allen was wounded and escaped to a local hotel, where he was arrested. The remaining clan members fled into the hills. The Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency conducted a nationwide manhunt. The Allen Gang became a national media sensation, with the manhunt and subsequent trials the subject of newspaper articles in every major US city. All the clan members were eventually apprehended, including two captured in Des Moines, Iowa, six months later.

Floyd Allen and his son Claude were found guilty of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The sentence was carried out on March 28, 1913, in Richmond, VA.

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