Thelma is an award-winning writer living in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She enjoys writing about rural America, especially Appalachia.
Hillsville, Virginia: Neighbor of "Mayberry"
Many people dream of living in a peaceful town like Mayberry, the fictional location of the 1960s TV series The Andy Griffith Show. Most fans believe Mayberry was fashioned after Andy Griffith's hometown, Mount Airy, North Carolina.
The term "a Mayberry kind of place" has become a well-known description for a small, rural town with friendly people and no crime. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case for the town of Hillsville, Virginia, which is just across the Virginia/North Carolina border, about 20 miles north of Mount Airy.
Mountain Man Floyd Allen and His Problems With the Law
The sleepy little town of Hillsville, with a population of 500 in 1912, hardly seemed like the setting for a massacre. However, if you wandered off the beaten path and ventured up into the surrounding mountains, you would have found moonshine stills flourishing in the age of prohibition, when alcohol was banned.
Families learned the art of making "shine" from their ancestors and had been producing it for generations. The Allen family was an example of this mountain culture.
Floyd Allen was the head of the clan and this story centers around his "run-in with the law" (as the mountain folks refer to it). Floyd's nephews had gotten into a fight at a corn husking bee on a Saturday night and then resumed the fight in church the next morning.
The police were in the process of arresting the boys for fighting and interrupting a church service when Uncle Floyd stepped in to prevent his nephews from going to the "pokey" (mountain slang for jail). Floyd was charged with assault and battery and for interfering with the police. These charges were relatively minor and could have been simply dealt with in an orderly fashion.
However, the end result of Floyd's interference in his nephews' skirmish with the law was five people dead and several wounded!
Swore He Would Never Spend a Night in Jail
Floyd Allen was a tough old mountaineer and a force to be reckoned with. He was a wealthy man who carried a lot of political clout in the Democratic party of this rural mountain area in southwest Virginia.
He had been in several confrontations with the law but somehow always managed to avoid jail. Many thought his avoidance of incarceration was a result of his political connections and money. Others believed he intimidated the witnesses through threats to kill them, making them refuse to testify against him.
He had been sentenced to one hour in jail and a $100 fine for shooting a man in the head. You would think he would be pleased at such a ridiculously lenient penalty, but he wasn't. He managed to get the governor to waive the one-hour jail time and legend says that he got the man who survived the head shot to pay the fine! But his luck ran out in March 1912.
"Old Floyd Allen ain't never been sent to prison yet. There ain't no judge or sheriff that's goin' to send him thar now."
— Washington Times, March 17, 1912 quote by Floyd Allen speaking about himself
All Hell Breaks Out in Courtroom
It was a cold, wet, foggy March morning in 1912 but despite the inclement weather, there were around 150 people in the courtroom. They were waiting anxiously to hear the jury's verdict in the Floyd Allen case of assault and battery and police interference.
Many of the spectators were Allen family and friends who were stationed at various spots in the room. Unfortunately, most of them, including Floyd, were packing heat (armed with guns).
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At 8:30 that morning, the jury returned to the courtroom and the foreman read the verdict: "Guilty as charged with a recommended sentence of a $1,000 fine and one year in jail." Then Mr. Allen stood up and faced the judge and said, "Gentlemen, I just ain't a-going."
Then all hell broke loose and what happened in the next 90 seconds is still a matter of debate today. A rain of bullets came down in the courtroom with smoke from the guns so thick that you could hardly see. The end result was three people dead—the judge, the Commonwealth Attorney and the sheriff.
Two others had been shot and would soon die—the jury foreman and a 19-year-old girl who had testified against Allen. There were also five others wounded, including Floyd Allen.
Execution of Father and Son
Allen and six of his relatives lived to stand trial. While awaiting his trial, Allen made a statement to the Washington Times that he would never go to prison. That would prove not to be true.
On March 28, 1913, after three failed attempts for a stay of execution, Floyd Allen was electrocuted for his part in the Carroll County Massacre. Just eleven minutes after his death, his son Claud was also executed. They became the 47th and 48th people to die in Virginia's electric chair.
The controversy surrounding the courthouse shootout and the subsequent death penalties stems from the unanswered question of who really fired the lethal shots. Floyd and his son were convicted for the deaths.
However, there were many conflicting reports from those in the courtroom that day. Due to the melee of over 50 shots being fired and the chaos caused by people scattering to save their lives, no one could possibly really know. The dead were buried with the bullets still in their bodies and not much of an investigation took place.
Interesting Side Note That Can't Be Confirmed or Denied
Today in Hillsville, people are sometimes hesitant to talk about the incident. It stands to reason the community leaders prefer to dwell on the positive features of the area instead of the town's black mark in history.
There are hundreds of descendants of the Allens still living in the mountains of southwest Virginia, as well as families of those murdered during the massacre. Mountain people are sometimes known to be clannish, especially when it comes to talking about one of their own. Even though I am a mountain girl from the Appalachian region, these are some of the obstacles I ran into while researching this story.
Stories have been embellished and facts twisted since the shootout. I discovered many conflicting accounts and, at times, found it hard to distinguish between fact and legend. It is known that mountain folks enjoy telling a good yarn, as a story is called in the mountains. This one has been handed down for over a century, which lends itself to the reality of some of the truths being distorted.
Much of my research was conducted at the Mt. Airy Regional History Museum, where I discovered an interesting side note that I can neither verify nor prove false. However, the more I learn about the Allen clan, the more I believe this could have happened. The story goes that a carved wooden plaque at the gravesite of the father and son had the following strong message, describing them as being "judicially murdered":
"Sacred to the Memory of Claude S. Allen and His Father who were judicially murdered in the Va. Penitentiary March 28, 1913, by order of the Governor of the State over the protest of 100,000 Citizens of the State of Va."
Although the marker cannot be found at the grave location and there are no known pictures of it, the legend explains that it disappeared. Rumors are that its removal was part of a plea agreement Floyd Allen's brother made to get himself an early release from prison.
Floyd and his son Claud are buried in Wisler Cemetery in the community of Cana, Virginia, approximately eight miles north of "Mayberry" (Mt. Airy).
Questions & Answers
Question: Is this article about a true story?
Answer: Yes, it is completely true. Thanks for reading my article!
© 2015 Thelma Raker Coffone