Asheville Archives: Outrage over police shooting, 1923

SHOTS FIRED: On Feb. 10, 1923, The Asheville Citizen ran a cartoon by Billy Borne, depicting R.L. Fitzpatrick, commissioner of public safety, enthusiastically promoting the use of guns to stop traffic violators. The illustration did not land well with the commissioner. Illustration from the Feb. 10, 1923, edition of The Asheville Citizen

In the early morning hours of Feb. 1, 1923, a party of six drove through downtown Asheville following a reception in Kenilworth. The driver, James A. Barnard, turned onto Valley Street when two men appeared in the road and began firing at the car. No one inside was injured.

Passenger John Will Hunnicutt, in subsequent testimony, identified the assailants as Asheville patrolmen W.M. Ponder and C.E. Neal.

The incident caused brief but intense outrage.

Initial testimonies

The headline of a Feb. 8, 1923, editorial raised the question: “A New Traffic Regulation?”

“On the whole, Asheville people are proud of the Police force, but there is arising a vigorous protest over the new policy which allows policemen to fire on automobiles when they fail to halt at command,” The Asheville Citizen wrote. “What authority is there … for firing upon men, women and children for who are formally charged with no offense? It seems to be a regular custom, although but recently adopted.”

The brief editorial went on to declare its doubt that either the city’s commissioner of public safety or its chief of police had permitted “this reckless and indefensible use of guns in the control of traffic.” But if such were the case, the paper continued, “automobile travel has developed another hazard in Asheville.”

The following day’s news offered a more detailed account of the Feb. 1 incident. City commissioners, The Asheville Citizen reported, had held an inquiry into the shooting, with testimony from several of the individuals in the car, as well as residents on Valley Street.

According to the article, Hunnicutt testified “the firing kept on and we then drove as fast as we could.” He went on to claim a bullet hit the rear of the car, penetrating its metal, 2-inch oak post and glazing a piece of metal lodged in the upholstering.

Barnard offered similar statements, asserting that he only began speeding after shots were fired.

Both men denied anyone in their party had been drinking. (Subsequent reporting made it a point to note the two unnamed women in the car were “of well known families and whose reputations [were] above reproach.”) When asked why they didn’t stop when they saw the police flashing lights, Hunnicutt alluded to racial fears, noting that the Valley Street neighborhood was “inhabited by negroes.”

Meanwhile, Theodore Burroughs, a young Black man, was on foot with a friend during the incident. He testified to seeing bullets fly past them. He also stated that the officers had approached them and said, “Shooting nice wasn’t it boys.”

Arthur Lytle, a resident of Valley Street, also testified. When asked about the number of shots fired, he stated, “The pistols were shooting pretty fast.”

The officers’ attorney, J. Scroop Styles, claimed all six occupants of the car could be found guilty for resisting an officer’s command. He also maintained that they had committed assault, asserting they had attempted to injure the officers with their vehicle.

Attorney William A. Sullivan, representing Barnard, called for the officers to be removed from the police force.

Neither patrolman testified. The board, the article concluded, “would take the matter under advisement.”

‘Pitiable spectacle’

In the next day’s paper, The Asheville Citizen ran a cartoon by Billy Borne, depicting R.L. Fitzpatrick, commissioner of public safety, enthusiastically promoting the use of guns to stop traffic violators. The illustration did not land well with the commissioner.

“Never have I given orders to policemen to fire upon speeding automobiles,” he told the paper in a Feb. 11, 1923, article.

Within that same story, The Asheville Citizen informed readers that patrolman Neal was involved with the Ku Klux Klan. When Fitzpatrick was asked about this revelation, the commissioner claimed to not remember who had “recommended that Neal be made an officer.”

The commissioner’s objection to the cartoon continued in the form of a letter, published in the Feb. 12, 1923, edition of The Asheville Citizen.  In it, Fitzpatrick called the illustration “a deliberate attempt on the part of the paper to force into the minds of the Asheville public … that I … have instructed the police force to fire on speeders and joy riders.”

The commissioner continued, “It is a pitiable spectacle when a big newspaper, a semi-public institution, so debases itself as to make up and distribute so base a lie as the cartoon implies.”

He concluded his missive with a promise that once all facts were known, the matter would be handled appropriately and the public would be informed.

The Asheville Citizen ran an editorial in the same day’s print to clarify its stance on the ongoing investigation. The piece’s opening began with the following statement:

“In its discussion of the right of policemen to fire into passing automobiles, The Citizen has sought to lay emphasis on the principle involved and to avoid as far as possible personalities; the principle involved overshadows any personality in the case. If this complainants’ contentions are true and the patrolmen are upheld by the Commissioners, then all former precedents for the security of life disappear: officers may be expected to fire upon anyone who refuses to obey orders, or to shoot without giving orders, regardless of the offense charged or suspected.”

The editorial went on to report that a similar shooting had occurred in January. In this instance, a man was wounded by a bullet.

“There was subsequently a hearing on the petition of the wounded man for damages from the city,” the editorial noted. “The request was denied, but no statement was made to show whether the Commissioners held the officer justifiable or not; conflicting rumors surrounding the affair were not cleared up.”

Furthermore, the editorial continued, the motorists involved in the Feb. 1 incident asserted “that they made complaint to the Chief of Police and were asked not to press the matter.”

The editorial concluded its piece condemning the Police Department for not speaking out against the shootings. “Silence,” the paper wrote, “may sometimes reasonably be construed as consent.”

‘A lawless spirit’

Along with both the Feb. 12 editorial and the commissioner’s letter to the editor, the paper also ran a letter from Hunnicutt, one of the passengers involved in the Feb. 1 shooting.

In his piece, Hunnicutt opined that the “level-headed, foresighted men” who once donned police uniforms had been replaced by “a lawless spirit, similar to that of our ancient outlaws.”

THE KU KLUX KLAN: The white supremacy group was first reported in Western North Carolina in 1868. This photo, taken in 1922, shows members of the organization with members of the Asheville police and fire departments. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Special Collections

He raised several concerns about the way the city’s department operated. He claimed that in other cities a policeman’s worth was determined by how he conducted himself and managed stressful situations. “But in Asheville a policeman will not be permitted to remain on the force long unless he makes arrests.”

Hunnicutt also asserted that Prohibition had made officers over zealous in their quest to capture bootleggers.

Citing North Carolina law, Hunnicutt pointed to State v. Sigman, 106, N.C., 128, where the court wrote:

“Where a person charged only with a misdemeanor flies from the officer to avoid arrest, the latter is not authorized to take life or shed blood in order to make the arrest. Under such circumstances, if he kills, he will at least be guilty of manslaughter and he will be guilty of assault if no actual injury is inflicted, if he uses such force as would have amounted to manslaughter had death ensued.”

Hunnicutt’s letter concludes with his ambivalent thoughts on the Ku Klux Klan. He argued that until recently the organization was a force for good, filling in when the law proved inefficient or careless. But in current times, he argued, the group’s respectability had waned, citing his own experience with patrolman Neal.

“Today we see the whole K.K.K. with all of its city governmental pull, turning every stone in order that one of its members might escape without the answering to the law for the atrocities committed by one of its members in the recent shooting at a party on Valley Street, of which party I was a member,” Hunnicut wrote. “The K.K.K. is evidently not satisfied with running its organization, but must run the city government of Asheville, and that in accordance with the best interests of the K.K.K.”

Hunnicutt concluded his letter with a question: “Are we going to sit back and see the conditions grow continually worse, or are we going to call a showdown, and readjust our tactics and city government?”

Decision time

In the Feb. 13, 1923, edition of The Asheville Citizen, the paper reported on the case’s second hearing. This time around, both officers did testify. While on the stand, Neal stated that he and Ponder “were looking for a liquor car” when they “saw the machine coming toward us at a rate of about 40 or 60 miles.”

He went on to assert both officers flashed their lights, but the driver made no effort to stop. “I fired six shots at the tires of the car,” Neal stated. “If Mr. Ponder had stood his ground, he would have been run over and killed. Mr. Ponder did not have time to pull his gun.”

Three days later, on Feb. 15, 1923, The Asheville Citizen reported that the board of city commissioners had indefinitely suspended officer Neal (spelled in this article as “Neill”) for his role in the shooting.

“Chief Messer was then instructed to relieve Neill of his badge,” the paper wrote. Patrolman Ponder, the paper continued “was exonerated of any blame in connection with the affair.”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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