Tuesday History: Police chief reflects on Will Harris murders, 66 years afterwards

ASHEVILLE POLICE: J.L. Ballenger stands on the left. He was ordered to accompany the bloodhound on the night of the Will Harris murders. Capt. John Page stands in the middle. Page was shot in the right arm on the night of the Will Harris murders, but survived. Also featured in this photo is E. M. Lyda. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

On March 27, 1972, former Asheville Chief of Police (1905-1907), Silas G. Bernard, sent a 10-page letter to local attorney John C. Cheeseborough recounting the events of the night of the Will Harris murders, and the subsequent manhunt. Bernard was 96 years old when he composed the letter.

Below are excerpts from Bernard’s written recollection. For those interested in reading the letter in its entirety, visit the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Public Library (ID number MS047.002C).

The document, dated March 27, 1972 begins:

I never got around to complying with your request that I invite you to my office some Saturday morning and tell you the facts with regard to the slaying of two policemen and three colored men in Asheville by one colored man the night of November 12th 1906, all within a few minutes.

The chief reason for my failure to comply with your request is the fact that I could not tell you the real facts without making it appear that I was almost the sole actor in the effort to capture the murderer. I was Chief of Police of Asheville at the time and the duty of capturing the murderer naturally fell upon me. I have decided to overrule my hesitancy to relate the facts of the foregoing incident to you even if it does appear that I am boasting about an accomplishment of mine.

Bernard notes that, “You must view Asheville in the year 1906 as a large town, rather than as a city such as Asheville is today.” He characterizes the series of killings as “the worst event that ever happened in Asheville.” Bernard received a phone call near midnight at his home on Chestnut and Charlotte streets. Mr. Allison, the night janitor at City Hall, informed the chief about the shootings. With no available transportation, Bernard returned to his office by foot. He writes:

When I reached my office in the police [illegible] room in the City Hall and was told all that was known, I went to the point where [policeman] Bailey was shot and saw him lying dead on the ground. I resolved never to spare any effort to overtake the murderer of two fine officers and, at that time, two law abiding colored men. [A third dead citizen would be discovered later that night.]

I directed some men to carry Bailey’s body to Hare & Company’s Mortuary, a short distance down south main street, and retired to my office followed by quite a number of men. There was among the men in my office a boyhood friend, Dr. Owen Smith. I asked Dr. Smith to please go and tell the widow wives of the two policemen what had happened to their husbands. Dr. Smith objected to the assignment, but yielded.

At this time a colored man in the room spoke loud enough [illegible] to be heard and said he knew where there was a fine bloodhound. I asked the man where, and he replied down in Polk County, near Tryon…

After a series of delays, the bloodhound arrived by train. It was brought to the site of Bailey’s murder to acquire the scent of the gunman. The dog was accompanied by its unnamed handler and two officers, “Policeman Ballenger and another policeman whose name I do not remember,” Bernard notes.

His letter continues:

From that point the bloodhound led the three men down across Valley street to the mountain east of Asheville. Thence up the mountain crossing a barbwire fence near the top of the mountain. The top of the fence post showed that frost there had been disturbed. The bloodhound led the men following down the east side of the mountain toward Kenilworth Inn. The bloodhound crossed south main street just north of the bridge over the Swannanoa River at Biltmore.

At this point Ballenger called me on the telephone and asked me to send three saddle horses, that the bloodhound was running so fast it was difficult for them to keep up with her. I sent the horses without delay because I had them ready standing in front of the City Hall.

Snow would eventually fall, causing the bloodhound to lose its scent of the killer. Bernard then reports receiving two phone calls. The first came from a citizen who spotted a gunman running from a church. The second call arrived from the Biltmore Railroad Station’s night watchman, “who told me that he had just seen a man with a gun run from an empty freight car standing near the station toward the Swannanoa River.”

A series of false starts led to no results. Then a third phone call came. Below is the letter’s final two pages:

The caller said that the posse had dispersed. I did not understand said information. Just then the man said that they had found “him.” I heard shooting. I heard nothing more from the merchant. My telephone rang and my caller said he was the railway agent at Fletcher, North Carolina, and that the murderer was lying dead on the floor of his office.

I told the man to keep the man there until the proper officer issued a necessary death certificate. Also that Sheriff Reed said I would be there as soon as horses could bring us.

Sheriff Reed and I met a wagon a short distance this side of Skyland a wagon drawn by two mules and with the dead murderer lying in the wagon.

The sheriff and I took positions immediately behind the wagon and followed it into Asheville.

I told the Sheriff to alight from his horse and get behind the men [illegible] carrying the murderer to the upstairs funeral home and I would stay on my horse just in case W.B. [a citizen, identified here for the first time and without any further detail] and his followers should try to get possession of the dead man.

Believe it or not, that is just what happened. I rode my horse up on the sidewalk, caught W.B. by his left shoulder, turned him around facing me. I told W.B. that enough people had lost their lives at the will of the man, so you “beat it down the street.” W.B. said “I will do whatever you say.” W.B. went down south main street and his gang followed.

This should have been the end, but it was not.

After dark and after calling my newspapers, I caught a street car and got off at [illegible] and North Market Street. As I walked toward my office and as I passed the southwest corner of [illegible] building, I saw a number of men standing in front of the west [? entrance] to the city market. The men were standing in a [? closed] circle with their heads down street like [illegible] ball players receiving instruction for the next play.

I turned and walked over to where the men were standing. I [illegible] spoke to the men and not one of them spoke to me. The [? leader] of the group, W.B. and his gang commenced leaving one at a time until all of them had gone and I [? returned] to my office.

Yours truly

S G Bernard

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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