Tuesday History: The Will Harris murders, part II

PACK SQUARE: Taken in 1910, the photo offers a good representation of what Pack Square would have looked like during the 1906 Will Harris murders. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

We continue with the 1906 coverage of the Will Harris murders, as reported by the The Asheville Gazette News. This week’s post begins at Pack Square. It is near midnight on Nov. 13, 1906. At the time, Will Harris has already killed three citizens and a police officer. Patrolman Bailey is seeking additional help against the gunman. Click here for last week’s piece.

The article is courtesy of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.

On Wednesday, Nov. 14, 1906, The Asheville Gazette News reported:

Murder of Mr. Bailey

After slipping across the square he [patrolman Bailey] took up a position behind a telephone pole in front of the hardware establishment. From this stand he fought it out with the desperado until one of the bullets from the Savage rifle [Harris’ weapon] pierced the 12-inch pole and entered Mr. Bailey’s left breast, and the officer sank to the ground dead.

After killing Mr. Bailey, the negro turned and started on the run down South Main street. He continued to fire at random and [at] several persons who poked their heads out of windows in an effort to ascertain what the trouble was… In front of the British-American club on South Main street Harris stopped long enough to fire at G. Spears Reynolds and two other gentlemen who, hearing the noise, had rushed down the steps, Mr. Reynolds being armed with a pistol. The bullet from Harris’ gun went close to Mr. Reynolds’ head.

Last Seen of Him

Harris continued his flight down South Main toward Biltmore. In front of Pelham’s pharmacy Harris fired through a plate glass window. Further on and almost in front of the Southern Express company’s office a man named Kelsey Bell, who roomed on the third floor, raised the window and looked out. He saw no one coming down the street, but turning saw Harris almost directly beneath him. At the same instant Harris saw Mr. Bell and throwing the gun to his shoulder fired. The bullet crashed through a pane of glass just over Mr. Bell’s head. Harris then ran on down the street and this was the last seen of him.

After Mr. Page had secured a supply of ammunition from the police department he hurried again to the square and found that Mr. Bailey had been killed. Chief of Police Bernard [not to be confused with Mayor Barnard], had just reached his home on Chestnut street, was notified over the telephone of the fight and he hastened to the city and took charge. At once realizing that quick action must be had if the negro was [to be] caught the chief sounded the riot alarm with the fire bell. Men hurriedly responded to the call, but delay was caused by lack of arms and ammunition. After a wait in an effort to secure arms the doors of the Asheville Hardware company were broken in and rifles and shotguns were secured. Claybrook James arrived on the scene shortly after this and gave his hearty approval of the course. Already a posse had been formed and men were on the track of the negro.

Posses formed

Shortly after posses were formed and [led] by Patrolman William and Police Captain Taylor and also Patrolmen Adams, Lyda, Williams and Lominac. The officers were sent to the mountains east of the city and all night searched the regions round about. Chief of Police Bernard endeavored to get into communication with Mayor Barnard over the telephone but the wires were crossed and no service could be had.

Railroad men prompt

Fearing that the negro would take to the railroad Chief Bernard called the dispatcher’s office of the Asheville division. B.O. Chapman, a dispatcher, was on duty there. He was quickly acquainted with the night’s horrible tragedy and asked to render assistance. And he did. Taking the matter into his own hands Mr. Chapman notified every station on the Asheville division requesting that all trains be searched. The railroad men — always foremost in times of need — responded manfully and every conductor and every trainman went through the trains, freight boxes and passenger coaches, on the lookout for the murderer. So thorough and so prompt were searches conducted that it is certain Harris has not departed by railroad. In addition to notifying all telegraph stations and all trainmen Mr. Chapman called a special train from Spartanburg to bring bloodhounds to Asheville. … The train pulled out of Spartanburg at 3 o’clock this morning and arriving at Tryon was forced to wait there until the bloodhound could be brought in from the country. The special pulled into the Biltmore yard at 6 o’clock this morning and the bloodhound was soon set to work.

Scenes on the Streets

At an early hour this morning the main streets of the city and Pack [S]quare were thronged with people. Men armed with rifles and shotguns found their way to police headquarters, ready and eager to go on a hunt for the desperate negro. For an hour or more Asheville resembled an armed city. It was about 8 o’clock that Deputy Sheriff Williams headed a posse. Some time before that hour, however, another posse went out. Men began gathering on horseback and at 10 o’clock Chief Bernard said that the several posses … numbered perhaps 200 men. The remains of Patrolman Bailey and Patrolman Blackstock and also the victim, Addison, had been removed to the undertaking establishment of Hare, Bard & Co. on South Main Street.

Henry Clay Blackstock, father of the dead police officer, and a resident of Flat Creek township, was notified of the tragic death of his son. He came to request that he be given charge of the body. He had hurried from his home, 10 miles in the country, with a plea from the dead officer’s mother that the remains of her boy be brought to her. The body of the dead officer was taken to Flat Creek this afternoon accompanied by an escort from the Odd Fellows lodge and members of the board of aldermen.

The Place of Death

At the undertaking establishment — a veritable place of death — hundreds of people found their way for a sorrowful view of the heroic dead. The dead officers had been placed on cots one in front of the other. They still wore their uniform of blue, and pinned to their breasts were their badges of rank. Their helmets were placed on the cots just behind them. Across from the cots on which lay the dead officers was the body of Ben Addison. He was shot in the eye. Patrolman Bailey was shot through the heart and also in the mouth. Patrolman Blackstock was shot through the heart.

Next week, we will continue with the city’s search for Will Harris.


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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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14 thoughts on “Tuesday History: The Will Harris murders, part II

  1. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    What kind of Savage rifle back then could penetrate a telephone pole with enough force to kill a man?

    • Pat

      Try rereading the article substituting in your head white man every time the word Negro shows up. I bet you’ll think it reads pretty weird. I’m hoping that the Xpress plans to do some real research on this. Because from this vantage point is very hard to tell what really was going on. If you read about these times you will quickly learn that the white population was very quick to demonize black people quickly gather posses/lynch mobs and take” justice” into their own hands. Two of the major newspapers in North Carolina relatively recently printed apologies for their behavior in the late 1800s when they whipped up a storm of racism that helped create the conditions that resulted in the Wilmington coup d’état. Not saying that this Harris person was the victim but I am saying that I don’t necessarily trust the newspapers of these times to be making any real effort at ensuring that black people were fairly treated by the press. So how about Xpress are you going to do more than just print the newspaper reports of the time?

      • Thomas Calder

        Pat, I agree with you. Part of the interest in these newspaper clippings is to give our readers a look at how the news was reported at specific periods in Asheville’s history. The points you raise are valid. I hope others will consider them. Perhaps it will lead to a thoughtful conversation about our city’s past.

      • Phil Williams

        I don’t think that this incident could have been considered a lynch mob or vigilante justice – the members of the posse that went after Will Harris were all deputized by the Chief of Police, Silas Bernard, and Harris was killed in an *Exchange* of gunfire. After that particular rampage, I don’t think that the race of the desperado would have mattered much to anyone. Admittedly though, there was racism in Asheville just as bad and prevalent as most anywhere else at the time, although I don’t think there was so much violence – most race-related ugliness in the mountains usually took the form of segregation, discrimination, slurs and insults rather than lynchings or physical attacks.

      • Thomas Calder

        Pat, I’ve received your emails. I’ve responded to them, but I continue to receive notifications that the emails are not going through. Have you received them? Thank you.

    • Phil Williams

      There were plenty of modern, high-powered, smokeless powder rifles available in 1906. I think the rifle was a Model 99 Savage (lever action, rotary magazine) chambered for .303 Savage, and Harris was using cartridges with fully jacketed bullets. This account is from the newspaper story written the day after, and doubtless was not complete. Bailey and Harris exchanged several shots, Bailey being armed with a .32 caliber revolver (he’d traded a .38 for it a short time before, because the .32 was lighter and more comfortable to carry). The shot that killed Patrolman Bailey went thru the pole, in thru Bailey’s mouth and out the back of his head, struck the Vance Monument, ricocheted into a nearby store window, ending up in a box of cigars.

      If I am not mistaken, Harris purchased the rifle and ammo at Harry Finkelstein’s Loan Office – the rifle was presented to the family of either Patrolman Bailey or Patrolman Blackstock – and I believe the descendants have it to this day.

  2. Pat

    As I said in my previous post I am not claiming that Harris was a victim. Rather I am just noting the racism of the reporting. This particular expression of racism continued at least into the1960s. Any person accused of a crime who was black was always described as a Negro every time they were mentioned usually, where as no white suspects/criminals were described as Caucasians. Given that racism I think it’s important that we look hard at the rest of that “historical record”. The enthusiasm for chasing down black criminals may well have been inspired not just by the heinousness of the crime. I suspect there was a fair amount of racist motivation that added to this particular enthusiasm. As to the being very few violent expressions of racism in the mountains I wonder if you’re aware of what happened at in Spruce Pine. As I understand it there was a rape committed by an escaped black forced laborer convict. I forget if he was killed (however though I’ve yet to find written corroboration I Heard When I worked at Penland School of Crafts that other prisoners in that same ” chain gang” were killed in response to that crime and they are are buried somewhere on the Penland property. This may have been a tall tale but the person telling it would have reason to know and wasn’t given to storytelling. The major outcome however was an extreme case of ethnic cleansing and this was corroborated in the 90s by the DA for that part of Western North Carolina. He wrote a book that revisited that event. Basically all of the black residents of Mitchell County were driven out of the County at gunpoint and not allowed to return. This is not the only place in the South where this occurred it also occurred in a County adjacent to Atlanta and there are other examples of ethnic cleansing that occurred in the South. Perhaps the Xpress can do an article about that event sometime?

    • Phil Williams

      Mr. Pat, I understood your point, and agree with most of it – and I never said that there were “no” instances of racially motivated violence in the mountains – there were, however, comparatively few incidents simply because of the demographic – the black population in most WNC towns and counties was very small compared to other parts of NC and the South in general – this was largely because there were very few large plantations in the western part of the State and, consequently, very few blacks. And I agree – that absolutely does not excuse anything or make it less wrong – the racism was there – there just weren’t as many people of other races to perpetrate it against. Our worst acts of racial injustice in the Mountains took place beginning in 1776 with General Griffith Rutherford’s “punitive expedition” against the Cherokee and culminating in the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and the Trail of Tears.

      My point was that this particular crime was unprecedented in Asheville. This was not a case of a mob trying to harass or lynch a black man who had whistled at a white girl or stole a pig or killed someone in a knife fight. 3 black citizens and 2 white peace officers were murdered in the space of an hour, and a posse was formed and deputized, and arms issued – there was coordination across the State in acquiring bloodhounds – Southern RR even dispatched a “Helper” engine to pick up the dogs. Ironically, Harry Finkelstein, who had sold Harris the rifle that was used in the murders, issued out almost the entire stock of his pawn shop to posse members (and got every one of them back afterwards).

      I don’t think it would have mattered if Harris had been white – the alarm and manhunt would likely have been just as great in this case, and the shootout at the end would likely have had the same result. It was also unusual in that the posse was made up largely of businessmen, prominent citizens, and a few notable out of towners, including John Roebling, II, originally of NYC (Mr. Roebling was the grandson/son of the men who designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge!). Nothing much was ever confirmed about Will Harris’ actual identity and previous life – it was assumed that he must have either served in the military or spent a lot of time as a hunter or guide, because of his skill with a rifle.

  3. Phil Williams

    There are a couple of books, both by the late Mr. Bob Terrell, which have excellent and detailed accounts of the Will Harris incident – and much of Mr. Terrell’s information came from interviews with actual participants, several of whom were still alive when Mr. Terrell did his research. They are “The Will Harris Murders” (published 1996 by Land of the Sky Books) and “Grandpa’s Town: Asheville at the Turn of the Century” (published 1997 by WorldComm).

  4. Pat

    Phil thanks for the ongoing civil discourse. Wish it were more common in our culture. And I is much as you agree with most of what I said don’t disagree with you particularly at all. I wouldn’t disagree that there isn’t as much evidence of acts of racism that I know of in the mountains. But I have been struck by the virulence and totality of the Spruce Pine response to one black man’s apparent crime. And by the difficulty of learning exactly what happened. I’m also struck that we don’t know much about Harris. I will confess that I don’t know what the norms of early 20th century reporting were. They may have been very different from how stories are reported now. For sure nowadays people would want to know what motivated this crime spree. Given the standard racism that was evident in the article I can’t help but wonder if Harris’s race inclined the media to be less interested in the back story. Our nation was and is still heavily impacted by entrenched racism (note despite my best conscious efforts I do not exclude myself from this indictment) and although I readily concur that it seems likely that Harris was a dangerous violent man I also suspect that the racism of the time means that we will never get the complete history. If only because black people were not afforded equal treatment with regards to tracking with birth certificates etc. And yes I am sure that a white man committing that many murders would be tracked down and if he resisted shot on site. I also agree that the racist treatment (illegal treatment as determined by our own Supreme Court) Of All of the Southern Indians including Cherokee is a prime example of severe racial injustice. This policy may well have been a purely altruistic civic minded posse that would’ve acted similarly towards a white person who committed such crimes but given my understanding of the history I can’t help but expect that racism added some extra sealed to many of those who wrote out in pursuit of Harris. And that can help but make me wonder if Harris once he committed the first killing for whatever reason decided that he had no chance and it is best course was to kill as you to and or to escape. He would’ve been well justified in expecting a less than fair trial and judgment/sentence no matter what the circumstances of the first shooting. But all of this is speculation of course and no matter how racism impacted Harris’s actions the results still all these horrible death and so many family deprived of their beloved.

    • Phil Williams

      Yes, unfortunately, the prevailing mindset in much of the US at the time (not only in the South) was that black people were generally less “developed” than whites, that the “good” blacks were like happy peasants easily satisfied with basic food, shelter and a little spending money, and that the “bad” ones couldn’t “hold their liquor”, obsessed about sex, and had violent temperaments. In those days it was easy to lose yourself and assume a new identity, news traveled slowly, and many folks, black and white, didn’t have formal birth certificates, tax records, etc. Harris was “just a bad negro” to the folks of 110 years ago and I reckon they just dropped it at that.

  5. Pat

    Please note my previous comment had a serious voice to text errors my apologies for not catching it
    these sentences are the correct version: These posses may well have been a purely altruistic civic minded posses that would’ve acted similarly towards a white person who committed such crimes but given my understanding of the history I can’t help but expect that racism added some extra zeal to the purpose of many of those who rode out in pursuit of Harris. And that suspicion leads me to wonder if once Harris committed the first killing he decided he had no chance and that his best course was to kill as needed in order to escape. Not to say that would be an excusable position but to wonder if racism helped to define the extent of this tragedy Sorry! The way the comment box scrolled I missed that I had and proof read this part when I posted

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