Historian and Author Tom Perry's thoughts on history and anything that comes to mind.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shootout on Fayette Street

Gunfire erupted on May 17, 1886, in Martinsville, Virginia, in one of the largest gunfights ever recorded on the east coast. This shootout ended with nine shot and eventually three dead including an African-American bystander. It was just five years after Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the OK Corral, but that was thousands of miles away in frontier west town of Tombstone, Arizona. The shooting in Martinsville happened within sight of the Henry County Court House in the middle of a quiet southern town.

Aiken Summit along the Danville and Western Railroad was home to the Terrys. Their home, Marr’s Hill, and Terry’s Mountain were marks they left on the landscape of Henry County, Virginia, but in the late 1880s, tradition says their prospects were on the way down. The children of Parker and Mary King Terry lived on land literally granted them from colonial times. The Spencers were a family on the rise in the summer of 1886. Their home was Grassdale. These two families met as their lines of rise and descent crossed on the streets of Martinsville.

D. H. Spencer and Sons moved their tobacco operation to Fayette Street within site of the Henry County Court House. Their brands included Calhoun and Old Crow. The company was one of the first to make their own boxes for shipment. Peter Spencer was on the Martinsville Town Council. On May 8, 1886, the council heard complaints from two fertilizers agents, A. W. Hill and B. F. Barrow, who thought their annual license tax discriminated against their product. They did not get the two-thirds vote needed to change their bill with Mayor C. B. Bryant and “Colonel Peter” Spencer voting against them.

The Editor of the Henry News, J. T. Darlington, published an anonymous article that was an obvious satire of the meeting. The article written by local attorney William King Terry, who may have represented the fertilizer agents, made fun of Bryant and Spencer. On Saturday, May 15, Terry distributed a printed circular that was more critical of the two men. One author speculates that it looks like an “over reaction” or an “emotional” response by Terry that may indicate some existing bad blood between the Spencers and Terrys.

The following day, the story goes, May 16, a Sunday, Peter Spencer printed up his own poster comparing Terry to a jackass. John Hardin Pedigo, who apparently wrote for both sides, “ghost wrote” the poster. Attempts to destroy the posters were not completely successful as William Terry found one. “Finding himself effectively called an SOB, Will Terry was enraged.” This was a time of honor and reputation in the two decades since the end of the Civil War and with the recent death of his father, Terry could not ignore the slander. He lived in a local hotel in Martinsville and the small world the town would have been at that time made conflict and stirring the pot of controversy was good sport for some in those days as cable television sensationalizes today’s rumors and innuendo.

Terry distributed another circular. The printer, probably Darlington at the Henry News, certainly was busy. It read, “I have been attacked by some low contemptable scoundrel and midnight assassin, by the publication of an anonymous card. If however he will present himself he shall receive the chasetisement he so richly merits.”

On Monday, May 17, Terry learned that the Henry News printed Peter Spencer’s circular. He sent word to his brothers, Jake and Ben Terry, who soon arrived on the railroad in Martinsville. Noting the heightened tension, more “peace officers” than usual were present including the Sheriff, several deputies, two constables, and a town sergeant.

At 7 p.m., employees streamed out of the Spencer Tobacco plant on Fayette Street, where they worked sunrise to sunset. When Peter and John Spencer came out, William Terry called and asked Peter directly if he wrote the “horse card.” Peter answered that he did. Terry grabbed his pistol, but W. H. Werth grabbed Terry. John Spencer suggested that there were “other means for handling the dispute.” J. T. Darlington pointed out that the Spencers outnumbered the Terrys, as the Spencers had five gunmen present due to “prior arrangements.” Seeing the situation William Terry stepped away with Darlington.

As with all such situations it only takes one person to create a catastrophe and that person was Tarleton Brown. Smoke filled the air for about twenty-five feet around the entrance to the Spencer Tobacco Company. The Richmond Dispatch noted, “at least a dozen revolvers flashed in the air. The death dealing missiles flew thick and fast, rarely missing their prey. Every man stood his ground with nerve and grit.” Gilmore Dickinson shot Will Terry in the back “fifteen inches away.” Ben Terry shot Tarleton Brown after the latter fired at Jake Terry.

The shootout wounded nine people. All three Terry brothers were down. Jake died immediately, Will died after lingering several weeks and Ben, hit twice, once in the neck, recovered. Peter Spencer, shot in the ribs, survived for five years. Bystanders J. R. Gregory and an African-American Sandy Martin lost their lives.

Shot were “Peace Officers” Hugh N. Dyer and B. L. Jones. Hugh Nelson Dyer went on to become Roanoke Chief of Police and wrote a memoir of the event. Born on November 28, 1860, in Henry County, the son of W. C. Dyer, Hugh served as a Police Chief and Sergeant for five years in Martinsville. He went to Roanoke in 1889 and on December 20, 1893, became the Chief of Police. That same year he married Emma Hutchinson. He died on August 5, 1936, in Staunton and rests today in Roanoke’s Fairview Cemetery.

The Halifax Advertiser reported three days after the gunfight that, “Jake Terry was shot in the side and killed. Colonel P. D. Spencer was wounded in the right side, T. F. Brown shot painfully in the thigh, W. K. Terry shot in the left shoulder near the spinal column, Ben Terry shot in the bowels and neck, B. L. Jones painfully wounded in the thigh, Hugh Dyer shot in the thigh, two men by the name of Gregory were shot in the back accidentally, and a colored man by the name of Martin was shot in the thigh.”

The Henry News of June 24 reported testimony of Darlington this way. “J. T. Darlington: - There was a difficulty on Fayette Street on May 17, 1886. After the difficulty had progressed a very few seconds, shots being fired by other parties, I saw G. G. Dickinson, who was then standing about three feet in the rear of W. K. Terry. While in that position a pistol in Dickinson’s hand was fired, and W. K. Terry fell. This is about all I know.

Cross-examined by G. L. Richardson for Commonwealth: I afterward saw W. K. Terry; did not then examine his wound, but have done so since. I think the muzzle of the pistol was not more than fifteen feet… (I’m not sure whether the following is referring to W. K. Terry, but it seems appropriate) lower limbs are paralyzed. I think his condition critical. He has completely lost the use of his legs. The last time I saw him I could see no real improvement, but a perceptible loss of strength.”

The court fined Ben Terry $20 and costs for carrying a concealed weapon. A judge dismissed all other charges. The Terry daughters moved on top of Terry Mountain due to the shame of the shootout. None of the ten Terry children reportedly ever married.

This was the time of the Hatfields and McCoys in neighboring West Virginia, who had been feuding for three years when the gunfire erupted in Henry County. It was over a decade before the Allens shot up the Carroll County Court House in Hillsville. The story of the gunfight even reached the New York Times, which at least three separate stories about it including the gunfight, subsequent trial and an August 31, 1886 reporting the death of W. K. Terry, who lingered from May until his death the day before the article.

Lost in the story is the murder of a “young farmer,” R. H. Bowsman of “Horse Pasture,” in September that resulted in an indictment of J. V. Darlington, who apparently was still instigating in the matter, and a trial in November with the jury finding the latter not guilty. The newspaper reported that Darlington’s son and Bausman where “in difficulty.”

Another story reported on September 11, that a “large number of citizens of the county met and organized for the purpose of lynching Spencer, Brown, Dickerson and Darlington…The plan failed through one of the members of the band, who betrayed the whole thing. People of the town and county are considerably worked up over the affair. Nearly every man in the Martinsville has been sworn as a special officer. It is whispered around that the failure of the lynching plan is for a short time; the enraged citizens will eventually carry out their intentions.”

This a story that would not die even many locals wish it would. Years later a magazine writer, Hiram Herbert, wrote a story for Saga Magazine: Adventure Stories For Men. When no locals would talk with him other than Gus Dyer, the son of Hugh, Herbert resorted to sensationalizing the story by interjecting a romance between May Belle Spencer or Belle Spencer and Will Terry. There was no romance nor was there a Belle Spencer.

Born in on September 16, 1861, Tarleton F. Brown died on May 8, 1895, nearly a decade after the shootout on Fayette Street. After his death in 1895, and his wife Annie Eliza Brown (1862-1901) six years later, Henry Clay Lester and his wife Lucy “Big Lucy” Brown Lester, sister of Tarleton, raised her brother’s children Rives S. Brown, Lucy Brown “Little Lucy,” and Mattie T. Brown. The latter married George M. Andes and was the father the recently deceased Tarleton River Andes. When “Big Lucy” died she left the Lanier Farm to Rives Brown, Sr., and his sister, “Little Lucy.”

Rives Spotswood Brown, Sr. (1894-1957), a graduate of Randolph-Macon, became a prominent man of Martinsville. When Henry Clay Lester died in 1913, Brown took over management of the Lester’s business interest. On May 20, 1916, Brown married Cornelia Frances Gregory and they had a son Rives S. Brown, Jr. on August 30, 1919.

Lucy Gaines Brown “Little Lucy” (1888-1926) married Dr. Morton Elbridge Hundley. After Lucy’s death, Dr. Hundley married Mary Kate Black (1896-1944) in November 1927 at the age of 49. Hundley died on his honeymoon of pneumonia in Switzerland, but that is another story.

Rives S. Brown, Sr. began his first development on Mulberry Road in 1925. In 1930, Rives S. Brown, Sr. built the Chief Tassell Building and five years later the Rives Theatre, Kroger’s Grocery, and the Greyhound Bus Station. Three years later in 1938, he came up with a plan for Forest Park.

Among other holdings inherited from Henry Clay Lester, “the wealthiest man in Henry County at the time,” was the Lanier Farm that Brown farmed until 1922. The Marshall Hairston Lanier Farm had a storied history, which was once the property of Patrick Henry, who sold the property to David Lanier, until today where the 2,000 acres is the site of the Druid Hills and Forest Park residential areas.

The legacy of the “Shootout on Fayette Street” continues with the Spencers, Terrys, Lesters, and Browns as they continue to make a mark on the landscape of Martinsville and Henry County Virginia. As with all things related to Henry County and Martinsville’s history you need to travel to the Bassett Historical Center, where you will find files and even a privately published book about the “Shootout on Fayette Street.”

1 comment:

  1. The Martinsville area is rich in history. The stories are endless and each is interesting.