Carroll County Courthouse Massacre

Carroll County Courthouse -- Scene of the Massacre

The hills and hollows around Hillsville Virginia haven’t changed that much in 100 years. There’s a few more house tucked away, small family farms and gardens still dot the landscape and the forests are full of elm, tulip, oak and other trees that make a nice popping crackle when they’re burned in a woodstove on a cold, wet winter day.

And people still talk about the massacre. Called variously, “The Hillsville Tragedy”, “The Carroll County Massacre”, or “The Tragedy at the Courthouse”, old men in bib-overalls, mothers shopping with toddlers down on Main Street and the suits in their offices still talk about – and debate – what happened March 14, 1912.

While the story is simple, it’s profound and complicated in its simplexes. The facts that everyone can agree on are almost non-existent. There was a man named Floyd Allen. He was on trial in 1912. As far as agreed upon events, that’s about the limit. The rest is debated. Sometimes hotly but most often fodder for conversation between friends over a cup of coffee at The Hillsville Diner just down the street from where the events took place.

And like the biggest part of town, many who were around that day are gone. The last of the rugged mountain individuals who knew any of the principles in this small town tragedy died a long time ago. Getting old is the next generation. The sons and daughters of the people who knew the players on a first name basis. Soon this generation will be gone also and like so many other stories told around the hills and hollows, the Carroll County Massacre will be reduced to a fable that people begin by saying, “I remember my father talking about stories that my grandmother told me about….”

Except this story may never die. With the exception of the facts as held in trust by a handful of Hillsville citizens today, most of the story has morphed. Important facts that are key to the story have not been forgotten, they’ve just taken on multiple meanings as they’ve been shared again and again. Like an old college paper that is copied and recopied and recopied, the truth still exists somewhere, but has become blurred through the repeated telling. And with each successive telling of the story, people become more entrenched that their particular version is the truth.

Floyd Allen was a curmudgeon. He was either the meanest man that ever cast a shadow on the dirt that was Main Street in 1912 or he was proactive in protecting himself, his family and his possessions from people, places and things that threatened him and what he loved. Floyd was brought to trial for freeing two of his nephews that had previously escaped into North Carolina to avoid probable prosecution.

Spectators started lining up early. They gathered around one of the two wood stoves in the courtroom that provided heat. The logs in each stove cracked and popped as the heat rose. Half of the crowd wanted to see Floyd get his comeuppance. Half wanted to see him stand up to the power brokers. All arrived with heightened expectations of trouble and violence. Tensions were on edge. Nerves were raw. The slightest word, gesture or noise could ignite this tinderbox that had been smoldering for decades.

Documents and existing interviews with eyewitnesses say the trial went smoothly until Floyd was found guilty. The judge directed the Sherriff to “take charge of the prisoner.” Sherriff Webb stepped forward. Something popped.

Whose gun was fired? Was it even a gunshot that touched off the tragedy known variously as “The Hillsville Tragedy”, “The Carroll County Massacre”, or “The Tragedy at the Courthouse”?

Whatever the touch point was that created chaos, the results were the same. Within seconds, 57 shots had been fired. Four people lay dead – one more would die tomorrow. Seven people were wounded. The spectators – estimated by some to be as many as 200 – fell over each other in the stampede to get out of the two narrow doors that led to the stairs that led to the street.

The hills and hollers around Carroll County are quiet today. The sounds of the posse and hounds that tracked the suspected are gone now – having drifted off that wet day in March in 1912. Normally the only sound you hear in the woods around Hillsville is the occasional oak, birch or poplar limb hitting the ground before it’s picked up to be put into a wood stove where it will pop and crackle.

Jerry Nelson is a nationally recognized photojournalist and adventure photographer. His work has appeared in many national, regional and local publications including CNN, USAToday, Upsurge, Earthwalkers and Associated Content and he is a regular contributor to Huffington Post as well as OpEdNews. Nelson travels the country seeking out the people, places and things that make America unique and great. Nelson currently is in Washington D.C. pointing his camera at OccupyDC and freelancing for The Washington Times the second largest paper in the nation’s capital.

CLICK HERE to see more of Nelson’s work or to hire him for a shoot.

4 thoughts on “Carroll County Courthouse Massacre

  1. You’re not only a talented “picture taker” but also a talented storyteller. I appreciate the telling of a good story.

  2. You told the story well. I am a direct relative of Sidna and Floyd Allen and through the years heard many different version of the Hillsville Tragedy. Thank you for clarifying the true events that took place.
    Daniel Harris

  3. im a direct relative of judge l. massie. we attended the 100th year memorial. and alot of the facts that are stated by people are wrong. but you got most or alo tof it right.

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