The Spanish-American yule, continued
by Jack Neely
They said it was Knoxville's biggest Christmas ever. Uncontained by the sidewalks, thousands spilled into the downtown streets. Most of what you could see of the crowd were derbies and bonnets and, occasionally, the broad-brimmed cowboy-style hats of the U.S. Army. Many local boys were still off in Puerto Rico, not yet back from the Warthe Spanish-American one, which ended a few weeks ago. But a goodly portion of the U.S. Army was right here, training at a base on the north side of town called Camp Poland. The soldiers, most of them from homes in Ohio and Michigan, were still waiting to be sent to Cuba, and understood that might actually happen, maybe as soon as Christmas.
Sometimes our boys in uniform got in trouble. Two Ohio soldiers were "seriously, but not fatally" wounded during an argument at the Klondike Saloon down on the Bowery, where late-night crimes usually went unsolved. The saloonkeeper denied it happenedit was, of course, his job to deny things, especially when loyal patrons were involved. At the Journal, copy editors had some fun with the saloon's name, derived from the recent Alaska gold rush. They headlined the story "A Hot Time at the Klondike." Saloon stabbings were too ordinary to deserve solemnity.
The same week, two North Knoxville girls said three soldiers jumped them; one girl got away, but the other wasn't so lucky. The Journal described it with, if not a pun, an odd selection of verbs: "The brutes assaulted the helpless girl and then decamped."
Perhaps to improve their local image, the soldiers of Camp Poland donated a stained-glass window to the new Presbyterian church on Laurel Avenue, a block from old Fort Sanders. They dedicated it to the soldiers slain in that other battle, 35 years ago.
The earthen fort was still there in 1898: steep walls and ditches, now overgrown, on the ridge at the western end of an extravagant new neighborhood. A Journal columnist who signed himself "Beaumont" worried about the old fort's survival, and proposed that the earthworks and 75 acres to the north and west should be preserved as a national military park. "Where else could a memorial to both blue and gray be more fittingly placed than here in Knoxville?" he asked.
Emphasizing the urgency of his proposal, Beaumont described the encroaching residential development: "Through the center of the old Fort runs a street with four or five residences upon it...the line of the old fort is very well preserved.... The long slope to the west and north up which the Confederates made their gallant charge is still open country."
"Today it must be done," he wrote, "or not at all."
Knoxvillians were too busy to listen. Christmas was Sunday, and they had shopping to do.
Some gift ideas were war-inspired. "This year Santa Claus seems to have fallen victim to war fever," editorialized the Sentinel. You could Remember the Maine best by buying a perfect model of it at Newcomer's, "well-equipped and fully complete"as well as "CannonsBoom! Bang! Boom! These will delight any boy's heart clean to the bottom." But the weirdest gifts of 1898 were Cartridge Beer Mugs, made from genuine American six-pound shells. These polished-brass steins were guaranteed to be the same size as the holes in crippled Spanish ships.
There was still considerable anxiety about the robbers on the loose in Knoxville, but police were rounding up a few of them: Crip Fagan, wanted in a home-invasion robbery on Magnolia; the notorious downtown purse-snatcher "Baby" Child.
On Dec. 23, Lt. George Phillips arrested John Barner for complicity in some of the Christmas muggings. Following a tip, at sundown on the 23rd, Phillips went down to the Bowery, crouching for two hours in the mud behind a billboard at the corner of Clinch and Central. Will "Shady" Rose, a small-time hood in his 30s, was suspected of stabbing an army private a while back. There at the corner, Rose met his colleague, a teenager named Bruce Crite. They talked urgently, unaware Lt. Phillips could hear every word. Shady Rose gave a gold pocket watch to Crite, and told him to sell it as quickly as possible.
Phillips emerged and arrested Crite, but the wily Rose had already vanished. The watch the kid had been left with had belonged to a mugging victim. At 3 a.m., Phillips caught up with Shady Rose on Hardee Street and arrested him. Phillips believed they were the same men who attacked and robbed some farmers on Broadway a couple of days ago.
Christmas Day was chilly but didn't end the crime wave. That day, burglars sneaked into a store on the corner of Gay and Cumberland, apparently gaining access to the safe by means of an elevator shaft. They blew open the safe with nitroglycerine and got away with nearly $1,000 in cash. Otherwise, the day was pretty quiet, although physician Edward Lonas and another man were arrested for blowing off fireworks on Wall Street.
Not everyone celebrated so loudly. Kate Quarle was 88, old enough to have known Davy Crockett. She'd made her living as a beggar and lived in an unheated shack behind another house on Patton Street. On Christmas afternoon, neighbors discovered Kate lying on her straw mattress. Reporters believed she had starved to death.
The Palace Hotel was just a couple of blocks from Patton, on State Street. For those who had a dollar for a room, the Palace was a warm refuge for those who didn't have families to visit. In pictures, the Palace is an impressively large Victorian hostelry, four stories not counting the corner turret. It stood on the northeast corner of State and Commerce, on the hill above the Bowery.
One resident that Christmas was a favorite of the hotel clerk's. Captain John M. Tobin had been born in Ireland about 60 years ago, before the famine, but had spent much of his life in Boston. A Union veteran, he'd been decorated for his war service. Later on he had once made a
living as a big-city journalist, working for a time as a reporter for the Washington Post.
By '98, he was old for a war recruit, but duty called him down south to Camp Poland, where he earned his captain's rank as commissary officer for the First Brigade. He had a problem with drinking, though, and in November, Tobin had been relieved of his duties. On Nov. 29, he checked into room 32 of the Palace Hotel.
At the Palace, where John Tobin was well liked, everybody still called the discharged soldier Captain Tobin. One recalled, "He told stories in a manner which was the right of a born actor, a man of letters, and a gentleman." Captain Tobin liked to talk but volunteered little about his private life. Some gathered that he'd once been married, but his wife and daughter had both died years ago. When Captain Tobin spoke of his "sweetheart," people came to understand he meant his sister, back in Boston. For a couple of weeks he had left every evening for the saloons, often returning in the care of a kindly stranger, then staying up late to chat with the clerk in the lobby. For the last few days, though, he'd just taken his bottle to his room.
Nobody saw him for a day; Charlie Baird, the clerk, figured he just didn't want his breakfast that morning. But in the afternoon, when Tobin didn't answer his door, the clerk worried. At the Palace, residents apparently held the only key. Baird dragged a table to the door to room 32 and stood on it to peer over the transom. He saw Tobin still in his bed, pale, with a dark stain at his mouth. With help, Baird broke the door open. They found an American Bull Dog pistol in Tobin's right hand; he'd shot himself in the mouth. He left no note. Just the book he was reading, The Princess Aline, by Richard Harding Davis.
Tobin may have found something to admire in his fellow journalist Davis, the best-known reporter of the Spanish-American War. But The Princess Aline wasn't a war book, or even a piece of reporting. It was a book Davis had written three years earliera novel about a fantasy princess, intended for young girls.
The U.S. Army declined to pick up the bill for Tobin's burialhe wasn't in the army at the time of his death, they saidbut at his distant sister's request, he was buried among other Union veterans at the National Cemetery on Tyson Street.
As kids all over town shot off their new Spanish-American War cannons and Dads drank Knoxville Bock from their Cartridge Beer Mugs, Captain Tobin's regiment boarded a train for Charleston Harbor, fresh American soldiers eager for glory in sunny Cuba.