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Secret History

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A Noble Saga From Days of Yore, and some mysteries

by Jack Neely

They assembled in front of the courthouse downtown, on a Thursday afternoon. On horseback they were, these 16 knights in colorful battle dress.

Mounted on steeds in the shadow of the clocktower were the Knight of the Alhambra, the Disinherited Knight, the Knight of the Tried Lance, the Knight of the Border, the Knight of the Silver Butterfly, the Knight of the Unexpected. Each bore his own lance.

With all due pomp and ceremony they rode their steeds down Gay Street, turned left on Asylum, and rode out to the ball park. October 15, 1891, was the day for the Fourth Annual Tilt.

Some of the knights made speeches about the nobler times of the past, when men were men and women were women. There was much discussion of Days of Yore, maybe because these modern Victorian times seemed frightening.

At Depot Street across from the train station was a restaurant called The Owl. "Open day and night," it advertised. "Cleanliness our motto." The Owl specialized in oysters, "any style," and cigars. You could get a full meal there for a quarter. More nights than not, The Owl witnessed things that would be in tomorrow's newspapers.

Mannie Wright was a young guy, "a well made, rather fine-looking man," as the papers would say. Monday night he was escorting Belle Parker, his favorite prostitute, to King & Franklin's Circus. When they reached the corner of Depot and Central, within sight of The Owl, four strangers appeared.

For reasons unexplained one of the men blew a whistle into Belle's ear. Belle cursed the stranger with unreported "evil names," and her gallant escort stepped forward to defend his lady. The four men pounced on Wright and stabbed him four times before they fled into the Bowery. Belle and another prostitute dragged Wright into her place nearby, behind Napoleon Ledgerwood's saloon. A doctor had a look at him and told him he would die. The Owl was mum.

Over on Cumberland was Newman's undertaking establishment. Right out in front, pedestrians were surprised to discover a box. It wasn't a coffin. It was just a square wooden dry-goods box. What made it remarkable was that there was a man inside it. The man was crumpled inside "in such a peculiar way," the witnesses said, they were sure he was dead. It wasn't like Sam Newman to just throw his clients out on the sidewalk like that. They called the police.

When officers arrived and pulled the body out of the box, and found the man wasn't dead at all, apparently not even seriously injured: merely "dazed." The man told them his name was Dollinson, and that he was from Virginia. He'd been in Knoxville for a little while, and had been staying in a room over Condon's store on Clark Street.

He remembered something about having a drink or two in a downtown bar. Mr. Dollinson said he didn't have any clue about how he wound up packed into a box on the sidewalk.

There were more mysteries down in the Bowery; Alan Carmichael was "overcome with a stupor." His family was convinced it was voodoo—the result of his having unwittingly drunk a solution of ground scorpion. Doctors argued in favor of meningitis.

Not far away, a couple of elementary-school boys, one white, one black, got into a fight. The white boy came home with a bloody face. His dad, one Ethron Satterfield, found the black kid, hit him and threatened to kill him. The kid's father, George Gilmore, heard what Satterfield had done to his kid and confronted the man. Satterfield shot Gilmore.

An angry black mob surrounded Satterfield's house, as he barricaded himself inside, threatening to kill the first one through the door. The police saved him from the lynch mob by throwing him in jail.

It was a very different scene over at the Asylum Street ball park. The sun shone in the blue October sky, and pennants floated in the light breeze. On his steed Denmark, attorney Hugh Lawson McClung read the charge: "Prove yourself valiant knights and true," he commanded, and the bugle sounded.

The knights lowered their lances and, in turn, rode forward toward their objects at a full gallop. The objects weren't other knights. They were brass rings dangling on cables. The challenge was to spear as many of them as possible.

One by one, the Knoxville Tournament Association eliminated the contestants. In the end, there were only two: the Knight of the Border and the Knight of the Silver Butterfly. In a final ride, one scored all three rings; the other only two. The Knight of the Silver Butterfly was declared the champion. As a clerk at the train station, he was better known as Walter Henderson, but today he was "the nearest approach to perfection that mortals are permitted to reach." He won a $20 gold piece, and the opportunity to crown the Queen of Love and Beauty. He chose Hortense Booth, "beautiful of face and form." The coronation ceremony took place late that night at the Tournament Ball at Staub's Opera House.

Meanwhile, down on the Bowery near The Owl was a house called the Peach Orchard. The madame, Jennie DeOtt, overdosed on morphine—accidentally, she said—and had her stomach pumped.

Her newest colleague had arrived last week. Mary Crawford had lived in St. Louis as a girl, then she and her mother lived together in Clinton. But then her mother died. Now 18, without a family to support her, Mary moved to Knoxville and found a place at the Peach Orchard. The same day Jennie overdosed, Mary's colleagues overheard her arguing with a man from Nash-ville. The new girl fled her room and confided with another employee that she was leaving. Then she collapsed. As she did, she dropped an empty morphine bottle. For her, the doctors with the pumps were too late.

The Owl didn't blink.