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The Most Horrible Spectacle

A newspaper column, avenged: Part 2

by Jack Neely

At the corner of Walnut and Cumberland, Sunday-morning church services at St. John's Episcopal were about to commence.

Pharmacist John West, his brother Will, and a friend, candymaker William Goodman, confronted one young man, dressed for church, with a roll of choir music under his arm. His name was Jim Rule, and he was assistant editor of his dad's newspaper, the Knoxville Journal. When Rule was a little boy, a spot near that intersection had been the site of a famous killing, when Major Camp had shot the former Confederate Colonel Ashby, allegedly in self-defense. But now it was 1888, not 1868. To most, there seemed a world of difference in those 20 years.

West demanded Rule tell him the name of the author of the "XYZ" column that had declared his father, city physician Thomas West, was "incompetent." Tom Smith, the church's janitor, could hear much of the noisy conversation. Rule proposed meeting the Wests later, say, at 4 p.m. By then, Rule said, he could check with the author about revealing his name. That didn't suit West, who suspected Rule was lying. "A damned nice man to sing in a choir," he said.

Rule protested that St. John's corner on Sunday morning wasn't the time and place for that sort of language. "Damn the church," said West, who called Rule a son of a bitch. He said the unknown columnist was a "damned rascal" and Rule was no better for concealing the writer's identity.

Rule drew his revolver and backed up as the three men crowded him. He backed down the Cumberland sidewalk until he tripped, backwards, on Mrs. Boynton's horse rack.

Inside, the rector announced to the congregation, "The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him."

There followed two pistol shots, "with dull tones, as if the brutal weapons had smothered their murderous throats," the Journal would report. Then came two more shots. One of the first ones outside was young Mrs. Rule, "with ghostly pallor, she flew from the choir to meet, ah! one of the MOST HORRIBLE SPECTACLES that ever fond wife looked upon."

By the horse rack, John West was knifing her husband. "The flashing blade, reeking with blood, would be raised and then driven back into the body of the victim." Furthermore, one of the men had grabbed Rule's pistol and was using it as a club, "cutting into his scalp as blood spurted in ruby jets."

Rule's "crazed wife" fainted and fell into the arms of a parishioner.

Harry Aiken, who had arrived at church late, was the first to reach Rule's body. "I thought the whole top of his head was shot off," Aiken later said. As the church emptied, the Wests fled, one to the east, toward Gay Street, and one rounding the corner down Walnut toward the river.

After having been stabbed, bludgeoned, and shot, Rule startled everyone by rising to his feet, "bathed in blood from the head down."

Dripping blood on the pavement, Rule spoke. "I am not as badly hurt as you think I am," he said.

Churchgoers escorted the bloody editor into the widow Susan Boynton's house. Two doctors emerged from the St. John's crowd and tended to Rule. They counted seven knife wounds in his back, a dozen severe lacerations in his scalp, plus a bullet wound in his left hand. Not one of the stab wounds had penetrated between Rule's ribs, they observed. None of his wounds were serious. Rule went home two hours later.

As doctors attended to Rule, Goodman, the candymaker who had accompanied the Wests, watched. He "remarked to someone that he believed he'd been shot." The doctors had a look and, indeed, Goodman had a gunshot wound in his back.

At that moment, John West was just a few doors away. He'd lurched east down Cumberland and ducked into Gilmore's livery stable, just this side of the Lamar House. He told the black attendant that he'd been shot in the gut. Conscious, he was taken to his home on Mabry Street, just north of downtown.

Meanwhile, William West fled to the riverfront wharves, then walked train tracks to North Knoxville, a friend's house where he was arrested for his part in the affray.

Six doctors attended to John West, and found his wound was serious. That night, Squire Melvin Dickson attempted to get a dying confession. Still belligerent, West insisted he wasn't dying. The fifth time Dickson asked, West finally declared that he had attacked Rule in self-defense. He admitted having said, "Anybody who would write such a slanderous piece and not sign his name was a black son of a bitch." He claimed he was unarmed.

Dickson asked West, "Did you stab Rule?"

West, weakening, began to answer: "As it was to be seen, I defended my...." For the young pharmacist, that was it. Just after the clock struck midnight, John West died.

Goodman and West had both blamed Rule for escalating the argument by brandishing his pistol, but other witnesses said the Wests had come expecting a bloody fight.

Jim Rule was tried and acquitted of murder, but fate was not as tidy as a novelist would have written it. He wasn't a tragic casualty of the then-dangerous trade of journalism. He didn't live happily ever after, either.

He wrote columns for his dad's paper for a few more years before volunteering for service in the Spanish-American War. When his hitch was up, in 1901, he found himself in the Philippines, and decided to stay there, as a reporter for the Manila American. He later became editor of a weekly there called Town Topics. Jim Rule died in Manila, at 44, of obscure causes.

The identity of the columnist known as XYZ remains a mystery.

February 1, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 5
© 2001 Metro Pulse