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Secret History

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Part I

Part II

Part III

The Social Vortex: Part II

An untimely death, a confessed killer, and lingering questions

by Jack Neely

For three days after he was shot, Sam Luttrell, popular business executive and former City Councilman, seemed to be recovering. He had a private room at Knoxville General Hospital, the big school-like building on Cleveland Avenue, on the north side. Though he had a serious bullet wound all the way through his abdomen, he was able to speak, a little, to his family. The doctor wouldn't let anyone else in.

What Luttrell said to his family was surprising. He asked that no charges be pressed against the man who'd shot him on Locust Street, his old friend Rush Strong.

Thursday night, Sam Luttrell began to vomit.

That's one of the things that surprises you about 1916. Song lyrics and ladies' fashions and newspaper articles about sex were much more delicate than they are today. They hid a great deal with euphemism and lace.

But newspaper stories of 1916 were often much more graphic about physical violence and its consequences than they are today. They hid nothing about physical symptoms, about the consequences of a wound to the abdomen and the incessant vomiting that sometimes follows. The newspapers described it, and it wasn't a good sign. Dr. Walter Nash announced that not only did the bullet drill through Luttrell's liver, it affected his kidney, too.

By Friday afternoon, Nash was convinced that Sam Luttrell wouldn't survive much longer, and he was right. The patient died before dawn Saturday.

Sam Luttrell's funeral, held at the victim's mother's Main Street house just steps from the site of the shooting, was a rare event, attended by "the wealthiest and poorest of the city": friends from Cherokee Country Club as well as homeless street people, because, they said, "Luttrell was a friend to the poor and the beggar."

Joe Hacker, a murder witness, was a pallbearer. Luttrell was buried at Greenwood, the relatively new cemetery outside of town on Tazewell Pike.

His death was reported with big headlines in the papers. "CAUSE UNEXPLAINED," they said. Still, the Luttrells insisted no charges should be placed against the assailant. The unusual request aroused the curiosity of newspaper readers across the nation.

Farmers read about it while they waited at their wagons at the Market House. Widowed dowagers read about it in their Victorian tearooms. Railroad men read about it over coffee at the Busy Bee Cafe. And New Yorkers read about it at the newsstands of Times Square. It was right there in the New York Times, a page 3 story, headlined DIES AFTER A PISTOL DUEL, which described the prominent victim and the "equally prominent" suspect. "Mystery has surrounded the details of the shooting and its causes."

Details emerged only slowly, based on statements of witnesses, including Luttrell's friend, banker Joe Hacker. It hadn't just been a shooting, but a gunfight, of sorts. Luttrell had also had a revolver in his hand, and had fired it at least a couple of times. But the fatal shot had hit him when his back was turned and he was running for cover behind a Locust Street telephone pole.

Paris Acuff, who worked at the Pastime poolhall, said that Rush Strong had been in there twice on the night of the murder, looking for Sam Luttrell. It was looking less like a chance encounter.

Though he lived outside of town, Rush Strong was, as the Times suggested, about as well known as Sam Luttrell. The Strongs weren't known for gunplay. Originally from Connecticut, his family had been prominent in Knoxville for generations, a family of physicians and philanthropists. A few years later, an uncle would endow a new dormitory at UT, named for Rush Strong's grandmother, Sophronia.

Young Rush himself might have seemed a promising legacy. No doctor, he was an aspiring aviator, perhaps the most glamorous profession a young man could boast of in 1916. A couple of years ago, he'd taken flying lessons in California and, more recently, had participated in air shows in Canada.

But giving young Rush a break wasn't that simple. Regardless of the dead man's last wishes, this was no schoolyard scrap; it was a murder case. Attorney General R.A. Mynatt, perhaps lenient about a stray bullet between friends, said, almost apologetically, that "It is the duty of the state to prosecute such cases, and no exception will be made in this instance."

Mynatt had Strong arrested again, this time charging him with first-degree murder, pegging him with a $20,000 bond, a fortune by 1916 standards. A total of 43 Knoxville businessmen chipped in to pay it.

The previously reticent Strong, faced with the possibility of the state's new electric chair, dropped all pretenses of discretion and gallantry toward the dead man he'd called a friend.

In the cafes and speakeasies, speculation about a motive revolved around the key witness: Rush Strong's wife. The former Bonnie Hunt was a dark-eyed, petite beauty. She was either 21, 23, or 24, depending on which source you follow, but may have looked even younger. She was from the country, but some folks thought they recognized her as the girl who used to work in the cigar store. She'd traveled out to Los Angeles with Rush and married him out there, not quite three years earlier.

It came out that Bonnie Strong had been, in the months before the shooting, somehow involved with Sam Luttrell. There were several versions of the story, but most of them had the two of them spending a good deal of time together when she was in town for music lessons. They were seen strolling the downtown sidewalks, sharing ice cream and sodas and, occasionally, vanishing down an alley off Locust, at the end of which was Sam Luttrell's garage.

Another story, though, included a detail that made the whole thing sound more sinister and, to the newspaper-reading public, more irresistible: that Sam Luttrell had not merely seduced Bonnie Strong, he had in fact repeatedly drugged or perhaps even hypnotized her. Ultimately, the defense made it an official charge: that Luttrell "either by drugs or intoxicants got the defendant's wife in such a helpless condition or in a stupor [that he] had sexual relations with her...."

In those days of swift justice, it wasn't unusual for a killer to be tried, convicted, and hanged within a few weeks of the crime. The Strong case was different. It went on for months, one delay following another, some of them suggested by Strong's attorneys. Life went on. The front pages were all about Europe and the likelihood of Americans joining the Great War. Down in Muscle Shoals, the government was building a hydroelectric dam to power a munitions plant. Some started to think it would be a good idea to do the same thing up and down the whole Tennessee River.

The trial was first set for December, five months after the murder, but the defendant's wife, a material witness, didn't appear. Rush Strong signed an affidavit that Bonnie was "seriously ill" and couldn't testify. It was rescheduled for the following May, almost 11 months after the shooting.

As 1916 turned into 1917, thousands of eager young men signed up to fight in the trenches of France, somewhere Over There. The papers were full of it; the war dwarfed most local news. But Knoxvillians still wondered what would become of young Rush Strong, and, moreover, why he had shot Sam Luttrell. They wanted to hear every detail.

It was a murder trial unlike any in Knoxville history.

[To be continued]

July 19, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 29
© 2001 Metro Pulse