Tales of Tuscaloosa: “Cooties The Cause Of A Killing…” (June 12, 1919) Featured

Woods Hall, shown in about 1905, was the scene of a gunfight in 1883. Woods Hall, shown in about 1905, was the scene of a gunfight in 1883.

A sharp succession of shots rang out, and a gray clad figure fell. It was February of 1883, and two cadets were fighting a pistol duel on the porch of Woods Hall on the University of Alabama campus. The integrity of a young woman had been questioned, and a challenge was issued in defense of her honor. Cadet William Alston of Selma succumbed to wounds inflicted by Cadet H. K. Harrison. Over a year later, Harrison was found not guilty of murder.

Throughout much of Tuscaloosa’s history, violence was a common occurrence permeating all classes and races. At farms, mines, lumber camps, saloons, and even on the University campus, disagreements, even those of the most trivial nature, could suddenly escalate to mayhem. 

In 1891, Editor John Lawrence of the West Alabama Breeze noted that: “One or two little difficulties occurred during the Holidays which served to break the monotony and also the heads of the belligerents. Black eyes are now fashionable.”

In Stars Fell On Alabama in 1934, Carl Carmer noted that in Tuscaloosa: “No one knows what storms are brewing in the soul of his jovial golf partner, his sedate colleague on the university faculty, the lanky sallow-faced farmer at the street market, the black cook singing at her work in the kitchen. Tomorrow any one of them may have committed a ‘crime passionnel.’”

Differences in Reconstruction politics led to perhaps the best-known local “rencontre,” or hostile meeting. In 1870, Ryland Randolph, Editor of the Independent Monitor and Ku Klux Klan leader, was confronted on a downtown sidewalk by University Cadet Smith. According to reports of the time, Cadet Smith had conspired with Radical Republican Professor Vernon H. Vaughn to bait Randolph into a fatal confrontation. In the resultant gunfight Randolph was wounded, and William Byrd, an elderly bystander, was killed. Randolph’s leg was amputated while Smith and Vaughn fled the state. Soon afterwards, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Vaughn Territorial Governor of Utah. Randolph continued his newspaper career and later moved to Birmingham.

Illustration from the 1854 novel Ten Nights in a Bar-room. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

In 1892, Professor W. H. Verner, a renowned local educator, and H. M. Somerville, a circuit judge, engaged in a “personal difficulty” at the Tuskaloosa Gazette office. The feud continued for over a year with Professor Verner being arrested and tried for assault.

In 1897, Alvin Stoneking and Gus Lallande were drinking at the White Elephant Saloon near the present-day Bama Theater. Between rounds, they alternated purchasing cigars. An argument over a perceived difference in the quality of the stogies escalated into a gunfight. Lallande fell mortally wounded in the middle of Greensboro Avenue. Stoneking was convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison but was freed after a later retrial.

On June 12, 1919, the West Alabama Breeze related a story titled, “Cooties The Cause Of A Killing Late Wednesday At Buhl. Wash Brown accused Virgil Brown of having the “pestiferous little animals crawling over his body.” Virgil Brown was fatally stabbed through the heart in the ensuing fight. Wash Brown claimed self-defense and displayed a large knot on his head that he claimed was caused by a blow from a fence board.

Whether it was differences in politics, perceived insults, cheap cigars, or body lice, excuses never seemed to be lacking for disagreements that often ended in bodily harm or death. Or perhaps, as Carl Carmer noted of Tuscaloosa, “a malevolent landscape—lush and foreboding—broods over it bending its people to strange purposes. 

Suggested additional reading: 

Stars Fell on Alabama, by Carl Carmer 

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Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.



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