Archived Mountain Voices

Poetic license never hurts a good tale

Accounts of events always vary, especially when one is supposedly factual and one is admittedly fictional. Here's an instance.

One of the most infamous manhunts in this region's history took place in 1906 when a black man named Will Harris shot and killed, with a repeating rifle, a police officer called to the scene of an argument in Asheville. Harris reportedly then stood over the body of the officer and shouted: Nobody cares who I am! I am from Hell and I don't care who sends me back!

After an exchange of shots, two more policemen and three other men lay dead, while Mills escaped through a back window. Bloodhounds were set loose on his trail, but a snowstorm obliterated both prints and smell. The following morning a headline on the front page of the Asheville Citizen read: Biggest Man Hunt in Western North Carolina Now On!

The fugitive fled first to the Biltmore area and then to the Buena Vista community, where he found shelter in a dairy barn. The next day he continued southward along the rail line into northern Henderson County. Spotting a laurel thicket near the tracks situated on the estate of Robert Blake, he decided to hide out in the dense tangles.

Following the tips of observers who had spotted Mills along the rail line, search parties armed with shotguns, rifles, and pistols moved in on him, flushing him from the thicket. Near Fletcher, he sat down, pulled off one of his boots, and rubbed a sore spot on his heel. One of his many pursuers directed a shotgun blast at Mills, who immediately returned fire with his rifle. According to one report, The gun shots were now increasing in number until it sounded as if a small war was being fought.

With one boot discarded, Mills sought refuge in yet another laurel thicket, having been the target of at least 100 shots from various types of firearms, none of which hit him. The thicket was quickly surrounded. Three men who knew the terrain were sent in after him. A gunfight ensued: Harris fell forward. He was dead when the body was examined. The neck and chest of the dead man was riddled with buckshot and a rifle bullet had entered his head . . . The biggest and most exciting man hunt in Western North Carolina was over.

I have been following and quoting from the account of the incident that appears in the second volume of Frank L. FitzSimmons' From the Banks of the Oklawaha (Golden Globe Publishing Co., 1977). In regard to Mills' background, FitzSimmon noted that, Investigation turned up the fact that he had come to Asheville from Charlotte on the day he started his wild rampage. He had escaped from prison in 1904 where he was serving a 20-year sentence for burglary and arson. He was also a deserter from the United States Army.

The Asheville-born novelist Thomas Wolfe was six years old when the Mills incident took place. The story was a part of the region's loreÑone that was told and retoldÑduring the years when Wolfe was growing up. He first wrote about those events in a short story titled Child By Tiger that initially appeared in The Saturday Evening Post before reappearing, almost verbatim, as a chapter with the same title in his novel The Web and the Rock (Scribners 1939).

In Child By Tiger, Will Harris is a character named Dick Prosser, newly arrived in Asheville, where he works for a white family named Shepperton. Dick befriends a group of young white boys, one of which narrates the story. He shows the boys how to shoot, box, and throw a football. But he spends his free time brooding over his Bible in a sparse basement room in the Shepperton residence.

In Wolfe's version, one of several incidents that precipitated Dick's outburst occurred on Pack Square. A drunken white man named Lon Everett steered his a vehicle into the Shepperton vehicle, which Dick was driving. Emerging from his vehicle, the drunk swung viciously, clumsily, at the Negro, smashing him in the face. Dick did not retaliate even after being slugged in the face again. After the drunk was hauled away, he walked over to inspect the damage to the car, But there were those who saw it who remembered later that his eyes went red.

Wolfe fleshed out the barebones of the story in his version of the manhunt. Here's how the final moments of the chase are rendered:

The posse came in slowly . . . At the creek edge, he turned again, knelt once more in the snow, and aimed. It was Dick's last shot. He didn't miss. The bullet struck Wayne Foraker, a deputy, dead center in the forehead and killed him in his saddle. The posse saw the Negro aim again, and nothing happened. Dick snapped the breech open savagely, then hurled the gun away. A cheer went up. The posse came charging forward. Dick turned, stumblingly, and ran the few remaining yards that separated him from the cold and rock-bright waters of the creek.

And here he did a curious thingÑa thing that no one ever wholly understood. It was thought that he would make one final break for freedom, that he would wade the creek and try to get away before they got to him. Instead, he sat down calmly on the bank, and as quietly as if he were seated on his cot in an Army barracks, he unlaced his shoes, took them off, placed them together neatly at his side, and then stood up like a soldier, erect, in his bare bleeding feet and faced the mob.

The men on horseback reached him first. They rode up around him and discharged their guns into him. He fell forward in the snow, riddled with bullets. The men dismounted, turned him over on his back, and all the other men came in and riddled him. They took his lifeless body, put a rope around his neck, and hung him to a tree. Then the mob exhausted all their ammunition on the riddled carcass.

Which version do you prefer?

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart's Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney's History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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