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The Christmas Night Massacre

The blood that once stained the streets is long gone, yet there are those who say you can still hear phantom footsteps echoing late at night along the intersection of Cedar Avenue and Third Street, where six men lost their lives on Christmas night of 1927. There are those who claim to have heard the muffled sounds of gunshots on the late night breeze.

South Pittsburg, Tennessee is the stereotype of the small Southern town, grace and charm permeating it like molten butter on a pone of cornbread, its history as thick in the air as the sugar in a glass of iced tea. And like so many such places in the South, a portion of that history is bloody and brutal—and still very much a part of the fabric. South Pittsburg’s economy was based on ironworks, and remains so to this day, serving as home to Lodge Manufacturing, the only producer of cast iron cookware still located in the United States. Back in the 20s, the town revolved around the Wetter Manufacturing Company, which made stoves. When workers went on strike due to unfair and unsafe working conditions, events were set in motion leading to a small town Civil War that set brother against brother—and lawman against lawman.

George Washington Coppinger was the County Sheriff, having defeated Ben Parker in a recent election. Coppinger sided with the striking workers who wanted to organize a union. South Pittsburg, under Wetter’s control, then hired Parker as city Marshall. Coppinger had his deputies and Wetter hired its own team of private security guards to act as de facto policemen. Things got ugly. Townspeople started going around town armed like cowboys in some old B-Western. Everything came to a head in a Christmas night confrontation between the two groups, in what many believe to have been an ambush. Bullets filled the air, and in a matter of moments 26 children were left fatherless.

Only in recent years have folks in South Pittsburg been willing to talk about the incident, town historian Carolyn Milhiser told me upon my recent visit. The bad memories remain, and the wounds of what happened in 1927 are only now starting to scar over. The older generation, those who were around to witness the massacre, has passed on, leaving their children and grandchildren to tell the story. An historic marker now stands at the intersection of those two streets, where locals claim to have heard that gunfight repeat itself, smelled gunpowder perfuming the air, and heard the disembodied cries of dying men.

If you are ever in the area, make sure to pay a visit to South Pittsburg. It’s a beautiful little place, home to the annual “Cornbread Festival” attended by tens of thousands every spring. Drop into the small local museum, where the proprietors will be happy to tell you all about their hometown. If you ask nicely, they might even tell you about their ghosts.

TheCheezman • May 6, 2019

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