Asheville’s population wasn’t yet 20,000 people. Street cars were a popular mode of transportation – no interstate, no “cut” through Beaucatcher Mountain. Eagle Street stretched down to Valley Street (where Charlotte cuts a four lane swatch today) and it was the black side of town in a segregated Asheville, full of houses and businesses.
Will Harris, said to have escaped from a chain gang in Charlotte, came to Asheville and bought a rifle and a bottle of whiskey. He went to Valley Street looking for his girlfriend and raising a ruckus. Two policemen were dispatched to the disturbance, and both were shot, one dying from his wounds. Will Harris continued his rampage up Eagle Street, killing a dog, and shooting through a telephone pole near Pack Square at another police officer, James Bailey, and killing him. Three civilians, including Ben Addison, were killed as well.
Will Harris then took off toward South Asheville. Citizens armed themselves, some getting guns on loan from Finkelstein’s pawn shop, and went hunting for Will. They found him two days later in a thicket outside of Fletcher, and lit him up with bullets. His body was brought back to Asheville and put on display for the townspeople.
Thomas Wolfe was living in Asheville at the time of this massacre – he was six years old and sleeping less than a mile from where it occurred. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction explains the truth better than a newspaper article ever can. Wolfe’s short story “The Child by Tiger” tells the story of the Will Harris rampage through the streets of Asheville and subsequent capture. If you’ve had trouble delving into the complex world of Wolfe’s novels, give his short stories a try. His descriptions are incomparable, and on a small scale they are easily digestible as well. The overt racism is challenging, there is no excuse for it. But is there a better photograph to capture this time than the words and emotions of someone who is completely unfiltered and trying with his whole heart to explain his experience to the world?
Riverside Cemetery in Asheville is the final resting place of not only Thomas Wolfe, but also Ben Addison, and James Bailey, both victims of the massacre. Will Harris is also said to have been buried there in an unmarked grave.