Scott County Historical Society
Scott County, Virginia

Scrapbook Memories

Mildred McConnell's Scrapbook Articles

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Kinnie Wagner: The Birth Of An Outlaw Legend

By BILL BARNET

     From before the Revolutionary War up to and including World War I, the Southern Appalachian region was famous as a producer of fighting men.

     Reared in the pioneer tradition, they learned early to track game in the woods and shoot with deadly accuracy. When they volunteered for Army duty, about the only training they needed was in Army discipline and military courtesy. They already possessed most of the skills of effective infantrymen.

     William Kenneth (Kinnie) Wagner had the potential to be another Sergeant York. His father once said that he seemed to be born with the ability to shoot straight and as a boy was never known to miss a rabbit with his .22 rifle. He also was fearless.

     But Wagner never was exposed to Army discipline.· Born Feb. 18, 1903, two miles outside of Gate City, Va., he was a little too young for World War I and there was a long wait before this country's next war.

     Wagner's mother died when he was seven or eight years old. At 16 he left home and soon afterward was touring with a circus as a "cowboy" in the "Wild West Show."

     It is part of the Kinnie Wagner legend that he was a trick shot artist with the circus. Wagner himself denied it from the witness stand under oath. He said his specialty in the circus was riding bucking broncos. Other members of his family also denied the report from time to time.

     But fact or myth, the trick shot story persisted and even found its way into his official biography as published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It seemed so logical in the light of subsequent events.

     Wagner probably never would have become famous as a circus performer. That was accomplished by an unfortunate turn of events.

     In the little town of Lucedale, Miss., just before Christmas 1924, he was arrested and jailed on a charge of stealing a watch. Wagner denied stealing the watch, and most law enforcement officers familiar with the case eventually became convinced of his innocence of the theft. But at the time the cards appeared to be stacked against him. A stranger in town, suspect by the townspeople as a traveling showman, he faced a strong possibility of spending Christmas and perhaps many months behind bars.

     The free spirit of Kinnie Wagner rebelled against confinement and he seized the first opportunity to break out of jail. A posse of officers pursued him and cornered him on Christmas Eve. Somewhere along the way, Wagner had acquired a shotgun and he shot his way free, leaving a deputy sheriff named Murdock McIntosh lying dead on the field of battle.

     Mississippians contributed dimes and dollars to a fund for a $1,000 reward for Wagner's capture and return to Greene County, Miss., dead or alive. From then on he was an outlaw.

(Next: Kinnie comes to Kingsport.)

 

 

The Kinnie Wagner Legend

     While searchers unsuccessfully combed a wooded area near Waycross for Kinnie Wagner the night of April 13-14, 1925, Wagner was safely holed up in a nearby barn belonging to a widow, Mrs. Sam Rhodes.

     He was far from comfortable, however. After walking many miles, he had left his shoes on one side of Possum Creek and swum to the opposite shore. Now barefoot and his clothes still wet, he shivered in the early morning chill. Also, he worried about the events of the day before. It seemed he was doomed to a life either behind bars or continually shooting more people to remain free. He seriously contemplated suicide.

     In the morning Wagner had a serious talk with Mrs. Rhodes, who counseled the motherless 22-year-old man as if he had been her own son and advised him to surrender. The thought struck him that the $1,000 reward that had been offered for him in Mississippi might be put to useful purpose.

     He hastily wrote two short notes, one to his father in Speers Ferry and the other to his kid sister. In the latter he assured her that everything was all right and that he had devised a plan to provide the money for her to continue her schooling.

     Then he walked up n ear Poe's Store in Waycross where a group of men were gathered on the porch and shouted to them that he had killed as many people as he wanted to and would like to give himself up - but only to a private citizen, not a law enforcement officer.

     He a asked that one man of the group come out to meet him unarmed. The store proprietor, D. R. Poe stepped forward. Wagner asked Poe if he would be willing to split the $1,000 reward, giving half the money to his sister. Poe agreed. Wagner then handed over a pistol and asked that Poe take him to the jail in Gate City.

     His big decision behind him, the outlaw remained cheerful the rest of that day, although events did not turn out quite as he had planned them. Someone lent the shivering fugitive a sweater. Neal Bussell came along in a car and agreed to drive Poe and Wagner to Gate City.

     On the way, Poe and Bussell discovered that Wagner still had another pistol on him. It was the .38 with which he had shot down the three officers – two of them fatally – the day before. Then, a half-mile from Moccasin Gap, the Bussell car – literally – ran into one occupied by three of the men searching for Wagner: officers George Clark, Reuben Fulk and G. D. Lane. Bussell thought at first the collision was an accident, but Deputy Fulk later explained he had seen the car coming, recognized Wagner in it and deliberately turned his car sideways to block the road.

     Several of the occupants were thrown from the open cars in the collision, but none of them were hurt. Wagner was relieved of his remaining weapon and went peacefully with the officers to Kingsport.

(Next: The Trial)

 

 

The Too-Swift sword Of Justice

By BILL BARNETT (Fourth of a Series)

     Justice was swift for Kinnie Wagner in the spring of 1925, a bit too swift as it turned out.

     The shooting in Kingsport in which two law enforcement officers were killed and a third wounded had occurred in the afternoon on Monday, April 13, and Wagner surrendered to a Waycross storekeeper the following morning.

     That same afternoon he was taken before a grand jury in Blountville and indicted on two charges of murder and one of felonious assault. His trial was set for the following Tuesday, April 21, just one week after his surrender.

     Judge Guy S. Chase appointed two Bristol lawyers, GeorgI M. Warren and Lyle Burrow to defend Wagner. Atty. Gen. O. B. Lovette was assisted in the prosecution by Kingsport City Atty. T. R. Bandy. Several other lawyers volunteered their services to assist with one side or the other in perhaps the most famous trial in Sullivan County history.

     When the trial opened, the morning was devoted to arguments of lawyers over a defense motion for continuance to allow more time to prepare their case. The request was overruled. After lunch, selection of a jury began. By 6 p.m., 12 jurors had been picked out of 150 called for jury duty. Then one of the 12 announced he had misunderstood one of the questions put to him and was opposed to capital punishment. Another 30 minutes was consumed in selecting a substitute juror from 11 more veniremen.

     Making up the jury were a contractor, a grocer and a department store clerk, all of Bristol, and nine farmers from rural areas of the county. There were no jurors from Kingsport, where the shooting had occurred.

     Between his surrender and the trial, several persons who talked to Wagner quoted him as saying he had seen the officers coming after him and decided to get them first. But on the witness stand he said the officers had fired first and he shot only in self-defense.

     Wagner admitted firing five shots himself and estimated that anywhere from 20 to 50 shots were fired altogether. The surviving officers who had been in the search party, and others who investigated, testified that Policeman Smith's two pistols were still in their holsters undrawn when his body was found, but a man who was with the investigating officers testified that one of the weapons had been drawn and was lying next to his outstretched right hand on the ground.

     The jury found Wagner guilty of first degree murder in the slaying of Deputy Hubert Webb (the officer who was shot three times) and set his sentence at death by electrocution. The sentence was never to be pronounced, much less carried out.

     At a hearing the following Wednesday on a motion for a new trial, defense attorneys produced affidavits from three witnesses who had not been contacted in time for the early trial who swore the officers had fired first. Judge Chase granted a new trial and set the date for May 11.

(Next: How it ended.)

 

 

Kinnie Wagner – How It All Ended

By BILL BARNETT (Last of a Series)

     After being granted. a new trial, Kinnie Wagner remained in the Blountville jail still in cheerful spirits.

     When the date of the new trial, May 11, rolled around, it was the prosecution's turn to request a continuance. Two of the main prosecution witnesses - Deputy Sheriff George Miller and Connelly Henry, the man who had arranged to bring Wagner's sister to meet him in Kingsport the day of the shooting, were missing. Miller was reported in West Virginia. Henry had disappeared.

     Judge Chase granted a continuance to June 22. When that day rrived, Henry had still not been found, Deputy Joe Groseclose was unable to appear because of illness, and the wounded officer, Frazier, was reported recovering enough that he would soon be able to testify but not quite yet. The case was continued to Aug. 17.

     Two hundred prospective jurors who had been called for the second trial date and 300 for the third were dismissed without having to serve.

     On the afternoon of July 10, as guards opened the jail door for prisoners returning from a road work gang, Kinnie Wagner and six other prisoners pounced upon the guards, disarmed them and fled - Wagner and one other through a side door, two through a back door and one through a kitchen window. Guards outside exchanged fire with Wagner and a companion named Davenport but nobody was hit.

     Wagner was never seen officially in Sullivan County again. He fled to Mexico, came back across the border and settled in Texarkana, Ark. Tnere he got into a fight with two brothers named Carter and both were shot dead. He surrendered to a woman sheriff, Mrs. Lillie Barber, and was returned to Mississippi for trial on his first murder charge.

     Presumably it was Mrs. Barber who collected the reward, now grown to $2,500, for Wagner's capture. Mississippi authorities had refused to pay the original $1,000 after his surrender here until he was returned to their state to stand trial. Pointing out that the reward had been for his capture "dead or alive," legalities argued that he could be convicted and executed and the body returned to Mississippi to collect the reward.

     But nothing like that happened. Wagner was convicted in 1926 of the McIntosh slaying in Mississippi and sentenced to life imprisonment. Finally reconciled to prison life, he became a model prisoner and eventually was even made a trusty. Several times he was granted furloughs for visits to his Virginia relatives and always returned. Then in 1948 he walked away from the penitentiary and was gone for seven years.

     On a cold dawn in January 1956, he surrendered without· a fight to a group of highway patrolmen in Scooba, Miss., and returned to the penitentiary. He who had known what it was like to be chased by bloodhounds was assigned the task of training the prison dogs.

     In March, 1958, he was patting one of the dogs on the head when he suffered a heart attack and died.

     His body was buried in a secluded cemetery in the Southwest Virginia mountains of his boyhood.

 

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