Floyd Allen Trial: 1912

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Floyd Allen Trial: 1912

Defendant: Floyd Allen
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: J.C. Buxton
Chief Prosecutors: J.C. Wysor and W.S. Poage
Judge: Walter Staples
Place: Wytheville, Virginia
Dates of Trial: April 30-May 18, 1912
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by electrocution

SIGNIFICANCE: The Floyd Allen affair represents one of the rare incidents in American history when a criminal defendant attempted to avoid justice by assassinating the trial judge.

Carroll County, Virginia, is a rural county, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains and far from any major city. The Allens were the county's leading family, owning a great deal of land and dominating local politics. They ran Carroll County as their private chiefdom. In the early 1900s, the patriarch of the Allen clan was Floyd Allen.

In 1911, two of Allen's nephews, Sidna Allen and Wesley Edwards, were involved in a scuffle with some Allen opponents outside a schoolhouse where Baptist services were being held. The local prosecutor in nearby Hillsville, Commonwealth's Attorney William M. Foster, was also an Allen adversary, and he promptly charged Sidna Allen and Edwards with disturbing public worship. Foster's men arrested Sidna Allen and Edwards after tracking them down in Mount Airy, North Carolina and brought them back to Carroll County for justice. On the way back to Hillsville, Floyd Allen and his henchmen set upon the lawmen and freed their kin. Foster then charged Allen with assaulting officers of the law and had Allen arrested.

A jury found Allen guilty, and on March 14, 1912, Allen went to his sentencing hearing before Judge Thornton L. Massie in the Hillsville courthouse. Massie sentenced Allen to one year in prison. There were, however, nearly 20 Allen men among the spectators in the courtroom. Allen rose to his feet and calmly said, "Gentlemen, I ain't goin'." That was the cue. The Allen men (Floyd included) pulled out their concealed pistols and began firing. Five people were killed: Judge Massie, Commonwealth's Attorney Foster, Sheriff Lew F. Webb, a member of the jury named Augustus C. Fowler, and a witness named Betty Ayers. Floyd Allen was wounded when the deputies and guards returned fire, and he was quickly arrested. The rest of the Aliens fled, and it took a manhunt of several months to round them all up.

Virginia Tries Floyd Allen for Murder

Allen's murder trial began on April 30, 1912, in Wytheville, Virginia before Judge Walter Staples. His defense lawyer was J.C. Buxton, and the prosecutors were W.S. Poage and J.C. Wysor. The other Aliens were tried separately. There were scores of witnesses who had actually seen Allen fire shots in the Hillsville courthouse, and so there was no plausible defense to the charges. On May 18, 1912, the jury found Allen guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to death by electrocution.

Of the many other Aliens involved in the courthouse shooting who were also tried for murder, several bear mentioning. Allen's son, Claude Allen, went to trial on May 20, 1912. It took three trials, however, before a jury could agree on a verdict. On July 17, 1912, Claude Allen was found guilty of murder and also sentenced to death. Friel Allen, who had cooperated with the authorities during the manhunt, was sentenced to 18 years in prison after his trial in August 1912, despite the fact that the authorities had promised him a sentence of only five years. Sidna Allen was tried in November 1912 and sentenced to 35 years in prison, but on April 29, 1926, Virginia Governor Harry F. Byrd pardoned him.

On March 28, 1913, Floyd and Claude Allen, father and son, were electrocuted in Richmond, Virginia, within 11 minutes of each other. The Aliens were one of the few people in American history who tried to escape justice by assassinating the trial judge and the prosecutor. As Judge Staples said in his sentencing order:

You, Floyd Allen, were in custody of the law: When ordered to jail, you uttered your defiance of its authority, such a defiance as was never before heard in Virginia court.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Gardner, Rufus L. The Courthouse Tragedy. Hillwville, Va.: Unknown Publisher, 1962.

Parker, George Martin Nathaniel. The Mountain Massacre. Bluefield, WV: Country Life, 1930.