Local History: 1923, TR Declared War Against Whiskey Runners, Officers Shot At Innocent Women
One hundrted years ago in 1923 an unfortunate incident took place near Travelers Rest. The transport of illegal whiskey through the town of Travelers Rest was getting so heavy that federal officers were sent here to set up roadblocks and check every vehicle passing through town. It was one of these road checks where all heck broke loose as officers fired gunshots at a car that failed to stop. Officers throught they were shooting at a rum runner but the vehicle was occupied by three innocent YWCA women from Asheville who were enroute to Greenville. The women saw the armed men and thought they were highway bandits and ran the checkpoint.
The gunfire blew out a tire and sent the vehicle crashing in a ditch. After discovering their mistake the officers assisted the women in getting their car out of the ditch and followed them to Greenville where they all met with Greenville County Sheriff Carlos Rector. We should also mention none of the women were injured.
The incident was reported in local newspapers and the story spread like wildfire when the Associated Press made it front page news across the nation. Anti-prohibition folks said the incident proved prohibition should be repealed while pro-prohibition people said there should be stricter enforcement. The town of Travelers Rest supported the officers' actions while the city of Greenville were critical of the officers. Town hall meetings were held in both towns. It became a very heated topic in the Carolinas, especially in Greenville County.
Travelers Rest was unincorporated at the time and did not have a police department. The town and surrounding area was within the jurisdiction of the county sheriffs' office. The federal officers were state wide officers and worked under the state and federal government in Washington. Greenville city officials demanded Sheriff Rector issue a warrant on the charge of assault and battery with intent to kill against the federal officers. Even though Rector felt the officers were just doing their duty, turned the matter over to the Greenville County Grand Jury.
News reached Asheville NC very quickly. YWCA officials ordered the traveling women not to press charges against the officers and to refuse to discuss the incident. In other words, the YWCA did not want the publicity. At the same time, an Asheville attorney dashed off a telegram to SC Governor Mcleod asking for guaranteed safe passage of YWCA workers through the state of South Carolina. Mcleod refused to answer the telegram but made statements that he supported the actions of the officers.
The Greenville Grand Jury recommended Sheriff Rector to issue the arrest warrants. The officers were suspended for sixthy days without pay. Travelers Rest residents were appalled.
200 people attended a town hall meeting at Travelers Rest Methodist Church where 75 people joined the newly formed Travelers Rest Law Enforcement League (also referenced as the Travelers Rest Justice League). The league formed bylaws and agreed the league would not allow anyone to condemn any officer of the law and every member pledged to support the law enforcement units of Greenville County. They were against whiskey runners, whiskey makers, speeders, young people's "petting parties" and newspapers. The meeting was attended by residents of Greenville, Travelers Rest and Glassy Mountain. One of the Glassy Mountain men said his father used to make whiskey and he himself made whiskey and neither of them considered the making of whiskey as a wrong thing. "Therefore," he said, "I cannot wish you well in what you are trying to do here tonight."
T.D Cooper, a resident of Travelers Rest said, "Last Sunday boys and girls were seen drinking in automobiles. Not only that but they were huggin' - they were huggin' for the entertainment of the public."
E.Y Hillhouse, another resident of Travelers Rest said, "I don't blame the officers for shooting at the women's car. Women who ride out without escorts at 11 o'clock at night and shouldn't think they don't have to stop when halted by officers. Women should be dealt with the same as men." He went on to say Travelers Rest was a dumping ground for an immense mountain liquor business.
Esley Hart, also of Travelers Rest, mentioned the meeting which was held in Greenville as a one sided event. "Of course the meeting down in Greenville was all for anti-prohibition and on top of that it was mainly made up by a bunch of lawyers any how."
Federal officers Leon T. Queen (the acting head of South Carolina field federal agents) along with agent Thomas P. Tolbert, agent J.H Painter, agent J.H Pulmer. agent L.M Wright along with citizen Luther Staunton were involved in the shooting incident and were charged with assault and battery with intent to kill. They made bail ($1,000 each) and were released from jail. The bail amount was huge considering 192a3 wages were probably not much more than $1,000 a year. The trial was scheduled for October 18, 1923 in general sessions circuit court. When court day rolled around, the trial was rescheduled to a later date because of a prosecutor's sickness. In early 1924 all charges against officers involved in the shooting were dismissed. Even though prohibition remained, the local world continued back to normal. Officers continued to raid moonshine stills and vehicles were searched for illegal whiskey. And then - it all happened again in June of 1924.
Federal officers, led by Reuben Gosnell poured out 109 gallons of corn whiskey in Greenville County soil at around 2 o'clock in the morning. Officers arrested C.L. Landrum of Greenville for transporting 109 gallons of corn liquor in his Buick automobile. Someone that knew such things said 109 gallons of whiskey would be equal of 5,232 good stiff drinks of the stuff. Officers Leon Queen and Henry Bell assisted Gosnell. Someone had tipped Gosnell that a load of liquor would be traveling the Dixie Highway (today's Old Highway 25 north of Travelers Rest). The crew of lawmen blocked the road and waited for the haul to show up. Landrum tried to get through the blocked road by ramming one of the officer's vehicle. After damaging his own moonshine mobile, Landrum ran for the woods and was an easy pick up for the officers. There was a short time for prohibition celebration as big trouble came on the following night.
Described as Atlanta tourists, journalists E.M Ivey and Herndon Thomas were motoring from North Carolina back home to Atlanta when their route took them through northern Greenville County on the Dixie Highway. For reasons unknown other than to change drivers and drink water from an army canteen, Ivey and Thomas stopped on the roadside. Agent Reuben Gosnell was the first agent to spot the vehicle that night. Gosnell stopped and asked the gentlemen if they needed any help and they replied no, they were fine. Details of what happened next varied between versions provided by Gosnell and the two men. The men said Gosnell did not identify himself as an officer, so they immediately thought Gosnell was going to rob them. One of the men pulled a small pistol and started shooting. Gosnell summoned for help and when other federal officers quickly responded all heck broke loose with gunfire. Gosnell later stated that he did identify himself as a federal agent and after doing so, the tourists in the Ford touring car opened fire on Gosnell and the other officers. Ivey and Thomas were wounded seriously.
The result of this second shooting was much louder yet more stupid than the first. An emergency meeting of the Greenville City Council was held, even though the City of Greenville had no direct jurisdiction over the Travelers Rest area or any area outside of the Greenville City limits. By this time the touring newspaper men had lied and said the lawmen smelled of liquor and claimed when they were transported to Greenville, there was a half filled jar of moonshine inside the officer's vehicle. The City Council in Greenville addressed the incident with councilman Sam Zimmerman stating, "Tourists will soon be boycotting our town and our county if they are going to be continously shot at by phohibition officers!" Zimmerman said, "Officers should not be firing shots at vehicles or people without first checking to see if they are actually transporting liquor. This has happened here twice now in recent weeks and months." Councilman Lindsey Wilson said, "The time has now come when citizens can not travel the roads of this county without being stopped and shot at by these prohibition officers." Wilson also said the officers posed a danger equal to U-boats during the World War and the mayor of Greenville should deplore the actions of these liquor officers.
Charges of assault and battery with intent to kill were filed on agent Reuben Gosnell, state constable John McCauley and Albert McCauley (son of John McCauley). Their bonds were set at $1,000 each and were immediately paid. As soon as paying bail, the officers filed arrest warrants against tourists, E.M Ivey and Herndon Thomas on the charge of assault and battery with intent to kill. The trial was set for general sessions court but was moved to federal court. Shortly before the trial, the lawmen and journalists decided it would be best if both sides just dropped all charges.
Reuben Gosnell later became chief of Greenville County's Rural Police, he was suggested as a candidate for Greenville County Sheriff but refused to seek elected office. Gosnell was appointed Deputy U.S Marshal and eventually U.S Marshal for the state of South Carolina twice. He was one of the most highly respected peace officers in South Carolina.