Dispatches from the Potomac#35 | Guns, Courts, and Partisan Conflict

This is a translation of an article originally written in November 2020 for publication in the January 2021 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

As I write this article, it has been 3 weeks since November 3rd, and barring a few remaining congressional seats, the results of the 2020 U.S. Election have largely been decided. In Virginia, where I live, people voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party in the presidential races, national and state congressional races, and even for state governor. In recent years, Virginia has only been a Democratic state since President Obama was elected in 2008, but for most of its history, indeed since the end of the American Civil War until about the 1970s, Virginia was a staunch Democratic stronghold.

What is important to realize is that, at the time of the Civil War, the Democratic Party was the party of the American “South” (read: the Confederacy). After the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, many Democratic Party supporters switched over to the Republican Party. When I first moved to Virginia for work more than 20 years ago, a large portion of the state’s population was still comprised of supporters of the Republican Party whose traditions stem from the antebellum South, and Virginia was a solidly Republican state. One word that I learned when I first came here is “Carpetbagger” – a pejorative that applied to postbellum, wealthy Northerners who went to the South to exploit their interests; the name is derived from the “carpet bags” – luggage made from seemingly cheap, carpet-like fabric – that these people often carried. I learned this word from an acquaintance of mine from when I first arrived was still unable to hide complicated feelings he harbored towards “the North”, even 150 years after the Civil War.

Like the Wild West

In this article, I want to talk about a shooting that took place at a courthouse in Virginia – a state that straddles the line between North and South. In this incident, the defendant in a case, and his family, who were unhappy with the decision rendered by the judge, opened fire, killing 5 people.

This is not a story about some circuit court in the Wild West (the western frontier of the U.S. during the mid-late 1800s often characterized by outlaws and violence), much as it may seem to be. This story takes place in 1912, when the U.S. was producing 300,000 Model T Fords per year and Japan was just ringing in the end of the Meiji Era. This is a story about an incident that took place during that period, in a courthouse in Carroll Country, Virginia, just on the Virginia side of the North Carolina border.

It all starts with a young man kissing a young woman at an event in his hometown. But this young woman was also involved with a different man, and as one would expect, the situation became something of a mess. The ensuing quarrel was not settled that day, but continued into the next morning, when everyone in the town was gathered at church for services. Both men roped their friends and families into what would become a massive fight. The young man and his brother drew their weapons at mass, and both were charged with disturbing the peace. The brothers fled to North Carolina where they were soon after arrested.

The brothers were handed over to the deputy sheriff and his posse, who were then stopped in their tracks by a man on horseback: Floyd Allen, the principal figure of our narrative. Allen was the uncle of the wo brothers, the head of the Allen family, and quite well known locally as the owner of a large plot of land on which he ran a business. Allen became incensed when he saw two members of his family tied up in the back of the deputy sheriff’s carriage, and when the deputy sheriff demanded that Allen let them pass, Allen drew his gun, struck the lawman with it, and released his nephews. Although Allen later forced his nephews to turn themselves in at the courthouse, the state prosecutor indicted Allen and several other members of the Allen family on charges of obstruction and assault.

Remnants of the Allen Family Incident in the 21st Century

The state prosecutor who indicted Allen and his family members was himself a Republican, and the fact that the Allen family were Democrats – political rivals – complicated the situation. Before the trial that took place in March of the same year, Allen sent threatening letters to the judge, prosecutor and state governor demanding they drop the case. Nevertheless, the jury found him guilty. When Allen, and his family members sitting in the gallery, heard the verdict that Allen was to receive 1 year in prison, they drew their weapons and began to shoot. The prosecutor and deputy sheriff returned fire, and in total 50 shots were exchanged between the two sides. In the end, 5 people – the judge, the sheriff, the prosecutor, a juryman and a witness were killed, and 7 others, including Floyd Allen himself, were severely injured. After the sheriff was shot, Carroll County was left with virtually no law enforcement presence, and had to hire a private firm to apprehend the Allen family suspects. But the private firm was able to arrest all of the fugitives after some time.

In June, 1912, Claude Allen, nephew (by some accounts son) of Floyd Allen, was sentenced to death for murder in the first degree. Floyd Allen was also sentenced to death, and although many petitioned for his sentence to be commuted, the governor would not hear of it, and in March of the following year, Floyd and Claude Allen were executed by the electric chair.

If we look separately at the elements of which this incident is comprised – the shooting, political influence on the verdict, party tensions, opinions on individual rights – we see that these are persistent problems with which we are plagued even today, in the 21st century.

These days, small movements have turned into organized groups recruited over the internet, threatening letters have become slander campaigns on social media, and individual acts of violence are now riots in the streets of cities; the methods may have changed, but the way we treat those with whom we disagree has not. Say what you will, but it is a matter of fact that the growth of America has been built off of its individualistic, uncompromising headstrong culture, and I think that if America continues to grow off of this culture, the methods will continue to change, and these problems will persist.