If you have ever had the pleasure of visiting downtown Knoxville, then I’m sure you've seen Gay Street. It is one of the oldest streets in our city and it is still thriving today. Our downtown area has undergone some much needed revitalization over the past few years, but you can still walk down Gay Street and catch a glimpse of the past.
There must be thousands of stories about Gay Street. It was the first paved street in the city of Knoxville, way back in 1854. Both Union and Confederate forces had recruiting stations on Gay street, at the very same time! Gay Street has even been mentioned in the works of James Agee. My very own grandmother ran a soup kitchen there in the 1930s.
But, the story that I am going to tell you today sounds less like history, and more like a movie plot. Imagine the scene: A gentleman steps out of the Merchants Bank on Gay Street, spies another man walking toward him, grabs a shotgun and kills him instantly. The victim’s son, hearing the shots, runs forward and shoots the gentleman. The gentleman (can we still call him that at this point in the story?) is mortally wounded but manages to grab a second shotgun from inside the bank building. He shoots the son to death and wounds several innocent bystanders before dying from his injuries. The whole thing took about two minutes and resulted in three deaths and seven wounded citizens.
Who were these people that would shoot each other on sight? Knoxville wasn’t exactly the Old West back on October 19, 1882, but things certainly got serious on Gay street that day. Where these men criminals? Where they outlaws? Did they serve on opposite sides during the Civil War? No, not by a long shot.
Thomas O’Connor was one of the wealthiest men in the South and his opponent Joseph Alexander Mabry wasn’t far down the list. Both men had served in the Confederate Army during the war, and both men had made a lot of money in railroads after the war.
O’Connor made even more money by leasing convicts to work in coal mines and to manufacture the ever popular ‘Tennessee Wagon’ for farmers. Eventually, O’Connor created and became the first President of The Mechanic’s National Bank. He even went on to become a trustee of East Tennessee University, the school that later became The University of Tennessee.
Joseph Mabry made his money in railroads and property development. He was also appointed as a trustee of the East Tennessee University, and in 1870, he was a member of the State Constitutional Convention. He and his brother-in-law actually donated the property for downtown’s Market Square. Mabry started to fall on hard times though, he had to sell some land and some horses just to make ends meet.
The tragic shooting was set in motion during a poker game. It seems that Joseph Mabry had sold his second mansion to O’Connor back in 1880, but his son, Will Mabry, won it back with a well played hand of cards. Rumor has it that O’Connor refused to honor the bet.
Now, poor Will was shot and killed in a fight on December 24th, 1881. His father, Joseph, just knew O’Connor had to be behind the murder. He got drunk and approached O’Connor at the Fair Grounds in South Knoxville on October 17th, 1882. O’Connor refused to speak with him. That night, Mabry sent him a note threatening that he would “kill him on sight.”
Sure enough, two days later, O’Connor steps out of his bank and spots Mabry walking down Gay Street. He must have believed the man’s threats, because he did not hesitate to shoot him dead. One of Mabry’s sons, an up-and-coming attorney named Joseph Mabry III, runs to the bank. He sees his father dead and shoots O’Connor. O’Connor grabs a second shotgun and kills him in the street, but not before injuring seven bystanders.
Bankers and Developers fighting over money? I know, I know, it’s hard to believe, especially with our current economic times. Let’s just hope that none of our wealthiest citizens take up poker, we don’t need any more bloodshed on Gay Street.