The Mount Airy Museum of Regional History wraps up its fall season of History Talks on Sunday with “The Last Witness,” a talk presented by Howard Gilmer Sadler on the Hillsville, Virginia, courthouse massacre in 1912.
Sadler’s grandfather, Howard Cecil Gilmer of Pulaski, was directly involved with the events of March 14, 1912. He accompanied Judge Thornton Lemmon Massie to Carroll County, rushed across the street from the Thornton Hotel when he heard shots being fired, received a private message whispered by the dying judge, accompanied the judge’s body back to Pulaski by train after the shooting, assisted the undertakers in preparing the body and later testified at six of the seven trials resulting from that day’s events.
“No one knew anything about it,” Sadler said. Relatives either didn’t know or didn’t talk about it.
Sadler presents findings from his grandfather’s archives, the archives of other attorneys present that day, and also court records and exhibit boxes, much of it sealed up for decades and previously unseen.
“It was the biggest national news event of 1912 until the Titanic sunk. And then it disappeared from view,” said Matt Edwards, executive director of the Mount Airy Museum. “This story has everything, political intrigue, violence, temperament. It gets into everything we’re not supposed to discuss in polite company, politics, religion. It’s got everything.”
Edwards said that Sadler is not the only one with a connection to the event. “We have a small exhibit about the massacre that was supposed to be temporary but has been here 15 years at least. It’s on a short list of exhibits that are to be upgraded.”
Edwards said that anytime a school group visits the museum, one or more kids looks at the Hillsville exhibit and says,”My great uncle was there” or “I’m related to that one” and that sort of thing. “It’s one of those things with a strong regional connection,” said Edwards.
“It should be a great topic. Sometimes History Talks topics resonate with people and sometimes they don’t. I think this one will.”
In the more than a century since the shootout at the Hillsville courthouse, books, pamphlets, newspaper articles, plays, academic studies, and historical research publications have reviewed and analyzed the event. It has become legend in the oral history and mountain lore of Virginia.
Howard Sadler shines some light on that legend due to the fact that his grandfather went to court to defend an alleged desserter, John Dalton. Sadler says “desertion” is not what you think. Deserter, in this case, referred to a “wife deserter,” a man who had married a Carroll County girl and then absconded. “I don’t know how he got involved with that b———,” laughed Sadler.
This History Talk, like the museum’s other talks, will be a 45 minute to one hour presentation, abbreviated from Sadler’s longer two and a half hour multimedia program. The talk will be at 2 p.m. on Sunday, on the third floor of the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, 301 N. Main Street, Mount Airy, and is free to the public.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.