MURDER IN SOUTHERN APPALACHIA: Community, Culture, & Craft in 1930s Middle Tennessee

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Simmons, Stephen Wade
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Middle Tennessee State University
My research project is on its face a micro history of a rural murder trial in 1930s’ Southern Appalachia. Clarence Allen traveled to Cannon County, Tennessee in the summer of 1934 to buy handcrafted baskets for resale back in Indiana. Allen went missing and three years passed before two boys digging for mayapple root on a hillside uncovered his skull and parts of his skeleton. Two local men well known to law enforcement, Raymond Elkins and Martin Tucker, were arrested and charged with murder—both eventually being cleared. My research is ongoing, but thus far has yielded useful contributions to existing Southern cultural historiographies, though questions remain to be answered. This study adds to the existing body of research that deals with American cultural history, regarding the pulp fiction magazines of the 1920s and 1930s and the role they played in perpetuating stereotypes, in addition to the role true crime played in attempts at social control. This work also adds to the body of research regarding the Southern craft revival and the transition of material culture of Southern Appalachia from a utilitarian product into one for looks and the role selling those crafts for money played into the larger rural Southern society. Lastly, my research seeks to add to the body of work addressing the persistence of violence in the rural South. There are few white European settlers in what is now Cannon County in the 1830s. The level of violence that preceded these settlements during the previous century was long and brutal, especially during the Cherokee American War. The white settlers who removed and replaced the Indigenous Tribes of the region were followed by a generation that fought a bloody (if short) Civil War. Tennessee looms large in scale regarding her massive battlefields and tragic loss of life. Smaller, rural, and more mountainous spaces like Cannon County lacked the wide-open terrain and logistical importance that made the Battle of Stones River next door in Rutherford County possible—yet the legacy of Bushwhacker violence in those regions left its mark. The characters in this story are the generation that followed and the continued rural violence of The Great Depression, especially in the Jim Crow South, points to an unbroken chain of violence. My research is mostly a story about class in Southern Appalachia, and these three characters would have no voice in history were it not for the alleged crime. However, the primary sources continue to lead to a more nuanced understanding of communities in the 1930s on the edge of rural Southern Appalachia.