Upland Chronicles: Murder of Dr. Henderson captivated Sevierville in 1894

Mar. 15, 2014 @ 11:22 PM

In 1954, Roy C. and Carl D. Newman purchased the property at 112 E. Main St. in Sevierville. The brothers dismantled the stately old house to make way for the grocery store they planned to build on the site.

When the house was razed, a board was discovered that contained a hole left by the bullet that fatally wounded Dr. James A. Henderson 60 years earlier.

At about 7 Thursday evening, Nov. 29, 1894, while Dr. James A. Henderson, his wife, children, and a neighbor, W.A Green, were sitting quietly at the fireside of Dr. Henderson’s home, someone quietly slipped up to a window, the blinds of which were open, raised a shotgun and discharged a load of buckshot. Six of the shots entered the face and head of Dr. Henderson, terribly mutilating the flesh and causing almost instant death.

Coroner A.T. Atchley summoned a jury of inquest and entered a thorough examination of the incident. The jury rendered a verdict to the effect that Dr. Henderson came to his death by a gunshot, fired by the hands of William H. “Bill” Gass.

A warrant was at once sworn out by the coroner charging Gass with murder in the first degree. The warrant was placed in the hands of a constable, who arrested Gass and placed him in custody under heavy guard.

The arrest of Gass did not put an end to the speculations surrounding the murder of the prominent physician. George Mac Henderson, brother of the victim, arrived in Knoxville the following day, where he purchased a casket that he took with him to Sevierville. He was reported to have said that he did not believe that Gass was the man who committed the murder. He stated that he knew others who had reason for taking the life of his brother.

Undoubtedly, he was referring to the vigilante organization known as the White Caps, who had been terrorizing citizens of Sevier County for several years. It was no secret that Dr. Henderson was the principal organizer of a counter group called the Blue Bills. The mission of the Blue Bills was to put down the lawless White Caps. Unlike the White Caps, the Blue Bills never wore a mask to disguise their identity. Dr. Henderson was a terror to the White Caps for about two years, and they endeavored to capture and punish him during all that time.

Yet he foiled every attempt, owing to the fact that he had spies in the White Cap camps and hired one of their numbers to betray them into his hands.

However, there were those who were convinced that Bill Gass was the lone assailant because he certainly had a motive to kill Dr. Henderson. Several days earlier, Gass heard rumors that his wife had been unfaithful. Gossip connected her name with that of Dr. Henderson, and a quiet investigation was made by the wronged husband.

After securing some evidence, Gass then directly accused his wife of having an affair with Dr. Henderson. She broke down and confessed everything. She told him of a trip to Knoxville, and of having been with the doctor for two days at the Hotel Imperial.

On Friday, Nov. 30, 1894, The Knoxville Journal published the following account:

Last Sunday afternoon a young man of perhaps 35, of medium build, and wearing a light mustache, appeared before the desk of the Hotel Imperial in the city and taking up a pen registered in a bold hand:

Ella Jones, Rutledge

J.A. Henderson, Sevierville

“Miss Jones,” who had gone to the ladies’ parlor, was assigned to room 64, and Dr. Henderson was given room 83, which is located on the fourth floor. That night the couple appeared together at supper, and everyone in the dining room was attracted to the young woman’s beauty. She appeared to be about 20, with large, lustrous black eyes, arched brows, black hair and cheeks as red and rosy as a ripe peach. She was of medium height and attired in a plain black dress that perfectly fitted her well rounded figure.

No one suspected there was anything wrong with the couple. There was surely nothing in their conduct to arouse suspicion in the hotel people, who are always on the lookout for anything that would reflect on the reputation of the house. At a reasonable hour, the young woman retired to her own room. Next day the couple paid their bills, but that afternoon the young woman registered again as Miss Jones, Rutledge.

The young woman who registered using the alias “Miss Jones of Rutledge” was Julia Lillian “Lille” Maples Gass, wife of Bill Gass of Sevierville. She was the only daughter of Sevier County Sheriff Fillmore Maples. Her father was said to have been bitterly opposed to the marriage with Gass, but they eloped to Knoxville and were married when she was only 16.

For security reasons, Gass was held in jail in Knoxville until his trial in Sevierville, in which he was acquitted.

Following a funeral service conducted by members of the Masonic Temple and Odd Fellows Lodge, Dr. Henderson was buried in Shiloh Cemetery beside his first wife, Emma. Around 1940, these bodies were moved to Highland Memorial Cemetery in Knoxville, but the ornate monument marking his original grave remains.

Dr. Henderson was born June 19, 1861. He married Mary Emma Montgomery on March 20, 1881. They had one son, James Victor, who became a prominent physician and surgeon in Knoxville. Dr. Victor Henderson’s grandson is Victor Henderson Ashe, former mayor of Knoxville and former U.S. ambassador to Poland.

After Emma died, Dr. Henderson married Lauretta Murphy. They had one daughter, Leona. Lauretta and Leona moved to Knoxville in 1907 and rented out the Sevierville home. Mrs. Henderson sold the house to L.D. Webb in 1911, and Theodore Atchley and his wife, Maude, later acquired the property. After Maude Atchley died in 1949, the property was purchased by Burt Ketner, Dana Parrott, and J.C. Allen, who sold it to the Newman brothers.

Today the building at 212 E. Main St. is occupied by Atchley and Cox Insurance Company and the West Chapel of Atchley Funeral Home.

Carroll McMahan is special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for topics, contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or cmcmahan@scoc.org.