South Pittsburg, Tennessee, is a quaint little town of fewer than 3,000 residents that sits just across the border from Bridgeport, Alabama. It has a picturesque downtown, the site of the annual National Cornbread Festival, which is held each year on the last weekend in April.
On a visit to the small town a couple of years ago, Sweetums and I noticed a new historical marker commemorating a famous massacre I’d previously come across in my research. It was a horrific incident in which six law officers were killed on Christmas night in 1927.
Not long after attendees left the Christmas night service at Cumberland Presbyterian Church, sounds of gunfire shattered the silence of downtown South Pittsburg, which then had a population of about 2,100 people.
Law officers and guards for a local company faced off in a gun battle, with lawmen on both sides shooting at one another. When the shootout was over, six law officers – including the sheriff and police chief – lay dead in the streets. It was the most violent incident in the city’s history.
On January 5, 1928, a newspaper in Plattsburgh, New York, reported the story under the headline “Six officers slain in gun battle here on Christmas night.”
It read, in part,
“Scarcely had the echoes of the carol rendered Christmas night in the sacred cantata at the Cumberland Presbyterian church in this city faded into the foothills of the Cumberland, when a volley of gun shots rang out upon the down-town streets that took a toll of six lives and wounded several, among whom were numbered some of Marion county’s best citizens.
No investigation has been made of the horrible tragedy which took place on Cedar avenue between the Hotel Robert E. Lee and Williamson’s Pharmacy between the hours of 9 and 10 o’clock and the consensus of opinion is that those slain were the chief characters of the gun battle.
Among the slain were Sheriff Coppinger and Deputy L. A. Hennessey; Chief of Police James Conner, who was also a deputy under Coppinger; Special Policemen Ewing Smith, Ben Parker and O. H. Larowe. Those receiving slight wounds were John Holden, Lafayette Nelson and Charles Tidman.
Today, a marker at the corner of Cedar Avenue and Third Street, where the shootout occurred, explains the reason for the violence.
The front side reads:
In January 1927, H Wetter Manufacturing Company, South Pittsburgh’s largest employer, closed its stove factory. When Wetter tried to re-open with non-union labor, the unions established picket lines. The strike hurt the local economy. High tension between four local unions and Wetter not only drove a wedge between employer and employees but divided residents, politicians and law enforcement officials. Growing resentment, coupled with political rivalries from the last sheriff’s race, soon led to officer battling officer.
The back side reads:
The gunfight on Christmas night of 1927 at Third Street and Cedar Avenue left six officers dead and several injured. Dead were Sheriff G. Washington Coppinger, Deputy Lorenza Hennessey, city marshals Benjamin Parker and Ewing Smith and Wetter guard Oran H LaRowe. Police chief James Connor died the next day. Gov. Henry H. Horton dispatched the National Guard to curtail addition violence.
Washington Coppinger, nicknamed “Wash,” was replaced as sheriff by his son, Turner Coppinger. Members of the Coppinger family are buried in the nearby Bean-Raulston Cemetery.