The Murder of Elsie Lawson

elsie lawsonElsie Lawson was a bright and vivacious 11-year-old in 1921. She lived with her family at the end of Pulp Row, or “Chinch Row” in Kingsport, Tennessee. The daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Lawson had three brothers and a sister. It shocked the region when her body was found in early June. Lawson’s body was beneath the bleachers of the old Appalachian League baseball field on Clay Street.


The Scene

W. B. Hill was the business manager for Kingsport’s baseball club. Hill went to retrieve some tools on June 7, at 7:30 am. They were stored beneath the bleachers. He walked into the area and came to a sudden stop. He could see a lifeless body in the distance. He didn’t approach it because he knew it was a crime scene, even from a distance. He couldn’t make out details, but the body was unnaturally still. He immediately summoned the authorities.

Chief of Police Cam King was among the first responders. The crime was particularly heinous as the victim was a child who had been undressed from the waist down, violated, her head crushed, and her throat cut. The killer had left her bottom half exposed.

Spectators continued coming to the field. Estimates claimed over one thousand people had come to the field by that afternoon. The child’s parents came, but King refused to let them see their daughter in that condition. Rather than viewing the body at that point, he had the parents’ describe her clothing. King brought in a group of bloodhounds to assist in the search for the killer.


The Parents

The parents were nearly hysterical when they arrived. Elsie didn’t come home the night before, but the parents were certain she’d just gone to her grandmother’s to stay the night. Their assurances disappeared when they discovered her grandmother hadn’t seen her. Elsie was a rambunctious “tomboy” who couldn’t be kept inside, regardless of threat. They couldn’t find their daughter anywhere, and were mortified when their neighbors informed them a body had been found at the field.

Elsie liked to play on the old baseball field when it wasn’t in use. Her father, Charles, was an employee at the Meade fiber plant, where Elsie enjoyed sliding down the huge fiber piles.

Her parents also carried the brunt of many well meaning, albeit pointless, neighborhood rumors. Despite their devastating loss, people told the papers that little Elsie had bad clothes and was poorly dressed. Some even claimed she carried cigarettes when she could find them.

Elsie’s funeral service was held at the parents’ home on June 9, at 10 am. Reverend Seigle B. Ogle, pastor of the Baptist Church, lead the service. The parents barely held up under their grief, and her mother grew hysterical several times. Elsie was then taken to the city cemetery, near Lovedale, for burial.


A Curious Suspect

Uern Quillen was as strange as his name implied. He wasn’t sure of his own age. He guessed it was around 18 or maybe 19. He had a slight build and at 5′ 8″, he only weighted 120 pounds. He was one of five boys. His parents were Mr. and Mrs. William Quillen, who lived near the Federal Dye Plant.

Johnson City Sheriff W. A. Walters arrested Quillen in Fordtown that afternoon. Rumors already traveled from people who had witnessed Quillen with the Lawson girl. He had obvious bloody prints on his clothing when they took him in. Uern seemed nervous after they arrested him, but was talkative to authorities. His preliminary hearing was initially scheduled for June 10. He didn’t talk to relatives after his arrest.

His mother tried to visit him in the Blountville jail the next day, but he wasn’t there. The authorities moved him to the jail in Marion, Virginia, due to the public’s outrage. They feared a lynch mob.  Because they had to move him, his preliminary hearing was postponed until June 14. He would appear before Magistrate H. H. Massengill. He pled “not guilty.”

Eventually, Attorney John R. Todd came to Quillen’s aid. He believed Quillen was a simple-minded man who was incapable of committing such an atrocious crime. He thought the authorities were rushing the case and the real killer could still be free, possibly targeting another child. He believed Quillen was uneducated and simple-minded. Quillen also had J. C. Phillips as a defense attorney.


Preliminary Proceedings

Prosecuting Attorney General Lovette was assisted by the firm of Barnes & Worley. By the preliminary hearing, Quillen still hadn’t found an attorney. Already, there was implicating evidence against him. Several witnesses came forward to report they’d watched Quillen talking with Elsie that night. The shirt and shoes he wore when arrested had blood on them.

Quillen said the blood came from his finger because of an injury while playing baseball. The authorities examined his hands, but didn’t find any injury that might produce that amount of blood.

Quillen said it was impossible. He couldn’t have committed the murder. A game was played that afternoon between Kingsport and Knoxville, but he left as soon as the game ended. He said he walked to the railroad station and then over to the Strand Theater on Main Street. He tried to watch a movie in exchange for sweeping the theater, but they refused. He then went to the Five Points Theater, where they allowed it. After the film, he returned to his Sullivan Street house.


Good from the Bad

The brutality that little Elsie suffered was not all in vain. Local leaders began questioning their way of life. Kingsport had established curfew hours. The citywide ordinance had existed for a long time, but enforcement had waned. They reintroduced the old orders and children were no longer allowed out without an adult between the hours of 9 pm and 5 am. Locals all believed Elsie would still be alive, had they not been so lax.


The Trial

Todd was prepared to defend Quillen as well as any attorney could within the boundaries of the justice system. Unfortunately, things began to come out that he never anticipated. The jury consisted of E. E. Morrell, J. B. Morrell, S. W. Ray, John Dillow, Harry Slaughter, A. A. Kidd, James Owen, E. S. Jones, C. V. Logan, A. A. Warren, Em. M. Hull, and A. D. Blaylock.

Jackson Isaacs was the crime scene photographer for the Kingsport police. He brought pictures to and displayed them for the jury. Dr. T. B. Yancey, Kingsport’s City Health Inspector, had examined the body prior to its release to the family. Semen was found in the body. She was killed by a crushing blow to the skull with a blunt object. The authorities found a heavy hemlock wood club near the body. Several unnamed witnesses claimed to have seen Quillen with Elsie late into the night, a couple of them stated they noticed them as late as 11 pm.

Chief of Police King was called to the stand. He said the tracks around the body were identical to the tread on Quillen’s shoes. He also said those tracks had walked in tandem with the little girl’s bare feet prints. Defense Attorney Phillips cross-examined King, but there wasn’t any issue with his story.

The most incriminating evidence came from Charles Lawson himself. Uern had been at their house numerous times in the weeks leading up to the murder. It had reached the point where Lawson threatened Quillen with his gun if he didn’t stay away from his children.


Todd’s Nightmare

The defense had argued to the best of their abilities, but they pushed for a life sentence, should Quillen be convicted. Todd was speechless by the end of the trial. He knew Quillen was guilty.

Judge D. A. Vines gave Quillen a life sentence on October 3, 1921. Todd visited Quillen in one last attempt to pull the truth from him. Quillen said the two witnesses who claimed they saw him with Elsie after 11 had committed perjury. He knew it was a lie because he killed her right after 7 pm. Todd wrestled further information from him. He could only get Quillen to admit he followed her into the baseball park just before he killed her. He wouldn’t discuss anything further. Quillen then actually asked Todd if he would file an appeal after he confessed, but Todd refused.

Todd then spoke with several other inmates who’d lived with Quillen, and to his horror, they all knew he was guilty. He’d already admitted it to them. The other inmates noticed Quillen was much too restless and unable to sleep. Something bothered him and they picked and pried until he admitted it.

Quillen’s poor parents never recovered from his conviction or admission. Even though he was so young, Quillen only narrowly escaped the electric chair. Nine jurors out of eleven wanted to give him the death penalty. He attempted to get paroled in 1938, but was denied. Quillen lived out the rest of his days at the Brushy Mountain Penitentiary.


Relevant Information:

  • Chinch Row was a community of workers’ shanty houses, many only had 1-2 rooms. This area was also known as “Pulp Mill Village.”
  • Kingsport’s baseball team at the time was the Kingsport Indians. Kingsport’s team was disbanded in 1925 after incurring over $11,000 in debt. The Appalachian League baseball field was also consolidated and disappeared into history.


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