The Trial of Rush Strong

Gunfight on Locust Street in Knoxville 1916:

At 10:25 p.m. on Monday, July 3, 1916, shots were fired on the block of Locust Street between Cumberland Avenue and Main Avenue in Knoxville. The shooters were Gideon Rush Strong and Samuel Bell Luttrell Jr. Why? Because Rush's wife Bonnie Hurt Strong told her husband that Sam had raped her twice, once by dope and once by force. Let's review the bios of the trio. Rush Strong (age 29 on gunfight night) was son of a wealthy farmer living 10 miles northeast of Knoxville on the Rutledge Pike. During the winter of 1912-1913 he went to the Curtiss Flying School in California and earned a pilot's license.

Rush had dated Bonnie Hurt in Knoxville, an attractive woman five years younger than he. She traveled to Los Angeles, where they were married in September 1913. The couple followed the horse racing circuit for a while, returning to the Strong farm in October 1915.

Sam Luttrell (age 32 at the fight) was also born to wealth. He had inherited the prosperous S. B. Luttrell & Company hardware store at 613 Gay Street on the main artery running north and south through the city. He was single with an eye for the ladies. Sam lived with his widowed mother at 617 West Main.

Rush and Bonnie and Sam were acquaintances. As teenagers the guys had attended the Baker-Himel School together, located north over the hill from the present U.T. Law College.

On the evening of Friday, April 14, 1916, Rush and Bonnie came to town from the farm to attend the circus. But that plan fell through because the pair had a "misunderstanding" and separated. Sam encountered Bonnie at Kuhlman's Drugstore. Sam looked for Rush, found he was going to the circus with a buddy, and reported back to Bonnie " now situated at a sister's house on East Church Street. Sam offered to take her to a motion picture show, but only after he drove to an alley garage off Locust Street to put oil in his car. She testified at trial about what happened next.

"While we were down there he suggested a bottle of beer, which I took. He suggested another bottle. He was opening the other bottle of beer, and I said 'Hurry up and give it to me; what makes you take so long?' He handed me the beer, and he threw something into a little tool chest. I said 'What did you throw over there?' He said 'Oh, nothing much.' I drank the beer, and in less than a minute's time I was in a stupor. I was paralyzed, and when I came to I found that he had taken advantage of me."

On Saturday evening, July 24, Sam picked up Bonnie in downtown Knoxville. He took her to the same garage and, according to Bonnie, forced her to engage in sexual intercourse despite her protest that she was sick with her "monthlies." When she met back up with husband Rush, she told him on the drive home about Sam's two transgressions.

Rush tried to locate Sam to get "his side of the story," but the latter had hightailed it to Atlanta for a week. Finally through intermediaries they arranged to meet at the Pastime Cigar Stand (and pool room). But the meeting did not take place. Sam went with his friend Joe Hacker to a movie at the Gay Theatre, "The Social Vortex." A frustrated Rush had dropped off Bonnie at another sister's house on West Clinch Avenue, failed to find Sam at the Pastime, and roamed the city looking for Sam.

The movie ended around 10 p.m., and Sam walked with Joe south on Gay Street, west on Union Avenue, and south on Locust Street. Except for the Masonic temple and a church, Locust was residential in those days. When the two guys got about mid-block on the east sidewalk between Cumberland and Main, a car's headlights appeared behind them. Rush was driving and Bonnie rode shotgun. Rush stopped on the west side of the street and asked Sam to approach. At Rush's request, Sam got in the rear seat. Then he jumped out and ran back to the east sidewalk. Rush and Sam fired their pistols. Sam caught a slug in his back as he ran; it punctured his lower liver and upper right kidney.

Rush and Bonnie drove to the farm. Sam staggered a block to his home. He made a dying declaration to his sister, Frances ("Fanny") Luttrell Powers. Then Dr. Nash, a neighbor, drove Sam to General Hospital and performed surgery. Samuel Bell Luttrell, Jr., died in the hospital at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 8. Burial was at Greenwood Cemetery the following day.

Gideon Rush Strong's trial for murder occupied a week, from Monday, May 28, through Friday, June 1, 1917. Presiding was Judge Thomas A. R. Nelson Jr., a highly respected jurist. Charles T. Cate Jr., was first chair for the State as special prosecutor; until recently he had been Attorney General of Tennessee. Rufus A. Mynatt was the elected District Attorney. Leading the defense team was Samuel G. Heiskell, assisted by "Judge" Hugh Barton Lindsay (a former chancellor).

The prosecution called nine witnesses and rested. The first was Dr. Nash. During his qualification as an expert witness he told the jury that "Knoxville is known as a town for shooting up people, and therefore you get a good deal of gun shot work in the City of Knoxville." Fanny Luttrell Powers testified to her brother's dying declaration.
In those days, if the defendant wished to testify, he had to testify as the first defense witness. Rush did. Bonnie followed her husband to the witness stand. The defense rested.

During the prosecution's rebuttal, Samuel A. Russell was called to the stand. He had been a renter in a house on the southwest corner of Locust Street and the alley where Sam Luttrell parked his car in a garage. Multiple readings of the trial transcript convinces me that Bonnie committed perjury. Sam Russell swore that he saw Luttrell and Bonnie walking down the alley toward the garage five or six times. Other rebuttal witnesses placed them at Kuhlman's frequently and walking eastward across the Church Street bridge.

The jury returned a verdict at 5 p.m. on Friday. Rush Strong was found guilty of voluntarily manslaughtering Sam Luttrell. The conviction carried a sentence of two to ten years in the penitentiary. A motion for new trial was denied on June 23, 1917.

On the afternoon of Saturday, November 3, 1917, Rush Strong sat in the Tennessee Supreme Courtroom at Knoxville in the old courthouse (next to the present City-County Building). Every seat was filled with spectators. Rush's conviction was affirmed. As best I can tell he served around two years at Brushy Mountain.

Upon release to freedom he and Bonnie toured parts of Europe, including bullfights. But this marriage was doomed. It failed permanently on June 13, 1927, the minute book entry date of the decree declaring Bonnie divorced from Rush.

We know what happened to Sam Luttrell. But what happened to Rush and Bonnie Strong?

Rush lived out his life on the farm with brother Joe. Despite his crime, he served as a member of County Court and was one of three members of the TVA Land Appraisal Commission.

On the night of November 14, 1936, Rush ran over and killed Ezra Mac McGlothin on Rutledge Pike while driving home; the victim was refueling his out-of-gas truck. I cannot find whether any criminal charges were brought. I have found a record reflecting payment to the decedent's estate of $4,750 "from suit against Rush Strong for death of E. M. McGlothin."

On New Year's Eve 1941 Rush fell asleep while smoking at home (I have been in that room). He was taken by a nephew to a hospital, where he died at 7:15 p.m. He was buried in a family cemetery at the farm. He was 53
years old.

And Bonnie? She married James Huffman, a U.S. Senator from Ohio. She died in 1942 at age 50.

Credits: I appreciate the help of Jack Neely, Darla Brock, Doris Martinson, Ernest Roberts, Bill Nicely, John Nicely, Stuart Cassell, Arthur Seymour, Jim McDonald and Eddie Pratt.