Jenny Cooper didn’t believe the folks who said her grandfather and his kinsman killed each other in a feud. Now he’s honored as a fallen officer.
This piece by Ralph Berrier, Jr. ran on the Roanoke Times site on October 10, and is reprinted here with permission.
On Aug. 6, 1926, a tragedy occurred on the streets of Clintwood, deep in the mountains of Southwest Virginia.
Pridemore Fleming shot James Sherman Mullins right in front of the Dickenson County Courthouse. The men were second cousins. What’s more, they were lawmen. Both died of their gunshot wounds.
Fleming was the whiskey-drinking sheriff of Dickenson County. Mullins was a Prohibition inspector for the state. When the newspapers got hold of the story, they played it up as a long-standing feud that boiled over. They were just two hillbilly cousins settling their old scores with guns blazing in a display of mountain-style justice.
“The shooting grew out of an old grudge between the two men,” the Bristol Herald Courier reported on Aug. 9, 1926.
“Animosity between the two men dates back a number of years,” The Roanoke Times reported. “Repeated remarks which each has made about the other brought the crisis last night.”
That’s the way the story was told for the next 85 years — that is, if anyone in Dickenson County spoke of it at all, which most people did not. Folks did not want to upset the men’s numerous descendents.
That would have been the end of it, except for Jenny Cooper, who is a granddaughter of Mullins and a genealogical sleuth. Cooper’s mother had always told her that the tragedy on the courthouse steps was not the result of some family feud. Cooper’s mother always claimed that her father had died in the line of duty.
Cooper decided it was time to get James Sherman Mullins the recognition he was due.
Cooper, 73, lives in Northern Virginia, where she settled after traveling the world with her husband, Kenneth, an Army guy 16 years her senior. After Kenneth died in 2007, Cooper filled her time with family research.
“I thought the truth should come out,” she said during a recent stay in Roanoke, where she was doing more research.
Cooper went to work in 2010, looking up records at the Library of Virginia in Richmond and the National Archives in Washington, reading letters and documents, filling out forms, making countless photocopies at 50 cents a page and waiting up to 30 days for libraries to send her the work she had requested.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she said.
She uncovered a paper trail that laid the backstory for the shootout. Letters between the Virginia Attorney General’s office, the Dickenson County Commonwealth’s Attorney and area businessmen made one fact clear — Sheriff Fleming was protecting bootleggers and Inspector Mullins, who was charged with the unenviable task of arresting the makers of illegal whiskey, had the goods on him. Fleming was also a hard drinker, who was often intoxicated in public, according to residents who complained to local authorities.
Attorney General John Saunders wanted Fleming removed from office. Commonwealth’s Attorney Elihu J. “Lie” Sutherland wanted to wait for a trial. Meanwhile, Mullins was prepared to serve warrants on the sheriff. That is what he was going to do the day he was shot.
After dinner on Aug. 6, 1926, Mullins left home and drove a few miles into town with the warrants. He met Sutherland, the commonwealth’s attorney, near the Clintwood town square, where a number of other men gathered. Mullins and Sutherland were discussing another case when the sheriff stumbled up the sidewalk and “seemed to be under the influence of intoxicants,” as Sutherland later wrote.
“You men get away!” Fleming hollered. “Scatter.”
Men did just that as Fleming fired numerous shots from a revolver. Mullins scrambled to the top of the courthouse steps and hid behind a pillar. Fleming fired until he was out of bullets and started to walk away. Mullins, who had lost his right arm in an accident the year before, pulled his revolver from the holster and shot Fleming in the back.
Fleming died about a half hour later. Mullins had been hit three times, including a wound in his side.
“Come here, ‘Lie,’ ” Mullins said to Sutherland. “I’m killed.”
He died two days later at age 59. Mullins and Fleming were buried the same day in neighboring cemeteries.
Cooper presented her voluminous research to the Dickenson County Historical Society and to friends, some of whom told her that her grandfather’s name should be on the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. Today, thanks to Cooper’s work, Mullins’ name is included at the memorial among 19,000 officers who died in the line of duty.
On June 1, Mullins received another honor, when Dickenson County memorialized him during a ceremony at the sheriff’s office.
One of the attendees had waited decades for that day — Snoda Mullins Adkins Rawlings, the 103-year-old daughter of James Sherman Mullins and the mother of Jenny Cooper. She is the last of 13 children and she is the reason Cooper went to all that trouble to find the truth about that day.
“The good Lord left me here for some reason,” Snoda told her daughter.
Snoda (pronounced “SNOW-da”) lives in South Carolina with another daughter. She is lively and chatty, a woman who says she has already outlived three funeral directors she had hoped would preside over her own funeral.
She was 16 when her father died. Her brother drove a Studebaker from town to tell the family their father had been shot. Snoda went to the hospital, where she saw her mortally wounded father.
“I couldn’t get close to him in the hospital,” she said during a recent telephone conversation. “No one was allowed over to him. He called to me.”
“There’s, Snoda …” her father managed to say to her. Those are the last words she remembers hearing him say.
Life was difficult for Snoda’s family after her father’s death. Because authorities called the gun fight a family feud, Snoda’s mother never received a pension she was entitled to. Snoda married a young man who became a teacher and a lumberman and she lived in West Virginia and North Carolina, but she still calls the mountains of Dickenson County her home.
“This brings closure for my mother,” Cooper said of the belated recognition for James Sherman Mullins. “Something has been done that has made her feel better about all this.”
“My father was honest,” Snoda said. “He put his whole life into his work. My father was a wonderful man.”