Gouge girls' murder

  Last Thursday night as I was leaving the office, a young reporter who had read a proof of my article, "Down Memory Lane," asked: "Did it disturb you to see that man hanging dead in his jail cell?"
  She, of course, was referring to Church Lester, one of the four persons convicted in the bombing of the Harmon Gouge home, in which his three young daughters were killed. On Friday, other persons after reading the article shared with me tidbits they remembered about the tragedy.
  The Hampton home of Harmon Gouge was bombed in January 1938, as the family slept. The three little girls killed were ages nine, six and seven. I was just a young teenager at the time, but I remember, as many others do, the three small caskets, which were carried to the top of a hill near Roan Mountain and buried. I remember the difficulty the men had carrying the caskets up the hill.
  My brother, the late Sen. Herman Robinson, was working for the Johnson City Press at the time, and I went with him to the cemetery. It was one of the saddest tragedies of our time, and if you were there, the memories of those three little caskets still remain.
  Gouge and Arnold Tollett were business partners in a small garage-and-tavern operation in Hampton. They had argued over a debt one of them owed the other. The argument escalated into a bitter dispute, with Tollett reportedly pulling a knife on Gouge, who responded by mortally wounding Tollett with a pistol.
  Witnesses agreed the action had been self-defense and Gouge avoided any legal punishment for his action. However, the Tolletts were an important family in Bledsoe County, and were not a people to be trifled with. They were filled with burning hatred for Gouge, whom they felt had simply shot down their brother in cold blood, and plans for revenge began to take place.
  The Tollett brothers and some of their friends came to Carter County to get Gouge. Prior to the bombing of his home, they dynamited his car. Gouge had just gotten out of his car and gone into a Tiger Valley store, when his car exploded.
  Fearing for his family, Gouge rented a room in Elizabethton. On the chilly night of January 7, 1938, in the early morning hours while Gouge was staying in Elizabethton, his home was dynamited and his three daughters killed. His wife was critically injured by the blast.
  The investigation revealed that dynamite had been placed under each of the four corners of the house; one of the charges directly under the bedroom where the three children slept. According to one account, the blast blew the children against the ceiling of their room, in a crushing impact that had caused all of their lungs to collapse. Two of the children died instantly; the third was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
  The assailants left a trail of evidence all the way from Hampton to Chattanooga, and within days, Carter County Sheriff Moreland had located the accused and had them locked up in the Carter County Jail.
  Twelve persons were arrested in the case, including White Tollett, the county coroner of Bledsoe County; Lee Walker, a Bledsoe County deputy sheriff; Cave Tollett, Mae Tollett, Church Lester, Tom and Clyde Deloach, Bruce Pierce and James Greer, all of them close friends or relatives of the Tolletts.
  News reporters from big city newspapers across the nation arrived in town to cover the story. They came from New York and Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago, as well as other places.
  The case went to trial in March with Judge Ben Allen presiding. Of those arrested, five went to trial -- White Tollett, his brother, Cave, Ulysses Walling, Church Lester and Lee Walker.
  I remember how my older brother, Herman, got the "scoop" when two of the men entered confessions.
  He had cultivated many friends among the Carter County deputies. Hearing from some of his deputy friends that confessions had been made, Herman was successful in persuading them to obtain him a copy.
  Stuffing the documents inside his shirt, he hurried outside and hired a friend to drive the papers to the Johnson City newspaper office along with a note, saying: "I'll call as soon as the confessions are read in court ... and we can get out an extra with the confession and beat everyone in the country to it."
  However, the judge grew suspicious. He knew Herman was trying to get the confessions released to the newspaper even before they were read in court, so he ordered the sheriff to keep him inside the courtroom until the reading of the confessions had been completed.
  Not to be outsmarted, Herman, anticipating such a move, had posted a friend in the doorway. At a pre-arranged signal, Herman raised his hand when the confessions were read, and the friend at the door ran for a telephone, called the newspaper, and the presses began rolling. An extra edition was on the streets before the jury could retire to consider their verdict.
  The judge didn't much like what Herman had done and refused to allow the confessions of Walker and Walling to be used as evidence against the other defendants. However, without the confessions, the jury within 35 minutes had reached its verdict.
  White Tollett and Church Lester were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Lee Walker and Ulysses Walling were found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 21 years in prison. Cave Tollett was acquitted. Cases were dismissed against the others arrested in the case.
  The tragedy occurred in January; the trial held in March. Lester hanged himself that same month and White Tollett died by electrocution in the Tennessee State Prison, just one year and three days after his violent act of vengeance against Harmon Gouge had brutally killed the three little girls.
  The Gouge home was never rebuilt, for far too many sad memories would forever haunt the spot where it once stood. The three little graves on a windy hill near Roan Mountain are lonely reminders of the tragedy. Gouge died years later a derelict.
  It was a tragedy that will always be remembered by my generation.
  If you know more about this, please send a letter to the editor, sharing your memories. Be sure to sign your name and give a telephone number so we can authenticate it. Send your letters to LETTERS TO THE EDITOR, Elizabethton STAR, P.O. Box 1960, Elizabethton, TN 37644.