TN whiskey-maker’s murder trial in St. Louis recalled

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has an article, apparently part of a local history series, on Lem Motlow – of historic Jack Daniel’s distillery fame here in Tennessee – being charged with murder in 1924 of a railroad conductor after another conductor, who was black, asked for his ticket. He was acquitted after what the newspaper describes as “a crudely racist and high-priced defense strategy.”

Seems Motlow had moved part of the family distillery to St. Louis when Tennessee adopted prohibition in 1910. After prohibition became national, complications ensued over whiskey stored in St. Louis.

It began with the “milking” case. Under Prohibition, liquor already distilled was to be kept under guard and used only as prescription medicine. Nonetheless, in August 1923, well-connected thieves were able to deftly siphon away 893 barrels of Jack Daniel’s whiskey — “milking” it through hidden hose out of the warehouse at 3960 Duncan Avenue.

Motlow, nephew of the original Jack Daniel, was among the indicted.

On March 17, 1924, after a visit here for brief court appearance, Motlow had drinks with friends before heading to Union Station. He stumbled unsteadily onto the Louisville & Nashville night train for the trip home to Tennessee.

Sleeping-car car porter Ed Wallis asked Motlow for his ticket. He didn’t have one and became irate that Wallis, who was black, dared to challenge him. Conductor Clarence Pullis, who was white, intervened. As the train chuffed through the downtown tunnel toward the Eads Bridge, Motlow pulled a pistol and fired twice, striking Pullis once in the abdomen.

…His trial opened on Dec. 4, 1924, before St. Louis Circuit Judge Henry Hamilton in the Municipal Courts Building. Motlow’s seven lawyers included Patrick Cullen, a prominent St. Louis attorney. Among his character witnesses was Tennessee Gov. Austin Peay.

Wallis testified that Motlow angrily asked Pullis, “Where did you get that black —-?” Wallis said he was shoved by Motlow, who pulled a pistol from his coat and fired.

The defense built its case around Wallis’ race. Cullen asked Wallis if he belonged to any civil-rights groups. He mocked Wallis by affecting a black dialect.

Motlow testified that Wallis was arrogant. Using a racial slur, he said Wallis grabbed him by the throat. “I reached for my pistol,” Motlow said, “then somebody grabbed my hand from behind, and the pistol accidentally discharged twice.”

During closing arguments, Frank Bond, a defense lawyer from Nashville, repeatedly used racial slurs and said, “There are two kinds of (blacks) in the South. There are those who know their place … and those who have ambitions for racial equality. … In such a class falls Wallis, the race reformer, the man who would be socially equal to you all, gentlemen of the jury.”

Circuit Attorney Howard Sidener said, “This is not a case of North and South. … This is a case of murder.” But the 12 white gentlemen quickly voted to acquit on Dec. 10. Said foreman Frederick Smith, “We didn’t believe the Negro.” Jurors shook hands with Motlow.

He never was tried in the milking case. Back home in Tennessee, Motlow became a magistrate judge and eventually resumed making whiskey. He died in 1947.