City Alderman Guns Down Former Sheriff in 1870’s Mobile: THE HOMICIDE CASE & THE FATAL AFFRAY
A most curious case of municipal drama unfolded in the downtown old Alderman Chambers of the City of Mobile. Chalk it up to an early stand your ground holding, but the case involved a quarrel between two men of public service. Rewind to the year 1870 Reconstruction Mobile.
You hear many folks today say that people these days are too quick on the draw and that quarrels in the old days were handled by fisticuffs instead of pistols; that in today’s society we are much more disposed to violence and deadly force than people were in the ole days. However true that may be in some circumstances, we must never forget the power of the southern preoccupation with the concept of honor. I have written and spoken on this in my book on Mobile’s most notorious honor killing at the Battle House in 1932. But I would remind you, that honor took many forms and resulted in many gratuitous and heedless killings in our town. The story I am about to relate epitomizes yet another senseless act of violence heaped upon the altar of honor. Perhaps it was more self-defense, but the whole sordid affair no doubt was immersed in honor and saving face.
The scrap started out as most do- verbally. What made this case sensational was its participants- two public servants one William M. Shelton, the former Mobile County Sheriff and Henry C. Thrower, a city of Mobile alderman (city councilman). The two were political rivals in town having squared off against one another in the 1858 race for Sheriff of Mobile County, with Shelton ultimately prevailing.
There was no love lost between the two old political rivals. At the time of this case Shelton was heard to have berated and harangued Thrower for three days leading up to the affray. Shelton according to one witness was heard to be highly critical of the city commissioners calling them “damned swindlers, damned sons of bitches, etc.”
What precipitated Thrower pulling his pistol and shooting Shelton? Well, the facts would come out in court at the trial. Well, it was not really a trial. It was a peculiar legal proceeding more akin to a preliminary hearing than a trial, but the court nonetheless heard evidence in the matter. The State of Alabama was not represented at the hearing, which contemporary news reports indicate was not unusual in these type proceedings. The presiding judge was Mobile County Circuit Court Judge John Elliott. Representing the shooter was Judge Alexander McKinstry, a Republican. McKinstry had studied law under Judge Archibald Campbell in Mobile. Judge Campbell later served as an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court. McKinstry served as a city judge in Mobile until 1860, which is why the papers referred to him as Judge McKinstry in 1870 at the time of this case. McKinstry also served as a city alderman, or what today we call a city council person. McKinstry would later serve as Lieutenant Governor of Alabama. The next Republican to hold that spot would be Mobile’s Steve Windom.
Although the coroner held a hearing, the Judge wanted to hear testimony from live witnesses, and so the witnesses were called. What was remarkable was that so many persons witnessed the shooting. Witnesses called included the Mobile County Coroner Dr. R.L. Brodie, Mobile Police Officer William B. Allen.
The testimony generally established that both Shelton and Thrower were in the Alderman Chambers counting ballots of the Sixth Ward after the day’s election. One of the men assisting suggested the parties take a break to get some dinner. A verbal confrontation ensued when Shelton and Thrower could not agree on whether to continue the ballot count as a necessary party had exited the room. Shelton refused to continue the ballot count according to Officer Allen even saying, “I’ll be damned if I count anymore, and if you want to count, count and be damned!” However this did not stop the count. Thrower demanded the other counter to proceed by calling out the names. Enraged, Shelton threw off his coat and swore, “I can whip any damn son of a bitch in this room!” Shelton then directed his anger at Thrower telling him, “if you think you can lick me, come on!” Thrower who was seated, arose and began, “Bill Shelton…” but before he could finish, Shelton punched him on the left cheek.
Of course there was testimony that Shelton had been drinking, and that Shelton was known to carry a pistol on his person too, and that he would routinely pull it out of his breeches pocket. Most witnesses testified it was Shelton who was at fault in the fray as he first struck Thrower. Witnesses testified that Thrower retreated and attempted to avoid the altercation. One witness went so far as to insinuate cowardice on Thrower’s part as he testified that he was surprised that Thrower “did not resent it…” and “did not think he would retreat from any man.” Another witness testified after Shelton punched him. Thrower told Shelton, “By God don’t hit me again.” The initial fight was broken up followed by a brief cessation of hostilities. However, Shelton’s blood was too hot, and this coupled with his alcohol consumption was too much for his countenance to bear. Perhaps, as Doc Holliday said of Johnny Ringo, Shelton was just a “pour soul who was too high strung.” Indeed the strain was more than Shelton could bare. Shelton then retreated and reached for and picked up his coat. This prompted Thrower to pull his pistol and shoot Shelton down, the ball striking Shelton in the shoulder sending pieces of cotton flying into the air.
The case concluded with a witness who said that he pulled a loaded pistol from Shelton’s jacket.
Drama filled the courtroom as the Judge recessed court and retired to ponder the fate of Thrower.
After a short while, Judge Elliott returned with his verdict:
“A fair statement of the evidence indicates that the deceased, a man who, while under the influence of ardent spirits (which was the case at the time), was violent and turbulent, was grossly insulting and abusive to the prisoner; that the prisoner passively yielded after having been struck a blow, and endeavored to avoid rencontre and to escape from the scene of the conflict; and that he did not fire the pistol until he had retreated technically ‘to the wall.’ Both parties were shown to be armed with pistols previously to the conflict. It is true that Shelton did not present his pistol at the prisoner, but the prisoner knew that Shelton was armed with a pistol, and that he was making repeated efforts to use his weapon, and the law of self-defence is satisfied in this State if the circumstances are such as to impress the prisoner with the reasonable belief that the imminence of danger is pressing. That is sufficient without showing an actual danger. (Oliver’s case, 17 Ala.,585) In this case there can be no doubt of this. The prisoner is therefore discharged.”
And with this verdict, Thrower was released. He walked a free man.
Old City Hall in Mobile, Alabama ( Royal Street)
Thrower went on to bigger and better things. He was later appointed United States Shipping Commissioner at Mobile by the Secretary of the Treasury in 1890. Meanwhile, poor Shelton went on to the graveyard.
Henry C. Thrower Grave Magnolia Cemetery