Killing of Dr. Hellen1
(Published in 1908)
Up to twenty-five or thirty years ago, Greensboro bore an unenviable reputation abroad for being a rowdy, turbulent place,—a place where murders were frequently committed. And it is a fact that there is hardly a corner on the streets of the town where the soil has not been reddened with the life-blood of some human being. There were feuds and fights and killings that would have done credit to a mountain county of Kentucky. But all that passed away a quarter of a century ago, and in all the land there is not to be found a more quiet, refined, peaceable and law-abiding people.
Greensboro, Alabama. Main street buildings and county courthouse cupola August 1936 by Walker Evans (Library of Congress)
It would require many pages to tell of the awful tragedies that have been enacted on the streets of the town. We shall mention only one of the many occurrences. It happened so far back that there is not a man now living who has personal knowledge of the unfortunate affair, but there are a few who have it from their fathers or mothers.
Special election was held
On December 21, 1833, a special election for justice of the peace was being held in a store situated on the Steinhart corner. In those days the office was much sought after, and the campaign on this occasion was very warm.
A man named John Street, a lawyer, was a candidate for the position. During the progress of the election, a young physician named Dr. J. S. W. Hellen, became engaged in a quarrel with one of Street’s brothers, and blows and a tussle ensued on the sidewalk near the polling place. The fighting men were soon surrounded by a crowd. John Street came to his brother’s assistance. Dr. Hellen broke loose from his antagonists, rushed into the store, picked up a couple of Scale weights, exclaiming: “Let me get back to the d–n scoundrels!” and as he went out of the door he fell dead on the sidewalk. An examination showed that he had been fatally stabbed.
The Streets were arrested
The Streets were arrested, and either placed under bond or put in jail at Erie. They were indicted by the grand jury for the murder of Hellen. Col. John Erwin, the ablest lawyer in this section, was employed to defend them. Owing to the feeling of the public against the men, a change of venue was granted, and the trial took place in Marengo County. Although there was a large number of witnesses, no one could be found who knew which of the Streets struck the fatal blow, and as they were tried separately, both were acquitted.
At the time of his murder, Dr. Hellen was Worshipful Master of the Masonic Lodge in Greensboro, and was buried with the honors of the Craft on December 22, 1833. The funeral services were held in the Presbyterian Church—then located on the lot immediately in front of the Greensboro Graded School. The funeral sermon was delivered by Rev. John Ives.
Twenty years later
Twenty or more years after the occurrence, there came to Greensboro on business a man from North Carolina named Brooks. He met Col. Erwin, the lawyer who had defended the Streets, and in the course of the conversation, he remarked that it was his first visit to Greensboro since Dr. Hellen was killed.
Hon. John Erwin, Hale County, Alabama
The reference at once aroused the interest of Col. Erwin, and he asked him what he knew about the fight, and he said that he saw the entire occurrence from beginning to end, and that he saw the man when he made the fatal stab at Hellen. “The man,” continued Brooks, “reached over while the two men were clinched and plunged his knife into Hellen with all his might. He quickly withdrew it from Hellen’s body, wiped the blade on the leg of his trousers, and walked off around the corner. He was a tall, slender fellow. The next time I saw him he was standing on the corner (near the present Lichtman store) dressed in an entirely different suit of clothes, but I recognized him as the man who did the killing.”
This, declared the lawyer, was the first time that he knew certainly which one of the Streets struck the fatal blow, and from the description of the man given by Brooks he then knew that John Street was the person.