On the peaceful morning of March 6, 1915, downtown Brunswick looked as if it were posing for a Norman Rockwell painting of Americana at leisure.
Then Monroe Phillips walked into the second floor office of the Hon. Harry F. Dunwoody with a loaded double-barrel shotgun — blasting away and killing the judge and seriously wounding a colleague.
Calmly, Phillips walked back downstairs, reloading as he went, before stepping out into that picturesque downtown morning calm to unleash carnage and death.
The Brunswick News deftly captured the diametrical extremes of that morning in the opening sentence of an article chronicling the mass shooting for the next day’s paper.
“Within the twinkling of an eye, in a community full of peace and happiness, under skies as beautifully blue as those which hung above the homes of our first ancestors, Brunswick’s hospital was pressed into service yesterday morning, while Brunswick’s undertaking establishments were converted into veritable morgues,” The News reported.
In a horrifying span of 10 minutes, a man with a grudge and a gun turned downtown Brunswick into a bloody shooting gallery, killing five and wounding 32.
“On he went like some crazed demon, shooting as he advanced with the wide world for his target, caring little who he murdered or why,” The News reported.
It ended only when two hometown heroes armed themselves and gunned the deranged Phillips down inside as a local drug store as the 61-year-old was reloading for still more bloodshed.
“In the meantime the avenging spirit was busy, but the man who had inflicted death so calmly was doomed to meet that article by the same instrument in which he was dispensing it,” noted The News.
It would be superficial to attempt at this point a comparison with Phillips’ bloody rampage and the soul-numbingly commonplace mass shootings of 21st century America. Advanced firearms technology and contemporary mental illness debates aside, suffice it to say that such senseless slaughter of random innocents is nothing new. The symptoms, methods and similarities are inescapable.
Monroe Phillips was a surly man on his best days, openly susceptible to slights real or imagined, personal or professional. He was slow to make friends, quick to take offense. He moved to Brunswick around 1909 from Bibb County, arriving on sound financial footing from his dealings in the timber and real estate business. He and wife Ophelia had three children.
He was something of a land speculator in Brunswick, “a sort of financial plunger, real estate operator and more or less business man,” The News reported. But Phillips’ fortunes were on the decline in his final years. He spread blame and lawsuits all over town. Prominent among these was the litigious contention that respected businessman Albert Fendig shorted him $25,000 in a real estate deal.
In the end, however, a dispute over $75 and a shipping barge sale was the last straw. That was the down payment on a barge he sold, but the deal was held up by several Savannah creditors. A phone call between Judge Dunwoody and Phillips’ wife that morning concerning the matter did not go well, or was at least misinterpreted.
When his wife reported the conversation to Phillips, the big man grabbed his shotgun and stormed over to what is still known today as the Dunwoody Building, at Newcastle and Gloucester streets. Standing over 6 feet and weighing more than 200 pounds, he brushed past Dunwoody’s secretary and barged into Dunwoody’s office. Without fanfare, he shot Dunwoody in the head, killing him. Also in the office was real estate businessman Albert M. Way, who failed to escape the blast from the second barrel, taking a hit to the face. Way survived, but lost an eye.
Former Brunswick policeman L.C. Padgett and attorney Eustace C. Butts rushed to the building just as Phillips had reloaded. He shot Padgett dead at the foot of the stairs, wounding Butts in the leg with the same salvo. He walked to the nearby office of Albert Fendig, causing panic in a busy women’s boutique along the way with an otherwise harmless blast through a front window. As fate would have it, Fendig was not in. W.K. Boston, perhaps Phillips’ only friend in town, was in at Fendig’s office. “I am not going to kill you; you have been my friend,” Phillips told Boston.
The dying Padgett had been taken to Branch’s Drug Store and Phillips headed there next. He shot and killed streetcar conductor George W. Asbell as he exited Branch’s. Phillips next mortally wounded 20-year-old Gunnar Tolnas, knocking him off his bicycle in the street. Ernest McDonald was fatally wounded as he stepped out of a barber shop.
During the mayhem, Butts had hobbled into United Supply Company and procured a shotgun and shells. R. J. Minehan picked up a .32 caliber pistol from the store at the same time.
Police officer Rex Deaver, 23 and just two months on the force, exchanged gunfire with Phillips through the front door of Branch’s. Deaver’s service weapon was no match for the “10-bore Parker shotgun” and young Deaver died in the line of duty.
As that exchange unfolded, the now-armed Butts and Minehan attacked from a side door of Branch’s. A fusillade from Minehan’s handgun struck Phillips at least once, but Butts’ shotgun dealt the fatal blows that ended the nightmare on Newcastle Street.
“Phillips was reloading for another shot when Butts fired,” The News reported. “Phillips sank to the floor shot through the kidneys. He lived a few minutes.”