Bandit’s run ends in East Knoxville 90 years ago

Beth KinnaneEast Knox, Our Town Stories

He was public enemy No. 1 on East Tennessee’s most-wanted list. The mountain folk said the law would never take “Pee-Jem” alive, that he knew the hills and hollers better than anyone looking to find him. He reportedly took his gray-haired mama and showed her the exact spot in the family cemetery where he wanted to be laid to rest and even selected his “burying” clothes.

Clarence “Pee-Jem” Bunch (Photo credit: The Knoxville Journal, 9-23-1924).

Pee-Jem was Clarence Bunch of Tazewell in Claiborne County, where his family was so prodigious there was an area called Bunchtown. In 1934, Bunch was 23 years old. The Prohibition era had come to an end, but he and his gang of miscreants wreaked plenty of other havoc from Lone Mountain to Bean Station to White Pine. Perhaps he took his inspiration from the tales of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Hold-ups, robberies and shake-downs were his calling cards. He was also an early practitioner of what we now call carjacking.

Bunch led authorities on a three-month reign of terror from Newport to Knoxville. In May 1934 he’d been arrested and was being held in Cocke County facing charges for robbing a bank in Ewing, Virginia. Apparently, someone smuggled a gun in to him at the jail, no metal detectors being available 90 years ago. He, in fact, shot the sheriff and escaped with Gus McCoig of Jefferson County, stealing a car to get away.

The list of offenses attributed to him is long: robbing a bank in White Pine then shooting out the windows of four area stores, robbing two North Carolina men of $150 and their watches on the Clinch Mountain Road in Hamblen County, robbing truck drivers in Morristown, killing a Black man on Tazewell-Morristown Road then robbing more Black people in Bean Station.

Bunch, McCoig and another man shot their way out of a trap laid for them in White Pine. They followed that up by robbing an elderly Grainger County woman of her savings. Sheriffs from three counties were after him. By late July, they’d robbed a store in Dandridge and had a shootout with Jefferson County deputies. Shootouts with law enforcement happened in Tazewell and Luttrell. They robbed filling stations, motorists, truckers and TVA employees from Knoxville to Middlesboro, Kentucky.

McCoig was finally captured in early August, surrendering peacefully after being cornered at a mountain home in Claiborne County. Bunch’s sweetheart, Nelle Payne, was arrested and charged with harboring him, though she swore up and down she had no idea what he’d been up to.

The crowd outside Roberts Funeral Home (KNS Digital archives).

Bunch eventually ended up in the custody of Grainger County Sheriff Sam Roach, who brought him to the home of Charles Epperson (for whom Bunch may have been running moonshine) on Lay Avenue in East Knoxville. From there, Bunch began a couple of days of negotiations with Knox County Sheriff Wesley Brewer on terms for a surrender. Bunch was apparently hoping to guarantee himself a sentence of no more than three to five years in exchange for handing himself over.

On Wednesday, August 22, 1934, Roach was leading Bunch out of the Epperson home, which was surrounded by at least 15 Knoxville officers and Knox County deputies. Roach said he was taking the outlaw to his car to turn him in.

Needless to say, Bunch did not “comply.” It just wasn’t in him to do so. The mountain folk did not lie. Pee-Jem grabbed Roach’s pistol from its holster. But before he could draw down on anyone, he was dropped in a hail of gunfire. Somehow Roach escaped the barrage unscathed though he was immediately arrested as an accessory, since he dropped Bunch off instead of taking him directly to jail a few days prior.

The Knoxville Journal ran a photo of Bunch’s bullet-riddled body on the front page (I’ve chosen to spare you that). Thousands passed through Roberts Funeral Home in Knoxville to gape at him and again to attend his funeral once his body made it back to Claiborne County. The mighty Pee-Jem had struck out.

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

Sources: The Knoxville Journal, August 23, 1934 and Knoxville News-Sentinel Digital archives

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