The Ketchup Corpse Caper

One balmy June night in 1960, a small group of boys, mostly rising juniors and seniors at Tullahoma (TN) High, were gathered at the Dairy Bar, a little family-run drive-in restaurant typical of those found in small Southern towns before franchised fast food became ubiquitous. We’d met there to eat some burgers and kill a little time until the slumber party at Cam White’s was underway and her parents had retired for the evening.

With Elvis’ “It’s Now or Never” blaring from the juke box, we ordered Cokes and hamburgers, and the waitress brought out our food and all the condiments, fitting the tray onto the automobile driver’s window opening. Standing outside after we’d eaten, I reached over for the ketchup container, a red squeeze bottle, and casually squirted a stream toward my buddy, Tom Poe. Quick as a flash, Tom grabbed the yellow mustard bottle, and the liquid food fight was on. We missed more than we connected, but at some point a blast of ketchup caught Tom squarely on the arm. I looked at the red blotch, he looked at it, we looked at each other, and without a word, the Ketchup Corpse Caper was hatched.

Bill Williams volunteered to drive his parents’ ’53 Chevy, Charlie Bunds got into the trunk with his arm dangling out, and we doused his protruding limb with the remaining ketchup. Bill, Tom, Billy Ray Fisher, Edward Brown, Kenneth Kirkes and I jumped in the sedan, and Bill drove it right up to the entrance of the nearest service station.

An elderly attendant sauntered out. “Evening, boys. Can I help you?”

Remaining in the running vehicle, Bill replied, “Yes, sir. We were wondering if you might have shovel we could borrow?”

“Well, I don’t think there’s one around here. Sorry, fellas. Y’all have a nice evening.”

“Thanks anyway,” I responded, and we pulled off at a snail’s pace, struggling to contain our glee as the attendant gawked at the bloody arm.

We repeated our performance at the one other service station that was open at that hour, but in due course, bored with our shenanigans, Bill decided to head for home, and the rest of us proceeded to the slumber party. After unsuccessfully flirting with some of the girls and watching a couple of guys get drunk and stumble around, we were ready to call it a night.

Driving home we passed by the two-story frame house where Bill and his family lived and were shocked and amazed at the commotion there. Evidently the service station attendants had alerted the authorities about the bloody arm hanging out of the trunk and provided the license number of the Williams’ family sedan. Officers from the Tullahoma Police, the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department and the Tennessee Highway Patrol, weapons in hand, had surrounded the house and, with bullhorns held high, commanded the occupants to come out with their hands up.

Stifling the urge to step on the gas, we maintained a steady speed until we were out of sight. Then, knowing the whereabouts of every lawman in the county, we accelerated into the night.

The next day, we learned that a man had been reported missing creating a high alert among law enforcement authorities throughout middle Tennessee. When confronted by his parents and the cops, Bill had spilled the beans, the perpetrators were rounded up, and we were all charged with impersonating a corpse.

On the day of our trial the courtroom was filled with a raucous crowd of student supporters, so the judge ordered everyone out but the defendants. Aided by our young attorney, Tommy Wiseman (who would later become a U.S. District Judge) we got off with a severe tongue-lashing and the threat of stints at Jordonia, the state reformatory for boys. We later expressed our gratitude to Tommy by cleaning up his lawn a time or two.

Though we’ve traveled different paths through the decades, when the culprits of the caper happen to meet, we frequently share a hearty laugh about our escapade and how it’s remained a part of the folklore of our old hometown.

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This essay was published in my (then) biweekly Asheville Citizen-Times editorial column on June 23, 2003. The article below was published on the front page of the Tullahoma News & Guardian in June of 1960.

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