Clean-cut, honest, hardworking, competent, accommodating–these are all adjectives used to describe Sheriff Swan Kitts. There was a sense of presence about him that said, “Sheriff.” But his moment of fame perhaps came with the death of country singer, Hank Williams. I’ve heard and read several accounts of this event, but I’ll only touch on the event involving Patrolman Kitts. Writer Wayne Bledsoe wrote a good piece entitled “Hank’s Final Journey,” which was published in the Knoxville News Sentinel on December 30, 2002.
It seems Hank Williams was scheduled to appear in Charleston, West Virginia, and Canton, Ohio, on New Years Day, 1952. Hank had intended to fly to these cities. However, bad weather caused the cancellation of his New Year’s Eve flight from his home in Montgomery, Alabama. Hank had just purchased a new Cadillac limousine and enlisted his friend’s 17 year-old son, Charles Carr, to chauffeur him to these performances. The two drove to Knoxville, then took a 3:30 pm flight from Knoxville, but that flight was turned back because of the bad weather; and they checked in at the Andrew Johnson Hotel about 7 pm. on December 31, 1951. The promoter of the shows contacted Williams and Carr and convinced them that if they started driving that night they could make the performances. They left Knoxville by way of Hwy. 11-W (Rutledge Pike) headed for West Virginia. A recollection of the story is: Swan Kitts was working as a Tennessee State Patrolman assigned to Grainger County (Rutledge) at the time. When the limo driver tried passing in a no-passing zone around midnight, Patrolman Kitts pulled him over. The driver quickly turned on the interior light in the limo; and, when Kitts shined his flashlight and asked about Williams, the driver said something like, “Oh, he’s had a swig of whiskey and a couple of pills–he’s just sleeping.” Kitts was not close enough to check Williams’ breathing. Kitts then had the driver follow him to Rutledge where the driver was cited for reckless driving, but paid his fine and was allowed to go on his way. There are many discrepancies in the stories alleging that Williams may have been dead when they left Knoxville or soon thereafter. At any rate, the next morning, Hank was pronounced dead at Oak Hill General Hospital in West Virginia.
Kitts served as Union County Sheriff from 1958 to 1963 and from 1965 to 1968. It is my understanding that during that time the Sheriff’s Department was self-sufficient and actually added money to the county’s general fund. Sheriff Kitts bought the food, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, cooked for the prisoners. Sheriff Kitts and his family lived in the old brick jail that was built in the 1950s and is still standing. While serving as Sheriff, Kitts worked nights; and during this time, E. J. Ailor was frequently called upon to be a “star witness” for DUI cases. The beat would pick up about midnight; and, since E. J. lived close to the jail and court house, Swan would call him to come over and witness the defendant’s effort to “walk the straight line.” If the person could walk straight without staggering they were released. If not, they were jailed and fined. E. J. compliments Swan as being straight forward and very honest, a good sheriff. Mr. Kitts also served as Union County Court Clerk during 1969-70. Childhood playmate, Jean Lay Palmer, fondly recalls Swan as a good person, a good citizen, and a good friend.
Mr. Kitts was the son of Judge Charles S. and Bess Evans Kitts. He was married to Mary Elizabeth Fancher Kitts for 59 years and is survived by daughters Janice and Vivian Jean as well as a brother, Hugh Kitts. Our thoughts and prayers go out to this entire family. Swan Kitts will be sorely missed.