The photo you see here was taken in Danville’s Green Hill Cemetery on a soggy afternoon in late 2012. The man buried below this vaulted obelisk is James Allen Henderson, Jr. and because he died during the time frame listed in my copy of the mortuary reports, I had a cause of death to use as a springboard for my investigation.
“Jas. A. Henderson Jr. age 22 years died from Laudanum at Rocky Mount, NC, Ferrell & Co.” (Ferrell & Co. was the name of the undertaking firm which handled his funerary preparations.)
When I read about someone dying young from unusual or mysterious circumstances I do as much digging as possible in order to piece together what happened during the person’s final moments in addition to creating an overall biographical sketch. Each marker in a cemetery represents a person’s life, not just a death, and my thirst for the hows and the whys often causes me to put off posting until I’m sure I’ve exhausted my resources. This morning I decided to try a different combination of keywords and localities in the newspaper archives and luckily it produced a few more details from April 1, 1895 when he “died from laudanum.” (We’ll get to that later.)
There are still many gaps in James’ story and unfortunately those might never be filled. We often take for granted that our inner monologues and sometimes mundane snapshots of daily life are documented through the magic of the Interwebs. There was no Instagram to document what James ate for dinner or Facebook if he wanted to declare how much he fancied his new velocipede.
So we begin at Mr. Henderson’s beginning.
James Jr. was born on June 6, 1872 in Caswell County, North Carolina to James A. Sr. and Rebecca Johnston Henderson. I’ve noticed his parent’s names while researching other families as they are biologically linked to prominent Caswell County families. James Sr. was descended from some of Yanceyville, North Carolina’s founding citizens, notably his great-grandfather Bartlett T. Yancey. Rebecca Lea Johnston was a daughter of Thomas Donoho Johnston, the President of the Bank of Yanceyville.
In 1880 the Hendersons lived in the “Village of Yanceyville.” In addition to James Jr. and his parents, other family members included three living siblings Addie (1869-1958), Bessie (1874-1896), and Frank Hurst Henderson (1877-1956). Sometime after the census they moved to 921 Main Street in Danville, Virginia. That address is where the First Presbyterian Church now stands, beside the Sutherlin Mansion. James Sr. was a merchant, tobacconist, and founder of J.A. Henderson & Co., a leaf tobacco firm located at 400 Craghead Street. It’s highly likely that James grew up in some affluence, possibly running in some of the same social circles with other current Green Hill residents from his age group.
The next bit of information about James Jr. comes from the 1890-1891 city directory. He still resided at the Main Street home with his parents and sister “Miss Addie D. Henderson.” Other siblings probably also lived there but not listed separately in the directory due to their age. At that time James was employed as a bank runner, or courier. By 1892 he earned his wages as a tobacconist, suggesting that he intended to follow in his father’s footsteps in an industry that was then booming in the area.
Between 1892 and the date of his expiration on April 1, 1895 he relocated to Rocky Mount, North Carolina after spending some time in Henderson. I couldn’t determine where he worked during those years, but one of the articles printed after his death suggested that he held a job as a tobacco buyer in Rocky Mount.
James was just a few months shy of his 23rd birthday in late March/early April, living at the “Woodard hotel” in Rocky Mount. This might have been more of a boarding house than a typical hotel owned by someone named Mr. Woodard. James had lost his job, fallen behind on his boarding fees, and “for some time had been drinking excessively” to cope with his financial woes and employment status. I wonder if James tried to drown other demons in the depths of the bottle, but I have no evidence to support any other circumstances affecting his state of mind. Because he died from a laudanum overdose we know that he used the drug at least once, but we can’t assume that he had ever previously experimented with it. (In an earlier post I wrote briefly about laudanum use during the 19th century in case you’re not familiar.)
For nearly two years I wasn’t sure if James’ death was accidental or if he’d taken his own life. Every time I visited Green Hill, his monument reminded me of my unsolved mystery, and every few months I opened his case to no avail. Then I located this short piece in The Progressive Farmer: “News from Rocky Mount Monday states that Mr. James Henderson, of that place committed suicide that night by taking laudanum. He was about 21 years of age. No reason was assigned for such a rash act, other than that he had been drinking for some days, says the Wilson Mirror.”
|The Progressive Farmer 9 April 1895|
James’ untimely death was already unfortunate, but knowing he’d died at his own hands made it that much more heartbreaking. Those of you reading who aren’t invested in historical research might find my sympathy towards unrelated people who died over a century ago a bit odd. I suppose I’d compare my feelings to the manner in which a reader or viewer feels about a character in a book or a television show. The difference is that these characters were real people and I’ve stood at their real graves, with just a few feet of dirt and a metal or wooden coffin separating the living body and the decomposing corpse. (Before you gasp at my ghoulish phrasing, remember that in the end, we’re all just worm food, unless you go with cremation or some other non-traditional burial.)
But getting back to James, the other source of information about his last day was entitled, “Strange Suicide: A Man Attempts to Take the Life of Three People-Then Kills Himself.”
|The Caucasian 11April 1895|
“A singular case of suicide is reported from Rocky Mount, N.C.. Mr. James A. Henderson, a tobacco buyer, staying at the Woodard hotel, had become despondent, ostensibly in consequence of his inability to pay a board bill which he had contracted at that hotel. While in this melancholy state of mind he made out an insurance policy, which he handed to Mr. Woodard, remarking that he (Henderson) might soon be missing. Then to the great astonishment of his host, he suddenly drew a revolver, and pointed it at Mr. Woodard’s heart. Being foiled in his evident intention to shoot, the unfortunate hypochondriac endeavored to slash the alarmed proprietor with a butcher knife, but was again prevented from carrying his murderous purpose into effect.
Henderson next started to kill a young man whom he accused of causing him to lose his position. While on his bloody-minded errand he met the porter of the hotel, whom he also attempted to dispatch, but who luckily escaped.
Nothing more was seen of Henderson until about midnight last night, when he was discovered, gasping for breath, upon the bed in his room. A physician was summoned, who, upon examination, found that the suicide had swallowed four ounces of laudanum. Death ensued soon afterwards. Deceased came to Rocky Mount from Henderson and for some time had been drinking excessively which seemed to have turned his brain on the night of his death.”
After reflecting on James’ financial problems and his family connections I was curious as to why he didn’t go to his parents for help: was it pride or was there a rift in the Henderson clan that prevented them from communicating? There’s also the possibility that his judgement was so clouded by liquor that he chose to off himself before thinking his options through clearly.
I’m not advocating suicide by any means, but we can’t judge James for his hastening his journey on the pale horse with a few ounces of laudanum. The silver lining about his “strange suicide” is that no one else was killed that night. We can only hope that in death he found the peace of mind that evaded him towards the end of his short life.
I decided to revisit James’ grave this afternoon in light of this new information because it felt like the right thing to do.
|James’ sister Bessie’s grave is to his left; their parents are in the background|
|Their monuments are being uprooted by the nearby tree.|