A few years ago I discovered the name of a 19th century Danville brothel, Blonde Hall. Fascinated by the grittier and often-hidden tales of yore I poured through all the records at my disposal in search of a location. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to pin down where the building stood but it appears that it was across the Pelham border on or near Main Street. The bordello was operated by Lelia Lester, who inspired its name with her fair hair.
Blonde Hall only appeared once or twice in a handful of mortuary reports or newspaper articles but its most grisly event took place in inmate Mary “Mollie” Dejarnette’s bedroom where her older brother, James (“Thomas”) DeJarnette, shot her five times in a fit of rage and/or insanity after learning of her employment.
Before we get to Mollie’s murder in July 1880 let’s back up for a little DeJarnette family history.
Thomas (b. 1860), Mollie (b. 1863) and their sister Annie (b. 1865) were reared in Caswell County, North Carolina by parents Dr. James Patten and Martha Blackard DeJarnette until James’ death in 1873.
After the loss of their father’s income Thomas stepped up to support his mother and sisters who “fell…into absolute want.” He secured Mollie housing with wealthy families, possibly in exchange for labor.
In 1880 Thomas worked in Brown Summit, North Carolina as a telegraph operator for the Richmond and Danville Railroad. He was unaware of his favorite sister’s circumstances until she wrote him a letter in which she asked him to help her leave Blonde Hall.
He immediately boarded a train for Danville and reached the bagnio around 11:30 p.m. on July 8. Once inside Mollie’s room he locked the door with the intention of killing her instantly (as opposed to a slow, painful death) with five shots from his revolver.
While the officers, various onlookers and the shooter waited on Dr. Hoyt to arrive the bloodied sister asked Thomas for a kiss. As he leaned over to oblige he calmly stated, “Yes, a kiss of death,” according to Dr. Hoyt’s testimony.
The next day a police officer took Thomas to his sister’s bedside where he sat until she awakened. The tone of the conversation seems strange given the circumstances but this information is from “The Report of the Trail of James Thomas Dejarnette, For Homicide.”
“Good morning, brother, how are you this morning?”
“Why did you not give me time to explain how much I have suffered?”
“I came down to keep you from suffering; you have a young sister that is as pure as spring water, and I came down to make an example of you.”
Thomas visited his sister again and in the presence of two witnesses claimed that her “seducer” was a man named “Edwin Luther Dechert, Harrisonburg the place, and the time 1878, and the promise, marriage.”
An article in the The Pulaski Citizen on September 23, 1880 suggests this is a reference to when and under what circumstances nudged Mollie into prostitution.
Mollie died on July 16 and Thomas indicted for murder in August.
He was initially found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang in October 1880, but was granted a new trial which would be highly publicized for its use of the insanity plea.
During the second trial various physicians testified about Thomas’ mental status before and after the murder and most agreed that he was insane when he shot his sister. The underlying thought process was “How else could someone commit such a horrendous act and remain so calm, cool and collected afterwards?”
Reading through trial reports it appears as though his defense attorney went to great lengths to establish that Thomas had a genetic predisposition to insanity inherited from both parents.
Several witnesses testified about Martha Dejarnette’s behavior.
J.R. Ferrell: “I have known Mrs. Martha DeJarnette all my life. Have seen her frequently. I have thought at times she was partially deranged, because of her talk and actions, loud and boisterous, slapping of hands, and scattering ideas on almost any subject. She has no capacity in business. Her fits of violence have increased since I knew her.”
W.L. Tally: “Have known Mrs. DeJarnette, mother of the prisoner, for fifteen years. She lived on one side of the road, and I on the other, for five years. Saw her frequently; have believed she was insane for the last five or six years. Have seen her come out in her yard, roll up her sleeves, pop her fist and rear and pitch around, with no one present for her to quarrel with. These spells were frequent and violent. Her language was profane, bitter and vulgar. She would as soon sell a piece of property worth $100 for $5, as not; in fact, that was the way she got ride of her money. She now wanders to and fro all over the country.”
S.S Harrison: “Have known the defendant and family some time. C.K. Harrison, her great-grandfather, I kept at my house several years while he was deranged. He was dangerously violent-had to be confined and guarded…One of his half-sisters was deranged, mildly and peaceably so.”
Information about James Patten DeJarnette’s family and mental illness was also introduced.
A relative on Thomas’ paternal side testified, “Am first cousin to the prisoner. His father had only one brother, my father. He is called insane by physicians.”
There were also witnesses brought forth who’d known the defendant.
R.G. Chilcott, an instructor at the railroad stated that in late 1879 Thomas’ demeanor changed. He became sleepless, withdrawn, flighty and melancholic.
He wrote a “romance” manuscript which was rejected by a publisher. He toiled away at fanciful and nonsensical ideas and inventions, one involving the use of perpetual motion to load and unload passenger trains at full speed.
Dr. R.K. Denny, who’d treated Thomas for physical ailments while in Brown Summit: “The last eight months he seemed depressed. Sought to be alone. In conversation he would commence on one subject and jump to another. His spells of dejection increased in frequency. His conduct was so different, it attracted my particular attention. Twelve months before the tragedy I spoke of it to my family; remarked that sooner or later he would become deranged.”
After the conclusion of the trial Thomas was acquitted and hospitalized in a Raleigh, North Carolina asylum.
Thomas was transferred to the Eastern Oregon State Hospital sometime between 1881 and 1920, which is when he reappeared in census records. He remained there until he died in 1935 at age 60.
Martha DeJarnette died in a psychiatric hospital in 1906 and is interred at the Broughton Hospital Cemetery in Morganton, North Carolina.
The location of Mollie mortal remains are unknown.