Familial murder-suicides are tragic no matter what time of the year in which they occur, but those that take place around the winter holidays often seem all the more horrendous.
We don’t know the full motivation behind sharecropper Charlie Lawson’s actions on December 25, 1929 but by the end of that day he, his wife, and five of their six children were dead.
The swirling rumors about possible incest, head injuries and the general shock created by the crime has captivated the public for decades, inspiring books, films, and even its own murder ballad.
The term “grave marker” is pretty straightforward: it refers to an above-ground item or monument that indicates where a person is buried. The type of marker that a person plans to have marking his or her grave or that a family selects after a person has died can depend on many different things: financial resources, aesthetic preference, culture, religion, geographic location-just to name a few. I’m going to share some of the types of grave markers that I’ve encountered in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
This table tomb, or pedestal tomb, was in Raleigh, NC’s City Cemetery. This kind of marker was popular in England and in our country’s southeastern states.
Next to this grave was another table marker, which resembles a box marker but what differentiates the two is that a table marker can stand if one of the sides is removed. As you can see, part of this marker is missing on one side.
|Mt. View, Danville, VA|
|All Saints, SC|
Here’s a brick oven style grave from Danville’s Grove Street Cemetery. I’m not sure if the body is actually inside the bricks or underground. Many times this type of grave is called a “false crypt.”
This marker is from Danville’s Schoolfield Cemetery and has a double tympanum. Often these types of headstones, sometimes called “twin markers” are found on the graves of married couples or siblings.
Open book markers are a nod to the Bible. They were frequently made of marble and used to mark the grave of a husband and wife.
*This entry was originally posted in December 2012.
I recently revisited photos from my 2013 tour of Los Angeles’ Evergreen Memorial Park and Crematory. One photo triggered the memory of an entry I started over a year ago about Chloe Canfield, who died at the hands of a disgruntled former coachman on the porch of her South Alvarado Street mansion in the early 1900s.
Kate W. Gravely Cabell was born in 1872 into a prominent Danville family, the daughter of Captain Peyton Gravely, a tobacco manufacturer and partner at P.B. Gravely & Co., and Mary Walters Gravely. In her youth she no doubt enjoyed the privileges that accompanied the life of a person of wealth and higher social standing. Her name was mentioned in the society pages of newspapers even outside of Danville’s town limits where she was described as “bewitching” and charming.
From the archives, stories of holiday treats gone wrong. See the full post at Tidings of Yore.
Late on the evening of May 15, 1928 police were called out to High Street to investigate reports of gun shots. They heard a muffled shot coming from 540 High Street, which was the home of James and Mattie Milam Jones (30) and their four children: David (11), Lola (9), Leila (3), and Clara (18 months). Upon the officers’ knocks at the door, James yelled through an upstairs window that the door was bolted and they would have to enter through a window. He eventually came to the door after coming downstairs and turning to go back upstairs holding a shotgun. Officers saw the gun & convinced him to come to the door. When he opened it, he had the loaded shotgun half-raised towards the police but they were able to get the gun out of his arms. Mattie’s “buckshot riddled” body was nearby at the bottom of the staircase. James was arrested and the children, who slept through nearly an hour’s worth of on-and-off shotgun blasts, were taken to someone named Gus Warren’s home. Mattie’s father’s took custody of the children not long afterwards but months later, an article suggested that they were in the care of some sort of charity organization.
James, a tall, strong carpenter with a mangled foot and hand from an old accident, told police that he didn’t think he’d shot his wife, and if he did it wasn’t on purpose. Two alleged intruders were inside the house and he and his wife both armed themselves with shotguns for protection. These strangers had come through a hole in the floor and the shots that were fired were done so to scare them away as well as to fend off one of them who was coming up the stairs to where he and Mattie were standing in the darkness. James thought one of the intruders had shot back and after thinking that he’d shot one of the men he realized that Mattie was at the bottom of the steps, dead. He told police that the two men could’ve been the two insurance agents who had been to the home earlier that day.
|“Hilarious dancers were burning powder in their enthusiasm”?|
No autopsy was done even though there was initial question about whether Mattie was only shot once from the back with a shotgun, leaving exit wounds through her front or twice, with one shot also from the front with a pistol. 18 shots had been fired in total that night. By May 17, police had determined that there were no intruders, no pistol had been used in Mattie’s killing, and there was no hole in the floor through which any intruders could have entered or fled.
James’ behavior in jail prompted one doctor to suggest that he go before a lunacy commission to plead insanity. Other officials felt that he was sane when he shot his wife, although intellectually he was functioning around the level of an 8-year-old. In jail Jones claimed that his body was plagued by impulses of electricity sometimes which kept him from sleeping. Two doctors were to testify in preliminary hearings that James was sane at the time of the murder but was pretending to be insane for the purposes of eluding prosecution.
Within days after the murder, their son David told his maternal grandfather, C.H. Milam, and an uncle that on the night of the murder his father had physically abused his mother and left the house, returning with a bottle of something that he made all four of the children drink. Police believed that the children had been drugged, explaining how they slept through all the shooting. During the trial David was called to the stand but upon seeing his father he began to cry and called out, “Daddy.” David, who was also considered “feeble-minded” was then removed from the courtroom without testifying.
In late January 1929 a jury found James guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 20 years (the minimum sentence) in prison, despite the prosecution’s desire for him to receive the death penalty. On the way back to jail from the courtroom James seemed pleased that he’d avoided the electric chair and expressed that of the jobs he would be given in prison he didn’t want to “dig no dirt.”
Mattie’s grave is located in Danville’s Highland Burial Park. I am not sure what became of the four children or about James’ prison sentence or his life after serving time, if he was released.
Ancestry.com. The Bee (Danville, Virginia) [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com
Operations, Inc., 2005.
*This entry was originally published in 2013.
Thomas Doe Keen’s headstone was toppled over when I took this photo in Danville’s Green Hill Cemetery several years ago. The state of this tombstone is not surprising given the number of others who are also in need of repair.
Thomas was born on June 21, 1876 to John Thomas Keen and Mary Virginia Doe Keen. At the time of the 1880 census, John Thomas was a tobacco dealer and the family lived in Pittsylvania County. Thomas was the third child, his siblings being Sallie, William, and Nannie.
Specific information about Thomas is sparse aside from his death notice, but upon researching his father’s death I determined that not long after the census the family moved to North Danville (“Neapolis”) and John Thomas became the mayor in July 1880.
Unfortunately J.T. didn’t hold that office for very long, as he died later that year.
According to the Richmond Dispatch, on the morning of March 17, 1896 Thomas’ body was discovered in his bedroom at his mother’s house. The night before he appeared to be well and even in “the best of spirits.”
Thomas had a history of catalepsy, so the assumption was that after he went to bed he had another episode and died. In the 19th century catalepsy referred to a condition that caused a seizure or trance-like state.
|Roanoke Daily Times [VA] 6 May 1890|
E. Scott, referred to in some of the news articles about his death as only “Scott,” attended Hampton-Sydney College, an all-male liberal arts school in Virginia. His interest must have been in journalism, because he worked at a Lynchburg newspaper and was the editor of a paper in Glasgow. He was described as having above-average intelligence and had a “firm athletic stride.” In 1897 he married Maria Selden, who died in 1900. Her bright grave marker is seen in the first photo, having fallen off its base.
|The Times, 7 Jan. 1900|
|New York Tribune, 5 May 1902|
From Maria’s obituary we learn that she and E. Scott had lived in New York City at least since 1897. At some point he was hired as a manager for the society paper “Town Topics,” which was more like a gossip paper than an actual news source. Scott was living on West Twenty-Sixth Street in May 1902 when he had the accident that cost him his life. Around midnight on the 5th, he pressed the elevator button wanting to go from the fourth floor to the first floor. In the dimly lit, or perhaps even completely dark hall, he didn’t notice when the elevator doors opened that the elevator hadn’t moved from its position three floors below. Stepping forward, he had nowhere to go but down, landing on top of the elevator car. Both of his legs were broken and he also sustained internal injuries. At least one of his legs may have been amputated while he was in the hospital.
Scott’s brother, John, who was living in Richmond, Virginia, went to his brother’s side upon hearing about the fall and was in New York on May 7 when he died. Scott’s body was back in Danville by the 8th, where he was buried in the family square.
|The Times [Richmond, VA] 8 May 1902|
|The Times [Richmond] 11 May 1902|