Thomas Doe Keen: Catalepsy


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.

Richmond Dispatch, 18 Mar. 1896



Death by Patriotic Tetanus

While collecting clippings from historic newspapers about Fourth of July tragedies I noticed an interesting trend in the late 1800s-early 1900s: an alarming number of deaths attributed to tetanus from Independence Day injuries. In fact, there were so many lockjaw fatalities after that particular holiday that the condition became known as “Patriotic Tetanus.”

Tetanus or lockjaw is something that we rarely hear about these days with the availability of the tetanus toxoid vaccine, which¬† wasn’t developed until 1924. However, people living in the very dark ages of medicine who were exposed to the tetanus-causing bacteria through flesh wounds were pretty much at the mercy of the infection if the available antitoxin serums failed. Taking into account how many people celebrated (and still celebrate) July 4 with firecrackers, reckless pistol-firing, and other potentially bloody activities, it makes sense that “Patriotic Tetanus” was a real problem back in the day. After July 4 festivities in 1903 alone 415 lives were lost to the condition.

The good news in modern times is that you’re less likely to find yourself with lockjaw after Independence Day, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to go out and act a fool. Safety first, people. Even if you’re not at high risk for tetanus you can still learn something from this small sampling of Independence Day death.

Public Ledger 13 July  1882


The Big Stone Gap Post, 20 July 1899
Perrysburg Journal, 17 July 1903


The St. Louis Journal, 16 July 1903


The Daily Journal, 13 July 1903
Daily Public Ledger, 13 July 1909
The St. Louis Republic, 11 July 1905

*Originally posted in July 2014.

Kate Swann: Accidental Burning

I took this photo at least three years ago, knowing the young child’s cause of death but postponed writing about her in hopes of finding more details.

According to Green Hill’s mortuary reports Kate Swann died at age two from an “accidental burning.”

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Janie Sutherlin Smith Barrett (1872-1904)

Janie Sutherlin Smith Barrett’s monument is located in the Sutherlin family square in Green Hill, a towering, bright contrast to the sea of mostly gray tombstones surrounding it. The green appearance of the angel is due to patina on the bronze, which makes the marker even more beautiful (in my opinion).




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Murder or Death By Drunken Fall?

Several years ago I took this photo at Danville’s Leemont Cemetery, which was established in 1878 when North Danville was regarded as a separate community from Danville.

The inscription is almost too weathered to read, but this tombstone marks the grave of 32-year-old James Lucius Motley, whose body was discovered at the bottom of a rocky embankment near his home on September 14, 1886.

jl motley

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William Hill and His Dog Footstone

William Hill’s ornate monument at Wilmington’s Oakdale Cemetery was not unlike many others on the grounds, boasting that rural cemetery flair that I love so much.

What was unique about this grave; however, was the dog-shaped footstone which my trusty canine sidekick Esther noticed before I did and reacted as though it was a real animal.

Intrigued, I read the inscription on the main marker and found nothing on the footstone but there was nothing indicating why this particular piece was present unless I overlooked something or the inscription had weathered away.

If you recall, on this same trip I encountered the grave of a man and his dog who were buried together after perishing in a fire and wondered if this was a similar circumstance.

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"Flung Himself From a Tower" (1894)

On the morning of August 23, 1894 banker Col. James Monroe Winstead sedately climbed the stairs to a balcony tower at Richmond’s City Hall, “threw his cane and shoes down” and then jumped to his death, landing on the iron fence over 90 feet below.

As I dug deeper into the circumstances surrounding this gruesome death, I found two additional pieces of information that in some ways shed more light on what happened that day and other ways only open up more questions.

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Alice of the Hermitage

When I visited All Saints Episcopal Church I was under the assumption that the plain slab below marked the grave of Alice Belin Flagg, a tragic figure in Pawleys Island folklore and the subject of an alleged haunting.

I’ve since learned that Alice is buried in an unmarked grave at Belin United Methodist Church and this monument was erected for a descendent who ended up in another graveyard, meaning that no one is actually interred here.

Alice Belin Flagg

That doesn’t deter visitors from visiting All Saints to leave coins and rings. Many attempt invocation of her spirit by walking backwards around the slab thirteen times, but there’s no proof that anything ever manifested aside from a worn path circling the marker.

At any rate the ghost story along with the speculation of a foiled romance and family strife have kept her alive for over a century after her burial.

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Man & Dog Shot By Jilted Admirer

This story is of personal significance to me because George Shackelford was my great-great grandfather on my mother’s side of the family.

It wasn’t until a few years ago when I started working on my family tree that I even knew his name, let alone the fact that he’d been killed in front of his wife and daughter.

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