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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Died at Sea; Buried in a Cask of Alcohol

I knew about Nancy Adams Martin’s unusual burial in Oakdale Cemetery months before my arrival. From a cursory glance her marker doesn’t really stand out from the taller surrounding monuments in the plot. As you can see below the granite is carved to resemble a rustic wooden cross. A photo taken nearly a decade ago from Find a Grave shows a less-weathered version where the name “Nance” and the cut branches are more visible.

What we can’t see from the surface is that deep below the ground Nancy’s body has been seated in a chair entombed in a cask of alcohol since her death on May 25, 1857.

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John Thomas Rudd

J.T. Rudd’s entry has been sitting in my queue for close to two years now because I hoped that somewhere I’d find out more about his life than his tragic death at his own hands. I’ve researched his name intermittently during that time and unfortunately came up with little more than his obituary, which you can read below the photo of his grave marker in Danville’s Green Hill Cemetery. His death notice only gives us a glimpse of how his final days (or weeks or months) played out, although I’m sure that there were many happier memories that were never made public.
At least I hope that’s the case.

“DANVILLE REGISTER, Danville, Va., Fri., Jan. 3, 1908, p. 2, col. 3 [edited]. J. T. Rudd, a former merchant and well known business man of the Northside, committed suicide by shooting himself through the head yesterday at his home on North Main street, near the end of the street car line. Despondency, due to ill health, drinking and business troubles is supposed to be the reason actuating the terrible deed. Mr. Rudd was a native of Lunenburg County, Va., where he was born about 43 years ago. He moved to Pittsylvania early in life and about 15 or 16 years ago came to Danville. He was married twice. His last wife, Mrs. Berta Slaughter Rudd, two daughters, Evelyn, aged 6, and Garnett, aged 3, survive him, together with a father, several brothers and a sister, all of whom live in Lunenburg. Mr. Rudd was engaged in the mercantile business here up to about a year ago, when he sold out. He was a Mason. Funeral services will be held this afternoon from the residence of Mr. C. D. Daughter (sic) followed by burial at Green Hill Cemetery.

Rosa Lawson & La Grippe

Rosa Fuller
Wife of 
Jas. A Lawson
Born Aug 25, 1866
Died Mar 19, 1891
At Rest
The following two images are from the ledger of Green Hill’s burial records. “Mrs. Rosa Fuller Lawson, age 25 years/ I hereby certify that I saw her on the 18th day of March 1891 that she died on the 19th day of March 1891 and that the cause of her death was Gripp, B.B. Temple M.D. Undertaker Jno. Ferrell & Co.”

Browsing through the burial records
for1891 there were many different causes of death with cholera, diphtheria, typhoid fever, malarial fever, consumption, whooping cough, and dysentery being the most prevalent among adult deaths from disease. Comparing Green Hill’s burial records with tombstones I’ve seen on the grounds, this is not a complete listing of people interred there. Either some names were omitted or it’s possible that the remains were moved to Green Hill from another cemetery. I have only perused the records to 1895. After that, the records have no cause of death listed.

The Gripp, also spelled/written as grip or La Grippe, was a term used in the 19th century for influenza, which returned at the end of that century as an epidemic in some parts of the world, with many areas reporting the first signs of a large-scale influenza problem in March of 1891, which is the month of Rosa’s death.

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From the Mortuary Mysteries: Tired of Life

I first mentioned Josie Wheeler in August 2013’s “Misc. Mortuary Mysteries.” Much of Josie’s biography remains shrouded in secrecy but in the months since originally conjuring Josie’s name from obscurity I’ve uncovered new information that sheds more light on her life and her tragic final hours on this mortal coil. Sadly I don’t have a tombstone or grave location and based on new evidence I’m not even certain that she’s buried in Danville anymore.

Continue reading “From the Mortuary Mysteries: Tired of Life”

Chang and Eng Bunker: Tied Together by a Living Knot

After months of trying to coordinate schedules and weather forecasts, I finally made it to the grave of Chang and Eng Bunker at White Plains Baptist Church in Mount Airy, North Carolina. It was a warm but beautiful day and fortunately for me, I showed up in time to see grave offerings of flowers and small liquor bottles left in front of the tombstone. I don’t know if the water bottle was part of the gift or if it was accidentally left by another visitor as garbage, so I left it alone. I hear that it’s important to stay hydrated when consuming liquor, so maybe someone had a reason for leaving it there. That’s beside the point.

There is no shortage of biographical information about the Bunker twins out there so I’ve provided links to additional reading and sources throughout this post. If you’re familiar with my sister site, Misc. Tidings of Yore, you know that I have a soft spot for historical newspapers. Some of what you read here will be based on old clippings from the archives.

Continue reading “Chang and Eng Bunker: Tied Together by a Living Knot”

James Henderson

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.

Fridays From the Mortuary Reports: Maria Louise Grasty-Chloral Hydrate Overdose

From page 109 in Green Hill Cemetery’s Mortuary Reports, Dr. Franklin George declared 30-year-old Maria Louise Grasty’s cause of death as “unknown.” The doctor had seen her for some reason on the 8th and according to the ledger, she passed away on April 10. The tombstone reads that she died on April 11, but the discrepancy could be based on the notion that she’d died in the later hours of April 10 or the early hours of April 11.

A little more information about Maria’s  death was found in an Alexandria newspaper. Printed within a day or two of her death, it was reported that her body was found kneeling by the bed. Due to the discovery of an empty chloral container in the house, the speculation was that Maria had accidentally overdosed trying to medicate herself to sleep. The article also mentions that Maria and her husband, grocer Philip Lightfoot Grasty, were separated. They were together at the time of the 1880 census, so sometime between then and 1889 the marriage had ended, although they were probably not legally divorced because of the inscription on her tombstone and the fact that she’s buried in the Grasty square beside Philip. It would be interesting to know what Maria’s emotional state was at the time of her overdose. We can only infer from the tiny blurb in the newspaper that she was alone and having difficulty sleeping.

Alexandria Gazette, 12 Apr. 1889

Details about Maria’s life were relatively scarce. I couldn’t find her maiden name, but she was born in South Carolina. According to one source, she was a teacher at the Loyal Street school in 1879, living with Philip on Wilson Street. In the 1880 census; however, her occupation is “keeping house” and the couple is reported as living on Colquohoun Street.

Chloral hydrate is a central nervous system depressant that was used regularly in the late 1800s by insomniacs. Mixed with alcohol, this hypnotic and sedative drug created “knockout drops” or a “Mickey,” a potentially lethal combination known to render people unconscious. Chloral hydrate was addictive and often abused in Maria Grasty’s day, carrying unpleasant withdrawal symptoms: hallucinations, sweating, seizures and shivering. An overdose could kill a person in as little as five hours. If Maria died from an overdose of chloral hydrate, she could’ve experienced any of the following: a racing heartbeat, hypothermia, difficulty breathing (possibly leading to respitory failure), low blood pressure (or high blood pressure), pupil constriction, and areflexia (the lack of reflex responses). Before death she may have lapsed into a coma. Since she was kneeling beside her bed, Maria may have been trying to get out of bed or into it, depending on which way she was facing. If she knew that something was amiss, her last moments alive were probably terrifying. Remember, this was a woman most likely living alone in a day and age where there were no telephones or 911 system to summon for help. Reflecting on Maria’s final chapter (or what I know it to be at this time), a heartbreaking scene unfolds: a young woman estranged from her partner, self-medicating in search of rest, dying alone in her bedroom.