The Lawson Murders, Christmas Day 1929

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.

Continue reading “The Lawson Murders, Christmas Day 1929”


L.A. Philanthropist Chloe Canfield Murdered in Cold Blood

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.

Evergreen Memorial Park & Crematory in Photos and Clippings Continue reading “L.A. Philanthropist Chloe Canfield Murdered in Cold Blood”

Husband Shoots Wife as Children Slumber

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.”

On Jan. 24, 1929 the “Danville Bee” reported that James’ demeanor had improved since receiving the verdict.

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.

Source: The Bee (Danville, Virginia) [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA:
Operations, Inc., 2005.

*This entry was originally published in 2013.

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

Continue reading “Murder or Death By Drunken Fall?”

Dry Pastor Murdered After Calling Man A “Whiskeyite”

Leemont Cemetery, Danville, VA

John Moffett was a North Danville pastor who had no tolerance for alcohol, in this case meaning that he was a strong supporter of the Prohibition movement and used the pulpit to further his agenda. He also wrote a weekly publication called “Anti-Liquor“.2

On Election Day 1892 fraudulent tickets regarding candidate Grover Cleveland’s position on prohibition were found in North Danville. These tickets had been printed at Anti-Liquor‘s headquarters, but that was unknown at that time.1

Suspicious attorney and congregation member J.T. Clarke accused Moffett of distributing the tickets with crooked intentions, resulting in fisticuffs.4 Moffett described the polling station drama in his paper and hurled insults at Clarke, calling him a “whiskeyite,” a “one horse lawyer,” and accusing him of “doing the dirty work for the liquorties.”1

On November 11 Moffett made a statement with the editor at the Danville Register and then started on Main Street towards the First Baptist Church where the Baptist Association was meeting. He bumped into Clarke on the way and it was at that moment that both men’s lives would forever be changed.

Moffett ended up with at least one bullet in his abdomen after a skirmish on the street. Four shots total had been fired but accounts of how many wounds Moffett actually received vary. Clarke alleged that Moffett first shot him in the wrist. Moffett, whose condition was later listed as “critical”, claimed that he didn’t have a firearm and that Clarke started shooting when they first met. In this version Clarke had shot himself accidentally.

On November 13 John Moffett died and was buried in Leemont Cemetery.

J.T. Clarke was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to five years in the penitentiary.3

Moffett Memorial Baptist Church still operates in Danville. Most historical sketches about the church’s namesake’s death leave out the details regarding the fraudulent tickets and the name-calling, which doesn’t surprise me here in the City of Churches.

1 “A Danville Difficulty.” Richmond Dispatch, 12 November 1892.
2 Bagley, Carolyn. “Danville Pastor Slain.” The Signs of the Times, 13 January 2013.
3 “Court of Appeals Yesterday.” Alexandria Gazette, 8 December 1893.
4 “Probably Fatal Affray.” The Times, 12 November 1892.

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.

Continue reading “Man & Dog Shot By Jilted Admirer”

The Murder of Mollie DeJarnette

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.

dejarnette images
I tried to lighten this image, but Blonde Hall was still too dark to distinguish any features.

Continue reading “The Murder of Mollie DeJarnette”

“Tavern Row Is Fatal To Local Sailor”

“Some day we will understand.”

This inscription on Benjamin Dyer’s tombstone in Danville’s Green Hill Cemetery has always intrigued me. While the presence of a phrase or quote is not unusual on grave markers this one (combined with the fact that the decedent was only 35) suggested there was an unexpected tragedy associated with Benjamin’s death, something that his loved ones struggled to comprehend.

Continue reading ““Tavern Row Is Fatal To Local Sailor””

Father Kills Teenage Daughter, Then Suicides After April Fools’ Day Prank

A cautionary tale, perhaps?

Misc. Tidings of Yore

This 1908 story of the murder-suicide at an Asheville, NC all-girls’ school was picked up by newspapers nationwide. The following clipping, from The Manning Times in South Carolina on April 22, 1908 was one of the more comprehensive accounts of the aftermath of an April Fool’s Day joke which ended in tragedy. This article states that Nellie Swinney’s father was D.O. Swinney, but he was actually Curtis O. Swinney.

After Shooting His Sixteen Year Old Daughter Twice.
Occured in a Girl’s School at Asheville. The Young Lady had Taken Part in April Fool Joke and her Father visits her at School, Shoots Her, and then Commits Suicide.
     A terrible tragedy was enacted at Asheville, N.C., on Wednesday. Enraged at his 16-year-old daughter Nellie, because of a harmless school girl prank, Dr. D.O. Swinney, who recently went to Asheville, from New York, fired two…

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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.