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”


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.

Misc. Mortuary Mysteries

Even though I still have thousands (yes, thousands) of pictures from Green Hill to sort, catalog, and research I decided to devote this post to people who may or may not rest in marked graves. The Mortuary Reports contain many fascinating and woeful tales of death, and it seems like in many (not all) cases this final entry is the only remaining record of their existence.
Some of these handwritten notes stood out because of the blunt, straightforward, and morbidly dry language used. Others caught my attention because they pose mysteries, and I admittedly love a good cemeterial puzzle. Ambiguous and unusual causes of death, references to brothels, murders, suicides, and people buried anonymously on pauper grounds are just a few examples of the mysteries that provide an image (albeit a blurred one) of life in Danville in the late 19th century perhaps not captured in the society pages or written histories.
May 15, 1886: “a white fetus found in River” was buried in a pauper’s grave.
July 24, 1886: Charles Lunde, originally from Sweden, age 50, COD: Drowning. Also buried on pauper grounds.
August 22, 1886: Emma Scott, age 42, COD: “poison by morphine.” Promiscuous ground.
October 4, 1886: John McIntyre, age 34, Place of Death: Lee Street. COD: “…caused by a blow with a stick in the hands of Henry Fuller (colored) time from attack until death 24 hours.”
October 23, 1886: G.A. Walker, Jr., Place of Death: Ridge Street. COD: “pistol shot wound through liver and stomach.” (I actually have found some information on this man and his death, but I’m holding onto it until I get a clearer picture of the circumstances.)
October 25, 1886: Harry Powell, age 16, occupation: transfer agent. Place of Death: Ridge Street. COD: “Injuries received from being thrown from train against post.”
Dec. 7, 1886: Mary Henry Etta [illegible] (alias Carrie Reade), age 26, single. Died on Craghead Street, COD: “cancer [illegible].” Buried on pauper grounds.
Jan. 7, 1887: Infant son of H.D. Guerrant, age 5 months. Died on Paxton Street, COD: “overdose of opium I think.”
July 28, 1887: Mrs. J.G. Miller, age 60. Place of Death: Grove Street. COD: “Supposed obscure brain trouble.”
Aug. 11, 1887: Edward Townes Lewis, age 9. Place of Death: Pittsylvania County. COD: “puncture wound of the brain.”
Nov. 18, 1887: Mrs. Cornelia L. Davis. Place of Death: Pittsylvania County. COD: “nervous prostration from hesteria.”
Dec. 1887: Patty Elmore, age 25 years. COD: “Delerium tremors.”
June 5, 1888: Ella May (Craghead Street), age “about 25 years.” COD: “voluntary suicide so said the Jury.” Buried on pauper grounds.

July 17, 1888: Infant son of Thos. & Mary Scott, Age 17 months. COD: “can’t make out the cause of death.”

“P.L. Randleman Age 50 years…I saw him at various times for 2 years or more that he died on the 16th day of July 1888 and that the cause of his death was Excessive use of Alcoholic Stimulants W.L. Robinson M.D.”

October 17, 1888: Henry Hartis, Age 28. COD: “killed by a blow on the head with a stick.” Buried in a pauper’s grave.

November 28, 1888: Dr. James Thomas Humfries, Age 88. COD: “Erysiflas caused by crushed leg.” (This one was interesting because Dr. Humfries, or Humphries, is found throughout the mortuary reports as the doctor signing various death certificates. I was also unable to find anything about him, which is odd considering his occupation.)

Buried February 6, 1889: “unknown male child” on pauper ground.

February 26, 1889: Frank L. Bernard, age 25. COD: “killed a train on Richmond and Danville R.Road.”

May 9, 1889: E.J. Beckner, age 44. COD: “Alcoholism.”

May 16, 1889: Lizzie Boyed (Boyd?), Age [blank space]. COD: “result of operation being performed.”

Aug. 31, 1889: Ira Tuck, age 34. COD: “Self Suicide.” Buried on Odd Fellows Section.

“Col. Blackburn, dont no his age…died on the 30th day of January 1890 and that the cause of his death was Alcoholism.” Buried on promiscuous ground.

March 12, 1890: Ollie Moore, age 7. COD: “drowning in a well on the premises.” Buried on promiscuous grounds.

April 28, 1890: Mrs. E.M. Raines, age 38. COD: “unknown Drop Dead.” Buried in “Charlie Bennett’s section.”

December 1890: W. A. Price, age 24. COD: “he was killed in a RR Accident on Atlantic and Danville RR.” Buried on promiscuous ground.

January 5, 1891: Henry Slaughter, age 56. COD: “alber mania complication Paralysis.” (If you have any idea what kind of mania this referred to, please let me know.)

March 19, 1891: R.W. Valentine, age 34. COD: “Alcoholism.”

April 9, 1891: Nettie Carter, age 26. COD: “Opium Poisoning.” Buried on pauper grounds.

Buried July 22, 1891: James M. Wilson. “Killed on Atlantic & Danville Rail Road certificate from Boydton.”

August 9, 1891: George Ferguson, age 18. COD: “Gun Shot Wounds.” Buried “on M. Enoch Taylor Section.”

August 23, 1891: Andrew J. Crawley, age 23. COD: “Morphine Habit.”

August 1891: “J.H. Ford age not known died at Franklin Junction Resident of Reidsville NC.” Buried in Masons section.

November 11, 1891: Josie Wheeler, age 18. COD: “poisoning by opium.” (This is odd because the newspaper clipping below claims Josie’s body was sent back to Winston-Salem, NC for burial following her suicide. Because the mortuary reports record burials, I think perhaps the newspaper was in error unless her body was removed from Green Hill and then transported.)

Richmond Dispatch, 13 Nov. 1891

Buried on January 25, 1892: Eugene Ferguson, age 15. COD: “gun shot wounds recd from a Negro boy.” (Please read this disclaimer about language used in historical reports before sending me hate mail.)

April 26, 1892: Mrs. M.E. Lawson, age 47. COD: “some obscure disease.”

Buried on August 5, 1893: Susan Warner, age 60. “died in jail of Acute Mania.” Buried on promiscuous ground.

Buried promiscuously on December 2, 1893: William E. Carghill, age illegible. “killed on A&D RR.”

Buried December 10, 1893: Mrs. J___ Wetherford, age 73. “Died in North Danville from the Effects of Burns.”

March 6, 1894: Infant daughter of E. Lewis & wife, age 6 days. COD: “overdose of Laudanum.”

April 19, 1894: Mrs. Ella Grasty Crews, age 30.  COD: “some obscure Disease of the Nervous Sistem.” (Ella’s grave is marked, but I don’t have a photograph of it handy.)

August 15, 1894: Child from Blonde Hall, age 8 months. COD: “Entero Colitis.” (Blonde Hall is the only “house of ill repute” that I’ve uncovered in local history, but all I have is a name so far. I’d love to know where it was located.)

February 22, 1895: Robert Terrell Jones, age 57. COD: “Exhaustion following opium poisoning.”

Buried April 29, 1895: “James Wallace, age 35, Killed by Louis Shaner.”

The mortuary reports end with the final April 1895 entry, unfortunately. There are additional burial records for the cemetery beyond 1900 but causes of death are omitted, making them mainly useful for possibly locating graves or confirming whether or not someone is buried on the grounds.

This older post contains a wee bit of information about laudanum use in the 19th century.

Tombstone Tuesday – Henry and Virginia Barnes

 This is the tombstone marking the grave of Henry Jefferson Barnes, who was born May 6, 1836 in the Birch Creek District of Halifax, Virginia. He was the eldest child of  Fielder, a blacksmith, and Harriet Gholson Barnes.

In April 1861 Henry enlisted in the service to Company A, the Virginia 18th Infantry Regiment at which time his physical description was “5’6”, dark complexion, blue eyes, brown hair”(Historical Data Systems). He was mustered out of the military in Danville, Virginia in December 1862. Where and with whom Henry lived over the years is unclear. In 1870 he was living with his parents in Halifax, earning a living as a farmer with no spouse. By 1880 he was living in Danville, employed as a grocery clerk and married to Virginia “Jennie” Branch, a dress maker. There were also two female boarders in the Main Street home. An article published after his death in 1889 suggests that he’d lived in Danville for 25 years, which could have been printed in error. It appears as though Henry and Jennie married after 1870 when  Henry was over 30 and Jennie in her late twenties.

There is no offical record of the couple having any children, but there is at least one tombstone that confirms that they had at least one daughter that died either in infancy or was stillborn.

Another nearby grave marker is too weathered for me to read clearly, but it could possibly be the tombstone for another infant child belonging to the couple.

Henry died on Christmas Day of 1889, which means his cause of death was recorded in Green Hill’s mortuary reports. “Chronic diarrhea” was the recorded COD, but that may have been based only on his symptoms and not an official diagnosis.

Earlier in 1889 he apparently tried to commit suicide by using laudanum while suffering from “temporary aberration of mind.”

Less is known about Virginia, Henry’s wife. She died on Feb. 3, 1896 and is buried near Henry, her tombstone also no longer upright.

Historical Data Systems, comp.. U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2009.