Friday, February 10, 2012
Suicide or Murder?
Today I want to talk about a mystery in my family. I’ve mentioned this one before, but I want to really write out the whole thing today. It’s partially a love story, and there is a bloody death in it, allegations of a cover-up, allegations of insanity, some honest-to-goodness madness, and a lot of grief.
William Albert James was born on June 8th of 1872, the only child of John William and Rebecca Catherine Ritchey James. (John, suffering from PTSD after serving in the Union cavalry during the Civil War, abandoned his family early in William’s life, yet remained in close enough contact with his son that they ended up living in the same house for most of the latter half of John’s life.)
William, or “Will”, met and married Amanda Elmira Gray, known as “Ellen” in 1892. They eventually had six children: Mary Rebecca, Robert Dewey, Florence Elizabeth, Grace Viola, Melvin Chester (my grandfather), and Pearl, who died in infancy.
Will worked as a farmer in Coal Run, Pennsylvania and relieved the stresses of the day with music and poetry, playing tunes on his fiddle, reciting stories and poems (including some that he wrote and had published in the local paper), and singing songs gathered together with his family.
When farming failed to adequately provide for his family, Will turned to the local industry – coal mining. Exhibiting a characteristic that is still found in the James clan today, Will became concerned about the safety of the miners and the fairness of the working contracts, and joined the union. Eventually he became a steward and worked to both improve the working conditions as well as the pay for the local miners.
A few years later the family made one final move, this time to Meyersdale, where Will and Ellen purchased a 2 bedroom house and remained until the end of their days. The children grew up, married, and moved away, and Will’s father, John, came to live with them and Ellen cared for him until his death in 1934. For the next four years Will and Ellen were happy together, enjoying retirement and the visits of their grandchildren.
But more sorrow was in store for Will. Ellen became ill with a chronic kidney disease and died seventy-eight years ago this week, on February 3, 1934.
Will was sad and lonely, and looking for a replacement for his beloved Ellen he remarried. His second wife’s name was Ida, and I have been unable to find any additional information about her. I only know her name because it is listed in a few newspaper stories surrounding Will’s death. The family never spoke her name, and my own father would not tell me her name even when pressed. The reason for this reticence, open dislike, and even hatred is explained by Will’s death.
On Tuesday, May 30, 1944 Ida is reported to have returned home after calling on a neighbor and found Will dead on the floor of the bathroom, an apparent suicide, his throat cut with a knife. In a small item found in the local paper, and no doubt published the day of his death, Will is reported to have “been ill nearly nine months and for the last month had been acting strangely it was said.” Interestingly, in the larger article printed the following day the opposite is reported: “Less than an hour before he [Will] died one of his neighbors was conversing with him and he was said to have been in the best of spirits. He was looking over his garden and did not seem to have a care in the world.” The newspaper also reported that Dr. P.C. Dosch, county coroner, pronounced Will dead, giving his approximate time of death an hour earlier, issued the verdict of suicide and “deemed an inquest unnecessary”.
The family story presents an interesting counterpoint to the official story. According to the family, Will quickly repented his second marriage and did not get on well with Ida, nor she with him. As to his death, the family story is that the knife was found flushed down the toilet, the old-fashioned chain-pull kind, requiring Will to have cut his jugular vein then tossed the knife into the toilet and remain standing long enough to pull the chain before falling to the ground. The family alleges that Ida murdered Will, threw the knife in the toilet, then “found” him dead.
Besides the initial story, with facts no doubt drawn from Ida, there is no evidence that Will had been ill, nor that he had been “acting strangely”. Instead, there is the evidence of a neighbor to Will’s good spirits less than an hour before Ida reported his death.
Will had made a will, bequeathing his various personal items “sacred to me” to his son, Melvin in March of 1943, over a year before his death, not days prior to it.
It seems a ridiculous and almost Herculean thing for Will to have flushed the knife after cutting his throat. But it does make sense to imagine Ida slashing her husband’s throat and then childishly attempting to get rid of the evidence. I’ll speak to that more in a moment.
Although there is no official or public record of the knife being found in the toilet drains, there are some tantalizing clues in, of all places, the final settlement of Will’s estate. Among the paid bills, burial expenses, and $500 widow’s exemption are 46 cents paid to Carl Clapper for sewer tile, and $9.11 paid to Bolden Plumbing Co. Perhaps there simply was some plumbing needed to make the house sellable, but it does seem odd that this is the only household repair specified in the accounting beyond a general “L.E. Bauer, repair services, preparation for sale - $4.50”, less than half the cost of the plumbing work.
And finally there is Ida herself. While not reported in the newspaper stories surrounding Will’s death, Ida checked into the nearby state mental hospital months later and remained there until her own death.
Murder or suicide?