Courtship, Marriage…and Murder: piecing together a lost portion of our family’s story

Don, Em leaving Church

My parents leaving the church after their wedding

As I worked with my dad to create a memoir for him to share with our family, we came to the year he spent courting my mother in 1949. Dad was more than happy to share the events of how he and Mom met, a story I had grown up hearing. But a significant event that occurred during that year before they married had been left out of Dad’s narrative.
Shortly before Dad’s memoir was to be published, my sister handed me a box that included letters my father wrote to Mom during that courtship year. In a few letters from my dad to Mom, Dad wrote some cryptic notes, including a comment that left me puzzled.

“There’s been no change that I know of in the situation,” he wrote to her. The “situation” was not defined, and so I continued to read the letters, hoping to learn more about what the “situation” might be. Another letter written three weeks later offered more clues. my dad wrote to Mom, telling her that “Dad was out in the yard cleaning up Earl’s car a bit.” He was referring to my grandfather, and I knew (barely) that Dad had had an uncle named Earl. This note from Dad was more graphic, teling Mom about the presence of blood all over the car, but I was still puzzled about what the story was all about.

As I read these letters my memory stirred, recalling a conversation I’d had with my mother when I was a teenager. Mom had mentioned very briefly that one of Dad’s uncles, Earl, had been murdered in Miami. She offered few details at the time, and mostly described it as a strange story of a long-lost relative who showed up after years being missing, but was soon was murdered, with no answers ever found about what really had happened to him. I have no memory of what prompted her to share this, and feel certain that although I asked some questions, I hardly knew at the time what to ask, and my mother soon moved on to chat about various other topics, as she often did.

Beginning to piece things together, I tracked down news reports in the Miami Herald, since the letters gave me approximate dates to search for information. I found more information in an article about “unsolved murders.” A narrative of the case is related here, but be warned that it offers some grisly reading.

Subsequent letters from Dad to Mom offer only rather cryptic notes that apparently referred to this ongoing family trauma, so my guess is that he had a chance to speak with her by phone, allowing her to understand his references to both the car in which his uncle’s body was found, and the time he spent with his father in a courtroom for the inquest.

The local sheriff was determined to brush off Earl’s death as suicide, but my grandfather, Earl’s brother, was furious about this (from reports I read) and filed murder charges to make sure the incident was more thoroughly investigated. The resulting inquest resulted only in a conclusion of “death by criminal act by persons unknown.”

After reading the news reports I was able to find from 1949, I went back to Dad and asked him about what he knew. He willingly shared his own experience, noting that he had never really talked with anyone about what had happened, but that he had, in fact been thinking of it recently. Perhaps this was since I had been interviewing him about his life stories and stirring up many older memories.

He was able to confirm the information I’d read in his letters, explained a little more about what his experience had been, and how painful it had been to see his father have to go through all of it. Dad barely knew this uncle, who had disappeared from his family members’ lives for forty years, so my dad did not have the emotional connection to Earl that my grandfather, Earl’s brother, obviously felt, even with the many years of separation they had experienced.

Earl had been my grandfather’s youngest brother. I learned from Betty, Dad’s sister, that Earl looked nothing like his four brothers. The four older brothers, including my grandfather, all looked remarkably alike. Betty wondered if Earl might have been a child from their father’s second marriage. The older brothers’ mother had died when they were young, and their father had remarried. These were grandparents my father never met, another “mystery” of sorts in our family, since the sons in this family, including my grandfather, each left home when they reached the age of 14, and never returned.

Clearly a troubled family, the older brothers refused to have any contact with their parents after they left home, but remained close to each other till their deaths. Earl, the youngest, was the outlier. His life after the older brothers left home remains a mystery.
So many mysteries, most of which will probably remain unsolved. But the story of my parent’s year of courtship, (which resulted in a long-lasting union of 50 years till my mother’s death, and produced five children, as well as eleven grandchildren), while darker than I had imagined, also became more nuanced. This incident, among many others, helped sketch out a story of family love, perseverance and loyalty, despite years of separation, and possibly other troubles that we are left only to imagine.

beech cliffs 2018
Marjorie Turner Hollman

Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd editionMore Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and editor of Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed. Just out is her latest book, Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20+ years, has helped numerous families to save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress. She is a co-author of the recent community history, Bellingham Now and Then.

2 Comments

Filed under Blog Posts-Personal Histories

2 responses to “Courtship, Marriage…and Murder: piecing together a lost portion of our family’s story

  1. Kathleen Fox

    Hi Marjorie,

    I keep wondering if I may have known you in years past. Did you ever attend Emmanuel Baptist Church in Norfolk?

    Kathy

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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