April 24, 2023

Wake County Farmer Shoots Wife: A Murder/Suicide in New Light

My family tree is full of nuts. Just like most family trees. But I've been struck by how many of my family members have either been killed, killed others, or committed suicide in the early part of the 1900s.  From gambling, drinking, and jealousy - these stories really underscore the power of alcohol and the tragedy behind guns. Nothing has really changed in that regard, right?

The sad story of a murder and a suicide entails.

Charles "Charlie" Eaton DAVIS was the fourth child of my great great grandparents, John Ruffin DAVIS and wife Lucinda DAVIS. (Yes, a DAVIS married a DAVIS...happens all the time.) 

Charlie was born 27 June 1870, the first child born to John Ruffin and Lucinda since the civil war ended, although he was their third child. I strongly suspect Charlie was the child of a civil war veteran but I'm having trouble pinning that one down.

When he was 26 years old, Charlie married Sophronia Lillian O'NEAL on 27 Dec 1896. Known as "Lillian" or "Lilli", she was the daughter of Albert Dawson "Doss" O'NEAL and wife Sarah Washington MANGUM. She was a well respected young woman and often referred to as "cultured". I can only imagine what passed for "culture" in rough and tumble New Light in the early 1900s.

Lillian's brother, William Niles O'NEAL, was a prominent moonshiner in the area and had even been referred at times as "King of the Harricanes", which is what the geographic area around New Light, NC was called. The Harricanes even have their own Facebook pageLand of Wild Weather, Creeks, Springs, Rocks, Secrets, Moonshine, Self-Reliance

Charlie and Lillian settled on a 100 acre farm which Charlie purchased J. K. RAY for $1000.00 on 8 Dec 1903.  It bordered land currently owned by Lillian's father, Doss O'NEAL, to the south. It was land formerly owned by Doss but sold to J.K. RAY who later sold it to Charlie.

Charlie and Lillian had 6 children on this farm:

1. Jesse Eaton DAVIS, born 02 Oct 1897 and died 17 Jul 1987. He shows as the informant on his mother's death certificate at just 23 years old. Jesse Eaton married Minnie E DAVIS about 3 years later on 19 Aug 1923.

2. Charles Allen DAVIS, born 09 May 1899 and died 06 Jan 1956. He was just 21 years old when his mother was shot. He married Nellie Ethel POWELL about a year later. 

3. Mariette DAVIS was born 12 May 1901 and died 21 Jun 1983. She would have been 19 when her father shot her mother. She married Gordan SHERRON 23 Dec 1923.

4. Maona Suphronia (assume this was Meona Sophronia) DAVIS was born 02 Jul 1903 and died 02 Sep 1975. She was just 17 when her mother died at her father's hand. She married Wiley Addison POWELL a year later on 27 Dec 1921. 

5. Five years after Maona, Leon DAVIS was born 29 Jan 1907 and died on 23 Mar 1908 at just over a year old. This was the child reported as deceased on the 1910 census when Charlie and Lillian said they had 4 living out of 5 children born.

6. Ten years after her brother Leon died, Pattie Lou DAVIS was born 01 Jun 1916 and would have been just 4 years old when her mother died. Pattie married Raymond S KEITH 14 Oct 1937 and died 18 Sep 2000.

Charlie's brother, Sidney Irwin DAVIS, was my great grandfather. Sid has a few colorful stories of his own, but none as harrowing as his brother's sad tale.

I've heard that Charlie spent some time in Dorthea Dix hospital in Raleigh NC for "mental issues", but I've found no proof. It's possible he was hospitalized for alcoholism, although alcoholism was reportedly rampant in the family at the time and I've heard of no other family members being hospitalized for it.  

In the pre-dawn hours of 1 Dec 1920, Charlie shot his wife Lillian 3 or 4 times through the head with a large caliber gun while she slept. He was drunk. Very drunk. All of the children were in the house at the time of the shooting.

An article in Raleigh's News and Observer on 30 Nov 1920 reads:

"Davis, who owns the most pretentious home in New Light township and has always been a highly respected citizen of his community, was carried to the Wake County jail yesterday morning in a drinken stupor, from which he did not begin to arouse until 6 o'clock yesterday evening and from which he had not fully recovered at a late hour last night. Mrs. Davis, a woman of some culture, was before her marriage a Miss O'Neal and was the sister of W. Niles O'Neal another prominent New Light farmer. She had spent all of her life in the community in which she died. There has been no suggestion of justification for her husband's act."

Oddly enough, Charlie was not the only Wake County farmer to shoot his wife that day. Sam P SHADRACK who lived near Charlie and Lillian, also shot his wife. Both men were incarcerated in the Wake County jail at the same time without bond. Both shootings were blamed on alcohol.

Lillian Davis O'Neal Death Certificate

Once Charlie roused from his binge, he was visited by his brother James Medicus "Med" DAVIS. Charlie didn't understand why he was in jail and was completely distraught when Med explained the circumstances. I'm told Med carried a great deal of guilt at the result of his revelation to Charlie. I bet.

The reason for Med's guilt? His brother committed suicide after learning he had shot his wife. Charlie hung himself with a bed sheet in the Wake County jail, two days after the death of his wife. His children lost both parents within a 48 hour period; their mother to domestic violence and their father to suicide.

Charles Eaton Davis Death Certificate

Charlie died without a will despite being a prosperous land owner. Probate was filed in Wake County NC on 3 Dec 1920 by his oldest son, Jesse.  His estate was valued at about $1500.00. Jesse E, Charles Allen, Maynetta, Patti, Mayamin (Maona?), and Una DAVIS were listed as entitled as heirs. Jesse, as estate administrator was granted a bond of $3000.

Both Charlie and Lillian, along with their infant son Leon, are buried in the Davis Family Cemetery at 7000 Hinton Road, Wake Forest, NC. The cemetery is located in a wooded area at the end of Hinton Road and is not well-maintained. There are only the three graves. 

Truly, a sad resting place for victims of a sad and tragic story.

March 26, 2023

No answers in sight

My daddy is the man who raised me. I know who he is. His name is Carl.

My biological father is the man who created me. I know who he is. His name is Harry.

Carl and Harry knew each other. Socialized together. Vacationed together. Spent holidays with their families together. 

Two very different men with two very different roles. I terribly wish I could speak with both of them, but to have very different conversations. 

If I had just 10 minutes with each man...

I'd simply hold my daddy's sweet hand, put my head on his strong shoulder, close my eyes, and just breath. Words would not be necessary. 

I'd ask my father one critical question:  Did you know about me? 

A few years ago, I learned via DNA that my mother had an affair with a man she worked for in the late 1950s. I knew this man. And his wife. And their son. They were close friends of my parents. When they retired to a sunny tropical place, we visited numerous times. I remember these folks very fondly. 

I've also discovered that my daddy was likely sterile. Possibly from war wounds, or possibly from his exposure to toxic chemicals in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune during his military service. That's a whole situation.  

So was daddy's likely inability to make a baby what spurred my mother's relationship with my father? Deliberately, so they could have a family? Or was it just a passionate moment that took an unexpected turn? Was it an ongoing relationship? Did his wife know? Did my daddy know? Shoot, I'll never know. But I speculate on this quite a lot.

I never would have pegged this man to be my father. Once DNA convinced me Carl was not my bio father, I started searching for him. I had a mental list of potential candidates. This man was not on my list. So when I saw his name, it hit me like a ton of bricks. 

Memories of time spent with both couples only add to my long list of questions.  Someone recently asked me "does it really matter"?  Well, yes. And no. 

Since I learned of this situation, I've done quite a lot of research on the biological family. Some living bio family members weren't thrilled about this. Offended even. Others didn't seem to care. A few have been very kind and supportive. The research allows me to feel like I knew these folks who were my family. I've even found some things about them that made me feel pride. And sadness. Even found a few scandals. No different from most families.

I will wrangle with this the rest of my life. Not in a bad way. I don't wring my hands, or have any negative emotions toward anyone over it. But I do have questions. Lots of questions. It changed everything. It changed nothing.

The real issue is what to do with the unknown. I'll admit that I even have a little geeky fun digging for answers. 

I'm still processing, even though it has now been years since I made the discovery. Good thing I'm a genealogist. I know which rocks to look under.

June 18, 2021

Who's your daddy?

Reading through a pile of Facebook posts past year or so, I see that many who received a DNA surprise express a lot of anger toward their mothers for "lying to me all these years". I've never experienced any anger toward my mom for not telling me the truth. Of course, she's deceased so I can't ask questions on the "why" but she loved me unconditionally and so did the man who raised me. I was lucky to have such giving and loving parents, no matter whose DNA created me.

I have to wonder if the anger gets in the way of truly processing the facts and accepting the reality. After all, our parents - if they did indeed intentionally lie to us - likely did it out of fear and love. Fear they would lose someone's love (a spouse or a child) and the love they felt toward the 'lil DNA surprise.
It just proves to me that our parents are in fact *human*. They made mistakes. They had sex. Sometimes with people they shouldn't have. They didn't tell the entire truth. They were infallible. Just like every other human on the earth. Just like us.
Now, that doesn't mean I just throw my hands up and completely accept the situation. Oh, no. I'm curious. I have questions that will never have answers and sometimes that makes me angry. I have moments of shame, even. Just shades of it, after all I'm not the one who made the mistake although I've made plenty of my own, just of a different flavor.
I'm sometimes sad that I don't really carry the blood of the wonderful man who raised me, cause who wouldn't be proud to be his child? He served his country for many years, he always put his family first. He loved his God. He was the finest man I've ever known. He loved to hold my hand. He was proud of me. I do sometimes wish he was "mine", but the fact that he didn't create me during a few moments of intimacy really doesn't mean a thing. Not a thing.

I know who my daddy is and it's not the man my mom had a momentary fling with. It's the fellow who thought I hung the moon. The feeling was mutual.

October 21, 2020

Jonathan F. Davis: An Enigma

Jonathan F. Davis: Who was he, really?

My great great grandfather is such a mystery to me. Of course, having a name like "John Davis" is a problem on many levels. Davis is the 7th most common surname in the world and there has been an unbelievable number of Davis men in Granville and Franklin counties since the late 1600s.  Just my luck. 

I've been working on Jonathan for many years. Here's what I am sure of:

  • He married Cornelia DILLARD on 24 January 1861 in Granville County, NC.
  • He shows up on the 1850 and 1870 census in southern Granville County, but not in 1860.
  • He is buried in the DAVIS family cemetery on Woodland Church Road in Granville County. 
  • He fathered at least 12 children between 1861 and 1899.
  • He was a Freemason.
  • He left a brief will where he names 7 of his children and owned about 200 acres of land. 
  • He was a slave owner.

Here's what I'd like to know:
  • He was 32 when he married Cornelia. Was he married previously?
  • His first child with Cornelia was born in 1861. The next one in 1865. Which might suggest that he served in the US Civil War, but I can find no solid evidence. He also could have served in the Mexican War, per his age.
  • I'm told "someone" in a "nearby county" has a tintype of Jonathan. What I wouldn't give to get a good look at it! 
  • According to the will, the family was fairly well to do at one time. But the next generation was dirt poor. What happened? Reconstruction?
If you have any news of Jonathan, I'd love to hear it!  In the meantime, I'll keep diggin. I'm certain there is a lot more to his story!

October 12, 2020

Davis Family: A Virtual Reunion

In these unusual times, we have to get creative. The extensive Davis clan of central North Carolina traditionally meet the first Saturday each October. We meet at the church which has cared for our family spiritually for generations, Good Hope Baptist Church. 

Good Hope has recently changed their name to Covenant Hope Church. There's a story there but don't get me started on that one. Regardless, it will always be Good Hope to me and to the many generations of ancestors buried in its cemetery

Sadly, given the state of the world we could not risk the health of those who attend so the next best option was to host it virtually. Same day, same time. Minus the BBQ. And hugs. And long table of pot luck yummies. And strolls through the family cemetery complete with stories and longing.

Even missing that homemade BBQ, there we were....a handful of faithful Davis family members trying desperately to connect with one another from behind our devices and maintain our tradition. And you know what? It worked!

For those of us who managed to sign on to Zoom...we connected. We visited. We caught up with one another. We shared news, we appreciated one another's talents as Ellen sang, Marie played the piano and Matt played some mean Johnny Cash on his guitar. It was two whole hours of connecting, in many ways more so than we are physically together. That's a bit of a headscratcher...but it was good. 

I left the virtual reunion feeling like I had truly visited with my family. I don't always have that feeling at our reunions when we are all crowded into Good Hope's fellowship hall straining for conversations to be heard over the din. 

An important take away for me is to never feel the current state of the world takes away all the goodness in life. A door was (temporarily) closed, but God opened a window and the breeze blew in gifts I never imagined, such as experiencing the talents in my family I would not have enjoyed otherwise. 

It's all in the perception. Right?

April 22, 2018

Forgiveness and Secret Burdens

I don’t often surprise myself, but my willingness to be open and forthcoming about my DNA discovery has surprised me. Oh I’ve hesitated a time or two, when I feel my story is painting my mother in a poor light.

After all, it makes her look like a promiscuous woman who had a torrid affair and shamed my father, not to mention the child borne of that affair.

But it’s not like that at all. Not at all. My mother was a real hoot. She was adventurous, generous, kind, and forgiving. She was not without her issues, as we all are, but it can absolutely be said that she was a GOOD woman. A lovely person on many levels.

Mom was a very complex person. She was drop dead gorgeous and I suspect she often used her beauty to manipulate men.  I don’t believe she ever understood this about herself.  Later in life, she developed health issues that are often the result of bad habits like a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking.  She was always somewhere between being proud of the life she built and feeling disappointed about the life she didn’t live. I get that; I’ve experienced the same emotion.

Daddy wasn’t nearly as complicated as mom. He was a proud and simple man. All he ever wanted was a better life than the one he was born into on the wrong side of the tracks in Raleigh, NC. And he was willing to work hard for that better life. He was shining proof that hard work pays off. He is my hero in so many ways. I wish I was more like him, though maybe I’m more like him than I appreciate.  I sure hope so. I want to be the best of both parents – I want to live my life in a way that represents the very best they had to give.

I’ll never know the real story behind my mom’s relationship with my biological father. I do
know the two families were close and remained close long after my birth. My current theory is that daddy was sterile due to his war injuries. Mom and dad had been married 8 years when I was born and had no children after me. Perhaps Harry was a means to an end…the only way for them to have a child? Perhaps the relationship had nothing to do with torrid affairs and clandestine meetings in cheap motels. Maybe everyone knew the score.

I consider it both a blessing and a curse that there is no one left for me to ask. I’ll never really know the truth. There is some sense of loss in that, but there is also an understanding that being an adult is complicated. Life is complicated.


November 21, 2017

Adler Family of Tarboro, NC

Yes, it's been nearly a year since my last post!  In that time, I've kept busy with my genealogy projects such as my on-going but slow effort to learn more about analyzing my DNA results, attending conferences and workshops, visiting Tarboro - home of many of my Adler relatives, and dabbling in Family Tree Maker.

Oh, and the Wake County Genealogical Society. I'm President now and loving every single second of working with this wonderful organization.

But about those Adlers...I've made contact with more than a few cousins via DNA matches. That's been fun. And as mentioned above, I've visited Tarboro several times. What a precious little town!  It is the 9th oldest NC town and a huge chunk of downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places.

I got to see the Adler Department Store, still standing but vacant.  There was a fire, but you can still see the staircase to the right and a check out stand to your left. Sadly, I was unable to get inside.

I learned a great deal about the Jewish families in the area and their contributions to the local community. Really fascinating stuff if you're a geek like me. My Adler family was very active in that community; I've found many references to them in books written about the Jewish communities in eastern North Carolina. It makes me proud. 

I even learned a few "little known" facts like that my brother Joel had a children's clothing department store named for him, "Joel's Department Store" in Tarboro in about 1950.

I've learned many, many other things but I'll save those for another day. My son is home for the holiday from Alaska and he has offered to spend his precious time home going with me back over to Tarboro today to get my grandfather's military DD214 from the Register of Deed's office. 

Oh and one more thing!  There are pictures of my uncle hanging in the Edgecombe County Veteran's Military Museum in Tarboro! I'm not sure who the Staff Sgt Max Adler is - any clues from Adler family members would be greatly appreciated! Such a wonderful surprise to see their smiling faces!