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.

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