A TRUE STORY
copyright 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010 Ashley Waters
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Photograph of my mother Connie and younger sister Ethyl, believed to have been taken at the Texas State Orphanage in Corsicana, circa 1918. Within a few days after this photo was taken, Ethyl (left) died of complications of the now famous Spanish Flu epidemic, apparently leaving Connie as the only survivor of her family's tragedy. A story that would not be learned until after her death, over 80 years later.
Constance Pearl Rea was born to her sharecropper parents, Myron and Nona on December 15, 1907 on their farm in northwestern Van Zandt County, Texas, in an area called the "Rocky Point Community", northeast of Wills Point. Its a name and place all but forgotten to current residents. Her father was a tenant farmer on 60 acres of land, about 4 miles from town.
My mother, then only 61/2 years old, was orphaned in 1914, first by the death of her 27 year old mother and the apparent loss of her father a short while later. My mother described the memory of the last time she saw her father. The date of the sequence of events which became confused in stories told to me in my childhood. Mother described her father tearfully saying goodbye at the train station in Wills Point, in November of 1915. He apparently had gone away...but why... and to where? She was never to see or hear from him again. (There were times when I was puzzled as to how a father could not attempt any further contact with his children. My concern was quieted in the rationalization of how terribly difficult "the times" were.)
The railroad station at Wills Point which exists today was not built until 1927. It is located near the site which my mother described as the last time she was to ever see her father, in November of 1915. She remembers him crying as he tearfully hugged his daughters, who were then only 2 and 8 years old...and said his "goodbye'. She was never to hear from him again.
Connie and Ethyl were sent to live with their paternal grandmother, in Alsa, a small community about 2 miles northwest of their farm, which remains today, near the southwestern shore of Lake Tawakoni. In May 1916, only 2 years later, their 63 year old grandmother succumbed to the Spanish Flu in a terrible epidemic that swept the nation and world, of millions of that generation of souls. Afterwards, it was decided that the girls would then be placed in the Texas State Home for Children in Corsicana... but why? (The state orphanage, while then a large facility by any standard, no longer exists today).
On December 14, 1918, while barely 5 years old and one day before Connie's 11th birthday, her sister Ethyl died of pneumonia at the Corsicana orphanage... an apparent complication of the Spanish Influenza.
Mother and Ethyl lived in separate dormitories...as children of similar ages were housed together, apparently without regard or concern for family relationships. My mother once described how she would have to sneak into Ethyl's room at night, during her sister's illness and crawl under her bed. She would lay on the floor beneath Ethyl, praying that her presence would give her sister enough strength to survive the pneumonia.
I remember mother telling of the hot Texas summer nights in the orphanage. In an apparent effort to control bed wetting, workers turned off all the water hydrants in the early evening. Mother told of only being able to obtain drinking water by dipping her hands in the toilet. Such stories both horrified me and evoked a strong sense of compassion for any child who had been placed there.
My mother was never adopted from the orphanage. A friend of one of the workers at the Corsicana State Home, a relatively successful business woman in town...took a personal interest in her, apparently in mother's early teenage years. Eventually this lady seemingly took mother into a kind of "foster parent" or sponsoring relationship and became the only "family" mother would ever relate to.
Connie was a good student and became a cheerleader for the Corsicana Tigers high school football team. Her foster "mother" first sent her to the Texas State College for Women (TSCW) in Denton...and later to nursing school in Galveston...which is where she met my father.
From time to time in my youth, I would reflect on what it must have been like for mother in her childhood. As horrible as her stories were then, I never dreamed that in reality, I would some day learn the truth was far worse than I had been told. Mother kept within her a "secret" that she was never to share with anyone. She kept it within her...even to her death.
There were occasions in my youth when I would sense mother's melancholy. Somehow there was a feeling within me that events such as Christmas and birthdays were just not as joyous as they should have been. I only recently have shared these feelings with my two sisters...who themselves expressed a similar kind of pre-occupation that "special times" were just not as we seemed to want them to be. There was something "missing"...
My feelings about "family" were very much influenced by my knowledge of mother's orphan experience. In addition, I became aware of a sense that I was a "Waters"...as my paternal family background was the only "roots" I had.
Somehow I just never allowed myself to think that there was another family. The maternal side of my heritage was never discussed. It was as though they never existed.
I felt fortunate to be a "Waters". The man I identified as my grandfather had died 20 years before I was born. He was a successful Galveston banker and business man. His legacy was a family of 3 sons. One graduated in the second graduating class of the "Rice Institute" in 1918. He went on to become a professor of Electrical Engineering and remained at Rice for nearly 50 years. My younger uncle attended Rice before joining the Corps of Engineers in the later part of World War I. My dad became one of Texas's earliest aviators. He had one of the first privately owned airplanes in Texas and eventually went on to fly for Curtis Wright Aerial Service and the Air Activities of Texas, an ancestor of Texas International and Continental Airlines, then located at Houston Municipal... now William P. Hobby airport in Houston.
My dad's flying experience eventually led him amazingly enough...back to Corsicana, where he was a squadron commander in the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program in World War II. So it was with a considerable degree of irony that I was born in Corsicana and can relate to an era of small towns with red brick streets, in the manner that I do.
When World War II ended, a lot of things changed once again for a great many families...and mine moved back to Galveston.
The only association I would eventually have with Corsicana later in my youth, were the "Labor Day" and "Memorial Day" trips we seemed to make each year, almost as a ritual. We often would drive through the Corsicana State Home on such occasions. I remember observing the children playing there...filled with a sense of compassion for their "plight". My thoughts were often of being glad that I was not one of them...then a moment later wondering what it must have been like for my mother to be there.
In all of the summer trips to Corsicana...we never went to Wills Point...even though it was little more than another hour's drive by automobile. We never talked about going there...we never even went as far east as Athens. I sometimes found myself wondering what Wills Point was like. It would exist almost exclusively in my imagination...for over 50 years.
A few weeks after my mother's death, I became filled with a sense of wanting to "go home" to a place which I had never been. A series of events began to unfold in the later half of 1996 which promoted that yearning within me. I subsequently fulfilled that desire...and it left me very much filled with a sense of "going home" at last.
My mother died in August 1996...at almost 89 years of age. She had been confined to bed for over 4 years as a result of severe Osteoporosis. I was living in Minnesota much of the time...but made dozens of trips to see her, especially as her "time" seemed more imminent. I remained filled with the feelings to be compassionate and generally not bring up the subject of her childhood. Such talk would invariably provoke an all too familiar melancholy relapse. It was just something we did not talk about very much.
There were times when my sisters and I would never-the-less feel compelled to squeeze out just one more little fact about our "roots"...which we would likely never be able to find out otherwise.
My mother was well over 60 years old when she "discovered" a 1st cousin who lived in Iowa. It seemed a most remarkable occurrence at the time...for my mother had appeared to never know of any kindred family. Eventually this led to a "family reunion" of 3rd and 4th cousins from Oklahoma and northern Texas. One of my sisters had driven my mother to the reunion...and while there, struck up a conversation with a 3rd cousin from Norman, Oklahoma. Over time, my sister was told that the cousin was aware that the story of the Asian flu epidemic was not "all true"...but the cousin refused to expound on the story any further.
I dismissed the information as little more than something which would confuse the issue. I chose not to trouble my mother in her last months on earth.
About a week before mother died, my older sister summoned the ability to ask her for more information. She expressed to mother that she was beginning to feel like it might be possible that our grandfather was "not a very nice man". I was told that mother responded with a quick "NO"...but offered very little more than that.
My mother died...having never revealed her uncommon tragedy to anyone.
It first seemed as though her story would simply die with her.
Looking north on 4th Street in Wills Point appears much as it must have in my mother's youth. The white watering trough, originally placed there for horses drawing wagons laden with cotton bails, remains the "center piece" for the downtown district. Most of the buildings, along with the brick pavement remain much as it looked in 1914...a year marked by a notable crime in the annals of Wills Point.
Like many others in recent times, I have become infatuated with the concept of the Internet. Several friends, not endowed with access to the WWW have asked me to research bits of information...sometimes seemingly both remote and trite. Each time, to my surprise...I found the answer to their question. Now I was facing a challenge of my own.
My job as an air traffic controller affords me time off during the week that provides opportunities which others do not enjoy. My access to the Internet is for the most part unlimited...as I research trivia facts along with serious subjects.
I was sitting at my computer a few months ago...pondering what I might be able to discover about Wills Point.
My preconceived thoughts convinced me that discovering any information about my mother and her family...and something that occurred 80 years earlier...in a small town that I have never been to...would virtually be impossible to research.
I decided to see if any information about Van Zandt County was available on the "World Wide Web". Once again, to my surprise, I discovered a website for several organizations in the area. One of these was a Methodist church...which had an e-mail address displayed.
I sent a message to the minister...asking if there were anyone in the area who was interested in local history and/or genealogy.
My fortunes were with me...as I received an E-mail response from a wonderful fellow Texan named Mrs. Jane Gamon. It turned out that Jane is active volunteer in a well equipped genealogy library in Canton...as well as having written various articles on local history and color. I could not have hoped for a better suited "sleuth" as she began to refer to herself.
I described the situation as best I could through the medium of E-mail. I included the fact that my mother was born near Wills Point in 1907...and that she was orphaned in the period around 1917. I did not know anything further. I then expressed that it might be possible that Jane would discover "unpleasant" news...but that I wanted to hear about whatever she would learn.
In only a couple of days time, Jane e-mailed hand copied information from newspaper articles which appeared in the "Wills Point Chronicle" in May of 1914.
The offices of the "Wills Point Chronicle"...still in weekly publication...and which, through articles published in 1914 and 1915... provided information about "roots" I could never have imagined.
The first newspaper article my "sleuth" located was dated May 21, 1914.
"Death of Mrs. W.M. Rea"
"Mrs. W. M Rea died suddenly at the family home in the Rocky Point community Tuesday night at 9:30 o'clock, death resulting from heart trouble. She was apparently in her usual good health up to about 40 minutes of the time of her death, when she was taken seriously ill and expired before medical aid could reach her. The remains were entered in the Howell cemetery yesterday afternoon. The deceased was 25 years of age and is survived by her husband and two children; four brothers, T.M,. Claude, Bee and Edgar Halford, who reside in this county; and her mother, Mrs. E.L. Grove, and a sister, Mrs. Pearl Norther, who reside in Dallas.
The sudden death of Mrs. Rea was a great shock to the family and friends and cast a shadow of gloom over the community in which she lived. The Chronicle joins the friends of the family in extending sincere sympathy to the bereaved relatives in their great (sic)".
About three weeks later, the Wills Point Chronicle would carry two more brief articles. Reading these reports for the first time almost 83 years later...I was given more insight about the strength and character of my mother...than a lifetime of knowing her had previously afforded. The brief moment of reading the old newspaper articles has also given rise to numbers of questions I would wish to ask her...but now must rest in infinite speculation.
The following was reported in the Wills Point Chronicle on June 11, 1914.
"ARRESTED ON CHARGE OF MURDERING HIS WIFE"
"Sheriff J.R. Kellis, Marshall Ollie Orsborn and County Attorney M.G. Sanders went out and arrested W.M. Rea of the Rocky Point community on Monday on a warrant, charging him with murder in connection with the death of Mrs. Rea, which occurred suddenly Tuesday night, May 19. The prisoner was carried to Canton Monday night and placed in jail to await the action of the grand jury. Mrs. Rea, who was 25 years of age, was a sister of Taylor, Claude, Bee and Edgar Hallford of this county, and is survived by two small children".
"Body of Mrs. W. M. Rea Exhumed"
"The body of Mrs. W. M. Rea who was buried the 19th day of May, was taken up by Drs. D.L. Sanders and M.H. Nichols yesterday, under the direction of Sheriff Kellis, for the purpose of having it examined to see whether or not her death was caused by poisoning. The examiners report that they found the body in a decomposed condition, the stomach being almost wholly digested by the gastric juices.
Dr. Sanders and Sheriff Kellis went to Dallas yesterday to have the portion of the stomach which they were able to take from the body, carried through a quantitative analysis."
Reading the two articles gave me cause to reflect on the "stuff" of family...not so much on the importance of family "pride"...but the fiber that bonds and makes a family strong. I pondered at the importance of integrity of the family unit...and what seems to be the collapse of many such ideals in our society today. What part does "family pride" play in the role of keeping family integrity?
I began to speculate on the manner of "roles" played by "silence" in family matters. I could reason both positive and negative results.
I now had other things to consider...as I would remind myself of the basic "positive" atmosphere that was maintained in my upbringing. Did this recently learned event threaten who I was? I decided straight away...of the folly of such a notion.
The rise of periods of reflections within me, on the stigma of such crimes could, at times seem ominous.
I then realized that the "stuff"of protection offered by silence, might be the very thing my mother, through her "motherly instincts"...and her wisdom of years, was trying to protect her children from the trauma of her youth.
As the story continued to unfold, I began to realize that there was a potential to consider that a remarkable act of heroism...through a simple act of family devotion...was being revealed in my mother having kept these "secrets'...buried deep within.
I was driven to learn more...about a woman I had known all of my life.
In April of 1997 I traveled to the area of Van Zandt County, long ago known as the "Rocky Point Community". The scene of this photo is about three miles north of Wills Point, looking north along FM 751...the southern perimeter of a place I could relate to as "home" ...even though it was a journey I had never made before.
The newspaper and records from my grandfather's trial afforded a lot of insight about what had happened...and my mother was very much involved in the outcome of the story.
Much of the court testimony came from neighboring farm families which lived either side of what today is called Texas State Highway 47. The Rea farm was on the east side of the roadway, immediately north of a present day power transmission line located 3.7 miles north of Wills Point.
My grandmother had apparently long been suffering from goiter...which at the time appeared to be untreatable and potentially lethal. The accounts of the murder trial indicated Nona had been taking multiple "prescription" medications from at least two area physicians. A letter to her sister submitted as evidence in the trial revealed her discomfort and concern.
My grandfather went to the family physician in a supposed attempt to obtain a more effective medication...and coaxed the doctor into prescribing quinine...the "miracle drug" of the time.
While at the Bruce and Human Drug Store, to have the quinine prescription filled, he engaged in a conversation with Mr. John Pratt, the pharmacist...about finding an effective means to control rats in his barn. Mr. Pratt testified in court that the conversation turned to the use of arsenic for such purposes. While at the drug store, my grandfather purchased a "nickels worth" of arsenic.
The Bruce and Human Drug Store on 4th Street in Wills Point...where in the spring of 1914, my grandfather bought a "nickel's worth of arsenic". The firm is still in business today...ironically, I would learn, owned by the descendant family of the attorney who defended him at his murder trial.
In past times, prescription medication was often dispensed in the form of a powder. The patient purchased capsules separately, which were used to aid making the consumption of the medication more palatable. It appears that there would be very little physical differences in appearance between quinine powder...and arsenic, which is a white crystalline powder in it's most common form.
My mother, only 61/2 years old in May, 1914...was quoted in the court records by the attending physician as having said, "Daddy fixed the medicine and gave it to her".
It is obvious by the details of the trial...that dying from arsenic poisoning is no pleasant experience.
One of the neighbors who came to assist my grandmother's distress, was present for about 30 minutes prior to her death. In court testimony she described observing "hard convulsions with contractions of the muscles and hands gripping and she was frothing at the mouth. There was a kind of white froth at the mouth."
Those in attendance told the physician who arrived about an hour after her passing...of the "fit" they had observed.
DR M. H. Echols, the attending physician, testified that he recognized the symptoms as possible poisoning...and was immediately suspicious.
The court records reflect that the doctor asked my grandfather, "Is there any poison in the house?"
My grandfather responded with a negative statement.
The next morning, ladies of the neighborhood assisted in preparing my grandmother's body for burial. She was buried at 3 o'clock that afternoon in an unmarked plot at the Howell Cemetery, about 1 mile northwest of the farm.
In only a week's time, neighbors reported that Myron Rea was displaying a picture of a young lady to numbers of individuals...an act which appears to have immediately promoted suspicion...and ultimately leading to my grandfather's undoing.
The object of Myron's affection was a young lady referred to as "Miss Etta Wallace", who's father operated a creamery, located about 1 mile south of the Rea farm, on the east side of SH 47, at the crest of the hill.
The rumors and suspicions which appeared to have spread through Van Zandt County at the time, quickly lead to my grandfather's arrest and the exhumation of Nona Rea's body.
The farm site where my mother, while only 61/2 years of age, was taken to live with her paternal grandmother and uncle, after having witnessed the poisoning of her mother in 1914, about 2 miles to the east...and where she would begin to keep a secret within her which she would take to her grave...over 80 years later. It is also the location of a KKK cross burning, which terrified the remaining family, causing them to flee to New Mexico and placing my mother and younger sister in a state orphanage.
The newspaper accounts of the trial suggest it was quite a spectacular event, "unlike seen before in Van Zandt County". The accounts of the week of the trial report that the "courthouse was overflowing" and women and young children from throughout the northern part of the county were present to wait outside on the courthouse grounds.
I have reflected that the "spectacle" may have played a large part in the motivation of mother to conceal her feelings from that time in her life.
Reading the trial records with an "open mind"...one can not clearly find the defendant guilty. The levels of arsenic found in the portion of stomach sent to Dallas for examination, were consistent with levels of concentration commonly found in normal human tissue.
An argument was made that Nona may have accidentally placed the arsenic in the capsules, instead of the quinine powder.
My grandmother's growing discomfort and concern for suffering from goiter promotes consideration of the possibility that it might even have been a suicide...or a mercy killing.
A letter submitted to the court, which was written by Nona to her sister Pearl in Dallas, seemed almost fatalistic in it's content.
There were numbers of witnesses which reported as never having observed anything other than a kind and respectful atmosphere...and appearances of a caring relationship. One such witness was a man who had worked as a temporary hired laborer and lived with the family for a brief period in recent months...and reported observing no unusual problems.
Another witness is quoted as having testified, " I never heard anything wrong with them and they seemed to be just as affectionate as man and wife ever were".
It was not unusual at the time, for a man with young children, to loose a wife through death at a young age...and immediately seek a wife to replace her. My genealogy research, prompted since discovery of this event, has amazed me with the numbers of multiple marriages...as well as dramatic differences in the ages of husbands and their wives.
Miss Etta Wallace testified that she lived "about one mile" from Myron's house and had known him "about one year" and that he had tricked her into giving him the picture. She appears to reveal a need to express that there was no basis for anything other than an informal relationship.
Other testimony indicated that Etta Wallace had been to the Rea house on prior occasions, including a period of illness of a younger brother to my mother, who had died a few months earlier. During court testimony, Etta Wallace stated that she remembered "...sitting up one night or perhaps two nights with his little boy at the time he was sick. His little boy died of that illness."
DR Echols testified that, "In my judgment, Mrs. Rea died from arsenic poisoning".
My grandfather was never-the-less found guilty of second degree murder...and sentenced to spend the "rest of the days of his life confined in the state penitentiary".
A motion for a new trial was made by W. B. Wynne, attorney for the defendant with firm of Wynne, Wynne and Gilmore, which listed 13 supporting charges, basically arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support the finding of the jury, not the least of which was proving a motive.
One of the arguments included a recount of the testimony of DR D.L. Sanders, who stated during cross examination that "The goiter condition that the deceased was suffering with, and the death caused by it, would produce every symptom described by the witnesses who witnessed her death".
While it's difficult to make a conclusive judgment...I find myself generally believing that he did it...
But what if he didn't?
One young male court witness named Sid Ebarb testified that at an earlier time, Miron Rea had told him, "If I were a single man, ole man Wallace would have to sick the dogs on me to keep me away!"
I found marriage license records which suggest that a few days after the completion of the murder trial...Miss Etta Wallace married another man. In the summer of 1998, I located the adjoining gravesites of Sid Ebarb and Etta Wallace Ebarb, who died on June 12, 1984. The two are buried only a short distance from the entrance to the former "creamery", in what is called the Rocky Point Community Cemetery. (The sign on the highway identifies it as the "Stony Point" Cemetery). Sid Ebarb had taken Miron's advice to heart...
The formerly unmarked grave of my grandmother is reasonably believed to lay beneath the large oak tree, pictured in Howell Cemetery, about four miles north of Wills Point in Van Zandt County. A marker was placed there in 1997. The graves of two of her children are likely in the same location.
Despite having made some pretty significant discoveries about my families past difficulties, I found myself still confronted with a mystery. What happened to my grandfather?
It was now evident why my mother remembers that her father was crying at the train station when he said goodbye. It is easy to envision that he apparently was in shackles and being taken to prison in Huntsville.
A few weeks after the trip to Wills Point, I drove to Huntsville, in the belief that I would be able to ferret out sufficient information to resolve the remaining mystery.
As I was driving north on Interstate 45 past Conroe and Willis...I became aware of a need to suppress a feeling of the stigma of a family who had someone incarcerated in the state penitentiary. I did not like that feeling...but the need to find out the ultimate fate of my grandfather prevailed.
I had no idea how long Myron Rea had survived in prison.
I contemplated the irony that both of my sisters had attended Sam Houston State Teacher's College (now Sam Houston State University) in the 1950's...barely three blocks from the infamous "Walls". I recalled several October trips to Huntsville when the whole family attended the annual prison rodeo.
Could it be possible that my grandfather was still alive at the time...and we were ignorant of his presence only a few feet away?
"The Walls"...principle correctional facility of the Texas prison system, located in Huntsville...and is also one of the world's leading locations for capitol punishment, in the building located just behind the right foreground "cell block" structure.
I collected my "sprits" as I drove into the Texas Department of Corrections (DOC) parking lot. It was a relatively quiet period during the afternoon and I was initially greeted with impressive politeness.
I explained the reason for my visit, at which time I was given a telephone number of the DOC "Classifications" office. I spoke with a woman on the phone who appeared somewhat miffed that I should expect service just because I had gone to such an effort to travel to Huntsville. She refused to tell me where her office was located...and given the enormity of the DOC installations in Huntsville, it appeared I had a genuine "bureaucracy" problem. I could not help but feel that "this is the way they like it".
I was given a Huntsville post office box address and told that I would have to write a letter requesting the information. When I asked how long it would be before I could anticipate a response...I got more ambiguous information. I resolved to return home and write the all important letter to the DOC.
During my trip to Canton, a visit to the Van Zandt County District Clerk's office had proven most fruitful. Once the reason for my visit was established, I received every consideration and supportive, helpful service.
The 1915 murder trial records were still neatly tied in their folder...as they must have remained for over 80 years. The records contained in the trial folder proved to be filled with more fascination.
While in the District Clerk's office in Canton, I expressed frustration at trying to find out the ultimate fate of my grandfather. It was clear that he would have been deceased by this time...but where did he die? Could he have ever possibly been released from prison? If he died in prison...what was done with his remains? I was told that a cemetery existed near "The Walls" which the District Clerk knew only as "Peckerwood Hill". She could not explain the name...but assured me of the existence of the cemetery...as she had personally been there. This was the cemetery for inmates who had died or been executed in prison...and who's remains had never been claimed by the surviving family.
I resolved that I may indeed have to go to this place..."Peckerwood Hill". I had long ago realized that such places must exist. I had thought of such places during past news of executions. What did the state do with the bodies? Internment in such a location seems to be our societies ultimate insult for unacceptable behavior. What if my grandfather was buried there?
The Texas DOC cemetery in Huntsville, is located about 1/2 mile southeast of "The Walls" (two blocks east of the Sam Houston State University sports complex). Like so many other elements in and around the Texas prison system, products of cheap labor seem abundant. Pre-cast concrete "cross" markings are manufactured and identified with inmate numbers and dates of death..."on site". Of approximately 400 graves, fewer than 1/4 have a name...and nearly 1/2 have no apparent markings of any kind. I have been to many cemeteries over the years...but none compare with the sense of sadness apparent here.
After nearly two months of hearing no response from my letter to the DOC, in early May of 1997, I again returned to Huntsville...this time filled with resolve to come home with some information.
As I approached Huntsville, I reviewed in my mind, my plans for the day. I would first go to "Peckerwood Hill" and conduct a thorough check of the grave sights. I wondered how would I feel if I discovered my granddad's grave there.
The location of the cemetery is unquestionably a pretty setting. The terrain of Huntsville is relatively hilly...and if it were not for the graves, the setting would equal most any park in the state. It is far better maintained than many cemeteries...barely a blade of grass is out of place.
Repeated walks up and down the carefully aligned and spaced grave sights provided no further information. Most of the older graves, dating from 1900 to 1932 or so, have the name and date of death on the marker. Very few of the graves from the 1930's until 1950, which represent nearly 50 percent of the interments, have no apparent markings of any kind, other than a plain white painted, cement cross. Two or three have markers which appeared to have later been placed there by family.
I was not to find a marked grave for William Myron Rea at "Peckerwood Hill".
I next drove to the Walker County courthouse and entered the county clerks' office. I had learned that all deaths which occur in Walker County are recorded there...even those of Texas DOC prisoners...even those prisoners who are executed.
Once in the County Clerk's office, I requested a copy of my grandfather's death certificate. The request was met with, "Are you a relative?"
I assured the clerk that I was.
Then I was asked for the name and date of death.
I explained that I knew the name...but had almost no idea when the date of death was. I explained the circumstances...and felt appreciative that an effort would be made to help me, even though I had little information to go on.
In spite of the willingness to help...the search turned up no records of the death of W.M. Rea. It was then suggested that I go to the DOC Classification Office.
"Where will I find it?", I asked.
I now had a piece of information not available on my first visit to Huntsville...and immediately drove to the huge "warehouse" appearing building on the west side of I45, a couple of miles north of Huntsville.
Once inside the "Classifications" office, I nearly became victim to the bureaucracy again...as I was directed from one office to another.
Finally, after a wait of about 30 minutes, a well dressed, ever so polite gentlemen joined me in the waiting room and made a statement similar to what I had been told before.
"We really don't like doing business in this manner. We prefer to have all such requests submitted in writing".
This time I was ready, responding with (while reaching into my brief case) , "In that event, let me present you with a copy of a letter which I mailed to you two months ago...and for which, I have received no acknowledgment".
I almost felt sorry for my perceived opponent...for I could almost feel his internal discomfort...as he felt his bureaucracy having just been "slam dunked" in one quick instant.
He retained his composure...and to his credit, expressed that he would take personal responsibility for my inquiry...for which I both respected him for his integrity...and appreciated that I may at last be able to get the information I was searching for.
I left Huntsville that day with little more than reassurance...but it would prove worthwhile.
A week later I received the following statement:
"TDCJ records indicate that your grandfather W.M. Rea was received into TDCJ as # 38489 11-29-15 from Van Zandt County sentenced to Life for Murder.
Records indicate that he was sentenced 4-13-15 in Canton, Texas. He died 2-6-17 of Milletus diabetes and was returned to his brother Ed Rea to be buried in Wills Point, Texas."
The presumed resting place of my grandfather, the Rea family burial plot in Union Grove Cemetery, Van Zandt County, alongside Texas FM 571, about 2 miles south of my grandmother's grave. The grave of William Myron Rea remains unmarked. Recently learned information suggests an existing marker may have been stolen by a subculture organization of that era.
In the spring of 1999, I received a telephone call from a descendant of the mother of William Miron Rea. Elizabeth "Lizzie" Young Rea, through her 3rd marriage of to a man named Charles Edgerton in 1888, bore four more children, including three Edgerton sons. The three Rea youngsters, including Miron and his younger brother Ed , had lived in the Edgerton household as children, earlier in Van Zandt County, then during a period of time on the Chickasaw Indian Reservation in Oklahoma, where Miron's stepfather was employed as a postal worker...and again after the family returned to Van Zandt County.
Elizabeth Edgerton, was living with her son, Ed Rea in the Alsa Community of northwestern Van Zandt County after the death of her 3rd husband in 1904. Lizzie took custody of 61/2 year old Connie and her 1 year old sister Ethyl, after the incarceration of their father Myron, pending trial for the murder of his wife. The children remained in the household, after the sentencing of their father, until a short time after the death of their grandmother Elizabeth on May 12, 1916...apparently due to complications of Asian Flu.
An unknown period of time after the death of grandmother Elizabeth, the girls uncle, Ed Rea, who was the head of the household at that time, surrendered the custody of the girls to the state orphanage in Corsicana.
I have obtained a copy of the Western Union telegram sent to Ed Rea on February 06, 1917 by the prison in Huntsville, advising him of the death of his brother Miron and requesting instructions for the displacement of the body. Ed Rea responded with a desire that the body be sent to Van Zandt County for burial.
At this point, there was another question which became apparent. The information I have received indicates that both Elizabeth Rea Edgerton and her son Miron are buried in Union Grove Cemetery, northwest of Wills Point. There are no markers present for either grave. The first thing I concluded was that the family appeared too impoverished to provide markers.
Subsequent to a KKK cross burning... and about this same time, Ed Rea sold the farm and moved for a period time to east Texas. Coincidentally, the three Edgerton sons, ages 20 to 25 at the time, suddenly, without explanation, left for west Texas, settling near the panhandle town of Farwell for a period, before moving to Artesia, New Mexico. A short time later, Ed Rea joined his step brothers in Artesia, where he lived until he died in 1961. I was curious about what appeared to be the absence of an "explanation" for the initial move to Farwell...
The "explanation" came in telephone call in the Spring of 1999 ... which revealed that the caller had long pursued an accounting from his father, about WHY the four young men had left Van Zandt County in such a manner.
The explanation also may reveal an accounting not previously considered, as to why the grave of Miron and his mother remain unmarked.
Ed Rea and his step brothers are said to have had a "cross burning" in front of the house by the KKK. (In contrast to popular belief, the KKK did not treat only blacks in this manner). It would appear that the KKK was attempting to banish the remaining members of the family from the area, as a consequence of Miron Rea's behavior...even though others were completely innocent of anything other than the consequences of impoverishment through their vocation of tenant farming.
It is a most "telling" story of the activities of the Klu Klux Klan that those of our modern day "minorities" have not bothered to tell...apparently as a self serving interest. The KKK terrorized whomever they identified as outside the perifery of their perceived "better" society... even the totally innocent... and even those in their own race. This is a side of the KKK (and early Van Zandt County) that few alive today, are aware of...
While I have no particular substantiated, documentation of "fact", given that none of the 3 brothers ever married... and two would lived the remainder of their lives working in the "barber" profession in Artesia, New Mexico... I've quietly considered that two or more of the brothers were the victims of another form of cruelty, we now call "hate crimes".
On the outside, it appears the KKK had brandished the family apparently for the "crime" of something crudely identified as being "poor white trash"...and through fear and intimidation, they were forced to flee the area.
The caller indicated that his father expressed a belief that the KKK had also likely removed and destroyed the grave markers of Miron Rea and his mother.
My grandfather had survived only 14 months in prison before dying from apparent complications of diabetes at 38 years of age. It would not be until 1922, five years later...that insulin was first used on human patients to treat diabetes.
In the past year, I myself have become dependent on supplemental insulin to treat Milletus diabetes. It's a curious sense to explain what it was like to hear about my genetic ancestry in this manner.
Somehow...I now can at last identify a sense of kindred spirit with my grandfather...for we have something in common other than a stained family genealogy.
The experience gave me an understanding of my mother in a manner I may never otherwise have known... certainly a respect for what she had sustained and carried within her for most of her 89 years. I am haunted as what she appears to have witnessed first hand... first the death of her mother while she was 61/2 years old and soon after, her father's prosecution at a trial that was the scandal of the county, much of Texas and certainly devastating to the world as she knew it. My mother appears to have witnessed her father leaving on the train for prison in 1915, which was soon followed by the horrifying experience of the KKK burning a cross in their front lawn. Her Grandmother died from complications of Spanish Flu in May 1916. Within the year, her uncle sought to have the two girls sent to the state orphanage in Corsicana... where she would watch her younger sister die at the age of 5, one day before my mother's own 11th birthday. These things, all, were part of a personal tragedy that she would not share with anyone, taking it to her grave...
Archive photograph, Texas State Home for Children in Corsicana (Navarro County), approximately 2 years before my mother and her sister's arrival.
Mom spent the last decade of her nursing career working in the "Renal" unit at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston. She cared for gravely ill kidney transplant patients, many of which were children brought there from all over the world, with no families at their side. She often became emotionally attached to the children...and would tell me stories about them.
It's easy to imagine from where she summoned her compassion...and why her compassion and nursing skills were so respected by doctors and staff at UTMB. I have often thought that in the years of nursing, as she tended to the needs of patients... while in some fashion, she was also tending to her own needs.
For such coincidences in life, we all are blessed.
I wish that I could have had a moment alone with Mom...to express my appreciation for what I know she tried to do...and also give her a gentle hug...and express that it's OK....
My mother, through her personal, lifetime of emotional sacrifice, perceived a necessity for silence in the story of her childhood. She spoke to me in other ways, through her "secret"...of the sacrifices and devotion a parent may impose on themselves, for the love of their children.
This gives me cause to reflect on the true "stuff" of silent heroes who have passed this way in life, who's sacrifice we may have never learned...
In this manner, I can think of no parent who was ever more deserving to be honored.
...And I feel good, as well, that I "completed the connection"... with her childhood family that she only allowed herself to grieve for, in her silence.
COPYRIGHT 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010
F. A. WATERS - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
EMAIL: REMOVETHISWA5NNO @ REMOVETHISHOTMAIL.COM