The Historical Society and our County Archives have boxes of records and documents and accounts of trials — some of which have been grisly murder trials!
We finish our month long look at local trials by writing about a tragic death and the resulting trial for murder by the victim’s closest relations: her husband and her mother-in-law!
We will leave out the last names of the victim and the accused due to the fact that the murder occurred in 1925, and the families involved are still local citizens.
In April of 1925 a young bride, married only 10 weeks, fell to the floor in convulsions. She was living with her new in-laws and they were witnesses to her pain, calling the closest doctor to tend to her.
Dr. William Celsor came to the home immediately, but wasn’t able to prevent her from dying.
The girl, Letha, was only 17 years old; her husband, Noel L. was only 18.
There was no embalming of the body and the funeral took place almost immediately.
But a few days later, the girl’s father, visited Hartsville and went straight to Sheriff Albert Parkhurst’s office.
He wanted to file a murder charge against his dead daughter’s husband! It seems, he had been told some facts concerning the circumstances of the girl’s demise and it looked suspicious to him!
Since the charge of homicide was newsworthy, we have a complete record of the charge and subsequent trial from The Tennessean, since newspapers even in 1925 loved sensational headlines.
The paper wrote, “…according to the sheriff, Letha declared that Noel gave her candy on Saturday prior to her death that made her very sick, and killed a dog belonging to Lem White. Noel says he did not give her the candy. After tasting a piece of it, the young woman threw it in the direction the dog, which later died. A doctor was called to attend Letha and she became better. Then early Sunday night she ate some peanut butter, became critically ill with convulsions and died within one hour.”
There were also rumors that the couple had been out of sorts with each other, with the young husband becoming mad and going off to stay with friends and leaving his bride with his parents.
The parents of the husband owned a small general store and a blacksmith shop between Hartsville and Lafayette. It was Noel’s mother who had given Leatha the peanut butter and crackers that seemingly led to her fatal convulsions! Strychnine was an item that most county stores sold, usually for farmers who set out traps for rats.
Sheriff Parkhurst took the unusual move of having the dead woman’s body dug up and portions of her stomach and intestines removed and sent to Nashville for examination! He also placed Noel L. in the Hartsville jail, along with his mother Cora!
News of the charges, the exhuming of the body and the anticipated results of the autopsy caused quite a stir in Hartsville.
Bond for Cora was set at $5,000 and Noel’s bond was set at $10,000.
Cora was able to meet her bond, but Noel wasn’t. Due to the aroused feelings of the local populace, Sheriff Parkhurst had Noel removed from town and taken to the prison in Nashville for safekeeping.
When the news arrived that Letha’s body did have enough strychnine in her body to kill her, Noel and his mother were formally charged. As expected, the trial drew quite a crowd and The Tennessean wrote the event up with this headline, “Young Husband and His Mother to Be Tried in Hartsville.”
The lawyer for the defense was local attorney J. D. McMurry, who tried to convince the jury that the young bride was given the wrong medicine by Dr. Celsor by accident. But Dr. Celsor, when called to testify, stated that he never carried strychnine in his medicine bag!
Noel was found guilty and given a sentence of 20 years in prison. His mother was not convicted. But prison did not agree with Noel and he soon became deathly ill. Two years later, we find this brief article in the Nashville paper, “Because he has been told by the state prison physician that he cannot live long, Noel L. of Trousdale County… will have his sentence commuted by Gov. Henry H. Horton.”
There are more trials we can write about, and we will, in the future!