The Minish Axe Murder

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
-Jeremiah 17:9

1883 was a bloody year in Iredell county. It’s another one of those spots in history where unseen forces conspired to display mankind’s depravity in uniquely awful ways.

Local historian Homer Keever details the various goings on from that year. If you’d like to read the whole article, I’m including a PDF version here.

In addition to the story we’re going to look at today, that year saw:
-A justice of the peace murder his own cousin because of a fence boundary.
-A man from Wilkesboro killing another with a pistol (possibly an accident).
-A woman on the south end of the county likely murdering her husband with a shovel (though never tried).
-A drunken man shooting his own father-in-law.
-The son of the man who was killed by the justice of the peace being shot and killed himself in an unrelated incident. The killer in this case, a black man ended up being dragged out of the jail in the middle of the night and was hanged. His killers were “never found”, though people probably knew who they were.
-A deputy sheriff killed a man during an argument over tax collection. That deputy sheriff went to jail for ten years over 50 cents.
-In Rowan county, several black residents of Iredell county became involved in some sort of conflagration that left one dead. Possibly as retribution, shortly thereafter a mob of black residents hung another black man “copying the whites in their methods of applying justice” as historian Homer Keever put it.

Possibly the strangest and most heinous of these deaths is one that I haven’t listed yet, and that is the murder of Stephen Warren Minish by his wife, Mary Minish.
Rather than retell a story that’s already been written, we’ll go to the Statesville Record & Landmark for February 18th, 1884.

Trial for the Murder or Her Husband —Found Insane Ordered to the Asylum.

The trial of the case of the Stale vs. Mary Minish for the murder of her husband was commenced in the Superior Court last Monday. She was represented by Maj. H. Bingham, Capt. R. M. Allison, and Solicitor Adams conducted the case for the State. A jury composed of Messrs. D. H. Stimson, Benj. Turner, A.Turner, R.M. Overcash, J. F. Gibson, E.P. Bradley, G. C. White, A. A. Sides, W. E. McNeely, S. W. Stimson, W. G. Gaither, and J.S. Deaton was secured without difficulty and the taking of testimony was proceeded with, Monday after-noon.

Mary Minish, unknown date, but presumably before the murder. Via Wikitree

It will be remembered that the woman killed her husband at their home in Union Grove township on the morning of the 5th of October last, driving the edge of an axe five times into his skull as he sat before time fire putting on his shoes. There were no witnesses of the occurrence, and the most of the testimony taken was as to the mental state of the prisoner.

Her mother-in-law, the mother of Stephen Warren Minish, the deceased, was the first person at the house after the killing, and she went in response to the call of Mary, who told her that she had killed Warren. After satisfying herself that such was the fact, witness, Margaret Minish, halloed, and presently other parties came. In the mean-time Mary had told her that she was lying in bed while her husband was putting on his shoes in front of the fire; that she slipped up, got the axe, went up behind him and “hit him one good lick and he fell;” prisoner added, “and I kept chopping him. I did not want him to suffer.”

The axe was between the bed and the wall, bloody up to the eye and with hair on it. Mary said Warren swore he would kill Jeunie her little daughter. She said she had prayed for him to go to rest; she was praying for him all the time she was striking him; that she had had it laid up for him for three or four years and was glad it was over with, for now her breast was easy”.
J. C. Minish, father of the deceased, got to the spot shortly after his wife—about sunrise. He supposed the killing to have occurred about 5 o’clock. Mary told him site had killed Warren, handed him a little box containing $15, and told witness to take that and “put him away.” Prisoner was not crying or “taking on” any, but seemed to be quiet. She seemed to have her usual sense.

The morning after the killing she said the Saviour had told her to kill him and now her heart was easy. Witness testified that “she had said lots of times that she had seen angels in the elements; that she had seen the Saviour and had been talking with Him.”

On the morning of the homicide Theophilus Campbell had heard prisoner tell about it. She said she had fixed the axe the night, before. Had heard her threaten to kill her husband, and when warned of the consequences she said, “they don’t hang women. and if they did my beauty would save my neck.” She was told that she was a fool, to which she replied that a heap of folks thought she was a fool but she had as good sense as she ever had; that her uncles had been talking about taking her to the asylum and that they had better attend to their own business, for she had more sense than both of them.

Witness believed she was of as good mind as she had ever been. Witness’ wife was a sister of deceased. A year ago last November witness and his children and Mary were sitting talking when Mary said she heard something; witness said he did not, and she said she did not know what it was if not the voice of Christ telling s her to go on and do just what she 1 wanted to do and He would save her.

T.J. Myers, of Buncombe, uncle of the prisoner, said he had sent prisoner to school when she was a child. She E never could learn to count twenty. He did not believe she ever was able to distinguish right from wrong.
Joshua Dowell did not think the woman was sane. Ile had heard her hallooing and praying frequently at night. She frequently remarked that she had seen her Saviour and He had told her to kill Pappy (the name by which she generally called Warren.) Said she loved him but she just had it to do. The day of the homicide witness was at the house. She said “I have killed Pappy. I had it to do. What else could I do ?”
Catharine Dowell, daughter of Joshua, had heard Mary say, after the killing “Oh! Jesus, come and take me now. You said you would!” Cath-arine had heard her talk of communications with her Saviour.
Four years ago Elijah Ball had seen her with the leaves of a Bible, which she had torn up, on her head, to keep the witches off” she said.
John A. Butler had heard prisoner say that she had seen the Saviour for three or four years, among the living and the dead and that He had told her to kill Pappy and she had it to do. She had seen the Saviour on a gate and He looked like a white cloud.
To some witnesses she had told that her husband was trying to kill her with a knife; to others that he had threatened to kill both her and her little girl. She had told all sorts of stories, but oftenest that she was impelled by a Divine agency. Some of the witnesses believed her insane; others believed her murderous act only the manifestation of “meanness” and “devil-ment.”

Six experts were examined : Drs. T. E. Anderson, M. W. Hill, J. A. Allison, R.T. Campbell, W.G. Nicholson and W.P. Parks. The three first, named believed time woman insane ; the other three did not.
During the progress of the trial the prisoner seemed the least interested person in the court room. She looked vacantly around, the most of time time; again she would rivet her gaze on some object which interested her. She chewed tobacco and fanned herself with her apron, and every now and then she laughed and cried by turns; but neither her smiles nor tears had any reference to anything that was being said or done. She is unquestionably a good looking woman.

Capt. R. M. Allison opened the argument for the defence Tuesday after-noon. Maj. Bingham followed him, the next morning, and Solicitor Adams closed for the State. The judge reviewed the evidence and charged the jury that if they believed the prisoner capable of distinguishing night from wrong, they would find her guilty of murder; if she were believed to be, without this capacity, they would acquit her.

After remaining out but a short time the jury returned and through its spokesman, Mr. E.P. Bradley, brought in a verdict of not guilty. The jury was at once re-empaneled upon the question of the prisoner’s sanity, and gave in the opinion that she is insane. Judge Graves issued an order that she be conveyed to the Western Insane Asylum at Morganton.

In addition to the human heart changing very little since the 1800’s, the news media hasn’t either. The trial was scandalous and was talked about all the way out in Raleigh, with details of the crime being reprinted in numerous papers.

Even though Mary was ordered to the “Western Insane Asylum”, which we would today know as Broughton, it took a while to get her there. Some sort of battle of egos ensued between Morganton and Statesville, with those from Broughton publishing articles in the paper there reminding the judiciaries in Statesville that just because they ordered someone into the place didn’t mean that they were guaranteed a bed. I don’t know if the institution was full, or if they simply didn’t want to take an axe murderer. Either way, Mary was committed in May of 1884.

I have no way of discovering how long Mary was in Morganton, but she was eventually sent to another institution- Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, where she passes out of the public eye and record.
She would die there in 1925 and is buried in the hospital’s cemetery.

Dorothea Dix Hospital as it would have appeared when Mary was sent there.

Was Mary Minish pretending to be unhinged? Was she really in fear for her life and that of her daughter? Was she actually mentally ill? I leave it to you, the reader to make up your own mind. These events transpired 139 years ago, and we’ll never actually know the truth.

August 11th, 1924

As a postscript to this story, today we live in a world where simple phrases and pictures can be taken up by the public consciousness and reiterated over and over on social media platforms and in real life. To think this is a new thing is to ignore the past.
During the trial, a preacher named Joshua Dowell testified that he thought Mary must be mentally ill because she cut her own bangs, and then proclaimed that it made her “look like the angels”. Bangs were probably not really a common or socially acceptable method of styling hair in this part of North Carolina until the 1920’s, but even back then, people following the trial found reverend Dowell’s reasoning amusing and were apt to talk about it.
Two years after the trial, the reverend Dowell would become ill while plowing his field and would die shortly thereafter.
But even decades after his death, his testimony about Mary’s hair was remembered.
There truly is nothing new under the sun.

Want to keep up with updates to the site?

Sign up to receive alerts to new posts and content.

We don't spam. You'll only receive emails when new posts are added.

Published by Abandoned NC

I went back to my old home and the furrow of each year plowed like surf across the place had not washed memory away. -A. R. Ammons

Leave a Reply