Thomas Boyd Speaks was born in Union Grove, NC in 1901 to John Peter (J.P.) Speaks and Gillie Lutissen Templeton. Thomas’ father John was a local farmer who lived just off NC-901 and had been in the community his whole life. With a sizeable property of almost 100 acres, he was probably able to keep his family of 7 comfortably fed but likely not in luxury.
It’s assumed Thomas (who was mostly called “Boyd”) had a fairly uneventful rural childhood, probably working the land and doing chores around the farm. Not much is known about his early life.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Boyd was still living at home with his parents, too young to be drafted. However, a year earlier he had become a member of the local militia called the “Iredell Blues”, and when they answered the call to war, Boyd did something many had done before and many would do afterwards. He lied about his age and against the wishes of his parents, he enlisted in the army.
When the Iredell Blues marched to the local depot in Statesville and left on a train for bootcamp, Boyd Speaks was with them.
It’s hard to say for sure, but I doubt anyone would have believed Boyd was 21 years old. Surely the members of the Iredell Blues would have known his real age. That may be one of the reasons he ended up a bugler for company L of the 18th infantry. The men around him probably thought of it as the safest place for him and the place where he would be most capable. Back then a bugler’s job was to wake the men up in the morning, signal rest in the evening, and call men to the mess hall in-between. Those duties likely changed once Boyd was out of camp and put into the trenches.
Once at war, it’s hard to know what all of his duties might have been. In addition to signaling military movements, he may have been a runner or a company mascot of sorts. I think most of his comrades would have tried to keep him occupied, but out of harm’s way.
Whatever was done to protect the boy, it all came to nothing on October 4th, 1918 in France near the Argonne Forest.
Right in the middle of what would later be known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the deadliest and largest offensive in army history, another local boy who was there and knew him witnessed Boyd’s death when a German bullet passed through the boy’s chest, killing him instantly. Maybe most tragically, the war would end less than a month later when the German armistice brought an end to the fighting in the area.
Like so very many others who fell in France that year, Boyd was buried in a foreign land. His body would rest in the French soil until, as part of a massive program that brought home about 44,000 war dead, he was exhumed and shipped home to North Carolina in August, 1921.
But here’s where our story really begins. If he had been shipped home and reinterred in a local cemetery, there would have been little fanfare or notice. But Boyd’s parents, particularly his father J.P. had some odd notions, and maybe a hard time letting go.
When Boyd’s body was received home, it was delivered to the family farm, and would remain there afterwards for two decades.
You see, Boyd’s father would construct a small “house” for his son’s remains that I can only adequately describe as a shrine. When it was finished, the crate which the coffin was shipped in would form the pedestal, and Boyd Speaks’ flag draped coffin would be placed on top of it. On the walls around were placed items from his childhood, and the door was locked, with J.P. carrying the key to his son’s makeshift mausoleum.
J.P. would give various reasons for this arrangement. To one newspaper he claimed it was done so that the boy’s brother who lived in another state would have time to visit before the body was finally reburied. To another, he stated that one burial was enough, and that he was sure the resurrection of the dead would take place soon, and burying the boy again was wasted effort. I think these were both excuses, though J.P. did have some odd and unique religious beliefs, stating that the local churches “…are all wrong“, and that their services are “…all babbling false worship“. It was for these reasons, one paper noted that J.P. “…does not affiliate with any of the churches in his community“.
The story became well known over the next couple years, with papers all over the state picking up on it, even sending people to interview J.P. and see with their own eyes the wooden crypt where Boyd Speaks was kept.
Also strange to these visitors was J.P.’s attitude towards the government’s offer of aid. You see, due to Boyd’s death in Europe, the family was entitled to $5,000 in death benefits- something like $75,000 in today’s money, as well as a tombstone. Boyd’s father J.P. rejected both the money and the stone, claiming God would take care of his family, and the government owed him nothing.
The strangeness of the whole situation brought two other visitors. Representatives from the government, inquiring why the benefits hadn’t been claimed, and the county coroner, looking in on the situation to ensure there wasn’t anything that might be a health hazard. J.P. turned away the government men and satisfied the coroner that there wasn’t anything inherently unsafe about his construction. And so, Boyd remained in his “house”, in the yard of his parent’s house until 1942.
The beginning of that year, his mother Gillie would die of a brain aneurysm while at home. It may have been the thing that changed J.P.’s mind about his son’s resting place, and when it came time for Gillie’s funeral, her son’s casket was also carried to the little church called Smith Chapel just up the road. While Gillie Speak’s funeral was going on, her son’s casket was being placed in an aboveground tomb next to one where his mother would be laid to rest. I call this his second burial, but technically, he wasn’t buried there either, only entombed. Perhaps a compromise his father would agree to.
A couple months later in September, one of Boyd’s sisters would finally apply for the tombstone he was owed, and it would be shipped by rail to NC, where it was carved and eventually placed on Thomas Boyd Speaks second and final grave. It’s uncertain if the money that was owed Boyd’s family was ever claimed.
Boyd’s father J.P. would live for 14 more years by himself. Either as a guest of family, or possibly as a ward of the Broughton hospital, J.P would pass away on October 25th, 1956 in Morganton, NC.
After his death, his body was brought home to Union Grove and placed beside his wife and son in the Smith Chapel cemetery.
Grief does strange things to people. There have been many documented cases where the family of a deceased person wishes to keep their remains close. Certainly even in modern times there have been news reports of men and women who have been unable to let go of their long time spouse, keeping them in bedrooms, boxes, and even freezers. It’s nothing new or uncommon.
Whatever J.P. Speaks beliefs or intentions, the expression of his grief might seem strange to us, but in comparison to other cases, it was really pretty tame and mostly harmless.
I certainly don’t think he ever meant for the attention he received, but I do think in the end, it was another way of keeping alive his son Boyd’s memory, and maybe it brought him some comfort.
UPDATE: As of February, 2023 the Speaks house is no more. It was bulldozed to likely make way for more farmland. I’m glad I could see it while it was still standing.