Although probably not even the worst or most lurid murder to ever take place in Wilkes county, it sure is the most well known.
On this day, 155 years back, the body of Laura Foster was found in a shallow grave, having been stabbed to death. Eventually a man named Tom Dula would be hanged for the crime, and as the story unraveled, it would shock the entire country.
The 12th of this month was the 30th anniversary of the release of a little known but much loved horror movie called “The Boneyard“.
The majority of the movie was filmed in the old Davis Hospital, and in one or two other locations around Statesville and so it’s part of the history of the town and the hospital. I’ve been slowly gathering information and media to eventually devote a page to the movie, but as providence would have it, a recent event has made me refocus my efforts.
An old acquaintance who visited Davis back in the day recently contacted me with a piece of memorabilia that I thought had been lost. A script the crew left behind in the abandoned hospital. This script includes an ending scene which was apparently filmed but never made it’s way into the movie.
As soon as I can get enough free time I hope to pull together all the details I have into a cohesive story of the movie.
Monday, February 3rd, 1975 James C Venable, a real estate agent from the Winston Salem area is driving his white Ford Thunderbird down Siloam Rd near the town of Siloam, NC. The night is dark, foggy, and there’s on and off drizzle and damp in the cold night air. At about 10 PM, Venable begins to cross the one lane bridge that spans the Yadkin River. What happens next is a matter of debate between the state of North Carolina, Venable, and several other parties, but in the end, 4 people will be dead and over a dozen more will be injured.
Venable tells his side of the story in a December, 1979 issue of Popular Mechanics, which ran an article on bridge construction and deterioration:
Venable drove his white Thunder- bird up the cattle-shoot entrance to the span, entering the 225-foot-long deck across the river. He had gone about two car lengths on the deck, he recalls, when the car was thrown against the right side of the bridge. His head struck the left window. “I hit the brake and tried to pull the car away from the right side, Venable told PM. “I couldn’t do it. Then it hit on the left side. I looked up at the overhead trusses. They were leaning and moving around. The damn bridge was going down while I was on the middle of the span. The last thing I remember, I was bewildered because the car wouldn’t stop. I passed out. When I woke up, I was sitting in icy cold water, in the dark, with my seat belt on. Venable had no idea what had happened, but he knew he was in grave danger. The windows and doors wouldn’t open and the water was chest high. He reached under the water and undid his seat-belt, then pulled himself over the seat and kicked the back window out. He then thrust his chest out over the trunk. Lying across the tail of his car was a Mustang, wheels in the air. Two girls who had been in the over-turned car had managed to escape and now they stood on the trunk of Venable’s Thunderbird, the river rushing around them. “Are you hurt?” they asked. “Help me,” Venable said. But there was little they could do. Venable, who weighed 225 pounds, was stuck in the window. When the girls tried to pull him out, the glass remaining in the window frame began cutting into him. He pulled a pocket- knife from his pants and tried to hack away the back-seat padding to free himself. The knife slipped out of his fingers. “About that time I looked up and saw a car falling from the opposite side of the river,” Venable said. “You could see the lights through the fog, starting level, then curving down toward the river. And right behind it another car came in, the same way, and you could hear the screaming and booming. And I thought ‘It’s like chariots of death.’ I pulled everything in me to escape from my car, and I squeezed out. Venable didn’t know the scope of the terror until much later, after he had swum down river, pulled him. self up the bank and met rescuers. The entire bridge had fallen into the water. In all, seven vehicles soared off the piers and dropped the 30 feet into the river. Sixteen people were injured. Four others died.
The cause of the collapse was at first blamed on state negligence. The old bridge had been built originally on High Rock Lake but was disassembled and rebuilt over the Yadkin River in the late 1930’s. Even though the span was made of steel, the decking was wood planking, and reportedly in bad shape. The steel was also noted to be severely rusted in places. Locals, including Samuel Hugh Atkinson, who would be one of the people to die in the collapse had urged the state to tear down the old bridge and build something safer, but budget constraints and the rural location of the bridge apparently factored into the lack of a response. It’s rumored that Atkinson’s family found a letter he was writing to the governor about the bridge in one of his coat pockets after his death. However, the state investigation of the collapse, which was carried out by Modjeskl and Masters, a bridge engineering firm, would ultimately point the finger at Venable himself as the cause of the disaster. Their claim was that the bridge was structurally sound for what it was rated for, and the construction of the bridge was actually superior to many steel bridges of it’s age. Venable had simply hit a crucial part of the support structure, which had destabilized and collapsed the bridge. This would mean that the bridge was not already collapsing, as Venable had claimed, but that it only begin to fall after he collided with a support.
In the aftermath, there was a flurry of attention, words, and some actual action. State legislators saw a grand opportunity to appear sympathetic to voters, and began having photo ops in front of the bridge wreckage and calling for more funds for repair of secondary roads and bridges. Whether or not any of the bluster amounted to much of anything is up for debate. The federal government did step in with funds for repair, citing the collapse as a catastrophic emergency that qualified for federal aid.
At first, the idea of just placing a temporary bridge was ruled out due to the rocky nature of the Yadkin River bed. However, with the help of the Army Corp of Engineers, a bridge that had been in storage in Ohio was shipped south and engineers from Ft. Bragg began work on the temporary bridge in early June and actually had the bridge erected by the 25th of the same month when a dedication was held. The new bridge would be called the Atkinson-Needham Memorial Bridge in honor of the members of the Needham and Atkinson family who had died as a result of the collapse.
It took almost six more months before construction on a permanent span across the Yadkin River could begin, with nearly a million dollars set aside for the project. It would be finished in September of 1976, and another dedication ceremony was held, with survivors and their families in attendance.
In February of 1977, two years after the initial collapse, the families of Hugh and Ola Atkinson and Judy Brown and Andrea Needham filed suit against 46 state highway officials and James Venable, asking for $200,000 per person in claims. In the end, the state set aside $151,000 in compensation for the families of the dead and also those injured in the collapse. I cannot find any sources detailing what became of the lawsuit.
Today, there’s little to remind drivers of the bridge’s tragic past. What appears to be nothing more than a nondescript rural crossing over the Yadkin is only marked with a nondescript sign giving the name the new bridge was christened with. But nearly 50 years ago, seemingly everyone in the state, and many in the nation knew the name Siloam.
“…those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Several new things, several things coming. Tomorrow I hope to post a write up on a bridge collapse that happened back in the mid 70’s. I’m also working on an article about the Piedmont Test Farm, formerly of Statesville, and a bizarre crime that took place in Wilkes in the 1930’s. I’ve begun collecting information about the old Newtowne Shopping Center/Newtown Cinema and will eventually have a brief history of it to post. I am also gathering material for a page about The Boneyard, the horror movie that was filmed at Davis Hospital. That should be…unique. In the meantime, updates to the ephemera page, some of the Davis Hospital pages, including a complete history of Davis from it’s opening until 1969 on the Davis history page. Also, some overall design elements changed, including the addition of the new logo.
On this day, 77 years ago, one of the first cases of Polio in what would be an epidemic was diagnosed in Catawba county. As the infection spread, and hospital beds in Charlotte became scarce, the people of Hickory moved to ensure that those afflicted by the illness would have access to treatment, and began work on the Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital.
After only 54 hours of work by volunteers, the hospital was ready to accept patients. It would operate for a little less than a year, but would treat 454 patients, with only 12 succumbing to the illness. Notably, during a time of segregated services, no one was turned away due to their skin color. The hospital was located on the site of what today is a city park near the Catawba river.
Read a detailed account of the hospital and the events surrounding it here.
Sunday, August 16th 1896 A small church in the northern part of Iredell county called Smith Chapel is having several “protracted meetings”, or what southern congregants today would call a multi-day “revival”.
Edward Clinton Van Hoy and William T Bolin are first cousins, and the two men must have been attending the revival that night. What passed between them afterwards to cause such an altercation as was had is unknown, but when the dust settled, Edward had stabbed Will in the side with a knife and fled.
In true southern fashion, the revival meeting continued on, with distressed members of the family apparently being “converted”.
Will had died from his wounds by the next day and the law went looking for Edward Van Hoy, but they never managed to find him. As it turned out, his family had taken him to the county line, given him a change of clothes and a small amount of money and his father told him to get out of the state. Edward fled to Kentucky, changed his surname to Mason, started a family, and lived a fairly uneventful life there.
His family in Kentucky eventually found out that the name Edward had taken on wasn’t his true name. Edward confessed on his death bed the truth to them. For whatever reason, his Kentucky family never did anything with the information, maybe out of misplaced shame at his past, maybe because at the time it would have been hard to track down their Carolina cousins.
None of his family in North Carolina ever knew what happened to Edward. Not until about five years ago. That’s when some members of the Kentucky family came looking for their distant cousins. This all culminated in a reunion of both sides of the family at the same church where Will Bolin was murdered 120 years before.
In addition to this story, I have recently posted about the murder of Claude Warren, which happened on the same road 20 years later and 2 miles away. In looking for info on Warren’s story I have come across several interesting tales from this rural road in Iredell county which I will be posting about in the future.
I’ve been steadily working the last couple weeks to update some pages that have already been published, such as pages on Davis Hospital’s history, Marshal Ney, etc. I have also added some new content such as an obituary for Miss Hill, and a remembrance of Dr Myers.
More than that, I have just gained access to a sizeable collection of ephemera from Davis Hospital. This includes a complete history written in the 1970’s and several newsletters published within the hospital. I hope to start scanning these sometime next week.
In 1890, near Statesville and in the surrounding counties, residents started noticing chickens, cats, dogs, calves, and if the reports are to believed, even “negro children” going missing. Eyewitness accounts claimed some sort of mystery beast was carrying them away, and newspapers quickly jumped on the story. The “beast” became known as the Santer, and it may be one of the longest lived bouts of panic in the area, as papers were still crediting the creature with attacks well into the late 1970’s. At first, the sightings and accounts did all seem in earnest. It could have been a particularly productive fox was carrying off chickens and cats. It could have even possibly been some sort of large cat. Heavens knows there are plenty of sightings of those even today. As time went on though, the tales became more outlandish. It was even used as a boogeyman to keep children and “negros” from being out too late at night. In the writing of the various papers you catch just a hint of playfulness and a touch of threatening as well. Did it ever exist? Does it still exist? I honestly don’t know, but even if the creature it’s self is not still out there purloining livestock, the story of the beast is still healthy and roaming the consciousness of the county.
“There is considerable excitement around here about the ferocious wild animal roaming around Shinnsville and other places in South Iredell. Most people who lived here about 40 or more years ago are satisfied that this is none other but an offspring of that same old Iredell County Santer that terrorised the natives around Statesville and Amity Hill, devouring chickens, pigs, calves and carrying off a few colored children that never were found.” -May 28th, 1934
Sitting out of place among the modest headstones of Third Creek Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, NC is a grave that has been enclosed by a brick structure. No one is quite sure who the man buried beneath truly is. However, locals believed he was a famous French soldier.
Michel Ney was Napoleon’s “Marshal of the Empire”, and after Napoleon’s defeat, and according to the accepted history, was executed by firing squad in December of 1815. The alternate account of those events however, is that Ney didn’t die on that day in December, but was aided by his Freemason connections and possibly even the Duke of Wellington in faking his own death and escaping France.
What is certain is that a man calling himself Peter Stewart Ney arrives in Cheraw, South Carolina sometime around 1819 where he eventually takes a post as a schoolmaster. The rumors of his hidden identity start very quickly, and whether or not they were true, the teacher indulges some listeners with stories of France that seem to be veiled proofs of his true name, Michell Ney of France, the Marshal.
Besides the stories, one event seems to solidify his identity in the minds of his neighbors. Upon learning of the death of his beloved Emperor, Ney was witnessed fainting in front of his pupils. Later that night, he also tried unsuccessfully to take his own life. A short time after that, Ney disappears from South Carolina. There are no exhaustive records of where he travels afterwards, but there are firsthand accounts from various states and cities of a man named Ney during those years. What is sure is that he is next found in the little town of Mocksville, NC which is between Statesville and Lexington. As in Cheraw, a teacher is needed in the little community, and Ney easily finds employment as a schoolmaster.
Quickly he became the most important man in the com- munity. He wrote a beautiful hand, composed poetry for the newspapers and young ladies’ albums, and was regarded as a man of mystery and a romantic figure. His school was crowded with pupils, for he was by popular reputation a teacher of much learning, and he maintained perfect discipline.-LeGette Blythe, “Marshal Ney: A Dual Life”
Ney seemed to relish his standing in the community. He was a respected, educated man, who sometimes found himself drilling the Rowan county militia, and afterwards drinking with them. Occasionally during these drinking sessions the local men would attempt to get Ney to admit to being the Marshal, which he would deny. At the same time however, he would regale them with tales of European battlefields and past glories.
Ney died in 1846, his last words were purported to be “I will not die with a lie on my lips. I am Marshal Ney of France“. He was interred in the modest burying ground of the local Presbyterian church in what is now Cleveland, NC. What he left behind was a long legacy of both denying and confirming his identity as Marshal Ney of France. During his time in NC he had been published in newspapers, designed the seal for Davidson College, educated a score of children, and cemented himself as a tangible local legend.
In the years that have followed, many people on both sides of the Marshal Ney debate have made their cases. Books have been written for and against, experts have taken sides. The consensus these days is that the man Ney was very likely not Michel Ney, the Marshal. Whoever he was, he became an integral and important part of the local community, and left behind a romantic legend for future generations to scrutinize as they see fit.
If you’d like the visit Ney’s final resting place and pay your respects to the Marshal, the graveyard is open to the public.