Where Are The Houstonville Moravian Graves?

Mary Brown’s grave at Holly Springs.

When exploring the history of the Houstonville Moravian Church, it quickly became evident there was an unresolved mystery concerning it’s graveyard.
To simplify the content of the full post on that church into relevant data, here is the history of the graveyard I have been able to discover.

The first recorded death in the church is likely Mary Isabelle Brown. She died in May of 1926, before Houstonville had an established graveyard. Because of this, even though her funeral was at Houstonville, she was buried just down the road at Holly Springs Baptist Church.

Holly Springs Baptist Church today.

No doubt the church members knew if they were to continue on as a church this would be something they would have to face again at some point in the future, and so it was decided to prepare land for burials at the church.
In March of 1927 four initial grave plots are laid out. This was simply done by surveying the land and dividing it into usable plots. The space directly behind the church was chosen for this purpose.

The first recorded burial at Houstonville Moravian Church happens in 1930 when Jundra Amanda Cloer died in July. However, Mrs. Cloer is no longer at Houstonville, nor is her husband, James Washington Cloer, who would be buried there in 1940.
In fact, when I went looking for their graves, I instead found them at Holly Springs. This discovery was a surprise to me, but it wouldn’t be the last.

The Cloer’s (hopefully) final resting place. There is no way this was their original grave marker, and I can only assume family placed it after they were moved.

The truth is, not a single person who I can confirm was buried at Houstonville is still there. Or at least, I don’t think they are.
Finding the Cloers down the road in another graveyard, I created a list of what I knew about the Houstonville graveyard.

First, there are 3 verified burials that take place at Houstonville. The Cloers and Lillian Bell Morrison, who was J.W. Cloer’s elderly sister. Her heart stopped while she was sitting in a chair in 1937, sandwiched between the deaths of her sister in law and brother.

Second, there is the possibility of more unknown burials at Houstonville. We know of these because at the time, the Wachovia Moravian newspaper listed membership numbers and deaths in each church every year.
These recorded deaths add up to 4 total burials. Their identity and the location of their original burial is so far unknown. There would have been one in 1939, one in 1940, and two in 1941.

This means that the original Houstonville graveyard could have held at least as many as 7 total graves. But none of those graves are at Houstonville today. So what happened?

Talking with Terry Bullin, who is a current member of Houstonville Baptist Church (which is what the old Moravian building is now), it seems the oral history tells us that all the graves were disinterred and moved when the Moravians left. Beyond that, he wasn’t able to tell me particulars.
What year this would have taken place and the details of this endeavor should have been big news in the local community, but there are no written accounts or records of this happening. Digging up and moving an entire graveyard ought to have been something on the local radar. Someone should have said something or written something about such a bizarre occurrence. But, so far, I haven’t been able to find anything. I even contacted a couple people at Holly Springs to ask about this, specifically in regards to the Cloers, but they didn’t know anything about it at all.

Part of the rock wall and the trees which were placed in 1933 under the direction of Mrs. Ruby Hayes

There are a couple ways this could have transpired.

1. The church closed in 1944. It could be the Moravians moved the graves at that time fearing the property would not be taken care of.

2. The church was also used for revivals and various meetings after it closed. They could have also been moved piecemeal during those years.

3. The Baptists who purchased the building from the Hayes family in 1960 could have taken it upon themselves to move the graves.

Of these three possibilities the first is the only one that makes sense. The Moravians had both reason and financial ability to move the graves when the church closed. During the interim years, it seems unlikely the Hayes would pay to disinter an entire graveyard. It also seems unlikely that the Baptists would have any reason at all to move the old graves. Something of that sort happening as recent as 1960 would likely also be remembered.

So we possibly have 4 unknown burials that were moved to an unknown location and 2 that were definitely moved to Sandy Springs.
The Cloers are the only extant example I have of any of these moved graves, but even there questions arise. The stone on their grave is most certainly not the original. The Moravians laid flat, square stones in the ground at the time. The one currently in place at Holly Springs would have been a more expensive, more modern style marker. It had to have been placed after they were moved.

I have questions about this large open space near the Cloers I haven’t been able to find answers for yet.

And where is Lillian Morrison?
We might not know the particulars of the 4 “unknown” burials, but Lillian was most assuredly buried at Houstonville.
With a lack of physical or written evidence, we can only speculate.
Probably the most unlikely theory is that she was never moved from Houstonville. Even though there are modern burials there that come after the Baptists take over the property, we don’t know where exactly the original Moravian burials were within the cemetery boundaries. It could be Lillian’s stone was never placed, was destroyed, or was misplaced. If that’s the case, she could be anywhere within what is about a 7,000 square foot space behind the church.
More likely is that she was moved, either to Holly Springs with her brother and sister in law, or to South River Baptist Church where her husband John Morrison was buried 23 years prior to her death. If her second grave never had a marker placed on it, then either of these is a viable hypothesis. Holly Springs, for example, has a large void in it’s cemetery’s marked stones right in the middle of a well populated graveyard, right next to the Cloer’s plot. I don’t know why this is or who may be there, but I think it’s entirely possible that Lillian Morrison, a poor widow who was living with her brother John’s family at the time of her death, may lie there, unmarked and unknown.
At South River, where her husband was buried, I haven’t been able to find his grave either. If she was buried with him there, perhaps they are both in an unmarked plot.

To sum things up, there are many questions about Houstonville’s original cemetery, and I don’t know that we’ll ever really be able to answer them all.

The Triangle House

This modest little home seems to have been given up on some time in the late 70’s or early 80’s. All of the magazines, newspapers, catalogues, and other ephemera that litters the floor of the place are from that time period.
It almost seems like there might have been a fire or else a very inefficient woodstove in the home at one time, as the living room is darkened with grime, and you can even tell where old furniture used to be by the shadows left on the walls.

No humans live in the house anymore. There are, however, two non-human residents.

Foretelling The Weather Like The Oldtimers.

Long range forecasting of the weather today is still not an exact science, but we have a plethora of sources we can go to in order to determine what the coming winter might be like.
But in the days before internet, television, and radio, this was done without the help of meteorologists by the common man or woman with nothing more than the signs nature gave. These portents vary, but there are a couple that are still known locally that you can check yourself.

Still a well known method in this part of North Carolina, checking persimmon seeds is one way to determine what sort of winter might be coming.
This method involves taking a ripe persimmon off a tree or from the ground. It must be a locally grown persimmon or this will not work- what you’ll get from a store bought persimmon is the weather where it was grown, or if it was grown in a greenhouse, a false result altogether.
To do this yourself, open up the flesh of the persimmon and find a seed. Very carefully split the seed in half and take a look inside.
More than likely you will see one of three things. Either a knife, a fork, or a spoon. That is to say, the shape the cotyledon takes will give you your answer.

If the shape is knife-like, we’re in for a cutting, bitterly cold winter.

If the shape is like a fork with tines, winter will be mild.

If the shape is a spoon, or a shovel, get out the shovel, because we’re in for cold and lots of snow.

I cut several open today to see what winter has in store for us.

A sample of three persimmons this year all revealed the spoon.

Based upon the persimmon’s prognostication, you’ll want to get a snow shovel if you don’t have one.

Walnuts & Acorns
It was also and in some places still is believed that the amount of walnuts and acorns that fell could also point to future weather. This sign is a bit more vague than the persimmon seed, but what it boils down to is that if you have a larger than normal number of acorns or walnuts on the ground, you’re probably in for a rough winter.

A small portion of my walnut accumulation.

As a sample size of one, this year in my own yard I have had the largest amount of walnuts on the ground in over a decade. They were so numerous this fall that I used a snow shovel to gather them up. A single tree on my property put down 12 full-sized wheelbarrow loads of walnuts.

So, If you trust the humble walnut tree and the persimmon, it might be time to start preparing for a rough winter.

By the way, speaking of persimmons, many people don’t quite know what to do with them. They seem a chore to eat for most because of the pulp and seeds, but persimmon pudding is an excellent way to use ripe fruit once it’s ready for harvest.

Rocky Mount Evening Telegram. October 7th 1956.

Couple updates.

It’s taken a bit of time, but I’ve revamped the Locations page, placing things in chronological order rather than the jumble I had it in before.
Also, two new locations- the Preaching Arbor and the White Pine Club have been added and I have a third larger one I’m working on.
All this has been taking a backseat to two other rather involved projects I’m also researching. One of them is another local church history. I don’t have nearly as much information as I did with Houstonville, but I think it’s going to be rather interesting and is going to directly connect to numerous other things I have on the site.

Also, just a brief mention about metal detecting.
Digging up things from the recent past isn’t seen as much of a useful or archaeological pursuit in the United States, which is a shame. Admittedly, we aren’t Great Britain, and you wont be turning over golden Roman fibula anywhere locally, but I think it has merit as a way to determine how a piece of land was used, and in some cases, to even save old objects that have historical significance.
Of course, metal detecting is not for people without patience. For every interesting coin or farm tool you stumble upon, there’s 99 other hits you dig that turn out to be old cans, pull tabs, nails, or as is the case with the land my own home is on, lots of ruined Matchbox cars.

The Preaching Arbor

I know some of the history of this place, but because of it’s location and the vulnerability of it, I’m choosing to keep most of it to myself.
However, what I can tell you is that this is an old preaching arbor that was active at least as early as 1932, but I have also found a reference to it that may be old as 1903, when the space was used for a funeral.
It was not owned or administered by a denomination, but was a community “forum” of sorts where evangelists of all varieties could come and use the space to hold revivals, singings, schools, and “protracted meetings”.
The last real hurrah for it seems to have been the 1960’s/1970’s. Before she passed, my great-grandmother remembered that during those years her church drove to the arbor a handful of times from several counties over to have a revival, and singing as part of the choir.
I believe the last time it was used in recent years was probably about 2016/2017 when a revival was held there.

The White Pine Club

I can find scant little about this place in the newspaper archives or anywhere else. I have one original picture and a rough estimate of it’s construction date.

From “Conover” by Donald Barker.

Since I don’t know it’s history, I don’t know how many times it was closed, reopened, or renamed either, but I do know it became “Johnny Mac’s White Pine Club” in about 2003 and was host to more modern entertainment than it probably saw in it’s original life. That lasted until 2014 when it closed for good.
Today it’s just sitting empty, waiting on a slow death or the chance someone might save it from such a fate.

A photo from the club’s Facebook page, which is still up for the moment.

The club back in 2010.

Asbury Respus: North Carolina’s First Serial Killer?

September 30th, 1931. Randelman Road, six miles outside Greensboro, North Carolina.
It’s about 9 AM in the morning, and a man passing by notices smoke coming from the Leonard farm. When he rushes to investigate the source of the blaze, he finds that the Leonard home is burning.
It’s as he is attempting to save the family’s possessions from the fire by dragging them outside that he notices pools of blood about the house.

A photo from the Leonard farm, believed to be items pulled from the house by the good Samaritan.
State Archives of North Carolina

The homeowner, Thomas D Leonard arrives shortly thereafter and with help from others, manages to extinguish the flames. After the fire is dealt with the house begins to be searched, and Leonard’s daughter, 9 year old Vera is found wrapped in a quilt, placed underneath a bed. Her skull has been crushed and her body had been charred by the flames.
100 yards away a bloody coat and signs of a struggle are found, leading investigators to believe Vera was murdered there and dragged inside after she had succumbed.
Vera had been waiting for the school bus that morning, which passed by at 8:15, and didn’t see the young girl.

As more and more people find their way onto the farm, they begin to notice an older black man who seems to come and go several times. Eventually police will take him into custody for questioning later that day, and when his house is searched, they will find bloodstained overalls and shoes. Shoes that match bloody footprints found at the scene of the crime.
The man, who calls himself “Will Moore”, is a hired hand who works the property next to the Leonard farm, and denies any involvement in Vera’s death, but will change his story once police show him his own blood soaked overalls.
Moore will eventually be discovered to be Asbury Respus, a man from the extreme northeast part of the state. Under questioning, he will admit attacking Vera Leonard while she was waiting on the school bus, beating her to death with a stick, dragging her body into the house, and setting the home ablaze to hide his crime. Police will attempt to get Respus to admit to sexual offenses against Leonard, but Respus claims he only murdered her. He vehemently denies any claim of sexual assault, saying he was in a violent mood due to use of drugs and alcohol, and “the devil must have gotten hold of me“. He claimed to have been drinking and using cocaine at the time of the murder.
What the police questioning him could never have guessed is just how many times this had occurred in Respus’ past.

Asbury Respus, sometime after his arrest for Vera Leonard’s murder.
State Archives of North Carolina

Respus was born sometime in the late 1870’s to Miles and Ellen Respus, probably near Northampton, NC. We don’t know much about his early life, but Respus would claim later that sometime during his childhood he had fallen off a barn and hit his head. As an adult, the indentation from the impact was still visible on his skull, and many have suggested that this accident might have been the start of Respus’ violent tendencies and mental instability.
In 1900, he would marry Ophelia Harrel. How long the marriage lasted is unknown, but Ophelia would remain in Northampton, and is listed as living there in 1940, in a small town called Severn.
Respus becomes something of a vagrant at some point after being married, traveling in state and out. It’s these years that would become relevant later on, after his capture.

One of the few documents we have pertaining to Respus’ early life.

But back to 1930.
After his arrest, a massive lynch mob formed, demanding “justice”. Because of this, Respus is moved on October 2nd to the Central Prison in Raleigh to avoid any sort of pre-trial violence. By the 26th of that month, he had been arraigned for the murder and assault of Vera Leonard, and arson for burning the Leonard home. Despite the change of venue, a mob formed outside the new courthouse as well, and the national guard was called in the keep the peace.
On October 28th the trial began. The prosecution ended up only trying Respus for the murder, and the defense attempted to counter by bringing into account Respus’ mental health, likely believing an insanity defense might keep Respus from the death penalty.
During the trial people who had worked with Respus as well as a mental health professional who had interviewed Respus several times contradicted this notion. No witnesses could be found to testify to Respus’ mental instability.
The trial would only take a single day, and the jury would deliberate for just an hour before finding Asbury Respus guilty. The judge would pass sentence. Death in the electric chair to be carried out on January 8th of the following year.

But that’s not the end of the matter. During the trial, Respus had mentioned possibly killing several others while being interviewed by his own attorneys and a psychiatrist. The full extent of these killings wouldn’t be known until after the Leonard trial, when Respus was on death row. It would in fact be the day before his execution, talking with warden H.H Honeycutt. Respus would finally tell his story.

Respus’ first attack was on a black woman named Becky Storr in Boykins, Virginia around 1910. Like the young Leonard girl, Respus beat her to death with a stick.

According to Respus, the next two murders were sometime before 1912 but after Storr’s death. During those years he killed two black women. The first, Lizzie Banks was killed with a gun. The second, Zenie Britt was beaten to death. Where these murders took place and where the victims were buried is currently unknown to me. It’s unfortunately a pattern when looking for African American graves and records that you realize there unfortunately aren’t as many, and what there are aren’t very well organized.

Chronologically, his next confessed killing, and the first that would be discovered, would be a man in his home county, in the town of Severn. Ed B. Wynne was about 53 years old at the time of his death, and Respus shot and killed him in some sort of domestic related dispute. The difference with Wynne’s death is that local police figured it out, and Asbury Respus was charged with first degree murder for the killing, receiving a sentence of 15 years in prison. However he never served his full sentence. He was only in lockup half a year before the administration of the prison where he was declared Respus “criminally insane”, and he was moved to a state mental hospital, probably Dorothea Dix. He wouldn’t be there long before being bumped back to normal prison.

By 1916, he is working as a cook in the prison when he and several other inmates in the kitchen manage to escape with a key they fashioned themselves. They scaled the wall of the prison and were gone before anyone knew what was happening.
What follows that is not terribly clear, but Respus probably took odd labor intensive jobs for money and wandered around Virginia and North Carolina.
During these years he also married an “Estelle”. Possibly in an act of bigamy. This was in Norfolk, Virginia. Unfortunately, finding her or anything related to Respus is made more difficult due to the fact that his surname can be spelled “Respess”, “Respass”, “Respes”, “Respus”, and any other number of ways in written records. It’s also highly likely he wasn’t going by his real name at the time.

In January 1918, he’s back in NC, and kills his first victim after being out of jail. Jennie Gilbreath, a woman in her 60’s was murdered, probably with an axe, and her body would be placed in her home and set on fire, just as Vera Leonard was. In this case, however, the fire worked to cover Respus’ crime, and until his confession it was assumed Gilbreath simply died in a house fire. No one knew she had been murdered. It might have been Vera Leonard’s fate as well if circumstances hadn’t conspired to bring the truth to light. Unlike Respus’ other victims thus far, Gilbreath was white.

In the summer of 1920, he would kill again. This time a 4 year old white boy named Robert Neal Osborn, who was drowned when Respus held him under water with his feet. Respus would claim to “find” the boy dead, and police believed him. Like Gilbreath, no one knew Osborn was murdered until Respus later confessed to the killing.

In 1925, Respus would commit his final murder before Leonard.
Eunice L. Stevenson was an elderly white woman in her 80’s. Respus broke into her home, beat her to death, and tried to cover his crime by hanging Stevenson’s body from the rafters. This ploy didn’t work as well as arson, and authorities recognized Stevenson had been murdered, but never considered Respus a suspect. Instead they pinned the crime on an intellectually disabled man.

An electric chair from the state prison in 1929. Possibly the same one Asbury Respus was executed in.
Via State Archives of NC

Respus confessed all these killings to warden Honeycutt the day before his execution, January 7th, 1932. He believed there may have been more he couldn’t remember. In particular, he thought he might have killed an unknown white woman in the woods near his hometown in Northampton county.

That night, Respus would be given his requested last meal. Sardines and crackers.
The next morning he would be lead to his fate in the octagon shaped death chamber. As he walked in the room and as he was strapped into the chair, he continued singing “Lord, I’m Leaving This World”.
Warden Honeycutt asked if Respus was “ready to go”, to which he replied “Any time you all is ready”.
At 10:26, he was shocked the first time with 2,000 volts for two and one half minutes. When the shock was over it was found he still had a heartbeat, so he was shocked a second time, which ended his life.

After his death, no one came forward to claim his body, not even his “widow” Estelle. The local papers noted his body would likely be donated to science, with the possibility that maybe through dissection doctors could find the defect in his brain that had caused his violent behavior.

Asbury Respus may very well be North Carolina’s first documented serial murderer. It could also be argued he may not have been one at all. What he actually was depends greatly on definitions of what a serial killer or serial murderer is and how truthful his confessions were.

The modern and popular definition of a serial killer says that the killer has a modus operandi- a particular way in which they operate and a particular preference in victims. Respus does not fit into this neat little academic box, as his victims were young, old, white, black, male, and female. His methods were beating, shooting, bludgeoning, and drowning. He was not a rapist, he was not a traditional arsonist, he held no grudge against any specific ethnicity or sex. He simply wanted to kill.
In this way, that means he is not able to be conveniently placed into the same category as people such as Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. He doesn’t fit established structures created by profilers and law enforcement. However, I believe there are reasons for this.

First of all, the injury he suffered in childhood very may well have affected his brain in ways that would not have been tangible to scientists and psychologists at the time.
Second, his substance abuse problems would have made any instability much worse.
We mostly think of the 1980’s when we think of cocaine, but as early as 1914 the US government was creating laws making it’s sale and use illegal. Respus was an admitted user, but we don’t know for how long.
Cocaine use has a well documented history of affecting the brain, causing paranoia, feelings of invincibility, and even violent tendencies. In someone with a preclusion to violence, it’s not hard to believe drug use could exacerbate those urges. However, Respus would claim in prison that these urges or “spells” could happen with or without drugs.

When I had them spells, I went funny in the head. I wanted to kill somebody, I wouldn’t know why. I just wanted to kill. I’d run. If you ever see a dog with running fits, that’s like me when I was in a spell. I’d run.

There is also of course a slight possibility Respus might not have killed everyone he admitted to killing. He lived in a time when local police had a reputation for blaming “negro” offenders for any unsolved crimes they might be able close.
I, however, don’t think this is the case. For starters, the confessions Respus made included people who were not even considered murder victims. It’s conceivable a police officer or sheriff might suggest open crimes to an offender in hopes they would claim them, but who would have suggested the deaths Respus confessed to that weren’t even known to be crimes? How about the murder a man was already in jail for?
Moreover, these confessions were all made to warden Honeycutt in one sitting, before Respus was executed. If anyone were to influence what he would have said or confessed to, it was really only Honeycutt. How would Honeycutt have pulled together such a random assortment of deaths from two states and several counties? It doesn’t seem very plausible.

So what was Asbury Respus? He was most certainly a violent man, and a killer. Was he a serial killer?
According to the most bare definition from the FBI, a serial killer is distinguished by “The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events“.
With this description in hand, we have to assert that yes, Asbury Respus was a serial killer. Maybe North Carolina’s first.