Sarah Anderson Heinzerling: Statesville’s Forgotten Poetess

Sometimes the assault of time against the collective memory of a place can obscure names and stories that were once meaningful to it. Much of what I do in researching local events and people is the attempt to rediscover these lost entities and tell their story as best I can with what remains.

This story begins with a small softcover chapbook of poetry I came upon. Really quite insignificant in material and not terribly interesting to look at, save for the title printed in silver paint on the red embossed cover: “Songs of Iredell.” I venture outside of the county on occasion, but Iredell is my home and my main area of study, and so it immediately grabbed my attention. What were these “songs?” What is their content? And just who was Sarah Anderson Heinzerling?

Sarah as an adult, sometime after 1911.

Sarah Anderson Chance was born September 11th, 1862 in Reidsville, North Carolina to William Anderson Chance and his wife Elizabeth Jane Allen Chance.
Sarah would never know her father. He enlisted into the 13th NC Infantry Regiment as part of K company, known as the “Dixie Boys” shortly before she was born. William likely saw fighting at South Mountain and Antietam before the regiment was transferred to Pender’s Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia. William would contract diphtheria and die at a hospital in Staunton, Virginia in October of 1862 at only 25 years old. He was buried at the Thornrose Cemetery with other casualties from the field hospital.
William’s family wouldn’t even hear of his death until six months later. One of Sarah’s uncles would go to Virginia to look for the grave, eventually finding it and marking it as best he could, but nothing remains of William’s grave today.
I don’t know how Sarah’s mother Elizabeth managed to keep up herself and her daughter. Pension for confederate widows wouldn’t start in NC until 1885 so one would assume her family assisted in some way. Whatever the case, she must have been a formidable woman. Sadly, we know very little about her.

Being an only child, Sarah entertained herself in any way she could. This included reading books, such as the novel Morton House (which she devoured at 16 years old) by NC native “Christian Reid,” the male pen name of female author Frances Tiernan. The book made such an impression on her that she decided after finishing the book she would write her own novel, but eventually decided not to simply write “light novels and verse” for money. Tiernan’s impact on the young girl was such that later in life Sarah wrote a poem to memorialize Tiernan’s passing.
Despite this, Sarah recalled in a 1934 Statesville Daily Record article that her chief delight as a child had been memorizing and reciting poetry. This was done at home but also at the regular Friday afternoon poetry recitals her first schoolmaster F.P. Hopgood organized. It was said even poems like Grays Elegy were no match for her.

To My First Teacher
Your precepts live within my heart;
From tiny seeds of learning sown
In my young mind so long ago
Have sturdy plants of knowledge grown
To bud and blow.

The memory of your face, I hold
With other treasures of those days,
(the happiest life could bestow),
When you were pointing out the ways
My feet should go.

Our paths diverged as life paths will;
I was a child, now I am gray,
But this I write that you may know
I travel still the same highway
You bade me go.

In addition to her first schoolmaster, she also spent time under the tutelage of Miss Emma Scales, who was the sister of governor Alfred Scales, and who founded the Reidsville Seminary in 1874. According to Sarah, Miss Scales would get “highly indignant” if the girls of her school did not read with expression.

Miss Scale’s Reidsville Seminary, where Sarah went for a time.

At 19 years old on April 28th, 1881 Sarah would marry for the first time to John Thomas Cubbage (or “McCubbage” depending on where you find his name printed) who would have been 27 at the time. Not much is known about her first marriage or her husband. John was originally from Connecticut and was a painter by profession according to census records, but beyond that there’s very little to tell us who he was or how he met Sarah. The marriage would only last two years, and John would die in 1883 while in Ohio likely visiting family. Whether due to illness or accident is unknown.
Sarah herself began writing poetry seriously at age 20 during this marriage.

J.E. Heinzerling later in life.

In 1890, an outsider from Washington, D.C. named John Ernest Heinzerling came to Reidsville. Heinzerling was a widower himself, having lost his first wife Alice, and had come to town as a worker for the Corbett brothers, who were in the business of installing mills and milling equipment.
The millwright Heinzerling had done this sort of job in the past and was in the habit of attending prayer meetings at the Baptist churches in the communities where he found himself working. In Reidsville, his entry into the First Baptist church must have been destiny, and he soon fell in love with an attractive young widow in the church’s choir named Sarah.
John and Sarah were married on Christmas eve, 1891 in the same church where they first met.

To My Valentine
May cupid’s arrow
Pointed fine,
Pierce through your heart
To lodge in mine

The newlyweds would move to Salem, Virginia as John pursued another milling job there, but would be back in Reidsville by 1894. It’s believed Sarah’s mother lived with them permanently after they were married, and was most certainly with them in 1900 when the census is taken. Elizabeth would die in 1907. She would be buried with her sister Rachel Allen, who had died in 1894.
Sarah and John were deeply involved in the First Baptist Church of Reidsville. In addition to Sarah’s place in the choir, she was part of many groups within the church and regularly read poems on special occasions. Even after they moved away, Sarah would send poems to her friends at the church.
John would become a deacon, teach Sunday school, and serve as the Sunday school superintendent in 1909.
During these first years of marriage, Sarah would give birth to 4 children; Ernest Percy in 1892, Amy Anderson in 1895, Myrtle Louise in 1896, and Henry Allen in 1900. During these years she worked at least part time as a florist.

The Statesville Flour Mill in 1908. UNC LIBRARIES COMMONS

In 1911 the flour mill in Statesville was looking for a head miller, and through unknown means came upon an experienced and hardworking man named Heinzerling, who they offered the position to.
Sarah and John would move to Statesville that year, taking a house somewhere on Broad Street. They would remain there until 1914, when they would move to 113 North Tradd Street in downtown Statesville, across the road from where the First Baptist Church was located at the time. Today the church and the Heinzerling’s house are long gone. The church was replaced with a large bank building sometime after the church moved to a larger building on Davie Avenue in 1954. I’m unsure when Sarah and John’s house was torn down.

And old postcard showing First Baptist Church, located at 204 East Broad Street in Statesville from 1909-1954.

Sarah instantly became a part of the community. Her involvement with the First Baptist Church of Statesville meant she was again in the choir, and it seems with her free time she set about joining various civic groups, eventually becoming a member of The Iredell War Mothers, United Daughters of The Confederacy, The Statesville Woman’s Club, and state organizations such as The North Carolina Bird Club, The North Carolina Poetry Society, The National League of American Pen Women, The State Literary and Historical Association, and the North Carolina Poetry Society.

October, 1954.

Her children also found a place in Statesville, with her daughters taking after their mother and showing an interest in the arts.
In Amy, this manifested as a gift for music, and it was said that her technique in playing classical pieces from composers such as Chopin was brilliant and her touch delicate. Amy would eventually become the organist at First Baptist and would teach students the piano.
Her sister Myrtle seems to have had some talent on the piano as well, and there are various mentions of her in the local papers playing at weddings and other occasions.

Henry just before being drafted.

Henry would do various things as a boy, even selling homemade fly traps of his own design through the Lazenby Montgomery Hardware store. To some degree he took up his father’s profession and may have helped with mill construction before he was drafted into the Army during WWI. Luckily for Henry, because of his age he wasn’t called up until October of 1918. The war was over by the next month and Henry was sent back home in December. He would enroll in Universal Chiropractic College in Pittsburgh, PA shortly thereafter, graduating in June 1922 as class president. Returning home, he would open up an office in Statesville later that year at the People’s Loan and Savings Bank building, but would move away to Asheville in June, 1923 with his wife.
Ernest worked as a rural mail carrier in his younger years. Despite being eligible for the draft, he was never called to service during WWI. He would receive education at the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts and would take work at the same mill where his father worked. He would remain an employee there his whole life.

Statesville in the 1920’s.

Sarah’s husband John also made himself a fixture of the new town they would call home. As an employee of the mill, he took his job seriously, even making biscuits from various batches of flour to ensure quality of the product he was signing his name to. Besides his diligent work supervising the flour mill, he was again active in the church and would be both a deacon and custodian for First Baptist in addition to helping wherever help was needed, serving during various functions and with various committees. He was remembered after his death as generous, kind, and utterly dependable.

Dec 23, 1926

By the mid 1920’s, Sarah’s interest in writing is flowering, and she helps to organize The North Carolina chapter of the League of American Pen Women. She would take a particular interest in the group, making trips to Washington D.C. for national meetings and even becoming the state vice president of the group in North Carolina, the highest office in the state. Part of her duty as vice president was supervising the various branches of the club within the state.
That same year Sarah would also start self-publishing a “leaflet” called “The Pioneer” which would showcase literary work from North Carolina women and even some of her own poetry. The leaflet was sold by subscription for 50 cents per year, and Sarah published it for 2 years before giving up on the venture for unknown reasons.
She also was in the habit of hosting poetry competitions in the community and statewide, usually through the various organizations she was a member of. Winners were sometimes rewarded with cash and sometimes with other prizes. It was a practice she would continue into old age.
In 1933, Sarah submits a poem to a statewide contest hosted by the Literature Department of the North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs. Her entry titled “Willow Whistles” submitted under the pen name “Sanderson Chance” would win the Poetry Cup for 1933-1934.

Willow Whistles
Oh, it’s time for making whistles!
Let us go-let us go,
To the wild secluded places
Where lilting streamlets flow;
Where graceful pussy-willows
In a shining silver throng,
Are dancing by the waters
To the music of their song.

It is time for making whistles
That will blow-that will blow;
For the green is on the upland,
The woods and hedges glow;
The South Wind wafts a greeting-
The birds a welcome sing;
Oh, it is time for willow whistles
To pipe in praise of Spring!

Sarah with her books, 1950. Iredell County Library

The next year, at 72 years old, with her award winning poem, several she had already published in The Pioneer, and a number of others that had never seen the light of day, Sarah Heinzerling published her first book. A 46 page chapbook of sorts named Songs of Iredell, it was printed and bound by Brady Printing in Statesville and was instantly lauded in the local papers. It came as no surprise to anyone who knew Sarah, and no doubt her friends and family had been privy to at least some of the poems contained within the little red book of verse.
Before the end of her life, she would publish two more small volumes of her verse. “Pines of Rockingham,” and “The Call.”

On Saturday March 31st of 1941, Sarah’s husband John suffered a stroke shortly after arriving at work. He was taken to Davis Hospital where it was thought he might recover, but he was never himself again. John Heinzerling, the love of Sarah’s life and her faithful companion of 50 years suffered a slow decline. He would die at the hospital in August of 1941 at the age of 77. A couple months later the local newspaper would devote almost an entire page to a proper obituary, noting that every kindness and virtue of character a man could have were to be found in John Ernest Heinzerling.

It Is Not Death To Die
One morning very early,
Death paused on our street;
And when he left, an old man’s
Life cycle was complete;
A frail and gentle old man
Who smiled as he passed by;
Content to go on living,
But not afraid to die.

In that new life he entered,
Youth will return to him;
Strength to his weary body,
And sight to eyes grown dim.
Why weep then, at his going?
Instead rejoice that he
Was ready for the journey
Into Eternity.

It’s hard to say just what John’s death meant to Sarah. After his passing, her name appears less and less in the local papers. Her time is probably less frequently spent doing the work of the local clubs she was a member of. I don’t know if it was grief, her age finally catching up with her, or a little of both.
Despite these things, Sarah herself would carry on for another 13 years after John, living the whole time with her daughter Amy and son Ernest in the house she and her husband had called home for 40 years. She died on March 11th, 1954 at 91 years old and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, in the family plot with her husband, and where Ernest, Henry, and Amy would be buried later.

Legacy is a hard word to define when talking about a single person. Sarah Heinzerling was no doubt someone who left a legacy. Her work in the community and in the various civic groups impacted people locally, all over the state, and in various parts of the country. Her writings, while modest and nearly forgotten today have been a part of the lives of all who knew her and associated with her. Even after her death, her poems were being read on special occasions at churches and other places in Statesville.
But time has a way of washing away people and their deeds, of obscuring things that were once important, and today we don’t hear her poems anymore. But for a small marker in a cemetery one might pass by, we don’t even think of her name.
But I hope in hearing her story you take from her life and poetry what you can. Whether it’s in her clear and defined love of nature and her home state, or in her introspective lyrics about faith, aging, and death, her poems have something timeless to tell us.
It’s my sincere hope by drawing back the curtain of the years that people today may once again see her as she was and as she should be seen. As Statesville’s most important and beloved poetess.

At Seventy
Seven decades bring
Life so near its close,
It seems wise to take
Time for calm repose;
So, I lay aside
Many dear desires-
Lock the door of dreams,
Bank ambition’s fires.

Broken bones will mend.
Wounded flesh will heal;
Stricken hearts retain
Power to throb and feel;
But a spirit tried
As my soul has been,
loses strength to fight,
And the will to win.

I am reconciled-
Proud of every scar;
Discontent shall not
Future pleasure mar;
Youth was blessed with hopes
That have ceased to be;
Grant to age instead,
Sweet tranquility.

If you’d like to read Mrs. Heinzerling’s book for yourself, I’ve taken the effort of removing what little remained of the glue binding and the rusted staples used to hold it together in order to scan this small volume I have. It will be available here and on as a searchable PDF.
The Iredell County Library has one other book Heinzerling published, but it is not in public circulation. If you have any copies of her other two works, or anything else pertaining to her life, such as information about her leaflet The Pioneer, please see the contact page to get in touch with me.

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 originally buried at Houstonville.
But what happened after that?
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.

But here’s the kicker. Inscribed on her brother James’ marker, in tiny letters that I had overlooked a dozen times if not more…


Is Lillian Morrison buried in the same plot as her brother and sister-in-law? Is she buried in the empty space next to them? Why wasn’t her married name used on the stone? Why were no birth or death dates included? Why is her name misspelled? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but I think there’s a very good possibility that when James and Jundra were moved, Lillian was moved with them, and buried at the same time, and maybe even in the same 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 closing of the church was haphazard it seems, and the Moravians, despite keeping good records of it when it was functioning, quickly stopped talking about it or making mention of it once it failed. Unfortunately, in the shuffle, at least Lillian Morrison and maybe several others were lost.
But maybe Mrs. Morrison has been rediscovered over 80 years after her death.

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.