Trace Evidence Podcast Releases Episode About Angie Hamby.

Trace Evidence, a podcast I have listened to for quite a while now has released an excellent episode about the disappearance of Angela Gray Hamby from Wilkes county. Steven Pacheco has done an excellent job organizing the information into a coherent narrative, as well as speculating on the possible reasons and people involved in the case.

You can listen to it here.

October this year will be the 40th anniversary of Hamby’s disappearance.

Houstonville Moravian Church

Houstonville, North Carolina is a little community on the north end of Iredell county. It hasn’t always been as small as it is now- today it’s most notable feature is a crossroads where a few buildings still sit on NC highway 21, but it’s history is much larger than what that modest little crossroads can convey, and today, we’re going to take a look at one small part of it.

The story of the church building at Houstonville really starts with a man named Blum Hiliary Vestal. “B.H.” Vestal was a Yadkinville evangelist who had been making the rounds through Iredell and surrounding counties for a number of years prior to his entry into our story.

The only picture I’ve been able to find of Vestal thus far.

Vestal had started in the Holiness movement, which was seeing growth around the turn of the century, but had (through means I can’t discover) eventually become associated with the Moravian church in North Carolina. The particulars of this might be quite interesting, especially since Holiness/Wesleyan theology could be at odds with traditional Moravian teachings, but the details are lost to the ages.
At any rate, the 1920’s find Vestal traveling all over the area, preaching wherever anyone would have him. This included outdoors along the road, under brush arbors, at regular meetings, and in schools and church buildings.
The earliest mention I can find of Vestal at Houstonville dates to 1916, when he was preaching at a “Brush Hill Church” in the area. He would visit at least once a year and maybe more, preaching under a tent and at the Virginia Dare School, which would have been just down the road near where Mt Carmel TPC sits today.
Through Vestal’s evangelism, a small group of people in the community were either converted or brought in from other denominations to start an actual church under the Moravian denomination. By 1924, a man named James E. Hall, a seasoned Moravian preacher is also coming to Houstonville and is encouraged by what he sees, deciding to assist in the establishment of a congregation there. This was solidified in the minds of everyone on October 22nd, 1924 with 5 married couples being the core of what would be the new church and J.E. Hall its appointed minister.

J.E Hall, from DigitalForsyth

In these early days, the group would likely have been meeting in the school house, but the thought immediately in the minds of those committed was to ultimately construct a building of their own.
Between October of 1924 and the end of the year, 10 new members are added to the group, bringing the number or communicants (or “members” as most would call them) to 25 souls.
Vestal and Hall would share duties among the members in Houstonville, with Vestal taking time to continue evangelism in far off locales and Hall ministering to other Moravian congregations. Many of the smaller Moravian churches at the time had no dedicated minister, but were supplied by men who traveled among churches. Some of these men might have two or three other congregations to visit and assist each week. Sometimes they would only see certain congregations monthly. However, in the beginning, Hall and Vestal seemed most committed to Houstonville.

Wednesday December 3rd, 1924 sees the establishment of the church on paper and a church committee is elected from the local people. This is done in the home or Mr. and Mrs. Ellis Hayes, with 16 people meeting with Edgar A Holton, a “field agent” of the Moravian church, and Vestal and Hall. L. Ellis Hayes, Thomas S. Creason, and Noah E. Goodin are elected to the committee. A couple weeks later, the first Christmas service for this new congregation takes place in the schoolhouse where they had been meeting. Including the 25 members, there are a total of 80 people present for a Moravian candle service.

January of the next year the idea of constructing a building is still heavy on the minds of the communicants, and L.E. Hayes agrees to donate an acre of land for the building. However, rather than simply giving up the land, it is donated with the stipulation that if the Moravians fail to build a church, or leave after the church has been built, the land will return to the Hayes family.

The earliest aerial photo of the church from 1956, it would have been sitting empty at this time. The modern burials would not begin until 1961 when the Baptists bought the building.

A “standard design for small frame Moravian churches” drawn up by Northup and O’Brien architects and is approved by the local congregation for the building. It will consist of a 30×50 wooden structure with space for possible Sunday school classrooms in the back.
On Tuesday, February 24th, Vestal and several others meet on the land to lay off the foundation lines and begin digging out the space for walls to be built. This work continues on for days, and on the 28th, a total of 58 men, women, boys, and girls with the help of four wagons meet to gather up stones to be used for the foundation. By March 2nd, the stone and concrete foundation walls are finished.
On the 14th, men and boys met in an unknown area of woods where a local man who “had served the devil long enough and thought it was time to begin to serve God” (his words) had donated timber for the construction. 120 logs were selected and the same man in service of God gave the congregation a discount on having them milled.
Despite fervor and materials, money was in short supply among the rural people, and word was sent out in the Moravian newspaper for help. The Houstonville congregation figured that if a third of the cost could be offset by donations or other aid, the church could be completed. Congregations and various groups within the Moravian church were encouraged to help with the effort, to the tune of at least $1,600 initially. The paper noted that the front door and larger windows would cost $40 each with twelve total large windows. Two small windows would cost $5 each and two small doors would cost $15 a piece.
Boys and girls in the church fattened hens to be sold at market in Winston-Salem in order to raise money for nails.

By March 29th, the cornerstone was ready to be laid with much pomp and circumstance. 1,600 people gathered coming in 400 automobiles to watch as the stone containing names of the people who had worked on the church and those who had donated funds was set in place. For 2 hours the people stayed, and J.E. Hall and the Moravian bishop Edward Rondthaler both spoke to the crowd, the former speaking of what it took to get to the point where they were, and the latter giving a short sermon from Ephesians titled “Jesus Christ Himself the Chief Cornerstone.” All this was done from a platform specially constructed for the occasion in front of the church where speakers might stand and bands and choirs might make music within easy sight of the gathered crowd. The Moravian paper proclaimed “…our first work in Iredell is well under way, under the evident blessing of God.”

A picture of the finished church from the Wachovia Moravian, May, 1926

By the second Sunday in May of 1925 the building was not completely finished, but had come close enough that the first service took place inside with Vestal preaching. The fourth Sunday, Hall was present and began the organization of a Sunday school. It would start with 52 people registered but would swell to 96 by the end of the month. Noah E. Goodin was elected as superintendent of the Sunday school with Ruby Hayes as his assistant, and David Harris as secretary and treasurer.

It seems after this only minor things were needed to complete the church. The pulpit, communion set, hymnals, and other items were donated from Moravians around the state. The members themselves had a “hanging gasoline lamp” added to the central part of the building for illumination on dreary days and on Sunday nights when prayer meetings were held.
During these months leading up to the church’s consecration, we find Hall and Vestal in and out of the pulpit, and numerous mentions of various “Billy Sunday Clubs” coming through. These were groups associated with popular evangelist and former baseball player, Billy Sunday.

The congregation in 1926. J.E. Hall can be seen at far left in the black suit with his hat held by his side. Next to him at right is his grand daughter Josephine Peterson, who has her hands clasped in front of her. No doubt the Hayes are somewhere in this picture as well. From Moravians in North Carolina by Jennifer Bean Bower.

1926 begins with improving numbers. Houstonville could boast 34 members, 4 non-members, and 18 children for a total of 56 people in the pews on a good Sunday. The church was growing.
Sunday, April 25th, consecration of the church was undertaken with bishop Edward Greider officiating over the event. Vestal, Hall, Edgar A. Holton, and George Bruner were the other ministers in attendance. Music was provided by the Friedberg Male Chorus of Friedburg Church, the choir of Center Methodist Church from Yadkin county, and the “Trinity Church Band” which I believe to be from Trinity Moravian Church. No number is given on the size of the crowd, but one would assume it was fairly large and probably had representatives from various Moravian congregations in the area as well as locals from other denominations.
1926 is also the first we hear of a death in the church. Generally, deaths among Moravian congregations were reported in the Wachovia Moravian, but as I have delved into this story, I have come to realize that there are a lot of questions about who died while the church was active, and where they were buried. The death recorded in the paper, though unnamed, may be Mary Isabelle Brown, a member who died May 4th, 1926 had a funeral at Houstonville but would ultimately be buried at Holly Springs, a larger church less than a mile down the road. At this time Houstonville die not have it’s own burying ground laid out.
The end of the year sees the church’s first “Love Feast” in December. Again, no numbers are given, but it is noted that in addition to members, people from the towns of Olin, Sheffield, and Smith’s Chapel Church, and “all the intervening territory” are present.

The rear of the church today. The graves seen are all post-1961. The original church yard was defined in the 1930’s by the building of the stone wall seen running from the left. The brick building was not present and is a modern addition.

March 1927, Hall and Ellis Hayes and Noah Goodin are reported as having “laid off four plots” for “graveyard purposes.” Where these plots are or were is uncertain. How many were ultimately used is also uncertain. This may have been done as a reaction to the 1926 death and the realization that there were no available grave plots for members of the church.
Vestal and Hall are in and out of the church in ’27, with both managing to miss Easter Sunday, and so no service was held. In their absence, other local ministers sometimes filled the pulpit. It was a pattern that would continue all the way to the end.

Zeno Dixon and his wife Mary from Yadkin County: The First One Hundred Years by Francis H. Casstevens.

One notable name was Professor Zeno Dixon. Dixon was a graduate of Vanderbilt and a leading educator in the Yadkinville area where Vestal was from. He addressed the congregation on the last Sunday of the month in April, when Vestal and Hall were also available to be in attendance and an Easter celebration was held.

Little is mentioned of the church after this in the Wachovia Moravian paper for a couple years. There are the Love Feasts and holiday services. The numbers seem to grow a bit more. The Billy Sunday teams show up a couple more times. Vestal and Hall are still in and out and the church doesn’t have a full time dedicated minister.

In July of 1930 we have our first confirmed burial at the church. “Joanna” Cloer, a 55 year old woman, wife of J.W. Cloer, member of the church, and “much thought of” in the community was laid to rest in the Houstonville cemetery. According to the Wachovia Moravian, a large number were in attendance and J.E. Hall was present to preach for the funeral. Her husband would be laid to rest next to her in 1940 when he died as well.

October of 1931 is the next major news from the little church. Due to the absence of both Hall and Vestal, services are had on only two Sundays in September. The letter to the Wachovia Moravian telling of the church’s news is penned by a man named Ernest Hall Stockton, another Moravian minister who may have assisted with services at the church that year. By 1932, Stockton is listed as the church’s only minister, a position he would also fill for Hope and Bethesda Moravian church. Vestal seems to pass out of the picture at this point, and Hall becomes the minister of Wachovia Arbor. Nothing is said to explain Hall’s departure from Houstonville, though it likely had to do to his failing health, but the Wachovia Moravian would say of Vestal that in June of 1931 he was “…granted permission to relinquish active pastoral service in our Province that he might devote his entire time to general evangelistic work to which he felt the special call of God.”

That month, the congregation’s organist and a Sunday school teacher, a Mrs. Witherspoon loses her daughter, a Mrs. Edmonia Cheshier to appendicitis a week after Mrs. Cheshier and her husband visit the church. As a result, Mrs. Witherspoon moves to Forsyth county to be close to family and the church is left without anyone to play the organ.

1933 sees more activity in the graveyard, as due to the work of Mrs. Hayes, it is “…laid off into squares with suitable walks, and Arbor Vitae bushes have been set out at the corners of the squares. A splendid rock wall has been built separating the graveyard from the rest of the church property.” Moravian burials at the time were done in a certain manner. Stones were all similarly sized, laid flat on the earth, and put in neat rows. Maple and cedar trees are also planted. Those cedar trees remain today.

Cedar trees planted in 1931 along with the rock wall to separate the church from the graveyard.

The next year, J.E. Hall’s health would finally deteriorate fully, and he would die in November, 1934 at 79 years old. The Wachovia Moravian would devote two full pages to his work and memory. This would have no doubt been a blow to the congregation at Houstonville, as Hall had been with them from the beginning.

In 1935, the man who replaced Hall and Vestal, E.H. Stockton, dies as well. In his 21 years of ministry he found himself in 14 different pulpits, and the Wachovia Moravian proclaimed that his old Buick was to be preserved by friends to show the future generations “ the Moravian minister traveled in the 1900’s”.
His successor would be H.G. Foltz, who had another church besides Houstonville, and would split his time between the two. At the close of the church’s tenth year, some months might only see two Sundays with a minister in the pulpit. Foltz noted himself that he was sometimes having to travel 85 to 100 miles to reach the congregation in Iredell county.
This seems to be the beginnings of decline. It’s notable that Foltz didn’t even write regular updates in the Wachovia Moravian for much of 1936, but mentioned the Houstonville congregation in an update about his other church, almost as an afterthought.
The church building did receive an upgrade to it’s lighting as the old gas lamps were replaced by electric lights.
The end of the year also sees Vestal return for a visit during the Love Feast. H.G Foltz, in his somewhat pessimistic style, writes that the service was “…somewhat encouraging”.

Example of a Moravian graveyard, this one in Winston-Salem. Via Natalie Maynor, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
Poor Lily Morrison. Her own preacher couldn’t get her name right and neither could the newspaper.

1937 marks the second confirmed burial in the Houstonville graveyard, but due to Foltz’s inattentiveness, I almost wasn’t able to figure out who it was. In his letter to the Wachovia Moravian in February, 1936 he calls the person “Jane Clore.” There are no graves for such a person in the area, and I know for sure there were no people with the surname “Clore” in the area, but there were many “Cloers.” As it turns out, the woman who died and was buried Sunday, January the 3rd was Lillian (Lily) Cloer Morrison. She was the sister-in-law of the first person buried at Houstonville, Jundra Cloer. How such a grievous error was committed by Foltz is beyond me. I can only postulate that the man was bad with names, spelling, or didn’t know the congregation very well.
Whatever the case, toward the end of 1937, Foltz is removed or removes himself as pastor of Houstonville, and in his place, G. Edward Brewer, newly ordained minister, is brought in. Brewer is already pastor of the Macedonia congregation where J.E. Hall was when he died, but now also will take responsibility for Houstonville as well. The Wachovia Moravian notes that he does not have a college or theological education, but “knows how to deal with people,” and seems less a scholarly minister and more a people’s pastor.

Writing in March of 1938, Mrs. L.E. Hayes, who has held numerous positions in the congregation, and who has been a champion for the small church writes to the Wachovia Moravian as church secretary.
We do believe if we had a pastor living in our midst we could move forward much more rapidly, but we are not able to have this kind of arrangement. As it is, we are grateful for the help we have received, and wish to take this opportunity of thanking the Church Aid Board for bearing with us so long, and continuing to send us a pastor twice a month.
It’s hard to judge the tone of written words, but they seem to me to carry a sadness. The congregation has never had enough money to support a pastor, and so the Church Aid Board has been paying salaries to whoever consents to make the trip to Houstonville in addition to whatever other responsibilities they have.
Another interesting note from this year is also from Mrs. Hayes, who mentions in June the injury of Amelia Kennedy. Kennedy is 13 at the time and was hurt in a bus accident in Charlotte. She is also the church’s current piano player. More than that, her family is noted for owning hundreds of acres local to Houstonville as part of the Daltonia Plantation.

Toward the end of 1939, Brewer ceases to be the minister for Houstonville. Why this happens is not recorded, though maybe it was too complicated a situation for a newly ordained minister. He also leaves the country with other Moravian ministers at the beginning of the year to visit Moravian missions in Jamaica, and is absent for a time. When he returns, he spends time going to other churches in the state showing “moving pictures” that were taken in Jamaica.
Whatever the case, his replacement is William Clyde Davis, who will be one of Houstonville’s longest serving ministers. He will make his first visit to Iredell county on the second Sunday of October and will spend the 18th “calling on” members of the church to get to know the new congregation. In addition to Houstonville, he is also responsible for the Enterprise congregation as their lay-pastor. All of this before even being ordained as a deacon in December, 1939.
By the end of the year, the church has suffered another death, but no details are ever printed. Because of this we don’t know who they were or where they were buried.

1940 holds little by way of news or changes. That July, vacation bible school is organized as it has been for a number of years, but in this instance we have more names tied to the event. Ellis Bullins, a theological student at the time, is present to help with organization, and for the duration of his stay is “put up” in the homes of church members. He will be assisted by the aforementioned Miss Amelia Kennedy, Mrs. Nannie Ray, Miss Pauline Auberson, Marvin Ledford, and “Rouston” Kennedy, who I believe was actually Roderick Kennedy.
Electric heat is finally installed at the end of the year, which means the “fireman,” the member tasked with showing up early on cold days and getting the building warm by way of a wood stove no longer has to toil. It also means that the wood smoke is no longer an extra guest in the sanctuary.
Average attendance during this time is about 40 people.
This year, 2 more members die, but again, are not mentioned by name in the Wachovia Moravian, though through research I have discovered one was the aforementioned J.W. Cloer. It’s currently unknown to me who the other might be.

The church graveyard today. None of these burials are from the Moravian years.

1941 is notable for the first mention of W.C. Kirkman, a local Apostolic Holiness minister who has assisted the church off and on and who had preached the funeral of Lillian Morrison with A.G. Woodruff (who I believe was a Baptist minister) when no Moravian ministers were available. He will preach a series of “evangelistic meetings” beginning in May. The services would go on for a number of weeks and eventually Pauline Auberson (“Orberson?” It’s spelled both ways in the papers.), Louise Harris and Amelia Kennedy and a Cecelia Kennedy are baptized into membership.
2 more members die in 1941, again, unlisted, unknown.

November 1st, 1942 W.C. Davis is replaced as the church’s minister. No reasons are given, but it seems he remains lay-pastor at Enterprise. In his place, Henry A. Lewis is called to Houstonville and is installed November 8th, 1942. Unlike past ministers, Lewis is able to preach every Sunday in December, and notes somewhat dejectedly that average attendance is now only 9 souls. The Macedonia congregation would also later become his responsibility as well and by September 1943, he would leave both. His obituary would later state that “He soon found that the young ‘city’ preacher was not yet prepared to handle the nuances of leading one rural congregation, much less two at the same time”. Lewis leaves the state entirely to take up churches on Staten island in New York.

1944, Edgar A. Holton is listed on paper as the minister for Houstonville Moravian Church, but also serves at least two other churches and may have been helping as many as 5 or 6 total. He will be the final man in the pulpit.
One of the last mentions of the church is a simple notice related to money that was being used for “the Houstonville work”- money set aside for paying for the congregation’s minister. The church will be listed at the end of 1944 as having had 35 members, with 26 of them “dropped.”
No mention is made by the Moravians of the church closing date, its conditions, no mention is made of what becomes of the building, the equipment and supplies therein, or the people buried in Houstonville’s graveyard. It seems they just wash their hands and walk away. It’s not mentioned again in their papers or archives.

But a little bit can be inferred and speculated on. First, if the Moravians abandoned the church, it would pass back into ownership of the Hayes family, which we know for sure it does. Whether or not the various “equipment” of the church (love feast mugs, pews, pulpit, hymnals, etc.) left with the Moravians is unknown.
What became of the remaining members is unknown as well. Many of the names associated with the church find their final resting place at Holly Springs Baptist Church, less than a mile down the road, and it’s assumed in the absence of the Moravians, these people simply started attending the next closest church or found another farther off.
What happened to those who were buried at the church during the Moravian years is a little more complicated, and will require it’s own article.

July 2022.
May 1952

The history post-Moravians is also somewhat hard to pin down. With the Hayes family in ownership of the building, it was used off and on for various revivals and by various preachers, but it never seems to be a fully functioning church again while the Hayes family own it.

Real estate transfer notice – December 13th, 1961

However, If you’ve read this far and seen the modern pictures, you’ll have probably guessed that the church building of course did the impossible. Rather than fading away and becoming a derelict building or a distant memory of the local people, ownership passes from the Hayes family to a group of Baptists, who bought the church and land from them and began to make the old chapel their own.
Sometime between 1958 and 1961, as fewer and fewer uses were found for the building, hay was stored in the main space by the Hayes family, and the group of Baptists who came into this former church must have had a good bit of work to make it useable again.
Some of the physical changes you can note today are the addition of an awning over the front door, a drop ceiling in the main church space, the addition of colored glass to the original windows, and a partition for bathrooms just inside the front door.
Despite all these changes, the church probably doesn’t look much different than it used to. Carpet covers what was probably bare wooden flooring, and newer pews were added.
Today the Houstonville Baptist Church congregation is also small, but have been faithful stewards of the property.

The interior of the church today. In addition to adding a drop ceiling, the arch in the back was built by one of the Baptist ministers who was also a carpenter so that bathrooms could be constructed at the back. He managed with skill to copy the original Moravian flourishes around the arch and one wouldn’t know it isn’t original without being told.

Houstonville Moravian Church never had a very large membership either. Maybe the people there weren’t thought of as particularly wise, powerful, or wealthy. They were mostly just local farm families, elderly couples, children, widows, but these, even these same people were, for a time, a church.

Visiting the current church on a Sunday night in July 2022, I couldn’t help but hear the singing echo in the building and think over the fact that whether there are 10 voices or 100 singing from the hymnals, a church is not and never has been a building, a true church is its members.
But our old buildings have been and continue to be a means by which we tell the stories of those congregations past. And I’m glad Houstonville is still here to proclaim the faith and lives of a rural band of people almost 100 years removed from us.

I could not have assembled this history without the ability to access the Moravian Archive’s collection of the Wachovia Moravian newspapers. Without them, we wouldn’t know as much as we do about Houstonville.

My thanks to Terry Bullin, current deacon of Houstonville Baptist Church and his wife Ellen for being so welcoming and helping fill in details that simply can’t be found in writing, and allowing me to photograph the church.

A small amount of information and a photo was gleaned from two books: With Courage For The Future by Crews and Starbuck, and Moravians In North Carolina by Jennifer Bean Bower.

Amelia Kennedy, who was mentioned several times came from a prominent family in the area would go to school to become a chiropractor later in life. “Dr. Kennedy” as she was known contributed to the book “We Well Remember” and accounts of various things happening in the local community can be found there, including some history relating to her ancestor’s use of slaves on Daltonia Plantation. I’m convinced this little book might be one of the most important written about this portion of the county.

Houstonville Baptist Church was in the news in 2017. I didn’t see the story at the time, but one of the members told me the about it and I had to look it up. The boy was eventually caught and made up for what he did, which was the result of a dare. There’s not a lot to do when you’re a teenager in the middle of nowhere.

There are still questions about Houstonville to be answered, and I hope to continue the search, but it’s possible that the information that’s needed might no longer exist.
However, if you know anything about the church’s Moravian years or have photos or documents, I would love to talk with you.

Rather than publishing a lengthy “sources page” for this article, I will be creating a collection for the church that will include materials from both the Moravian and current Baptist years. This will be donated to the Iredell County’s local history collection, and if you would like to see a large collection of articles about the church from the Wachovia Moravian, they will be there for the public to have access to, as well as Crews and Starbuck’s book.
I would also be happy to scan any documents or pictures you might have for the same collection.

Davis RMC ceases normal hospital operations.

In a move which I am sure will shock many in the local community, Davis Regional Medical Center in Statesville has announced it will be transitioning from a full service hospital to an “inpatient behavioral health hospital”. DRMC is of course the offshoot of the original Davis Community Hospital, an institution near and dear to my heart even though it doesn’t exist anymore.
I don’t generally like to prognosticate, but I feel like this is probably the beginning of the end for the new Davis hospital.

The Life of Blum Hiliary Vestal

In preparation for two articles I’m currently working on, I’m uploading a small book about a man named Blum Hiliary Vestal, who will figure prominently in one and to some degree in the other.

B.H. Vestal was a prolific evangelist who began his career in the early 1900’s after a miraculous conversion.
He travelled in the early days on foot or by horse, but in later years when vehicles became available, travelled by truck, bringing a tent with him wherever he went.
Born in Yadkinville in 1874, his life took him all over this part of the state and even out of state on various occasions.
In his heyday he preached for Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Holiness churches, and pretty much anyone who would listen. He preached outside, under fallen trees, under brush arbors, in buildings, in meetings houses, and on the street.
He founded churches, started revival camps, and even though he preached for any denomination who would listen, he worked closely with the Moravian church out of Winston Salem.

His life and worked slowed down in the late 30’s as his physical abilities declined, and he was spending a winter in Florida trying to recover his health when he died in 1942. His body was transported back home and eventually buried in the Moravian “God’s Acre” cemetery in Winston.
The book unfortunately is not a complete picture of the man, but a snapshot of a couple years of his life. I think knowing how passionate he was about preaching, he would probably not want us to know too much about who he was, but only the message he preached.

At any rate, I scanned it this evening and it is now available here and on The physical copy will be given to the Iredell County Library.

Researchers exhuming the body of “Marshal Ney” in hopes of DNA testing.

The old stories are all new again. Despite all the past efforts and the various learned men and women opining on the matter, it looks like there might finally be conclusive proof as to whether the man who immigrated to America and died in Mocksville was actually one of Napoleon’s most trusted men.
Today, French researchers are exhuming the grave of Peter Stuart Ney. This will as far as I know be at least the third time the grave has been opened, but thanks to modern science the best chance to find out once and for all if the man buried within is truly Marshal Michel Ney of France, or a very good imposter.

The French crew painstakingly excavating the grave with trowel in hand, inch by inch., bucket by bucket.

Work started this morning with the removal of the glass window on one side of the brick mausoleum and the brick chips that were covering the grave space. Digging has continued all day and was still going on when I left after 6PM. It will likely take at least another full day of excavation before any remains can be found.
On hand was a small group of people representing Davie county, Third Creek Presbyterian Church, Davidson College, and other interested parties.
The French crew themselves consisting of filmmakers and anthropologist Jennifer Kerner travelled all the way from Paris and have been working towards this day for a number of years at this point but were waylaid like much of the world by the Covid pandemic. They will be filming the dig and segments at Davidson College where Ney’s papers and effects are kept for the French tv show L’Histoire au scalpel.
One wonders if they knew exactly what they were getting themselves into by choosing the middle of summer. It was most assuredly very hot and very humid.

Today’s notable finds did include some very long nails and part of a penny or possibly button of unknown date. Likely detritus from one of the past digs in the grave or cast offs from work on the mausoleum. It is known that parts of Peter Ney’s skull and mandible were taken from the grave during the last exhumation- a cast of the skull fragment is now housed at Davidson College, but it’s hoped everything that was removed was reinterred.

I received late word this was all happening but was lucky enough to be present as the work was taking place and took some pictures to mark the occasion.

It will probably be the end of the year before we know the results of all this work, but I will most certainly do my best to keep informed, and will update as I receive updates.

To read more about the man called Peter Stuart Ney, including LeGette Blythe’s book about him, see my past post or Davidson College’s resources on the man called Ney.

EDIT (7/11/22): The dig took a total of three days and no remains were found in the grave, though the outline of a since decayed coffin was noted. In the end, the crew chose to take back a sample from the bones Davidson College has from a former exhumation. The rest were buried once again in Ney’s grave at Third Creek Presbyterian Church.

Ney’s grave, unknown date / Iredell County Library

The Bugle Boy Who Was Buried Twice

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.

The now abandoned Speaks home in July, 2022.

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.

Wounded American soldiers. Argonne Forest – October, 1918

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.

A newspaper photo of the “house” with Boyd’s coffin seen inside, draped with an American flag.
J.P. Speaks in 1924 from the newspaper article that featured a picture of his son’s tomb.

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.

A bugle like the ones Boyd likely carried.

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.

An old horse-drawn hay cutter left behind on the Speaks farm. July, 2022.

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.