A Tragedy in Norborne
|The hallway is dimly lit and Eugene finds his way to the back stairwellthe stairwell that leads down to the kitchen area; down to the back alley; down to where Viola is working on the laundry porch of the hotel. Taking four steps, Eugene spies Viola. She is beautiful, even in that drab gray dress uniform. He takes another step and the stair squeaks under his weight. Viola turns around and sees him on the stairway,
“Eugene, go back. I don’t want to see you!” Viola cries out in panic.
Viola’s cries are heard inside the kitchen and Myra rushes to the doorway to find Eugene approaching her sister. Viola turns to run from Eugene. It is then that Myra sees the gun in Eugene’s hand. He fires. Viola looks down at her breast. A red stain is appearing on her apron. She feels a warm substance escape from her body. She runs two steps and falls down. Everything is moving in slow motion. She knows she is dying.
Myra’s screams are heard inside the hotel and as several people rush to the scene she watches Eugene place the pistol back in his coat pocket and walk casually back up the stairs to the second floor. Myra runs over to her sister. “Viola, oh Viola,” she cries, holding her sister’s head in her lap.
Henry Franken and Mayor Kenton are leaning over her fallen sister. Her pretty blue eyes are staring into space, unresponsive. She is not breathing. “Take her into the hotel,” Mayor Kenton tells Stanley Kincaid and Sam Snider. He pulls Myra away. She is hysterical. “Tell me what happened, Myra. What did you see?”
Between sobs, Myra tells the mayor that Eugene Morris shot Viola, then went back upstairs. “Is she dead?” she asks the mayor.
“Yes, she’s gone.”
“No, no!” Myra cries. “Please, God, no!”
The mayor looks over the amassing crowd. “As mayor, I’m deputizing Stanley and Sam and Frank.” He then spies Guy Whiteman, “and you, too, Guy. We can use your expertiseyou being an attorney and all. We want to do this right.”
Eugene’s walk back to his room is like a dream. He hears the commotion in the streets below but he is disassociated with it. He enters room 203. He removes the revolver from his pocket. It is still warm from the discharged projectile. He takes his coat off and carefully folds it, lying it at the foot of the bed. He looks down at his shoes. The left shoe has blood on itViola’s blood. He stares at the mirror. He doesn’t recognize what he sees.
Eugene takes the three letters he wrote earlier in the afternoon in his hand and with the gun in the other he collapses on the bed. He places the letters beside him. He is so tired. It must end. It must end now.
The five men split in accordance with the mayor’s instructions. They ascend the stairs and meet at room 203. There is no sound coming from the room.
The mayor looks over his posse. They are just common folks, businessmen. They are not police officers. He is not a police officer, but he must do something. He raises his hand and knocks on the door. “Mr. Morris, this is the mayor,” he says. “Come out and give yourself up. No one will hurt you.”
Eugene does not respond to the mayor’s request.
“She’s dead, Mr. Morris,” he continues. “You killed her. Give yourself up or we’ll be forced to come in and get you.”
Still Eugene does not answer.
“Okay, fellas, don’t stand directly in front of the door. You ready Guy?” the mayor asks.
Guy nods his head and reaches for the doorknob of room 203. Slowly he turns it. The room is unlocked. Guy carefully opens the door and sees Eugene Morris lying across the bed, the deadly revolver still in his hand.
“Eugene Morris, you are under arrest for the murder of Viola Wright,” the mayor says.
Eugene looks at the mayor and raises the revolver. The men raise their firearms, pointing them directly at him. Eugene places the pistol to his temple and fires. He is dead before the men can reach him.
There are always mysteries to solve when researching your family lines. I had a murder mystery to uncover. My search began with just a few statements. My grandmother’s sister was murdered while she was working in a hotel at the age of sixteen. The reason given for this murder was that she was the victim of a jealous rage. By the time the story got to me, we no longer knew who, when, or where this alleged murder occurred. Was it just a story or did it really happen?
It is easy to become skeptical of such stories, especially when you have no concrete proof to offer. My grandmother was no longer living when this story was told to me. Interviews with my mother and her sisters were my starting point, but their stories did not correlate well with each other. So the detective work began.
My grandmother, Fannie Jane Wright, was born 31 October 1889 in Linneus, Linn County, Missouri, the third child of Sarah Catherine Dodge and George W. Wright. Fannie Jane had two older sisters, Lizzie Leota born in March 1886 and Myra born in September 1888, as well as three younger sisters: Lottie G. born January 1897, Carrie Gladys born in 1903, and Viola May born 30 May 1904. A search of family photographs supplied the next clue to this mystery, not so much by what was found in the photographs but by what was missing.
The family album contained pictures of Lizzie Leota as a young woman as well as an older matriarch. Pictures of Carrie and Lottie in their later years were also available. A picture of Myra as a young woman was present, but no pictures of Viola were found. Since the alleged victim was sixteen when she died, I could logically rule out Lizzie, Carrie, and Lottie as the victim. This left me with Myra or Viola. Examining Myra’s photograph carefully, I determined that it was taken in the early 1900s. Myra could have been as young as sixteen in the picture. My victim could be Myra (she remains elusive to this day) or Viola. Taking a chance, I contacted the Missouri Bureau of Vital Statistics in Jefferson City, Missouri, and asked for the death certificate of Viola May Wright, born May 1904, daughter of George Wright and Sarah Catherine Dodge, with 1920 an approximate year of death.
A death certificate was located in the records. Viola died 29 August 1919. The cause of her death was listed as “Gunshot wound. Homicide. Felonious.” The place of death was Norborne, Carroll County, Missouri, approximately forty-five miles northeast of Kansas City. Viola was working in a hotel in the laundry and kitchen. I had found my victim and I had also learned when and where the murder occurred. But who did it, and why?
On a research trip to Missouri, I planned an excursion to Norborne, the site of Viola’s murder. Arriving in the community in the spring of 1998, I imagined how it had appeared some eighty years earlier. The bank, erected in the early 1900s, shared a common wall with a business block that had once housed a hotel. It was no longer in use and the lobby of the hotel was now used as a community theater.
“Could this be the place where Viola had worked?” I wondered.
Locating the public library, which was conveniently housed with the city hall, I entered with great hopes of finding answers to my questions. I was disappointed. There were no historical records archived there.
My next stop was the local newspaper. The Norborne Leader was a weekly newspaper in existence at the time of the murder and was still being run as a weekly newspaper. The local office was open to accept payments, advertisements, and news stories when they came available. Did the office have copies of old issues of the paper? Yes. My spirits soared.
The clerk brought out a bound copy of the newspapers printed in the time period. The book was in deplorable condition; many pages were torn and crumbling after years on the back shelves. I carefully turned to the issues beginning with August, 1919. The Norborne Leader, published every Friday, was full of interesting, personal, everyday happenings that occurred in Norborne and the surrounding communities, including the comings and goings of the citizens and their friends and family. Surely I would find something about a murder. The most likely issue to hold an article concerning the murder of Viola would have been the 5 September 1919 issue. But this publication of the newspaper was missing from the book. Carefully, I looked ahead and behind the area where this paper should have been filed, with no luck. Finally, I asked the clerk for assistance with the missing issue. Her response was, “Well, sometimes they get old and we just throw them away.” My heart nearly stopped.
“Are there microfilm copies located anywhere?” I inquired.
“Not to my knowledge,” she responded.
Sadly, I left the newspaper office and walked across the street where my family was waiting at the Old Bank Restaurant. Old photographs lined the walls showing the town and its people. Ordering a glass of iced tea, I couldn’t help wondering if some of these faces staring out at me held the answers to the questions I had. Would those answers be locked up forever?
The next logical step, I perceived, was a trip to the Carroll county seat, Carrollton. Maybe a review of the coroner’s records would reveal a clue. J. G. Tonge was listed as the coroner who signed Viola’s certificate of death. Unfortunately, these records could not be located by the county clerk in Carrollton. Disheartened, I had to return home with more questions than I had answers.
Not willing to give up on my search, once I reached home I wrote a letter to the library at the county seat inquiring about copies of any old newspapers, and requesting a search of any sources it may have. Enclosing a self-addressed envelope and a nominal check to cover any costs, I waited patiently for a response.
Six weeks later I had my answer. I received photocopies of two newspaper articles. The first was from the 5 September 1919 issue of the Carrollton Democrat, and the second was from the 5 September 1919 issue of The Norborne Leader. The Carrollton Democrat article was written very professionally, outlining the facts as known. It read in part, “Infatuated and Despondent Man Shoots Girl and Then Ends Own LifeTragedy Occurred at Norborne Friday Night.” This article went on to tell other facts of the murder and suicide.
The article as published in The Norborne Leader weaved a tale of intrigue and deceit and was written very colorfully. The headline read, “Jealous Lover First Kills Sweetheart and Then Himself. Act Was Premeditated.” The author of the article gave the story of the crime as he saw it, slanting most of the blame for the tragedy on the fifteen-year-old victim. The author concluded his article by writing, “The moral of this story is not hard to find. Men of the character and reputation of Eugene L. Morris are not fit associates for young girls and parents should discountenance such associations as severely as necessary to stop it.”
The articles raised many more questions. What type of person was Eugene L. Morris? To try to answer this question, I researched his life and found that he was the son of a wealthy Civil War veteran, unable to hold down employment and occupied with self-indulgence. His first wife, after she divorced him, died mysteriously. He married a second time only to have this wife leave him as well. He was forty-seven years old when he became obsessed with fifteen-year-old Viola. We can only wonder what went through his troubled mind.
Susan G. Copeland has been researching her family history for six years. Intrigued by Viola’s story, she has completed a novel depicting the fictional account of the events leading up to this murder-suicide. She lives in the Silver Valley of northern Idaho with her husband.
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Susan G. Copeland 5/1/2002
May/June 2002 Vol.20 No.3