~ Book Sample ~
by F. Keith Davis
Editor’s Note: The following are the Introduction and the first chapter of the book The Secret Life and Brutal Death of Mamie Thurman, by F. Keith Davis (reprinted with the author's permission). The book was first released in November 2001, and has become a hit in the Mountain State of West Virginia. For purchase information and other books on West Virginia, see Woodland Press, www.woodlandpress.com.
When one thinks of Logan County, West Virginia, history, there are many fascinating themes for lively dialogue. For goodness sakes, the controversial Devil Anse Hatfield is from Logan and the bloody antics of the Hatfield and McCoy clans are well documented in history books. The county is also the region of the Blair Mountain Mine Wars and the capers of hillbilly bootleggers with moonshine stills hidden far up lonely hollows. Logan County has always been forefront in United Mine Worker struggles and union related strikes and violence. Logan’s also the rugged land of Chief Logan and Princess Aracoma. It’s the territory of not-so-famous political upheavals and vote-buying shenanigans, and the locality of a string of notorious county political scandals, too numerous to mention.
The controversial history of the southern West Virginia mountain region is heavy-laden with gruesome and hard-to-believe chronicles. Besides this, within the scraggly county borders of this backwoods region, hot-tempered mountain men, as well as affluent businessmen of the time, were known to have taken the law into their own hands, demonstrating limited respect for law enforcement.
It’s in this isolated hotbed of ignorance, rumor, scandal, crime, and mud-slinging politics that a woman, Mamie Thurman, lived, and eventually died at the hands of a brutal killer. Her body was tossed aside to rot in a briar patch, atop a nearby mountain. Mamie Thurman is dead. Even seventy years after the grisly homicide, we are not exactly sure what really happened.
This book tells, in broad strokes, about a complex murder mystery that involves a variety of interesting and contrasting characters and suspects. This publication tries to answer a few questions and bring a certain amount of closure to this ugly story of sex, secrets, and evildoing. Much of the tale has not been heard since 1932, since Mary Yvonne Scales, reporter for the county newspaper, first reported it in The Logan Banner. Additional facts were uncovered and published in 1985 by Dwight Williamson, a respected reporter for the Logan Banner in the 1980s, currently a Logan County magistrate. Now, in the new millennium, in the late summer of 2001, the unfathomable homicide has been investigated one more time. The result is this publication.
Now, the entire story can be told: much of the newspaper’s archive record is published here for the first time since 1932; portions of the 1985 series by Dwight Williamson are here; and additionally, a fresh examination is included for this bound volume. However, this time our investigation takes greater liberties, unceremoniously speculating about what could have happened long ago on that hot and steamy summer night on Trace Mountain, and adding new information found in 2001.
I regret that in telling this factual story as it was published, there is some racially offensive terminology commonly used in the 1930s, that we would now quickly call inappropriate and demeaning. Nevertheless, to faithfully portray the story and its full ramifications, I have left in some of these terms when reprinting published accounts, direct quotes, original court records, and newspaper archives. Thus, I wanted to be sensitive to historical accuracy.
Before you begin to read, try to imagine living during the Great Depression, in Logan County, West Virginia, when jobs were scarce, and the future was unclear. You can’t picture the full impact that this scandal must have had on a small community like Logan unless you have taken into account the time period in which it happened as you read each page. It was the 1930s and the calamity happened in the midst of the conservative Bible belt.
As the vicious storm clouds of controversy rolled into Logan County on that tumultuous June of 1932, the puzzling story of the Mamie Thurman murder featured prominent community leaders.
I would like to thank Dwight Williamson, Brandon Kirk, Martha Sparks, Richard Osborne, the Logan County Courthouse staff, Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College Library, and The Logan Banner archives for making this laborious project a reality.
Being my first attempt at such a project, I especially appreciate the patience and support of my family. Without their continued encouragement and confidence in me, this book would have never gone to press.
The tormented voice of Mamie Thurman’s ghost is said to still painfully echo in the pitch-dark woods of Logan County, screaming for truth, justice, and closure. Chances for any lasting peace for Mrs. Thurman seem most unlikely.
This is ‘The Secret Life and Brutal Death of Mamie Thurman.”
F. Keith Davis
Executive Editor / Author
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- Chapter 1 -
So, who killed Mamie Thurman?
Mamie Thurman was born Mamie Morrison, on September 12, 1900, the good-looking, intelligent daughter of an unpolished carpenter and struggling contractor, George A. Morrison, Sr. Her father had once lived in Logan County, West Virginia; but, by the time Mamie was born, Mr. and Mrs. Morrison had moved to rural Kentucky, not that far from Louisville, in the tiny community of Bradfordsville.
Mamie was only three years old when her mother passed away. Little is known about Mamie’s childhood, but some have speculated that she may have lived in a difficult and dysfunctional home, with a legalistic and resentful father that ruled with an iron fist.
Others have suggested that there may have been mental or physical abuse in the child’s home. Nevertheless, her father, Mr. Morrison, abruptly died in 1928, in a mysterious gun battle with law enforcement officer in Ashland, Kentucky. Morrison was fatally shot by Officer Orn Teeter, a first-year policeman.
Supposedly, Teeter was arresting Morrison over moonshine possession or illegal liquor delivery. George vigorously resisted arrest, and in the ensuing scuffle, Teeter shot Morrison.
It is said that the fatal shooting deeply affected the police rookie. After the unfortunate incident, Officer Teeter reportedly quit the police force.
By 1932, Mamie was a housewife in Logan, West Virginia. She and her husband, Jack Thurman, had moved to Logan, from Louisville, eight years previously, in 1924. Forsaking their Kentucky hometown, they both had seemed determined to establish themselves in a thriving community, in the heart of the coalfields.
With a pleasingly contagious smile and a soft-spoken voice, Mamie is said to have had a likable personality to many that had known her. She wore her shiny dark-brown hair rather short, neatly curled and tucked under on the sides, as was a popular style of the time. Considered by many as a fashionable and provocative dresser, she is said to have often worn tight, form-fitting dresses with coordinated accessories.
She was appealing, with olive skin and a cute turned-up nose, high cheekbones, a distinct jaw line, elongated neck, and features that only enhanced her dark, wide-set eyes. Many men in town believed she was indeed a lovely specimen of a woman.
As you might guess, Mamie was especially meticulous about the way she looked in public—with never a strand of hair out of place; and it’s doubtful that anyone would ever have remembered seeing her without her make-up and jewelry. When Mamie Thurman walked down the city sidewalk of downtown Logan on any given morning, it’s said she had produced a slight stir. Cars slowed down, necks stretched, and heads turned her way as she strolled along Main Street. Men couldn’t help but notice her curvaceous figure and were drawn to her beaming smile.
But, this same Mamie, obviously admired by so many in downtown Logan, apparently had lived a double life. A secret life. Mamie was later described, in published accounts, as a “young woman of quiet demeanor." Granted, she had been described by some as discreet and mannerly; but it was also whispered around some circles in town that Mamie could quickly become wild, loud, and promiscuous after sunset. Maybe she occasionally drank a bit too much, as well.
True or not, these charges and the extent of the accusations surfaced later at the Grand Jury inquiry. Mamie was a woman of contradictions and contrasts—and extremely hard to know—to really know. Some folks said she had been a good wife, a saintly woman, and a faithful church worker at Nighbert Memorial, a prestigious church near the train tracks at the intersection of Cole and White Street in downtown Logan. Others surely smirked as they murmured across the picket fence that this same lady was a married woman living fast and loose in a small town that could keep few secrets.
It’s most likely that the real truth could have been found somewhere between those opposing descriptions. It’s as if she had been somehow suspended between two opposite personalities and temperaments—one, an involved, volunteer church worker vs. a loud, bawdy party-girl.
A July 5, 1932, front page article in The Logan Banner described Mamie Thurman as “the well-known Logan club-woman and former bank employee.”
The married Mrs. Thurman allegedly had an ongoing relationship with an influential city leader, Harry Robertson, and more than a dozen other powerful men in the county.
She definitely had more than one persona.
In the June 22, 1932, edition of The Charleston Gazette, she was depicted as “a socially prominent wife of a Logan city policeman.” So, she must have been well known and popular within the upper class of the community. Her husband was the equally respected law enforcement officer, Jack Thurman.
Jack had worked for the police force for around fifteen months, for a meager $175 month, at the time of Mamie’s passing. His appointment to the police force had certainly been related to his relationship with his landlord, banker, and City Commission President Harry Robertson. Jack was described in one newspaper account, in The Logan Banner, October 21st, 1932, as Harry Robertson’s “own favorite appointee on the city police force.”
Jack and Mamie made their home in a small apartment over a garage, located in the backyard of the Harry and Louise Robertson home.
In spite of her local notoriety, and the connection to law enforcement of her husband, the life of lovely Mamie Thurman had forcibly been taken on the evening of June 21, 1932. She had been savagely destroyed: shot in the head twice; neck fractured; face disfigured and powder-burned; throat cut from ear to ear; and her corpse dumped in a pile of shrubs outside of town.
The slaying of this young woman had to rank as one of the most perplexing puzzles of the early 20th century. It’s a story that included adultery, passion, secrecy, and vicious murder. Some of the details still remain deeply shrouded in a dim fog—probably because it involved such prominent and influential residents of Logan County’s yesteryears.
Harry Robertson, 40 years old in 1932, was a notable citizen of Logan. He had formerly been on the payroll at Guyan Valley Bank, which later merged into Logan National Bank, and the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the City of Logan. When Guyan Valley merged with Logan National, he maintained his position as bookkeeper. He had “served under Carey Alderson, and at the present in the First National Bank,” the newspaper article expounded.
He had been portrayed in the newspaper, after the murder story first broke, as one of Logan County’s most celebrated sportsmen, being an avid foxhunter.
Robertson had also been the father of two—Jack and Mary Sidney. You might say he had looked like your stereotypical bookkeeper or CPA, with a smaller than normal body frame, close-set eyes, average height, and a receding hairline. His remaining coarse, brown hair was greased with hair tonic and parted to the right. He was most commonly dressed in pin stripe pleated slacks, a starched white shirt, with a pocket-protector, and bow tie. He wore thick-rimmed, circular glasses that often hung down on his nose while he crouched over his desk, crunching numbers for the town’s biggest bank.
Mr. and Mrs. Robertson and their children lived in a three-story, dark-brick home on Stratton Street.
Behind their home were two separate buildings—a small utility shed and a garage with an overhead apartment. The garage served as Mamie and Jack Thurman’s domicile. Besides Jack and Mamie living above the garage, the Robertsons had several boarders living inside their home over the years, including their handyman, Clarence Stephenson, and a fellow bank employee, Mr. Oscar Townsend.
Mamie Thurman had first caught Harry’s roaming eye as a fellow employee at the old Guyan Valley Bank, originally the first bank to begin business in Logan County, established on January 1, 1900. The Raymond’s Building now sits approximately where the bank once stood, in the center of the city.
Maybe Harry and Mrs. Thurman first chatted limitedly during coffee breaks, when the firm first hired Mamie. Since Mamie was a tenderfoot in the banking world, perchance Harry had been chosen to train her at her new position as teller. Conceivably, those first innocent conversations on the job may have led to casual lunches outside the bank, as well.
A romance could have first started with an innocent smile or a discreet touch of her hand. Maybe Mrs. Thurman serendipitously brushed up against Harry as they passed each other in the bank lobby. Could Mamie have passed a note to Robertson, telling him of her romantic interest? Maybe she had described multiple “affairs” she had had with other important men in the community, as later testimony suggests; or she may have explicitly told him of her sexual attraction to him.
Regardless of how it first originated, somehow this consensual relationship began to passionately escalate. Harry eventually became Mamie’s adulterous lover, as well as landlord. With Jack and Mamie living over Harry’s garage, Mamie and Harry had conveniently lived only a few feet away from one another and spent more and more time together—secretly.
Guyan Valley Bank was located in the Chafin Building in Logan. The First National Bank of Logan later absorbed it in September 1931. After that merger, Robertson continued his vocation as bookkeeper. Apparently, it was around this time when Mrs. Thurman had left the bank to become a “full-time housewife.” However, the Robertson and Thurman relationship had continued to grow, even after Mamie left.
Clarence Stephenson was a 29-year-old “Negro general handyman,” according to one Logan Banner description at the time. He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and had little formal education. He had first come to Logan in 1923, needing employment, and securing a slot in the Draper coal mine. He had worked in several other mines in this vicinity, and since late 1930, he had roomed with the Robertsons, where he had been employed by Mr. Robertson in various capacities: gardener, chauffeur, odd jobs man, and “go between.” He had never married. His mother, Mrs. Dora Bryant, lived in Birmingham, Alabama, and he had one sister in Logan, Josie Carpenter, a hard-working maid at the Pioneer Hotel.
Treated more or less as a member of the family, he also tended to Harry’s prize hunting dogs, washed the family dishes every evening for Mrs. Robertson, and had been the general errand-boy for the entire Robertson clan. He had also been described as Harry’s main hunting buddy. Using one of the family’s automobiles, usually a late model Ford sedan, Clarence had also been in charge of picking Mamie up and dropping her off at out-of-the-way rendezvous locations around the county, as the Thurman-Robertson relationship blossomed.
He had once been described as “the funniest looking man you ever seen; his forehead stuck out.” At one time he had been struck on the forehead by the shaft of a grocery delivery wagon, and this had made a sizable gash in his forehead, which remained quite prominent. He was relatively short in stature. But even though he had been considered by most as having been unattractive in appearance, he was thought to have been a likable fellow. He had definitely been a familiar face in the early thirties, seen routinely in downtown Logan running errands for his employer, Harry Robertson. He had made his home in the Robertson’s hot, musty attic.
According to the City Commission record, book 2, page 156, Robertson had received the largest number of votes of any candidate—524—in city election returns, held April 4, 1931. Besides Robertson, top vote getters included: H. D. Willis, employed by Minton Chevrolet, 490 votes; incumbent and Recorder J. C. Aldredge, 320; and local physician Dr. N. E. Steele, 317. Each was thereby declared elected Commissioners for the City of Logan.
On April 6th, at the first Logan City Commission meeting, two days after the election, Recorder J. C. Aldredge had administered the oaths of office to Harry Robertson, H. D. Willis, and Dr. L. E. Steele. Former City Commissioner H. A. Davin had used the meeting to welcome the new members of the board and had officially turned the city over to the newly elected town leaders. Once Robertson took command, he asked that all former members leave so that the new board might discuss matters privately. In that initial meeting, one-hour and two-hour parking in downtown were discontinued. C. A. Joyce had been appointed as police judge, and Paul Holland was appointed city solicitor. The new city government had aggressively taken charge.
Robertson, in his role as president of the city board of commissioners, had also been a supporter of Jack Thurman, once insuring his employment as a patrolman on Tuesday, June 2, 1931, by voting “yes” for his appointment at the meeting. In contrast, it was only H. D. Willis that had voted “no” on all key appointments to the city staff at that assembly.
At the July 30, 1931, city commission meeting, town employees that had been officially appointed, along with their monthly payroll, included: Chief of Police Meade Smeltzer, $200; Patrolman Bill Bruce, $175; Patrolman Jack Thurman, $175; Fire Chief J. W. Beckett, $200; Assistant John Wysong, $125; Street Commissioner R. R. Stratton, $150; Stenographer Mrs. H. J. Martin, $100; and Jim Buskirk, garbage hauler, $250.
City Manager Walter E. Baumgardner had been paid an annual salary of $4,000. D. D. and J. B. Watkins were in charge of street cleaning; each was paid $3.50 per day. Robertson, Dr. Steele, and J. C. Aldredge had voted for the list of city employees. Willis had again voted against the appointments.
As the months went by, the city commissioners were praised for being active and aggressive in their approach to directing the city’s affairs. However, as the summer of ‘32 rolled into the forefront, local government had nearly screeched to a dangerous halt as the community became consumed with the upcoming trial and the various accusations surrounding Clarence Stephenson and Harry Robertson.
In Robertson’s scheduled assembly, held June 7, 1932—the last meeting to be held before the murder of his garage apartment tenant and lover—Harry had voted against a ten-percent pay cut for all city employee salaries, to be effective July 1, 1932. However, the ordinance had passed and town employees were devastated with the news. Along with others on the city’s payroll, Patrolman Thurman’s income had been reduced by ten percent, too.
Microfilm archives, from The Logan Banner, the county’s only newspaper, gave exhaustive coverage regarding the death of Mamie Thurman, her adulterous relationship with Robertson and others, and the resulting trial of a penurious black man, Clarence Stephenson.
It’s reported that Mamie had been a steadfast member of the Logan Women’s Club, of which Harry Robertson’s wife, Louise, was treasurer. For a while, Mamie and Louise Robertson were friends, as well as close neighbors. But because of Mrs. Robertson’s womanly intuition about her husband and Mamie, that was soon to change.
Mamie had also been enrolled as a student at a summer school held in Logan, conducted by West Virginia Wesleyan College, at the time of her death. Records tell that a few years before that, she had taken a business course at Logan High School. So, in spite of her hiatus from the bank, or from any other employment, this housewife most likely had had her sights set on bigger things for the future, such as a career as a merchant in Logan’s bustling business district.
As is evident, the Robertson and Thurman families had been quite intertwined by the time the 1930s had unfolded.
Incidentally, besides her former job at the bank, Mrs. Thurman had worked at other establishments through the years—including a stint with a car dealership, Minton Chevrolet. An interesting observation is that City Commissioner H. D. Willis was in charge of the Chevrolet car lot at the time. He had probably interviewed Mamie and came to work closely with her. As stated, he had also been the sole commissioner that voted against appointing Mamie’s husband, Jack, to his patrolman position. The Willis name would later pop up, as he was asked to be an active pallbearer for Mrs. Thurman.
They obviously had known each other quite well.
This is the same Willis that had been the second largest vote getter after a canvas of the city election returns in April 1931. He had allegedly exerted a lot of power and influence in the county’s political world in the late 1920s and 30s. Records prove that he had been well in charge of the City Commission while Robertson was absent due to murder investigation responsibilities and trial obligations. In general notes from the City Commission records, although Robertson was listed as president, it was H. D. Willis that had signed on the president line for several occasions, including the formal meeting on Tuesday, June 7th, 1932. He had also undersigned on July 5th, August 2nd, and August 16th, in Robertson’s absence.
J. C. Aldredge had consistently signed as recorder at each meeting during this time period.
Harry Robertson returned to scheduled commission meetings and signed appropriately by Sept. 6, 1932; however, that regular meeting was adjourned because there was not a quorum present—only Robertson and Aldredge had shown up. After his return, the meetings became mysteriously less and less frequent, until new commissioners were finally sworn in on March 8, 1933. It would seem that the group of civic leaders, under Robertson’s governance, had lost their ability to operate the city with the people’s confidence. For the remainder of his term, Robertson attended meetings only twice—on October 11th, and December 6th, 1932. There was no November meeting. Robertson’s last formal appearance was held on April 15, 1933, over a month after the new regime had been sworn in.
In the 1933 city election, records indicated that none of the former commissioners had run for re-election to public office. Whether or not this is because of the Thurman scandal is not truly known; nevertheless, it remains highly unusual that none of the incumbent city commissioners chose to run for their respective posts again.
The extent of news coverage in the summer and fall of 1932 is proof of the tremendous local and state interest generated by the story of the death of Mrs. Thurman. Even after the well-publicized murder trial in 1932, many had questioned its final outcome. Likewise, residents continue to question the legitimacy of the trial nearly seventy years after the verdict was announced and the jurors left the courthouse.
In spite of the investigation and extensive search at the time, no additional significant clues were to be found—not for at least 53 years. Then, from out of West Virginia’s past, the half-brother of Mamie Thurman, George A. Morrison, Jr., had showed up out of what seemed like nowhere. Through a series of events, Mamie’s half-brother eventually had become a respected New Mexico lawyer. He had not been satisfied that justice had ever been accomplished in the 1932 inquest and subsequent trial. So, in 1983, he traveled to southern West Virginia to dig for concrete answers to questions he had about his sister’s murder and her unmarked grave. He again visited in 1985, after his retirement. After a life-time of unanswered questions, retired George Morrison, named after Mamie’s father, had come to the Logan County seat to ask the questions many had pondered for decades, “Who actually killed Mamie Thurman—and why?”
The George Morrison quest for family closure began with a bizarre search in the mountainous regions surrounding Logan, and at Bradfordsville, Kentucky. Due to his relentless search for new clues, and a series of articles about the case, published in The Logan Banner, the interest in the Mamie Thurman scandal was rekindled—and continues up to this day.
2001 F. Keith Davis
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