civil suit

Darden v. Robert G. Lassiter & Co., 198 N.C. 427, 152 S.E. 32 (1930).

Wilson Daily Times, 31 October 1929.

Darden v. Robert G. Lassiter & Company reached the North Carolina Supreme Court on appeal from Wilson County Superior Court. Camillus L. Darden, administrator of the estate of Evan Powell, filed the action against Robert G. Lassiter & Company to recover damages for Powell’s death of plaintiff’s death, which was alleged to have been caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of the defendant. The county court entered a judgment for plaintiff, and Lassiter & Company appealed.

The evidence showed that on December 29, 1927, Powell was working for Lassiter in a trench or ditch cut along Mercer Street in the town of Wilson in preparation for laying sewer or water mains. The trench was cut by a ditching machine to approximately the required depth, and Powell was engaged in smoothing out the bottom of the trench to a uniform grade, called “fine grading,” when the trench caved in and injured him, along with two other workmen. Powell died the following day.

Powell, “a colored man about 29 years of age,” had been employer by Lassiter as a day laborer for about five months and working with this particular crew for about two months prior to his injury. The trench was approximately 7 feet deep and about 21 inches wide. The ground was saturated with water from heavy rainfall.  Water seeped in from the walls on both sides of the trench, and there had been a couple of cave-ins prior to this one. About fifteen yards from the most recent cave-in, workers encountered quicksand about 6 feet below the surface of the ground. Lassiter installed a pump to keep the water out of the trench.

Lassiter’s foreman, O.L. Pickering, directed that certain bracing be used to keep the walls of the trench from falling in — two upright pieces of timber, placed from 8 to 16 feet apart along the sides of the ditch, with two horizontal braces placed between them, one at the top and the other at the bottom. However, contrary to custom, Pickering provided no longitudinal stringers to keep the banks of the ditch from falling or caving in.

On the day of the incident, Pickering went to lunch about 12:30 and left the others working in the ditch. There were no braces for a space of 18 or 20 feet (one witness said from 35 to 40 feet) immediately behind the ditching machine where Powell was working. Shortly after the foreman left, the bank of the ditch suddenly caved in just beyond the last brace and temporarily buried three of the workmen.

Foreman Pickering testified, in part: “It was my duty to see that these braces were put in. I instructed them to put the braces in at intervals of 8 feet. There was a space behind the machine of about 12 or 15 feet in which there were no braces. They had put in all the braces I had instructed them to put in except the last one. They did not have it in when I left. I left them to put that in — the one right behind the machine — and to lay the pipe. Evan Powell was in the ditch at the time I left. He was leveling the bottom or doing fine grading.”

Lassiter offered evidence that Powell had a duty to help put in braces and assumed the risk of his injury. However, this was countered by evidence showing that Powell had no such responsibility. Other employees were instructed to place the braces in the ditch under the immediate supervision of the foreman, who, in turn, was under the supervision of an engineer employed by Lassiter.

The usual issues of negligence, contributory negligence, assumption of risk, and damages were submitted to the jury, resulting in a verdict for the plaintiff. The defendant appealed.

Chief Justice Stacy wrote the opinion. “The case, with evidence sufficient to carry it to the jury, was tried upon the theory that in law the defendant was in duty bound, in the exercise of ordinary care, to provide a reasonably safe place for [Powell] to work, and to furnish him reasonably safe means and suitable appliances with which to execute the work assigned, subject to the limitation that the deceased took upon himself, as an employee or servant of the defendant, the ordinary risks of danger incident to the employment, which were obvious or could have been perceived by him in the exercise of his senses and by the use of ordinary care and circumspection. In this, there was no error. …

“Whether ‘fine grading’ in the bottom of a trench, such as [Powell] was doing in the instant case, is dangerous, or otherwise, would seem to depend upon a variety of circumstances. In some cases, it might be entirely safe; in others, not. The size and dimensions of the trench might affect it. The character of the soil would certainly have some influence. The presence of lime, stone, or quicksand, or of earth newly filled in, the moisture in the ground, and numerous other conditions might render such work more or less safe, or more or less hazardous. The state of the weather or the season of the year might have something to do with it. But all of these are matters of fact, about which there may be conflicting evidence, as in the instant case, calling for determination by a jury.

“Indeed, in the instant case, the fact that [Powell]’s work was done under the immediate supervision and direction of the defendant’s foreman would seem to be equivalent to an assurance that he might safely proceed with it. … When the foreman went to get his lunch, he left [Powell] at work in the trench, leveling the bottom or doing fine grading. He was therefore, at the time of leaving, in a better position than [Powell] to observe and appreciate the danger.

“The case was properly submitted to the jury.

“No error.”

Evan Powell’s death certificate. Cause: “Paralysis. Crushed by falling dirt while digging a ditch in town of Wilson; fractured vertebrae.” Powell was a native of Whiteville, Columbus County, in southeast North Carolina.

Isaac Isler fights back.

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Wilson Daily Times, 24 April 1939.

In November 1938, Isaac Isler filed suit in county court against three police officers for false arrest and  injuries sustained during a beating in his home. As set forth in the Daily Times on the 12th, Isler’s suit alleged that the officers had entered unannounced and, when he asked for their warrant, began pistol-whipping and beating him with the black jacks, seriously injuring his eye.

On 26 April 1939, the Daily Times detailed the testimony at trial. Dr. T.N. Blackshear testified that Isaac Isler’s eye trouble was caused by red pepper concealed in a handkerchief that Isler rubbed in his eye during his examination. Jailer S.G. Gunter testified that on 3 June 1938, when Isler was jailed, he had not complained of injury, and Gunter had seen no blood on him. Detective Philemon Ray Hartis swore that he had entered the house in search of boys wanted for attacking another Negro. “I fell on the ground and I saw Isler’s wife coming toward me with an iron poker, and his son with a lawn mower handle. And I took out my black jack and lightly tapped him over the head so I could get up.” Chief of Police Clyde Preston Hocutt testified that he had taken the poker from Isler’s wife, and the boy with the lawn mower handle had thrown it down and run away. He denied touching Hocutt. When Isler took the stand, he testified that the three officers had come to his house “looking for some boys or my sons.” He said he was not sure which man had beaten him and only recognized them by their voices. Isler was totally blind “except for a little shade of light.” He had lost the vision of his right war in World War I and most in his left eye since the beating. Isler’s wife Vivie Isler testified that the police were looking for boys who allegedly beat a man and stole his mule, and Officer L.C. Cooper had beaten her husband with the butt of his gun and Hocutt, with his fist. Isler’s son R.D. Isler, who was one of the boys sought, testified similarly to his parents. Dr. Joe Carr testified that he did not recall treating Isler for head wounds, but hospital records show he was treated for head lacerations.

I have not found a report of the outcome of the trial, but I am fairly confident that the judgment was against Isler.

Here is how Karl Fleming described early-1950s Ray Hartis in Son of the Rough South:

” … [Chief Privette’s] knowledge pretty much ended at the edge of “niggertown,” into which he rarely ventured. The job of following what was happening across the tracts fell mainly to Detective Ray Hartis. He was a concrete block of a man, five feet, eleven inches and 200 pounds, with a large head covered with bristly graying hair. He had thick eyebrows, cold gray eyes, red cheeks, and a large pickle of a nose lined with tiny red tributaries — marks of the hard drinker that he was. He was about forty, married but childless, a longtime cop who carried a .38 Smith and Wesson pistol on his hip, and a blackjack in his rear right pocket. …

“He was a loner with the harsh and unapproachable manner of a bitter and disappointed man, disdainful of and not well liked by his fellow cops.

” … we’d cruise back through town and across the Atlantic Coast Line tracks into the little colored business district, only two blocks long. Ray would slow the car down to a crawl, and as we went along, silence would fall over the little knots of black men laughing and talking on the street.

“One sultry night as we cruised the alleys, Ray suddenly stopped the car in front of a shotgun shack and got out.

” ‘Where you going, Ray?’ I asked.

” ‘I heard this son-of-a-bitch is a member of the N-Double-Fuckin’-A-C-P,’ he said. … Suddenly a gray-haired old black man appeared out of the back room rubbing his eyes and pulling on a pair of overalls over his bare shoulders.

” ‘Whatcha doin’, Mistuh Hottis? You got a search warrant?’ he said.

“Ray turned, his face all red, lunged at the black man and slapped him hard across the cheek. Down the old man went on his back to the floor, and Ray said, ‘That’s one side of my goddamned search warrant. You wanna see the other one?'”

——

In 1917, Isaac Isler Jr. registered for the World War I draft in Lenoir County, North Carolina. Per his registration card, he was born 11 April 1890 in Georgia; lived in LaGrange, N.C.; farmed for A.T. Rouse of LaGrange; and was single.

On 19 December 1918, Isaac Isler, 28, of Lenoir, son of Isaac and Laura Isler, married Tildy Ann Exum, 18, of Lenoir, in Moseley Hall, Lenoir County, North Carolina.

In the 1920 census of Moseley Hall township, Lenoir County, North Carolina: farmer Isaac Isler, 30, and wife Matilda, 17.

Rufus Isler, aged 20 days, died 11 June 1931 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born in Wilson County to Isaac Isler of Atlanta, Georgia, and Matilda Exum of Wayne County, N.C., and resided at 803 Evans Street, Wilson.

On 11 February 1934, Isaac Isler, 42, son of Isaac Isler and Mollie [unknown], married Hellen Richardson, 28, daughter of Eddie James and Mary J. Abraham, in Wilson. Rev. C.B. Ham, “an ordane minister of the United Holey Church,” performed the ceremony in the presence of Joe James, Mary Abraham, and Jannie James.

Matilda Isler died 2 June 1936. Per her death certificate, she was 24 years old; was married to Isaac Isler; was born in Wayne County, N.C., to Henry Exum of Greene County, N.C., and Harriett Best of Wayne County; was engaged in farming; and was buried in a family cemetery in LaGrange, N.C. Her cause of death? “Probably puerperal sepsis. Saw her once with midwife — She was dying at that time — Baby 10 days old.”

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 510 Hadley Street, Isaac Isley, 46; wife Vivien, 29; and children Charlie, 20, Aron, 19, R.D., 16, Richard, 15, Moses, 10, and Herbert, 9. Isaac had no occupation listed.

On 25 November 1941, Charlie Cleveland Isler, 21, born in Lenoir County, N.C., to Iasiat Isler and Matilda Exon, residing in Norfolk, Virginia, married Naomi Ruth Sutton, 20, of Bertie County, in Norfolk.

In 1942, Aaron Isler registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 28 August 1921 in Wayne County; resided at 510 New Bern Street, Wilson; his contact was Isaac Isler of the same address; and he worked for N.M. Schaum, Acme Candy Company, 904 West Nash Street.

In 1942, Robert Isler registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 26 December 1924 in LaGrange, N.C.; resided at 510 New Bern Street, Wilson; his contact was Isaac Isler of the same address; and he was a student at Darden High School.

In 1942, Richard J. Isler registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his registration card, he was born 5 May 1925 in Wilson County.; resided at 510 New Bern Street, Wilson; his contact was Isaac Isler of the same address; and he was unemployed.

Isaac Isler died 19 February 1968 and was buried in Wilson’s Rest Haven cemetery.

Photo courtesy of Findagrave.com.

The Shoo Fly train ran over him.

Wilson Mirror, 30 August 1893.

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On 11 April 1878, Hilliard Hunter, 26, of Nash County, married Mary Jane Pitt, 25, of Wilson County, in Toisnot township.

In the 1880 center of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farm laborer Hilliard Hunter, 25; wife Mary J., 27; and son Walter, 5 months.

In 1893, Mary Jane Hunter filed an unsuccessful suit against Wilmington and Weldon Railroad over her husband’s death.

On 6 July 1899, Turner Anderson, 21, married Lillie Hunter, 20, in Toisnot township in the presence of Annie Bryant, Martha Modica and Nancy Deans.

On 2 August 1903, Mary Jane Hunter, 40, of Elm City, daughter of Moses and Marina Pitt, married Daniel Foster, 45, of Elm City, son of Austin and Rachael Foster of Kansas at George Barnes‘ in Toisnot township. Red Batts applied for the license.

On 12 July 1905, Willie Hunter, 22, of Elm City, son of Hilliard and Mary J. Hunter, married Mary Whitehead, 20, of Wilson, daughter of Ben and Francis Whitehead, in Toisnot township. T.H. Nicholson applied for the license, and the ceremony took place at Ben Drake’s in the presence of T.H. Nicholson, William Short and W.A. Whitfield.

In the 1910 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: on Elm City-Stantonsburg Road, widowed farm laborer Mary J. Hunter, 40, and daughter Alice, 20, a laundress.

On 18 January 1914, Arthur Hunter, 20, of Toisnot, son of Mary J. Hunter, married Estelle Wooten, 24, of Toisnot, daughter of Linda Wooten, in the presence of Turner Anderson, Lillie Anderson and Clarence Wiggins, all of Elm City.

On 23 March 1915, Liza Hunter, 20, of Elm City, daughter of Hilliard Hunter and Mary J. Pender, married Jim Pinkney, 21, son of Henny and Hilly Pinkney, in Johnston County.

On 14 September 1921, B.S. Jordan, 58, son of Hardy and Mary J. Jordan, married Lilly Anderson, 39, daughter of Hilliard Hunter and Mary J. Hunter, at Lilly Anderson’s in Toisnot township. Wiley Locus applied for the license, and Baptist minister Elias Lucas performed the ceremony in the presence of L.A. Johnson and Bud Simms of Wilson and Hamp Mordcia [Modica] of Elm City.

Alice Hunter died 20 April 1960 in Elm City. Per her death certificate, she was born 15 October 1901 to Hilliard Hunter and Mary Jane Pitt; and was never married. Informant was Eliza Pinkney, Elm City. [Note that Alice Hunter’s birthdate is off by at least 10 years.]

Willie Hunter died 28 April 1960 at Mercy Hospital. Per his death certificate, he was born 18 February 1884 in Wilson County to Hilliard Hunter and Mary Jane [last name not listed]; lived at 204 South East Street; and worked as a laborer. Informant was Doris H. Wilson, 204 South East Street.

Eliza Pinkney died 10 July 1969 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was born 12 June 1898 in North Carolina to Hilliard Hunter and Mary Jones; resided in Elm City; was married to Jim Pinkney; and was buried in Elm City cemetery. Doretha H. Farmer, 706 East Green Street, was informant.

——

White Swamp runs about 5 miles south of Elm City.

The regular daily Norfolk-to-Wilmington passenger train was known as the Shoo Fly. In 1906, the train had a cataclysmic accident near Warsaw, Duplin County. After, a ghost train legend grew in the area.

 

 

Shaw v. Telegraph Co., 151 N.C. 638 (1910).

The suit by Gus Shaw against Western Union Telegraph Company reached the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1910. Shaw had charged the company with negligence by failing to deliver a telegram. As detailed on page 2 of the decision, a black woman in Wilson played a small role in the drama.

In a nutshell, on 29 June 1908, Gus Shaw of Durham sent a telegram to his sister, Mrs. Riney Rogers, No. 419 South Street, Wilson, North Carolina, pleading: “Come at once. Ida and I are sick with malarial fever.” Apparently, there were two houses numbered 419 on South Street. One was at the corner of South and Lodge, and the other was “lower down South Street.” The Western Union messenger attempted delivery at the corner house, but “found that it was occupied by a colored woman” Annie Moring. The Rogerses, in fact, had been living at the other house for two years. The messenger sent a service wire back to Durham asking for an address clarification. Shaw confirmed the address as 419, but his response was not conveyed to the Western Union manager in Wilson. The messenger inquired at the post office, which also confirmed Rogers’ address as 419 South. He mailed a postal card to Rogers at that address, but it was delivered to Moring. Nonplussed, Western Union never delivered the telegram to Rogers, and Shaw testified at trial that this “just like to killed me. I didn’t know what was the matter. …” Western Union appealed the lower court’s ruling that it had acted negligently and owed Shaw damages for mental anguish. The Supreme Court denied its appeal, however, and confirmed the judge’s rulings for Shaw.

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The 1908 Sanborn insurance map does not comport with the scenario here. South Street is a short street, running parallel to Nash Street for three and a half blocks from Goldsboro Street across Spring (now Douglas), Lodge and Factory (now Layton) Streets to the railroad. Here is most of the bottom stretch:

south street

No. 419, a large, one-story dwelling, is at the corner of South and Factory, not South and Lodge. On the odd-numbered side of the street, the corner of South and Lodge is occupied by the black Episcopal Church and R.P. Watson & Company tobacco factory. “Lower down” on South, presumably headed southeast, South Street runs alongside Wilson Cotton Mill and ends abruptly at the railroad. (In the other direction, street numbers descend through the 300s to 211 at South and Goldsboro.)

Neither Annie Moring nor Riney Rogers are found in the 1910 census of Wilson. However, the 1908 edition of Hill’s Wilson city directory provides some information, but perhaps makes the story more murky. Benj. L. Rogers, foreman of Wilson Cotton Mills, is listed at 419 South Street. So, however, are three African-American workmen, Andy Money, Ed Money and Lucian Norfleet. (There is no Moring listed.) The Sanborn map shows four tiny double-shotgun houses, lettered A through H, behind 419 South. It’s possible that the Moneys, Norfleet and Moring lived in these dwellings, but that scenario would not explain the mix-up or meet the layout described in Shaw v. Western Union.