drowning

The deaths of James and Oscar Lewis.

In this follow-up to yesterday’s post about James W. Lewis‘ murder of his wife Annie Bethune Lewis, we learn who killed James Lewis seven years later — James’ son (and Annie’s stepson) Oscar Lewis, who drowned himself after.

Wilson Daily Times, 21 December 1949.

“Asphyxiation die to drowning (in Great Swamp at tressle along A.C.L.R.R. near Black Creek NC; aggravated by his homicide of his father; suicide by drowning.”

Willie Richardson, age 13, drowns.

Wilson Daily Times, 11 June 1934.

Wilson Daily Times, 12 June 1934.

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In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 208 East Hines Street, at $12/month, coal yard helper Junious Richardson, 31; wife Rose, 27; and children Willie, 9, and Henry, 2 months.

Willie Richardson died 10 June 1934 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 9 May 1921 in Wilson to Junius Richardson of Selma, N.C., and Rosevelt Battle of Portsmouth, Virginia; was in school and unmarried; and lived at 412 East Walnut Street, Wilson.

Lane Street Project: the Mercer siblings.

In June 1964, the Rocky Mount Telegram reported the tragic death of two teenaged siblings from Spring Hope, Nash County. Seventeen year-old Nora Jane Mercer had drowned trying to save her 16 year-old brother William Earl Mercer, who also drowned in a pond a few miles north of Bailey.

Rocky Mount Telegram, 12 June 1964.

Nora Mercer’s death certificate listed her cause of death as “drowning … while swimming in farm pond” and described her accident as “trying to save her brother.” William Toney’s Funeral Home, still active today in Spring Hope, handled the burial, which took place in … Rountree Cemetery? In 1964?!?

William Mercer’s death certificate also lists Rountree Cemetery in Wilson as his burial place. Why would two Spring Hope children be buried more than 20 miles away in Wilson?

I first wondered if this were a family cemetery — Rountree is not an uncommon surname here — located just over the Nash County line in Wilson County. (I don’t know of any such cemetery, but I wondered.) However, the double obituary for the siblings made clear that they were indeed buried in Rountree (or its sister cemeteries, Vick and Odd Fellows, collectively and confusingly known as Rountree). Further, their funeral was also in Wilson — at Piney Grove Free Will Baptist Church.

Rocky Mount Telegram, 14 June 1964.

The obituary gives Nora and William Mercer’s parents as Mr. and Mrs. Willie Austin. However, this was likely their stepfather and mother (and the surname, per the death certificate, was Alston.) Louise Alston was informant for the certificates, and she named the children’s parents as William Mercer and Louise Webb. William Mercer and Louvenia [actually, Louisianna] Webb were married in Wilson County in September 1946. Both were Wilson County natives. It appears that they divorced, and Louise Webb Mercer married an Alston. So, as we can establish that the Mercer children did have close ties to Wilson, we can be more certain that they were buried in one of the set of cemeteries on (former) Lane Street collectively called Rountree Cemetery.

Now to the most puzzling fact — 1964.

This is an aerial view of Vick, Odd Fellows, and Rountree Cemeteries in 1964.

Vick Cemetery had been condemned in the late 1950s as unfit for human burial. (Vick is the most likely of site of the children’s burials as it was a public cemetery, they were not members of Rountree Missionary Baptist Church, and there is no evidence that their father was an Odd Fellow.) By 1964, all three cemeteries were severely overgrown, with none of the bare-earth family plots so readily observable in earlier decades.

I checked Joan L. Howell’s Wilson County Cemeteries, Vol. V: The Two City-Owned African-American Cemeteries, which contains a list of 600+ burials from the last 25 years or so  these cemeteries were active as burial sites. In her searches of local death certificates, the latest burials Howell found were three from 1960, six from 1961, and one from 1962. Thus, as far as now known, Nora Jane and William Earl Mercer were the last people buried in Vick, Odd Fellows, or Rountree Cemeteries.

Many thanks to Noelle Vollaro for bringing the Mercer siblings to my attention.

Young Mary Vick drowned?

Wilson Daily Times, 1 June 1940.

The brief news report about Mary N. Vick stated that the ten year-old drowned after falling into a wash tub. Her death certificate, however, declared hers a natural death, with “no signs of foul play.”

An article in the 2 June 1940 News and Observer helps explain:

John Powell drowns.

Wilson Daily Times, 2 August 1932.

Per this brief article, 17 year-old John Powell was an orphan when he drowned in the Tar River. Oddly, though, Powell’s Wilson County death certificate lists his place of death as the City of Wilson — through which the Tar River does not flow — and his father William Powell of Wilson County as informant. (John Powell’s mother, Eliza Locus Powell, was in fact dead — of what was believed to be tuberculosis in 1918.)

“Drowned while in the act of swimming in Tar River accident”

  • Oscar Eatmon — on 16 December 1928, Oscar Eatmon, 28, of Wilson, married Rosa Lee Taylor, 26, of Wilson, in Wilson.

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

The death by drowning of Leander Sauls.

Wilson Daily Times, 10 March 1922.

Wilson Daily Times, 25 March 1922.

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Lee Ander Sauls registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County in 1918. Per his registration card, he was born 11 [illegible] 1899; lived at Route 3, Stantonsburg; was a farm laborer for Claude Foster; his contact was Ivery Artis, Fremont, Wayne County; and he had lost one eye. He signed his card “Leander Sauls.”

On 19 July 1919, Lee Sauls, 21, of Stantonsburg, married Bessie Barnes, 20, of Stantonsburg, in Wilson County.

In the 1920 census of Stantonsburg township, Wilson County: tenant farmer Lee A. Sauls, 21; wife Bessie, 20; children Mary F., 14 months, and John L., 1 month; and mother-in-law Ceilie Barnes, 61, widow.

Leander Sauls died 26 February 1922 in Stantonsburg township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was 23 years old; was born in Wilson County to Ivey Artis and Emia Sauls; was married; and farmed for W.A. Batts. Eddie Sauls was informant.

Drowned while swimming in backwaters.

An article about severe flooding on the Roanoke River mentioned the drowning death of 13 year-old Willie Forsythe in Wilson County’s Black Creek.

Wilson Daily Times, 20 August 1940.

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In the 1930 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: William Forsythe, 60; wife Marilda, 55; granddaughter Nancy Forsythe, 13; and grandson William Oliver, 2 months.

Willie Forsythe died 18 August 1940 in Cross Roads township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was 13 years old; was born in Wilson County (or perhaps Brooklyn, N.Y.) to James Oliver of Brooklyn and Viola Forsythe of Wilson County; and was buried in a family cemetery. Informant was William Forsythe. 

“Accidental drowning — while swimming in Black Creek”

A rowboat capsized, drowning two.

Wilson Daily Times, 21 May 1928.

  • Tom Wilson

In the 1910 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: on Finch Mill Road, farmer Thomas W. Wilson, 42; wife Anna, 33; and children Winnie, 12, Vina, 10, Corina, 8, Hester, 6, Thomas, 4, and Georgianna, 2.

In the 1920 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer Tom Wilson, 56; wife Leanna, 40; and children Sarah, 17, Ester, 15, Thomas, 14, Georgia, 11, Nancy, 9, Gola, 7, and Margie, 3; and sister Nance, 16.

Thomas Wilson Jr. died 20 May 1928 in Wilson township, Wilson County, “drowned, boat capsized.” Per his death certificate, he was 22 years old; single; a farmer; born in Wilson County to Thomas Wilson Sr. of Caswell County and Leanna Briggs of Pearson [Person] County; and buried in Rountree cemetery.

  • Babe Tyson

Leanda Tyson died 20 May 1928 in Wilson township, Wilson County, “drowned, boat capsized.” Per his death certificate, he was 18 years old; single; a farmer; born in Wayne County to Walter Tyson and Olive Parker; and buried in Rountree cemetery. Walter Tyson, Elm City, was informant.

  • Jarvis Lofton

Eddie Jarvis Lofton registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County in 1940. Per his registration card, he was born 1 May 1911 in Wayne County, N.C.; lived at 816 Mercer Street; his contact was mother Tynce Lofton, 902 West Broad Street; and he worked for Loftin Cafe, Tarboro Street, Wilson.

Thanks to J. Robert Boykin III for sharing this clipping.