mental illness

The death of Etna Woodard Daniel.

Wilson Daily Times, 8 April 1916.

A brief article reporting the mysterious death of Etna Daniel is chock-full of detail, not all of it accurate. Ben Woodard was a well-known root doctor in Wilson County. Daniel was his step-daughter though, not his daughter. By 1916, wealthy agribusinessman Graham Woodard lived in his town, but his farm was on or near ancestral Woodard land in the White Oak Swamp area. “Darden’s shop” was Charles H. Darden‘s undertaking business.


In the 1870 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farm laborer Benj’n Woodard, 32, wife Harriet, 31, and children Edna, 13, Frederick, 9, and Venah, 6.

On 17 August 1876, Harry Daniels, 27, married Etna Woodard, 20, at B. Woodard’s, Wilson County.

In the 1880 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: Harry Daniel, 30, and wife Etna, 22.

In the 1900 census of Little Rock, Pulaski County, Arkansas: railroad laborer Harry Daniels, 50; wife Edna, 35; and boarder James Bynum, 21, grocery clerk. [Is this the same couple? If so, when did they, or just Etna, return to Wilson County?]

Per her death certificate, Eatna Daniel died 7 or 8 April 1916 in Wilson. She was 60 years old; was born in Wilson to Isaac Barnes and Harrett Aycock; “fell dead on country road — cause unknown”; and buried in Black Creek. Ben Woodard was informant. [Per the information Woodard supplied, Etna Daniel was not his daughter by his first wife, rather she was his step-daughter.]

Man experiencing mental health crisis fights police.

Wilson Daily Times, 29 May 1916.


  • Lawyer Bradley — in 1918, Lawyer Bradley registered for the World War I draft in Wayne County, North Carolina. Per his registration card, he was born in December 1883; lived in Goldsboro; and was a convict working on the Wayne County road force for the Wayne Wayne Highway Commission.
  • Lynnhaven Hotel 
  • Brooks Cafe — in 1916, Dennis Brooks was proprietor of this eating house at 522 East Nash. 

Mary Sims jailed for house fires.

Wilson Daily Times, 2 December 1935.

I have no further information about Mary Sims. There were few treatments for mental illness in the 1930s, and even fewer effective ones. Given the danger her alleged actions posed, it is possible that she was sent to the Eastern North Carolina Insane Asylum in Goldsboro (later known as Cherry Hospital), the state’s only psychiatric facility for African-Americans. 

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.



The death of Annie Cole.

Wilson Daily Times, 24 June 1913.

Mental illness was often criminalized in the early twentieth century and, Eastern North Carolina Insane Asylum notwithstanding, treatment options were few.


In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: house servant Annie Cole, 25, and lodger Lue Merritt, 30, odd jobs laborer, shared a household.

Like most negroes, she was full of superstition.

In 1891, Rev. Owen L.W. Smith‘s sister, Millie Smith Sutton, shot and killed his wife Lucy Smith at point-blank range, believing that Lucy had poisoned her son.


Wilson Advance, 9 July 1891.

On 5 November, the Advance reported that Smith had been found “mentally deranged” at the time she killed Smith and was committed to the insane asylum in Goldsboro.

The Wilson Mirror offered more on 11 November:

This tragedy had sequels.

Six years later, Sutton’s walking companion, Nettie Vick Jones, was stabbed to death on the street by her husband, A. Wilson Jones.

Ten years later, on 22 November 1901, the Times reported that Sutton had been released from the hospital and had returned to Wilson and, with Carrie Pettiford, had threatened the life of her brother’s newest wife, Adora Oden Smith. (In the 1900 census, Carrie was a boarder in the Smiths’ home.) Both were arrested.

When they first arrive, they are wild.

wdt 8 25 1911.jpg

Wilson Daily Times,  25 August 1911.

Again, if you are interested in the wretched world of the Eastern North Carolina Insane Asylum, please read Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner’s Unspeakable, the story of Junius Wilson (1908-2001), a deaf African-American who spent 76 years there, including six in the criminal ward, though he had never been declared insane by a medical professional or found guilty of any criminal charge.