I happened upon this Notice signed by Columbus E. Artis, one of the principals of the undertaking firm Artis, Flanagan & Batts, in the Wilson Daily Times. Who was Oliver Marable? What was his “case”? What were the “false reports being circulated”?
Wilson Daily Times, 14 December 1925.
Here is Marable’s death certificate:
Filled out largely in C.E. Artis’ bold, readily recognizable hand, it states that Marable died 4 December 1925 in Spring Hill township; was about 55 years old; was married to Bettie Marable; resided at 717 Manchester Street; was born in Henderson, N.C., to Grand and Cornelia Marable. In a different script, Marable’s cause of death: “fracture of base of skull accidentally incurred in a cave-in of earth.”
Or was it accidental at all?
An inquest held into Marable’s death revealed a bizarre set of facts. On a Friday evening, Marable, who lived on Roberson Street in East Wilson, was miles away in Springhill township digging with a dozen other men for “buried treasure.” Later that night, Marable’s battered body was taken to C.E. Artis and his business partner Walter E. Flanagan, who were preparing to bury him when the police intervened.
When Artis and Flanagan could not produce a death certificate, the police halted the funeral and contacted the coroner, who went with several county officials to the dig site. Dissatisfied with the accounts of witnesses as to what had happened to Marable, the coroner ordered an inquest. A jury traveled out to Tobe Hinnant‘s farm in Old Fields [Springhill?] township, where they found a “huge hole” in a field near a creek bank.
The witnesses, who had been digging the hole with Marable, testified that he had been killed when the hole’s sidewalls caved in, but the jury found foul play involved.
The physician who conducted a post mortem of Marable’s body concluded he likely met his death from a skull fracture, but had also suffered a broken arm, collar bone, and femur and contusions of the back, neck and face.
The police arrested seven people in connection with Marable’s death. Tom Boykin, conjure doctor Richard Pitts and Amos Batts [who was both Marable’s brother-in-law and the third business partner of C.E. Artis] were held without bond; William Edwards, McKinley Edwards, Tobe Hinnant, and John Hinnant bonded out. The story these witnesses told: conjure man Pitts showed up in Hinnant’s neighborhood, claiming that there was buried treasure nearby. Hinnant said he had often dreamed of such a thing, and Pitts said he could locate it. Hinnant pointed out the X in his dreams, and Pitts performed a divination with mineral oil. Though it is not clear how the rest of the treasure hunters were assembled, digging commenced. When the tip of a seven-foot augur embedded itself in a wooden object, the treasure was found. Marable died during the attempt to dig it out. The jury viewed the stuck augur, several shovels, and some sounding rods, as well as a length of white cord festooned about the perimeter to keep out the “haints” lingering in a nearby cemetery in use during slavery. (The jury concluded the augur was more likely stuck in a coffin lid than a treasure chest.) On a side note, investigators also found a large hole, filled in, in Marable’s back yard on Roberson Street, evidence of an earlier search.
Wilson Daily Times, 9 December 1925.
The next day, Raleigh’s News and Observer reported that the jury had adjourned without a verdict, but with a recommendation that Pitts be held pending investigation by a lunacy commission. (Per the Times the same day, Pitts “in his many trips and ‘treasure hunts’ in and around Wilson county had poisoned the minds of many of the negro inhabitants in regards to buried treasure and hidden pots of gold. In many cases sections of the county Pitts has ‘engineered’ treasure hunts, receiving pay for his ‘knowledge’ while honest negroes work in good faith at the task of uncovering the treasure which is never found.”) Everyone else was released. The jury had gone back to the site to find that it had been tampered with. The augur and divining rods were gone, and someone had thrown four feet of dirt into the hole. Several convicts were put to work to shovel out the dirt, but Marable’s pick could not be found. Amos Batts had testified that he did not know about the digging until Marable had died, but when told that Marable had his hand on the money when the pit collapsed, joined the enterprise. (Presumably by agreeing to bury Marable reporting the death or issuing a death certificate.) Someone named Lee Pearce testified, but no details as to what.
Five days later, the matter was dropped. Most of the 20 witnesses had testified to hearsay, Tobe Hinnant’s six-year-old swore he had never accused his father of killing Marable, and county officials gave ambiguous testimony about whether they had seen blood in the pit. The jury was hopelessly confused. Hinnant was freed, leaving only Pitts in jail, presumably for his chicanery.
In the 1908 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Marable Oliver (c) lab 501 Lucas al
In the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Marable Oliver (c) lab Robinson nr Stantonsburg rd
In the 1916 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Marable Oliver (c) lab 501 Robinson
In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 501 Robinson Street, Oliver Marable, 56, oil mill laborer; wife Betie, 48; and daughter Hattie, 7; plus brother-in-law John Batts, 52, oil mill laborer.
William Edwards and McKinley Edwards — in the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 609 South Railroad Street, rented for $16/month, farm laborer William Edwards, 52; wife Lillie, 49; son McKinly, 28, worker at Hackney Body Company; McKinley’s wife Maggie, 25, farmworkers; and his son Bernard, 6.
On 25 November 1916, Washington Pitts (or Pitt) wrote out his last will and testament:
to his aunt Lucinda Pitts, the lot on Vance Street in Wilson on which he then lived, purchased from Earnest Deans and wife and recorded at Deed Book 91, page 37; all his personal property; and any residual money
to his brothers Martin and Jack Pitts, a lot on Vance Street purchased from Wilson Real Estate and Loan Company and recorded at Deed Book 102, page 246
to his cousin Hattie Slight, a lot at 523 Church Street at which Beatrice Sugg now resided
Lucinda Pitts was named executor of the will, and C.T. Harriss and W.P. Whitaker Jr. were witnesses
Washington Pitts Will (1916), Wilson County, North Carolina Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com.
Two men named John W. Pitts lived in East Wilson in the early part of the 20th century. They do not seem to have been related and are not easily distinguished from one another. The letter writer above, however, appears to be the older man.
On 12 September 1918, John William Pitts registered for the World War I draft in Wilson. He reported that he was born 26 December 1878; resided at 619 Railroad Street; was a minister; and his next-of-kin was Louiser Pitts.