Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Flu and a Murder

Note to the reader: some of the text is appearing in different fonts and sizes. I did not wish to hold up publication for this issue, but am trying to rectify the issue. Hopefully it will not be too distracting.

Flu season is in full swing now, and it seems to be a particularly deadly one. Swain County had its fair share of flu deaths over the years, particularly during the 'Spanish flu' epidemic of 1918.

According to death certificates filed with the state of North Carolina, influenza claimed the lives of 14 people (7 adults and 7 children) in Swain County during the 1919 - 1920 flu season (which I have arbitrarily defined as November 1919 through May 1920). This represents possibly one third to one half of the actual deaths due to the flu, as many deaths were not registered on actual death certificates in those early days. The most remarkable death associated with this flu season, however, was that of a nurse taking care of a flu-afflicted family.

Columbus Lafayette Wiggins (October 1880 - February 25, 1920) was the son of Abraham and Clara (nee' Whiteside) Wiggins and grew up in Swain County. In 1906, he married Laura Alice Weeks (June 28, 1885 - Dec 31, 1964) and settled in the Qualla area (later moving to Deep Creek) to raise his family. On January 19, 1920, the census taker visited and recorded Columbus as being employed as a carpenter, married to Laura, and the father of 5 children (Ralph, Ila, Glen, Grady, and Millard).

Abraham and Clara Wiggins Family (Columbus is in the back row in the middle)
Source: user maryberrong
That year, the Needmore area was said to have been especially hard-hit with the flu. One of the afflicted families was that of James William 'Willie' Wikle (1878 - 1923), consisting of Willie, his wife Pearl (nee' Potts) (1885 - 1971), and their children Everett, Nancy, Earl, Mae, and Maude. They lived on Hightower Road in a home close to where Wikle Branch crosses under the road. They attended the Hightower Church, and their children attended school there as well.

Family of Thomas and Louisa (nee' Breedlove) Wikle, circa 1885.
Willie is on the far left.
Photo provided by Fran Rogers.

Willie Wikle with son Everett in his lap, circa 1907
Photo provided by Fran Rogers
Such was the apparent need in the Needmore area that it seems volunteers were recruited from around the county by the Red Cross to help provide care to those families affected by the flu. One of these volunteers was Columbus, who was paired with a girl whose name was only given as "Dehart", to provide care for the Wikles. It is unclear how many days he had been helping to care for the family, but newspaper accounts state that he had helped them "day and night". 

On February 25th, Columbus took a brief walk outside the Wikle home. Just prior to his return to the home, Willie asked Pearl, who was one of the family members afflicted with the flu, to turn her head to the wall. Newspaper accounts vary as to whether Columbus went to tend to Pearl or to two of the children upon his return, but all accounts agree that when he did, Willie attacked him with a knife and inflicted between eight and ten ghastly wounds, including four to the throat - killing him.
Probable site of the Wiggins murder, on Hightower Road past Wikle Branch
Photo taken by Wendy Meyers

The other possible location of the murder - in a home just across the road.
Pearl Wikle is recalled as having lived here after Will Wikle's death.
Photo taken by Wendy Meyers

Wikle was arrested within hours of the murder by Sheriff Rollins Thomasson and two deputies, and held at the Swain County jail pending a grand jury hearing. Two days later, he attempted suicide by slashing his own throat but failed to inflict enough damage to kill himself. What we would today likely term an "emergency hearing" was then convened at which Judge Thaddeus Dillard Bryson II rendered an insanity determination and remanded Will to the insane ward for criminals at the state prison in Raleigh.

Various theories were advanced for the murder, including:
  • Jealousy or anger on Willie's part over a supposed romantic relationship between Columbus and the "DeHart girl" (note: according to the 1920 census, the nearest DeHart girls living in proximity to the Wikles were Will's nieces Mary Jane and Delsie);
  • Religious differences, in that Columbus was a member of the Pilgrim Holiness Church (what we now know today as the Wesleyan Church) and the Wikles were not. Willie was infuriated when Columbus prayed over his family in the manner of his church; and
  • Willie had become ill with flu and was so febrile that he had 'gone mad'. This is certainly what his brother believed, as shown in the brief letter below.
Letter to the editor of the Union Republican (Winston-Salem) newspaper, written
by Willie Wikle's brother John Riece Wikle from Duvall, NC
 (a small community in rural Macon County).
Published March 18, 1920.

At the time of his death, Columbus left behind his wife Laura, his 5 living children (the oldest of whom was 12 at the time of the murder), his unborn child, Ruby (born in June 1920), and his father. He was buried in the Deep Creek Cemetery.

In July of that year, Willie was reported to have returned from Raleigh to Swain County to stand trial. What happened after that time is unclear, as he does not appear to have gone to prison and presumably was sent home. Regrettably, no newspapers from the 1920's in Swain County are available to tell us the rest of his story. One of Columbus's grandchildren with whom I spoke said that Laura's attitude toward Willie Wikle's prosecution was, "If Columbus were here, he would say, 'Let the Lord deal with him'." 
NC Central Prison (year unknown)
Willie and Pearl Wikle had no other children after the murder, and Willie died not too many years afterward, on April 26th, 1923. His presumed cause of death was a stroke (his death certificate records that his right side was paralyzed). He is buried in the Grave Gap (also known as Windy Gap) Cemetery along with many of his kin. Shortly thereafter, Pearl Wikle married Charlie Dehart (a neighbor in the community) and bore daughters Edna (1924-2014) and Pauline (1926-2007) and life continued on.

Ninety-eight years have now passed, but such was the impact of the murder on the isolated community that Columbus Wiggins' tragic demise is still spoken of today amongst the old Needmore families. With the tale's players long-dead, we will never truly know what drove one well-respected man to kill another on that cold winter day in February 1920.

Whatever the case, may they both rest in peace. 


Sources: user maryberrong (photo)
Asheville Citizen-Times, February 29, 1920
Edwin Ammons (location of the murder and of Duvall, NC)
Fran Rogers (photos)
Glenna Wiggins Trull, granddaughter of Columbus Wiggins (family's perspective on the murder) (photo)
The Fayetteville Observer, March 12, 1920
The Union Republican, March 18, 1920 and July 15, 1920
The Winston-Salem Journal, February 26, 1920 and March 2, 1920

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Icy Winter of 1876-1877

It has been bitterly cold here in Swain County for the past 7-10 days, so much so that many small streams in the area are completely frozen over in places, and the rivers appear to be on their way. I have been watching ice floes float down the Tuckasegee River for several days now. During this week, I was reminded of an account I had read in a family history book that pertained to a particularly cold winter in Swain County, and wanted to share it with my readers. I hope that you will enjoy this little sojourn into the past.

Ice on the Tuckasegee River at Governor's Island, 1/5/2018
Wendy Meyers

The late John Reid Ashe (1908 - 1988) and his wife Wilma McHan Ashe (1914 - 2004) were prolific researchers, writers, and promoters of family and county history. In fact, one of the original driving forces for the Swain County Heritage Museum was Wilma Ashe, and it is very unfortunate that she did not live to see her dream come to fruition. The paternal side of John Ashe's family ran deep in the Judson area, and he wrote about his family and the history of the area in a very comprehensive book entitled "Ash-Ashe-Stillwell, A Genealogy and History". In the book, he records the story of the winter during which his grandparents, David (1856 - 1926) and Candace ([nee' Stillwell] 1862 - 1939) Ashe were married (they married on December 28, 1876).

David Reed and Candace (nee' Stillwell) Ashe
Source: Ash-Ashe-Stillwell

"Dave Ashe married Candace Stillwell in 1876. In those times the newlyweds usually lived with the parents of the groom until a 'Log Rolling' could be planned and a cabin of their own built. This winter turned out to be one of the coldest on record. All streams were frozen over solidly. Holes had to be cut in the ice daily to obtain water for survival."

Amos Ashe (note: father of David Ashe) had a roller mill powered by water. On sunny days all men pitched in and chipped ice from the millrace and the overshot wheel. Only a small amount of grain could be ground before it refroze and this was divided among those who needed it most. 
Amos Ashe Millrace, 1909
Source: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Archives and
Western Carolina University Special Collections
Amos Ashe Mill, 1909
Source: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Archives and 
Western Carolina University Special Collections

On their first trip home to visit her parents after they were married, they rode horses. They crossed the Little Tennessee River twice and 'Never a hoof broke through the ice'. Spring came early. Gardens and field crops were planted when the spring thaw came. Huge ice jams formed and backed water and ice floes into the fields and gardens. At that time, the streams were lined with virgin timber. This ice chipped the bark and wood from them and many of the huge trees were completely destroyed."

Ash-Ashe-Stillwell: A Genealogy and History by John Reid Ashe (Note: this book is available for viewing at the Marianna Black Library in Bryson City)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Archives
Swain County Marriage Register
Western Carolina University Special Collections

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A County-wide Christmas in 1929

I found the article that follows while perusing It truly seems to echo the values that I hold most dear about the Christmas holiday.  I hope you'll all enjoy it and have a blessed holiday season.

On Christmas afternoon at 3 o’clock, a community Christmas tree was held at Bryson City for people less fortunate than others. Long before the hour arrived hundreds of people over the county kept gathering. There was snow and ice on the ground and the exercises were held in the courthouse from which the tree, standing high with hundreds of colored lights, and 10 feet above it a star, its five points lighted, shining to guide people to the place, could be seen. It has been a joy to all who have seen it for the past week and will stand in the square until the New Year.
The Bryson City Christmas Tree, circa 1920s
Bryson City is a small town with about 1,500 inhabitants. Just what has been done will be of interest to other small towns. About three months ago Mayor E.C. Bryson, the youngest mayor of the State, expressed the idea of a community Christmas tree to G. C. Dugas, vice president and manager of the Smoky Mountain Power Company. Mr. Dugas went to work. Others became interested as soon as it was announced and for six weeks untiring efforts have been expended by about 20 people.

Edwin Constant Bryson, Mayor of Bryson City in 1929
Source: UNC Yearbook, 1925 (
Graham C. Dugas
Source: user JDugas

The story has been told far and near to those who have, and there was a response that has been wonderful from these unknown and unseen friends, who have given of material things which they manufacture, food stuffs, toys, overalls, socks, children’s stockings, coffee, candy oranges and money, which, with the gifts of money here and of material things from merchants, made this tree possible and a success.

Owing to the snow which made many county roads impassable, not as many children were here as was hoped, but treats and toys have been sent as far as possible. Preparation for 1,500 children was made and over 100 baskets were fixed. Into the baskets were put a sack of flour (24 pounds), three pounds of meat, three pounds of beans, three pounds of coffee, five pounds of sugar, salt, soda and soap. Added to this were the overalls, underwear and stockings with many baskets having shoes, some with clothes and sweaters, and every thing that was available for little children where the need was greatest.
Pillsbury Flour Sack
A goal of $1,500 was set at the first meeting held. It seemed preposterous. Many said that if $500 was raised it would be a great success but by the generosity of all, the gifts of material things and money reached $2,000 (note: this is just over $28,000 in 2016 currency). The festival of Christmas is primarily for children. Their hearts ache if they do not have a visit from Santa Claus and it was decided to place a toy in the hands of children under 10 whenever possible. Over 1,500 toys were gathered together over 1,500 treats were fixed, and 1,800 oranges used.
There wasn’t room for one other person in the courthouse when the hour arrived. The galleries and floor space were filled. Mayor Bryson explained the movement and spoke of the many unknown friends who had heeded the call. Dr. R. L. Clear opened the exercises with prayer and a chorus of singers sang some of the lovely Christmas carols. Judge T. D. Bryson spoke for a few minutes and then the children were called for and girls passed on one side and boys on the other of long tables laden with the toys, which had been arranged separately, as other people handed the bags of candy and an orange to the little folks.
Liberty Coaster circa 1923

1929 Effanbee Doll
The baskets were then given out and those who were not here for theirs, were either taken by others to them, or were carried by Bryson City men to the different parts of the county. Many other names have been reported since Christmas Day and foodstuff and some clothing have been purchased for them.

Special mention should be made of the work of the executive committee, and other women who left their homes for days to get the toys, treats, and clothing assembled to Santa Claus who was busy for many days, of those who got the tree, of men who labored hard, of the kindness of the men in the A.&P. store who ground and sacked the 440 pounds of coffee given by Westfeldt Bros. of New Orleans, and a bag of sugar, which was a gift, and of others whom it also impossible to name, for their cooperation in this move.

It is a Christmas that will long be remembered. There are many who had a real Christmas joy on December 25 because these people made it for them. If there is another town in the state with a population of 1,500 people which has cared for as many families in the county as Bryson City, and furnished toys and treats for 1,500 children, it has not been reported.  This is the first time that a community tree has been held in Swain County. It may be the last or it may not but for one time a happy feeling entered the hearts of those who received and in those who gave, who remembered how Christ said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive”.

Asheville Citizen-Times, December 29, 1929

Asheville Citizen Times, December 29, 1929