Sunday, March 17, 2019

Innocence Lost: The Murder of Ethel Shuler

One thing I love about old and established cemeteries in many places is the presence of grand old oak trees. These can be seen in many cemeteries in Swain County such as the Bryson City Cemetery and Watkins Cemetery.

The primary burying ground in the Birdtown area of Swain County for over a century has been the Birdtown Cemetery. It lies on a quiet hill above the Tsali Care Center on Echota Church Road off Highway 19. On the highest point of the hill upon which the cemetery resides rises an infamous oak, known as the "Chapel Oak", described in an 1892 federal document as ".....a mammoth oak, where in midsummer the Indians gather for church and Sunday-school services in preference to the old church (Note: this was the Echota church) or the schoolhouse a little beyond". 
The Chapel Oak, Birdtown Cemetery
Photo by Wendy Meyers
The Chapel Oak in 1892
Source: Extra Census Bulletin. Eastern Band of Cherokees of North Carolina. 1892  
One of the hundreds of graves the Chapel Oak overlooks is that of a 16 year-old girl, Ethel May Shuler. Ethel was born on May 1, 1895 in the upper Galbreath Creek area to George Ebenezer and Katherine Haseltine (Katie) (nee' Cline) Shuler. She had an older sister, Lettie, and another sibling whose name and gender are unknown but who almost certainly died early in childhood. At some point, she and her family moved to Goose Creek, in the Birdtown Community near Cherokee, where they farmed.

Grave of Ethel Shuler at Birdtown Cemetery. She is buried
beside her father, George, who died in 1910.
Photo by Wendy Meyers
Details of Ethel's early life are obscure, and I have been unable to even obtain a picture of her or of any member of her family. However, on Thursday, October 4, 1911, 16 year-old Ethel had a fateful encounter with infamy that would ensure that her brief and incomplete life was never forgotten - not just for the brutal manner in which she met her demise, but also for the speed with which the wheels of justice turned for her murderer.

On that day, she set out for Trantham's store, where she had an "uncomfortable" encounter with a young "half-breed" Cherokee man named Ross French, who had been in Birdtown playing ball. Unbeknownst to Ethel, as she left the store at approximately 5:00 p.m. to return home, she was followed by French. After she had travelled some distance and was presumably out of sight of anyone else, French seized his opportunity, pulled Ethel into the woods, and attempted to rape her. Ethel managed to hold him off for a time, hitting him on the head with a rock. Ultimately, however, her enraged assailant pulled out his pocket knife and slit her throat "from ear to ear". Ethel's body was found around 8:00 p.m. on the roadside.

Echota Church Road, where Ethel was killed and her body later discovered.
Photo by Wendy Meyers 
French was quickly identified as the perpetrator and arrested the next morning - he had hidden the clothes he was wearing at the time of the attack at his grandparents' house, however, his hat was found covered in blood. A lynch mob of nearly 200 individuals swiftly formed. Sheriff Robert Roane spirited French to Deputy Sheriff Sam Beck, who took him over remote mountain trails to Sylva - a distance of some 18 miles.  He was then transported to Waynesville via horse (which dropped dead en route) but the mob followed him and the Haywood County Sheriff had to call out the local 'military' to finally get him to safety in Asheville. During his circuitous journey to relative safety in Asheville, French confessed his crime to Sam Beck, and asked that his body be sent to his wife in Birdtown "when the law was through with him". Not without irony, however, his wife refused to have anything to do with him after he confessed and never saw him again.
Letter from Melinda French
Source: The Union Republican, 26 October 1911
French later retracted his confession, stating that he had only held Ethel's hand while his friend, Bill Craig, murdered her. He further stated that Bill Craig had paid him $60 to aid his flight from justice. However, no stock was put in this statement and the reporting newspaper stated, "It now appears he would be very glad of Craig's capture." (Note: after reading this article, my good friend and excellent genealogist/author Fran Rogers reached out to let me know that Bill Craig was a member of her extended family. Fran was extremely gracious in providing a picture of him for use on the blog. Thanks so much, my friend!)
Bill Craig (left), the man falsely accused by Ross French of Ethel Shuler's murder.
Photo provided by Fran Rogers
After only three weeks, Ross French was brought back to Bryson City to stand trial for his crime. On October 28th, 1911, after an exceptionally short trial of only two hours, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by a jury consisting of E.A. Bradshaw, John C. DeLozier, Tom Dowdle, W.A. Enloe, G.A. Holloway, W.M. Hoyle, Lee Herron, A.L. Kirkland, J.M. Parker, G.E. Tipton, and T.J. Wikle. There can be little doubt that his prior confession and expressed belief that he should receive the ultimate punishment was a strong factor in his conviction and sentence. On the same day, he was transported to Central Prison in Raleigh to await his execution.

A portion of Ross French's death warrant (November 1, 1911)
Source: North Carolina Archives
In the ensuing weeks, French met with the minister of the local African-American Episcopal Church, was converted to the Episcopal faith, and was baptized. His brokenhearted 82 year-old maternal grandfather, John Talala, and his maternal aunt, Sallie Thompson, arrived on November 21st to visit with him and to assist him in making his final preparations. French had little to his name, but bequeathed his yoke of oxen to his grandfather and the remainder of his estate to his wife. He was said to have made peace with his sentence, believed it to be just and correct, and implored his fellow Cherokees to not follow his example.

North Carolina's Electric Chair, used until 1938
Source: UNC Libraries
On November 24th, French, wearing a dark suit, his long locks shaved, was escorted into the execution chamber at North Carolina's Central Prison, and placed into the electric chair. He was said to have been calm with "typical Indian stoicism" (according to the newspapers) and watched as he was strapped in. At 10:34 a.m., the first jolt of electricity was applied to his body, followed by a second at 10:36 a.m. He was declared dead at 10:40 a.m., dying approximately 7 weeks after having committed his crime. His grandfather and aunt left with his body later that day to bring him home. He was 21 years old. Although his burial location is not fully known, at least one newspaper source places him as being buried in the Birdtown Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

Two unmarked graves at the Birdtown Cemetery. Ross French is likely 
buried in one of the unmarked graves in the old section of the cemetery.
Photo by Wendy Meyers
Postscript: Life went on for Ethel's family after the tragic events in the fall of 1911, but they retained her bloody clothing and personal effects in a trunk for decades after she had passed. In 1913, her sister Lettie gave birth to a baby girl whom she named for her late sister. Ethel's sad demise is still spoken of amongst the Birdtown elders and her extended family.

Sadly, among the witnesses to Ross French's execution was Hugh James "Odie" Lambert, Ethel's brother-in-law. According to individuals with whom I communicated, Odie Lambert always regretted being at French's execution. It is little wonder. Twenty-five years before, as a 12 year-old boy, he watched as his wrongfully-convicted father, Andrew Jackson Lambert, was also executed for murder.

Trunk of the Chapel Oak, Birdtown Cemetery
Photo by Wendy Meyers

Asheville Gazette-News 13 October 1911
Extra Census Bulletin. Indians. Eastern Band of Cherokees of North Carolina. (Washington, D.C.; United States Census Printing Office), 1892.
North Carolina Archives
Peggy Lambert
The Charlotte Observer, 25 November 1911
The Daily Times (Wilson, NC), 13 October 1911
The Lexington Dispatch, 11 October 1911
The Raleigh Daily Times, 24 November 1911
The Union Republican, (Winston-Salem, NC) 12 and 26 October 1911
The Western Sentinel (Winston-Salem, NC) 24 November 1911
The Wilmington Dispatch, 21 November 1911


  1. I did not know this. Is there any way i could have a hard copy? This is totally awesome. Loved it.

    1. Sure, I should be able to convert to hard copy. Send me an email to with your contact info and I'll get it to you.

    2. I copied it all into a word processor and I would have been able to print it out but my printer is broken.

  2. Thank you for this detailed ancestry account!!!

  3. I loved reading this little peice of history.

  4. This is very interesting, as I had gone to school with some Frenchs. I just had to look deeper into this. I didn't find any connection but what I found interesting was that the Cherokee Tribe denied his Cherokee blood saying he was half black.

    1. Hi Ed - it is very interesting. I also saw the articles about the tribe denying his heritage but it's just not correct. He was on the Roll as of 1909, living in the household of his maternal grandfather. His father was a member of the Western Band (born in Talequah) who had moved East. And as above, his mother was born to enrolled members of the Eastern Band. I think that the reason he saw the black priest (one cited reason the Tribe denied that he was a member) was because he was not White.

  5. An informative and revealing history lesson in this blog. Well written and presented. Thanks - Ronnie Evans, Franklin, NC

    1. Sorry I'm just now seeing this. Thank you, Ronnie.

  6. Is there anyway that I could get a hard copy of this? I live in Cherokee on Goose Creek and a lot of my family is buried at the Birdtown Cemetary.