Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Death in Demopolis: The 1934 Extinguishing of the Frank Clements and Elsie Hildreth Smith Family

On Sunday, November 25, 1934 at Demopolis, a quiet little town of just over 4000 people situated in Marengo County at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers in the heart of Alabama's old plantation belt, Gertrude Robertson, cook to 36-year-old Frank Clements Smith, cashier of the Commercial National Bank, his 22-year-old wife, Elsie Hildreth Smith, and their two young children, made a horrible discovery at the Smith house when she entered Frank and Elsie's bedroom, no one having answered her call for the Sunday breakfast she had prepared for the family. 

Gertrude, a 28 year-old black woman who a decade earlier had born an out-of-wedlock son, Nathan, knew very personally the tragedy of the death of a child, for her young Nathan had passed away earlier that year; but she surely could not have been prepared for the horror of what faced her now, in the Smith family's master bedroom.  In the bedroom she found the entire Smith family--husband, wife, toddler son and infant daughter--gruesomely slain, each and every one of them shot to death.

Frank Clements Smith (1898-1934)
Frank Clements Smith lay in his pajamas on the floor, a mortal bullet wound in his head.  Elsie lay on the bed fully clothed, with bullet wounds disfiguring both of her breasts and her arms folded across her chest.  Elsie's three year old son by a prior marriage, Frank Alkire, who normally slept in his own room, lay on the bed beside his mother, dead from a shot to the head, and the couple's infant daughter, Sabre, was in her crib, fatally shot in her mouth.

Two pistols were found in the bedroom, an automatic in the closet and a revolver under the bed.  Both had been fired.  Four shells from the automatic were on the floor and there were three empty shells in the revolver.  It could not be determined whether all of the shells in the revolver had been recently fired. 

Suspicion in the deaths focused not on Gertrude Roberston, who resided quietly with her grandparents on Arcola Street, a couple of miles away from the Smith residence on South Cedar Avenue, but rather, to the shock and chagrin of polite Demopolis society, on Frank Clements Smith himself. 

The bank cashier was the son of the late president of the Commercial National Bank, Andrew Reid Smith, and Clara Estelle Clements Smith, socially prominent natives of Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama. Clara was a granddaughter of the late Hardy Clements of Tuscaloosa County, said to have been the wealthiest planter in the county before the Civil War, with declared personal wealth in 1860 of around nine million dollars in modern value.

After their marriage Andrew and Clara Smith moved south to Demopolis, and in 1907 the couple purchased Bluff Hall, a white-columned antebellum mansion in the town overlooking the Tombigbee River which originally had been owned by planter and politician Francis Strother Lyon and his wife Sarah Serena Glover Lyon, a sister of Williamson Allen Glover of Rosemount plantation in neighboring Greene County. 

At Bluff Hall Frank and his brothers, Fenton Reid Smith and Charles Singleton Smith, all three of them short, slim, blondish and blue-eyed, grew to adulthood, where presumably gilded prospects glittered enticingly before them.  Although her husband died in 1932, Clara Clements Smith still resided at Bluff Hall two years later, when her middle son and his family died so violently within a five minutes' drive of the mansion. 

Bluff Hall around the time of the deaths of Frank Clements Smith and his family
Frank Smith lived here from 1907 until his marriage to Elsie Hildreth Finch Alkire in 1933
Photo by Historic American Buildings Survey

In the pages of the New York Times, which like other newspapers around the country took notice of the shocking slayings in the refined home of a genteel southern family, it was reported that Frank and Elsie Smith, who had only married a year and half earlier, had been "apparently a devoted couple" who had gone to town on Saturday evening and returned home before midnight.  The fatal shots had been fired around 4:30 am the following morning.  Frank Smith's fingerprints were on the guns. 

Why would a devoted husband and father have so heinously slaughtered his own family?  A year after the coroner's jury regretfully concluded that the deaths were murder-suicide slayings perpetrated by Frank Clements Smith (the coroner at the time had initially held out hope that a home invader might have been responsible for the brutal crimes), distinguished historian of the American South Clement Eaton (1898-1980), then chairman of the History Department at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania (and apparently no relation of the Smith family), visited Demopolis.  There he toured the town's fabled old mansions, Gaineswood and Bluff Hall, and had his ear filled with lurid details about the ghastly murders. 

"I was told that the inheritor of Bluff Hall married a divorcee--one night he and she returned from a wild party, and later he found her untrue to him & shot her, her two children & himself," Eaton confided that night in his diary, concluding: "In this beautiful home an unlovely home life must have existed."

Bluff Hall (HABS)

As prominent a historian as Clement Eaton was, he got a few of the details wrong about the Frank Clements Smith murders. It is unlikely that Frank found Elsie being "untrue to him" at 4:30 in the morning at their own house, which, in any case, was not Bluff Hall, where his mother lived with one of Frank's brothers, Charles Singleton Smith, and Charles's wife and son. But the whispers of wild parties and amatory unfaithfulness certainly provide us with some sort of motive for Frank's seemingly inexplicable act--in this light one of the most extreme fury and despair. 

Elsie Smith was in fact twice divorced, points of interest I think, whether or not one agrees with Clement Eaton's Demopolis gossips that the dread word divorcee deserves a connotation of dubious morals. 

Josiah Franklin Alkire of Phoenix, Arizona
(1891-1951) 2nd husband of Elsie Hildreth
Although she was born in Tampa, Florida, where her father was a railroad conductor, Elsie came of a prominent agrarian family on her father's side, the Hildreths, who resided at the wealthy planter village of Jefferson in Marengo County.

Elsie's mother, Willie Jefferies Alston, died in 1910, when Elsie was but eight years old, and Elsie's father, Levan Hildreth, moved with his family to Jacksonville, Florida.  After the First World War he relocated to Prescott, Arizona, where he worked as a railroad brakeman, with his youngest son and Elsie. 

In 1920 Elsie at age 18 was lodging separately from her father in Prescott with a druggist and his family.  On December 15 of that same year, Elsie at her brother's house in Prescott married Riverside, California native George Battles Finch (1896-1986).

Elsie, whom the Prescott Weekly Journal-Miner in a notice about the wedding described as "a well known and popular member of Prescott's younger set," was dressed in "a becoming brown satin gown, with hat and shoes to match."  Despite Elsie's purported popularity, "only a few intimate friends were present" at the ceremony.  George Finch had been superintendent of the Arizona Bus Company, but the new couple was moving to his native Riverside, where George had accepted a position with the firm of J. W. Kemp, Cadillac dealers.

About a year later, however, the same Prescott newspaper reported that Elsie was leaving the region and her man in the motor trade in order to reside with relations in Marengo County, which suggests that her marriage had quickly soured and that she had may have found it advisable to "get out of Dodge," so to speak.  Yet nine years later, on December 2, 1929, Elsie, was back in Arizona again, where she married Josiah Franklin Alkire, son of the respected pioneer Phoenix rancher and printing company owner Frank Tomlin Alkire.

Although two year later Elsie gave birth to the couple's son, Frank (presumably named for his prominent paternal grandfather), the marriage foundered in 1932, and a now twice divorced Elsie returned yet again to Marengo County, where the next year, quickly on the rebound, she fatefully wed Frank Clements Smith, a diminutive but dashing UA graduate and cashier in his late father's bank who still lived with his parents at elegant Bluff Hall.

James Hildreth House, Jefferson, Alabama
built in 1848 by Elsie Hildreth Finch Alkire Smith's great-grandfather

At UA back in 1920 the school yearbook had portrayed the handsome though intense-looking young Frank, a science major and member of the fraternity Alpha Tau Omega, as a dirty-blond and blue-eyed heart breaker:

How so much good-heartedness and pep can be combined in five feet four inches, has long been a wonder to us.  A "top" sergeant in SATC days [Student Army Training Corps, not Sex and the City].  The cause of many broken hearts and wistful glances.

Yet it appears to have been UA's adored Frank Smith who in 1934 was mastered by his passion for his wayward wife and destroyed both himself and her, along with their innocent children.

Rosenbush Furniture Store  Building in Demopolis, home as well to a funeral parlor, until 1934
(see Rural Southwest Alabama)

In 2011 the Southern Jewish Historical Society sponsored an interview with Bert Julius Rosenbush, Jr., the so-called last Jew in Marengo County, whose father, Bert Julius Rosenbush, Sr. (1902-1975), owned a furniture store and funeral parlor in Demopolis at the time of the tragic extinguishing of the Frank Clements Smith family. 

The younger Bert, who was only five years old at the time of the slayings (his sister was just two), recalled that the terrible violent deaths of this attractive young family prompted his sensitive father, who was given the mortifying task of preparing the victims for burial, to abandon the funeral business for good and all:

....when my daddy went in the business he went to Cincinnati and became a licensed embalmer.  He practiced embalming along with running the furniture store with my grandmother until a tragic accident happened here in Demopolis.  After that accident...it was just such a sad affair that my daddy decided to give it up. 

What was the accident? 

It was...a man killed his family and they were about the same age as his family.  So, he just decided...just to stick to the furniture business and give up the undertaking part.


interior of Bluff Hall (HABS)

Devious and devouring death seemed greedily to stalk the Smith family in the 1930s and 1940s, for during that time Frank's older brother, Fenton Reid Smith, and sister-in-law likewise were taken in unexpected ways. 

In 1923 Fenton married Alice Portman Bright and later the couple moved to the Panama Canal Zone, where he was employed with the Panama Railroad Company.  Shortly before Andrew Reid Smith's own passing in 1932 at the age of 73, Alice Smith died from Spanish Influenza in the Canal Zone at the Gorgas Hospital (named for the famed native Alabamian disease battler William Crawford Gorgas).  Nine years after his wife's untimely death, Fenton himself perished in the Canal Zone at the age of 48, when he drowned during a 1943 fishing excursion.

An inscrutable end?
Frank Clements Smith's faded gravestone
in the family plot at Evergreen Cemetery,
Tuscaloosa, Alabama
During the 1940s Clara Clements Smith, whom her son Frank had made the beneficiary of his will in 1923, continued to reside at Bluff Hall with her surviving son, Frank's younger brother Charles Singleton Smith, a bookkeeper with the Commercial National Bank, and Charles's wife and son, Andrew Reid Smith II, though the upper floor of the mansion was converted into apartments.

Clara sold the house in 1948, when she was 77 years old, and moved to Long Beach, on the Mississippi Gulf coast, where she died in 1955.  Two decades later, in 1967, Bluff Hall became a house museum maintained by Demopolis, and so it remains today: a lovely white-columned southern mansion with an appalling family tragedy buried in its past.

What does this all this have to do with the world of vintage crime fiction with which this blog normally concerns itself?  A decade after the murders a crime writer may have drawn loosely on them in a detective novel set in a fictionalized Demopolis--one which, I can now to announce, soon will be hitting the presses again.

Bluff Hall today

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