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A fascinating murder story

On a hot July night in 1935, a young Wise County, Virginia, school teacher named Edith Maxwell came home late. Her father Trigg, who did not approve of his daughter’s late hours, confronted her and a violent argument (which turned into scuffle) developed. Some 15 minutes later, Trigg lay dying on the floor.

A doctor was summonsed, several neighbors arrived and finally the local sheriff conducted a brief investigation. The following day, Edith and her mother were arrested and charged with Trigg’s murder. The alleged weapon that killed Trigg was identified as Edith’s high-heeled shoe. Later testimony would indicate that Trigg died from a blow to the head by an axe, an iron or a skillet, but the shoe would win the hearts of the journalists.

Thus began one of the nation’s most sensational murder trials — a minor domestic tragedy that became a kind of media circus. Within days, a swarm of journalists and writers descended on Wise County, quickly dubbing Edith as the “Hillbilly Girl of the Lonesome Pine” (a reference to the John Fox novel which has its setting in Wise County).  Many of the journalists belonged to that somewhat sleazy school of writers that are referred as “colorists” or “yellow journalists” because they were adept at inventing sensational details that had little or no relationship to facts. In addition, the most disreputable writers were employed by Hearst-controlled newspapers — all noted for gossip, distortion and sensationalism.

Suddenly, grotesque images of Edith, her family and her neighbors began to appear in major newspapers. Like the heroine in Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Edith was described as a “golden haired” (she wasn’t) innocent who was a victim of a tyrannical father who enforced a harsh curfew that required Edith to go to bed so early she “had never seen the moon.” A photograph of a cow strolling down the street in Wise County conveyed the impression that Edith’s neighbors lived in rustic ignorance.

Much was made of a grim tradition called “mountain justice,” which required the nearest relative of a murder victim to avenge the crime by killing the murderer. Although the tradition only existed only in the imaginative minds of journalists, such distortions implied that Edith would be killed by her brother, Earl.

Ironically, Earl, who had moved to New York where he “lost” his mountain accent, immediately returned to Wise County and became Edith’s champion and most devoted defender. Within a matter of days, Earl found capable lawyers to defend his mother and sister. In time, he would conduct fundraising efforts on her behalf and launch a vigorous public relations campaign. Earl also engineered a contract with Hearst papers, giving them exclusive rights to Edith’s story. However, despite his best efforts, Edith (who was tried separately from her mother) was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

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During the next two years, Edith Maxwell became something of a national celebrity. After the verdict was appealed, she was transferred to the Jonesville, Va., jail (which had more “humane facilities”). Within a few weeks, both letters and visitors increased to several hundred each day. Newspapers such as the Washington Post and the Washington Herald expanded their coverage by aggressively soliciting funds for Edith’s defense. Two major national women’s organizations, the National Women’s Party (NWP) and the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), decided that Edith’s trial would be an excellent sounding board for current issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment. Certainly, the fact that Edith was found guilty by an all-male jury indicated that she had been denied her rights to a jury “of her peers.”

Before the media circus was over, Edith’s defense would be taken over by some of America’s most prominent (and controversial) attorneys. In addition, a host of “missionaries” would arrive to offer cultural and educational assistance to the citizens of Wise County as they ventured reluctantly into the 20th Century. Journalists continued to refer to the locals as “bumpkins, local primates, hillbillies and half-wits.” As one cynical reader put it, “It would cause us to wonder why our social, welfare, missionary and religious organizations spend so much in all years past soliciting funds and workers for the uplift of the heathen of the Orient or the savages of Africa, when for less effort and expense, they could have gone to Wise County, Va. and found a country full of them.”

Although the unrelenting journalistic distortions left the people of Wise County (and much of Appalachia) smarting from the depictions of their region, their culture and their people, there was some objective coverage. Sympathetic writers such as Ernie Pyle and James Thurber did their best to correct the distortions. Of course, what seemed to have gotten lost in this extravagant spectacle was ... did Edith Maxwell murder her father? In fact, her guilt or innocence seemed to become irrelevant as the warring factions collided: journalists, “sob sister” writers, lawyers, social critics and angry Appalachian advocates engaged in verbal battles that dominated the news for five years (1935-1940). 

After two trials and the denial of a hearing before the Virginia Supreme Court, Edith’s defense, conducted by “outlanders” (eastern lawyers) and funded by activist organizations, began to collapse. Weakened by flawed research, contradictory testimony and hysteria, the atmosphere in Wise County began to resemble the infamous Snopes Trial in Dayton, Tenn. In desperate need of money, Edith and her brother entered into an ill-advised contract with a Hollywood studio and gave her endorsement for a film entitled “Mountain Justice.” In addition, the former teacher seemed to become despondent and wrote a letter to her wealthy benefactors in Washington and New York stating that she wished to withdraw from any association with the NWP and the NAWSA.

When it was finally over, Gov. James H. Price granted Edith Maxwell a pardon and she quietly departed the Goochland Penitentiary in Richmond with $10 and an assumed name. After serving six years of a 20-year sentence, she received a pardon because of a letter written on her behalf by Eleanor Roosevelt. Upon learning of Price’s decision, Edith asked that Price wait for one day before officially announcing her pardon. It was her wish to vanish. She said that she wanted to avoid journalists and hoped to live in obscurity for the rest of her life. She got her wish.

Living as Ann Grayson, she later married, had two children, allegedly lived happily and died at the age of 65 in 1979. She never returned to Wise County.

This is a fantastic story and I highly recommend it.

Note: Sharyn McCrumb’s new novel, The Devil Among the Lawyers, is based on Edith Maxwell’s trial. It will be reviewed in this column at some future date.

Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell by Sharon Hatfield. University of Illinois Press, 2005. 286 pages.

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