A MURDER BEFORE EDEN is a true crime story that happened in my own back yard a few years before I was born. Not necessarily a forgotten book, but one I wasn’t even aware of before my uncle told me about it.
Let me take a bit to explain the book title. Eden is my home town, but it wasn’t always Eden. Before 1967, it was three small towns, Leaksville, Spray, and Draper(I’m a lifelong Draper boy), and the “central area” between. They merged and became Eden, the name taken from surveyor William Byrd, who led the expedition to survey the dividing line between North Carolina and Virginia, particularly a large tract that would eventually spawn the three small towns, calling it “the wonderful land of Eden.” That is also the call letters, WLOE, the town’s am radio station that opened for business shortly before the events in this book took place.
The time is 1947 and it’s the story of an elderly man, a young woman, a restless young man, all brought together for a trial that was sensational, though of little note at the time.
Tom Pratt had been married to his beloved Nettie forty-nine years when she passed away. They’d raised six children(a seventh had died early) and a passel of grandchildren and great-grandchildren followed. Sixty-nine at the time, seven lonely years went by before he married thirty-two year old Ruby Edwards, a woman who’d helped out around his home until “something” seemed to spark. The family wasn’t happy, but there was nothing they could do but accept it, be polite, and hope the old man was happy. A stubborn sort, he never changed his mind once a decision was reached.
Four years went by, not happy ones for “Old Pa,” his nickname, arguments with Ruby(she was a friendly soul who worked at Fieldcrest Mills and had a social life she still followed.
Then on August 25, 1947, at one a.m., the neighbors awoke to screaming. After Nettie’s death, Tom had built a smaller house and rented the big house to a family of tenant farmers. Tom Pratt was found laying on the floor of his kitchen, blood all over the place from a head wound, and Ruby standing over him screaming for help. Word spread fast and help was sent for. Tom was incoherent and unable to tell them much. Ruby said she heard him hollering and ran downstairs from her bed to see a black man standing over him. When he saw her, she ran back upstairs until she saw him leave out of the window. She told everyone then and later on that it was a large, heavy-set man with wavy black hair.
The man she later identified positively as the attacker was seventeen year old Junior Edd Thompson, son of the black family whose farm abutted the Pratt acreage, friends of the family. Junior wasn’t a young man always in trouble and in fact had broken out of jail shortly before on a charge of breaking and entering. At the time of his run down and arrest in the next day or so, he was described as short, slight, one hundred forty-five pounds, with close cropped hair.
The trial that followed was notable for a number of reasons. It was the first trial with a mixed jury, men and women, for a capital crime in the country. Women generally served on juries for lesser crimes and it caused a stir. Most of the women called tried to get out of it and their husbands didn’t understand why they should not be allowed to serve in their places. The method of selection from the jury pool was unusual. A five year old boy was paid five dollars to pull slips of names from a box as each person was seated and questioned, replacements when one was disqualified added. I’ve never heard of such.
The prosecutor, Ralph Scott, went on in later years to serve as a United States congressman, the defense attorney, Hampton Price of Leaksville was a state senator at the time. The judge, William Haywood Bobbitt, went on to serve as Chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme court. The sheriff, Munsey Hodges, wasn’t notable for a lot, but his younger brother, Luther, was governor of the state later down the road, and he worked for him. The Pratt family hired Sharp and Sharp, a father and daughter law firm, to look into their late father’s interest and check Ruby out. Susie Sharp later became the first female superior court judge in North Carolina, the first female judge to get a seat on a state supreme court in the country. later the first female justice of a state supreme court in the country. She had a peripheral involvement in another true crime book I posted about, Bitter Blood.
The trial lasted three days, the jury was out only an hour. returning with a verdict of not guilty on all counts(Hampton Price kept introducing witness that recounted Ruby’s early description of the assailant as a large, heavy-set man). price, an expensive lawyer, had, in fact, been hired by the victim’s family. They didn’t believe Ruby’s story.
No one else was ever arrested or prosecuted. At this point, no one is even sure whether there was ever any more investigation.
An interesting book, which fueled my own interests such as probably wouldn’t do so for the casual reader. My hometown, I remember a lot of things I’d forgotten over the years. One of Ruby’s favorite hangouts was a bar called The Palomar. I remember it well. It was old and on it’s last legs when I became old enough to drink. Eighteen was beer drinking age then, liquor twenty-one, and I didn’t drink beer back then, probably going in only a couple of times before it was eventually torn down. Ruby attended movies in theaters on the Boulevard and the Balmar, where I saw my first theater movie, THE LONE RANGER AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD, though the author misplaced it as on Washington Street in Leaksville when, in fact, it was on Mill Avenue in Draper. One of the people in the Pratt family, fifteen year old Wink Hoover, guarded Ruby with a shotgun while the adult males searched the surrounding woods. I knew him, much later of course.
The mores were different back then. Divorce was frowned upon and Ruby was a divorced woman which vexed Tom Pratt a lot. If he had known there was a second marriage she never mentioned, the marriage might never have happened.
And of course, the treatment of blacks. I never understood that as I grew up, even though I never attended schools with any until I hit high school. But my grandfather and his small grocery store taught me a lot about how to treat and respect people.
The author, pictured above, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and an adjunct assistant professor at Queensboro Community College.
For more forgotten books, go check out Patti Abbott over at her blog, Pattinase.