Friday, July 12, 2019

The Murder of Civil War Veteran James M. Carr

A few years ago, I had another blog, ( for which I searched in local cemeteries for headstones of Civil War veterans and then researched these men. I found a few interesting stories, and a couple stood out more than others in my memory. For one of these, I actually made a few posts about it, though they were pretty bare-bones, with a transcription of newspaper articles and only a few of my own comments.

Even as years and years passed, I never forgot about this particular story and, a few months ago, I decided to look into it more closely. I ended up doing more research, analysis, and writing on it and published it in the Campbell County Historical and Genealogical Society newsletter. I thought it turned out well, probably the most interesting article I had ever written for that newsletter, at least from my own biased perspective, so I decided to put it back into blog format, edit it some and then post it here, though much of it involves the post-Civil War years.

It is a long story, but that should work better as a blog entry than in the paper newsletter. I find it to be a fascinating, though sad, story. I really felt like I came to know this "kind old man" based on various newspaper reports. I hope readers will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed finding, researching, and writing what will likely remain one of my favorite stories.


The pitter-patter of the rain falling on the tin roof echoed loudly throughout the tiny shelter as investigators gazed in disbelief at the unforgettable scene before them on a SAD, DREARY FEBRUARY MORNING…


James Madison Carr was born in Kanawha County, Virginia, now part of West Virginia, on December 29, 1844. His parents likely named him for the 4th President of the United States, the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison. (The 1850 census showed his first name as “Maddison” but “James” or “James M” appeared on all other records and the second “D” in Maddison seems like a mistake. On the same page of that record, the word “wagon” was misspelled “waggon.”)

Location of Kanawha County, courtesy wikipedia

He was born to lead a blue-collar life. His father William worked as a wagon maker and mechanic according to census records, and various records listed James as a laborer.

On April 12, 1861, civil war disrupted the nation, and many thousands of men rushed to volunteer for their preferred side. William hesitated briefly, but on September 2, 1861, in Boone County, Virginia, he joined company B of the 8th Virginia Infantry (U.S.), which was soon re-designated the 8th Virginia Mounted Infantry. 

More than a year later, on December 1,1862, James enlisted in Company K of the same unit, which officials renamed the 7th West Virginia Cavalry on January 26, 1864. The minimum age to join the army was 18 years and James still four weeks shy of that milestone, but found his way into the service, like many others at that time.

At the time of his enlistment, James stood five feet, nine inches tall, with a fair complexion, brown hair, and hazel eyes. He was working as a laborer and signed up for a standard three year term.

Their regiment participated in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign against Stonewall Jackson, the Battle of Cross Keys, and the Battle of Second Bull Run, among other expeditions, all before James enlisted. Once James had joined, it served on outpost duty throughout Virginia and the new state of West Virginia, and saw fighting at the Battles of Cloyd’s Mountain and New River Bridge. (One article claimed that James had served under U.S. Grant, but that is incorrect unless they referred to Grant’s time as General-in-Chief, in which he was in charge of all U.S. forces. The reporter may have included that line to inflate Carr’s record in the readers’ minds.)

War was more than just glory, fame and honor. In December of 1863, Confederate soldiers captured William in a skirmish near the Jackson River in Virginia. This was part of a raid on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad by the troops of Brigadier General William Averell, a raid noted for its “extreme difficulty, the tenacity of (its) commanders and the courage of the soldiers involved.”

The Confederates sent William to Andersonville. General Averell reported that the enemy had captured 97 of his men on this expedition. A staggering 71 of those poor souls died at Andersonville. William was among this group, passing away from typhus fever and chronic diarrhea on April 6, 1864. He is buried at Andersonville National Cemetery.

William Carr's Andersonville headstone, courtesy
James was still only 19 years old when his father died. The news of his father’s fate must have been especially devastating to him since his mother had died when he was just five.

James served out his term like a good soldier. His regiment spent much of the last part of the war in and around the Kanawha Valley. Its men policed the region and paroled former Confederate soldiers who returned to the area following Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

After the unit mustered out on August 1, 1865, James moved on to post-war life. He married Mary Ann Scraggs in Wellsville, Ohio on Christmas Day 1879, and in the next year was still working as a laborer in Ironton, Ohio.

The 1890 U.S. Veterans’ Census shows that the couple was living in Cincinnati at that time. Ten years later, James and Mary had moved to Newport, Kentucky, a city along the southern side of the Ohio River, across from Cincinnati. He worked as a general laborer and could read and write.

In 1910, the couple still resided in Newport, and his occupation was now “rag picker” with his industry (referring to place of work) shown as “around dump.”

Unfortunately, the 1910 census was the last which included this couple. Mary passed away on April 19, 1914, and James lived less than a year longer.


...FRIDAY FEBRUARY 5, 1915 dawned as an ordinary winter day, but things changed drastically about 7:00 that morning when Mrs. Samuel Mackkenzie, a resident of Newport (probably the Mamie McKinsey whom the 1910 census shows as a 30-year-old at-home laundress) stopped by the home of her friend James Carr to see how he was doing. A quartet of dogs, near their owner’s bed as if guarding him, greeted her with their whining. She looked past them and saw her neighbor on his bed. Believing him asleep, she yelled out to him. He failed to respond or stir, and, while looking at him ever more intently, she noticed dried blood smeared on his face, his body lying in a pool of blood. She inched nearer the lifeless body, and once more spoke to him, desperately asking what was wrong. When again he did not answer, Mackkenzie, also observing his crushed skull and other morbid details of the scene, finally accepted the unthinkable - her friend was dead! - and immediately notified the police, who came to investigate.

What the police found was beyond disturbing. “The upper portion of the man’s body lay on the bed, his feet and legs extended, supported by a broken chair, allowing the body to sag in the middle.” His corpse looked to be “cold in death.”

“A short-handled sledge hammer, clotted with blood, probably the one used in the killing, lay by the side of the bed. A stove lid lay by the side of the hammer,” reported The Kentucky Post. The Cincinnati Enquirer, meanwhile, relayed that the hammer weighed 8.25 pounds and was “covered with blood and some of Carr’s gray hairs.”

This was a gruesome scene, and an article bluntly stated its cause: “during the night someone had entered his poor dwelling and beaten his brains out.”

The official cause of death was obvious: “concussion (of) brain…head mashed by hammer.” His death certificate further noted: “death was sudden.”

James Carr's Death Certificate

Police scoured his tiny abode for clues, finding only a life insurance policy in Carr’s pockets, and some women’s clothing and a hat. Any money he possessed was completely gone, even though neighbors told police the old man had collected a $54 pension a few days previously. They said he had paid some bills and speculated that he likely had around $30 on him as Thursday ended. Robbery was the obvious motive of this crime.

A local resident found Carr’s military discharge papers on a nearby street.

Carr’s life had been far from luxurious. He “lived the life of a hermit,” while his “dwelling was poor and his living cheap.” His home was certainly small, in size about eight feet by ten feet; newspaper accounts referred to it as a “hut,” “a meager hovel,” “a poor, dingy hovel,” a "desolate hut," “a poor dwelling,” and a “battered little shack.” Carr had built it using old pieces of wood with scrap tin nailed to it, perhaps finding materials at a nearby dump. It stood “on the very banks where the Licking (River) and Ohio River meet.”

Inside the building, a support beam, resembling an “Indian totem pole” because of the moccasins, animal skins, and beads attached to it, helped hold up the roof, and a bed rested in the northwest corner of the single room. Other small items filled the place.

Pictures of exterior and interior of hut, KY Post 2-6-15. The quality is poor, but they give some idea of his small home. In the interior picture, note the support pole. Behind it, to the left is the bed and the chair is to the right. His body rested on those two pieces of furniture.
After viewing the awful scene, the police proceeded with their investigation. The unhelpful eyewitnesses Mackkenzie had disturbed remained in the home: “Four dogs lay on the bed by the side of the dead man. One huge white canine lay within a few inches of his master’s shattered skull. The white hair on the dog’s back was dyed to a clotted brown, where his master’s life’s blood had escaped over his back, as it seeped from the ugly wound in his skull.” It is difficult to comprehend the sheer horror the four pets had witnessed or what they may have understood or remembered about this heinous crime. (The fate of the dogs - did a kind local resident give them a home or did they become strays? - escaped notice from the reporters and probably will forever remain unknown.)

The investigators tracked down a few two-legged witnesses. A man named John King stated he had talked to Carr on late Thursday afternoon, helping place the time of the murder as later that night.

Mrs. Mackkenzie was another person of interest. Police spoke to her about the crime, but she provided no more help, claiming she often visited Carr, though without particular reason that sad day.

Three officers working the case, Lieutenant Lieberth and Detectives Burnside and Howe, questioned another woman, but received little information from her.

Police did locate two other potential witnesses, using a statutory charge of living together (a sign of how times have changed) to pick up Ella Owens and Owen McClaughlin. Interviews produced conflicting alibis from these two, who did, however, agree in denying knowledge of the crime.

Owens eventually claimed to be a distant relative of Carr, saying she sometimes visited him and occasionally cleaned his house and cooked his meals, though she had not visited Thursday night.

Investigators also discovered that Carr had given the 18-year-old Owens clothing and money and that when he visited her home, McClaughlin would hide behind a bed to make it appear Owens was alone.

The duo apparently provided no information relevant to the investigation, but another pair of neighbors shared more helpful stories.

The Kentucky Post reported that “a negro woman giving her name as Bassett,” who lived near Carr, said that about midnight on Thursday two men knocked on her door, waking and frightening her. She spoke to them through the closed door, leaving her unable to furnish a description of the unexpected visitors. She stated they wanted to know where Owens was, and then asked where Carr lived, which she told them. She soon thereafter heard a loud crash, then only a deafening silence. She heard nothing else, so she returned to bed. (This lady may have been Nancy Basset, a 67-year-old widow at the time of the 1920 census.)
    The Cincinnati Enquirer printed a similar story. It revealed that “a colored man named Bennett” reported that a stranger visited his house on Patterson Street, asked where McClaughlin was, then inquired where Carr lived. A short time later, Bennett heard Carr’s dogs barking, followed by a noise as though somebody was trying to break down a door. Mr. Bennett, who may have been a 74-year-old janitor named Johnson Bennett, did not investigate the sound.

    The newspapers mentioned no other witnesses, but reported that officials did have a theory about the crime. They believed that “a gang of thugs” had been traveling throughout the country, but had remained in town for a while since they apparently knew Carr’s movements. They theorized that the hoodlums attempted to rob the old man, but he resisted, leading them to “beat his brains out” with the sledge hammer, expecting or hoping that the nearby river, its level growing ever higher due to recent rains, would continue to rise and thus hide their crime by washing the corpse, and even the hut, downriver, to be lost forever.

    This was a sad loss for the community. Neighbors described Carr as a “peace-loving” man who loved flowers and they recalled that his yard “in summer days was a blaze of color from flowers of all varieties. He also raised vegetables.”

    Stories documented that “he was kind-hearted…always lending aid to the needy people living in that section,” and that he “bought clothing and other trinkets for children and women.”

    He had worked as a rag-picker, gathering items from area dumps, then selling them. (Think of an old-fashioned, more local version of the job depicted in American Pickers.) With this occupation, he “provided for himself and many others by the money he made from rags and other junk he picked from nearby dumps.”

    His small house, which a newspaper reported he built when he first began squatting (occupying unoccupied land) about 15 years earlier, sat on the “brow of the hill that slopes towards the Ohio and also to the Licking,” and had survived serious flooding in 1912. (Flooding was not unusual in the area; flooding was one reason the Newport Barracks, in use from the early 1800s through the early 1880s, were moved to Fort Thomas, and a historically devastating 1937 flood led to the eventual completion of a flood wall in Newport.)  Another article claimed that he had built his hut shortly after his wife had died 15 years previously, but she had actually lived until 1914. These timelines seem wildly inaccurate – it is doubtful that two people could inhabit such a small cabin for 14 years, plus the census indicates that James and Mary lived on James Alley in 1900, a 1908 city directory places him on Patterson Street, and the 1910 census shows them on Brighton Street. The small hut was clearly not a mobile home, so its year of construction remains uncertain.

    Carr had surrounded his hut with a fence fabricated mostly of old mattress springs, leaving an opening so that it looked like “a thoroughfare passed through to the east of the place.” A few old stoves also filled the yard.

    He had blazed a path leading to the river and while it may be ideal to picture the old man sauntering down to the water to enjoy a pleasant view or to fish for his next meal, a more practical use of the path may have been to access the water for bathing and other hygienic purposes since indoor plumbing was not an option. (The article did not clarify which river was the path’s destination.)

    2010 picture from Google Earth showing the Licking River (bottom) and Ohio River (top).  Carr's hut was on the right side of the Licking.  The concrete path is on top the modern flood wall which did not exist at the time of Carr's death
    View from the Carew Tower in Cincinnati showing the Licking River meeting the Ohio. Carr's hut was on the left of the Licking from this angle.
    Carr’s lack of nearby close relatives contributed to one issue and one potential problem. First, some confusion over his exact name existed, as his death certificate and the newspapers listed his middle initial as “P” instead of “M.” How exactly this happened is unclear, but the informant for the death certificate was Radel’s Funeral Home. Did the funeral home get it wrong and the reporters follow its lead, or was it vice versa? Either way, the evidence seems to show that the person called “James P. Carr” really was “James M. Carr,” as virtually all reports from newspapers, military forms, census records, and cemetery records agreed on other information, showing he was about 71 years old (one article said 74), a “rag picker” in Newport, had served in the Civil War, died on February 5, 1915, and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery. His headstone also shows “M.”

    After the coroner finished his work, the question of what to do with Carr’s corpse could have caused trouble, but his insurance policy and a kind act avoided that. A local union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers, took charge of the body and arranged a funeral at Radel’s Chapel on Saturday February 13, with burial at Evergreen Cemetery. (One puzzle is why no local camp of the Grand Army of the Republic offered to help. Perhaps none heard of his death, or maybe one tried to help, with that information now lost to history. Maybe no camp was active in the area at that time, 50 years after the war. It is also conceivable that Carr was not a member of the G.A.R., possibly disqualifying him from receiving benefits.)

    As for the criminal case, no resolution has yet surfaced. Police claimed that a law passed in 1912 – preventing cops from arresting a suspect without strong evidence – impeded their investigation. Detectives Burnside and Howe told a reporter that they knew who the killer was but that their hands were “tied” unless the state repealed the law. They felt the only way to get a conviction was through a confession which never came.

    (A call to the Newport Police Department confirmed that the unit no longer holds records from the time of this crime.)

    On February 5, 1915, a day when even the heavens wept, James Madison Carr, an orphan at age 19, a Union Civil War veteran, and, from all reports, a kind, generous, and peaceful old man, died tragically in his small home, the victim of an incredibly horrific, violent, and still unresolved crime. 

    Headstone in Evergreen Cemetery, Southgate, Ky., author's photo
    Rest in peace, soldier.


    Postscript: In a  crazy coincidence, several years after first finding this story, I later found out that Benjamin Franklin Davis, my great-great-grandfather, was in Company D of the same 7th West Virginia Cavalry Regiment. I naturally have to wonder if he ever met or knew James Carr.
    Undated photo of Benjamin Franklin Davis, author's collection

    Sources in addition to ones mentioned or linked in the post:

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