Yesterday's News

Crimes of passion

Stressful times of 1930 brought two murders to the Henderson area

By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
September 11, 2005

You know that portion of the marriage vows, "until death do you part"? This is a story about a couple of fellows who took that death part a little too seriously.

One couple were newlyweds, and the wife met her end crouched in the closet of a whorehouse. The other couple was in the midst of their second divorce, and had just sung "The Old Rugged Cross," before Ira Willingham slashed a straight razor across the throats of his wife and her lover.

As you might have already surmised, this column contains sex and violence and is rated for mature audiences.

Seventy-five years ago today readers of The Gleaner woke up to find that Owen Jones, 19, had shot and killed his wife of three weeks in a whorehouse at 534 Fagan St., in the red light district commonly called Pea Ridge.

Novella Jones was 18 years old and had a four-year-old son by a previous marriage. Her marriage to Owen was obviously under some stress, because at the time of her death Owen had been scheduled to be tried the following week for the Valentine's Day murder of Evansville resident William J. Howard. The two men had been fighting over the division of some clothes.

The young couple had been living at the house of Sallie Smithhart, who for years had been Henderson's most notorious purveyor of prostitution. Smithhart testified that she had heard the couple argue when they first woke up the morning of Sept. 10, 1930, but it was several hours later, while she was in the kitchen preparing lunch, that she heard three rapid gunshots.

The first shot went through Novella's arm and side. She ran to a closet for shelter, but as she huddled there the second shot ripped through her heart. Owen then shot himself in the right temple. The bullet tore a diagonal path through his brain, passed through a door, and embedded itself in a wall.

As legendary blues singer Robert Johnson once testified, a .32-20 packs a pretty good punch.

A whorehouse also enters into the story of the second killing of a wife by her husband. Ira Willingham, 46, and Donia, 32, had first married in 1914 but divorced in 1916. She had five children by May 1930, when they separated a second time.

Donia moved to Evansville, into a boarding house with the reputation as a house of ill repute. One of the other boarders was a man named John Upton, with whom she reportedly was intimate. At first Ira filed for a second divorce, but on Sept. 18 he traveled to Evansville to try to reconcile with his wife.

It didn't work. But Ira put the best face on it, spending the day helping Upton repair a garage. He then asked for a ride to the ferry where the twin bridges now span the Ohio River. Three of the kids came along for the ride, as well as Donia and her sister.

While parked at the ferry landing, Ira pulled out a razor and slashed Donia's throat before he did the same to Upton, who survived the attack. He reportedly also tried to kill Donia's sister. He calmly walked away and kept one step ahead of an intense manhunt for four days before he turned himself in.

He later tried to explain the killings as self-defense, in a letter to County Judge B.S. Morris: "I went to beg her to live with me again and when I got there she was living with another man and told me she loved him better than anyone on earth and said he (Upton) would shoot me at the crook of (her) finger."

Ira went to trial in mid-January of 1931, at which time there was some trouble finding an unbiased jury. It was a capital case and the jury members had some trouble agreeing; they apparently compromised in finding him guilty of manslaughter, handing him the maximum prison sentence of 21 years.

I tell you these stories because they make titillating reading, of course, but I have a serious observation I'd like to leave you with. As the Great Depression began grinding people down, violent crime became a more serious problem here. People were under tremendous stress, with little to lose, and it didn't take much to make them snap. I think you'll be seeing more of these types of crimes as I continue writing about the 1930s.

The Gleaner's editorial page even had something to say about the murders of two wives within nine days:

"Murder is stalking our midst too often. The red hand of the criminal is too frequently dipped in blood. And the worst phase of this saturnalia of devilishness is that in each of the two recent outrages here a husband has slain his wife, the woman he swore to cherish and protect."

140 years ago

The pages of the Henderson Reporter became one-third larger in size after its Sept. 14, 1865 issue, which ends the available microfilm from that period.

Consequently, I'll be switching to writing about 1905 as of next week's column. I originally began this column in 1998 writing about intervals of 100, 75, 50 and 25 years ago. I had to switch to the 1880s and 1860s because of a lack of microfilm from the early 1900s, but beginning next week I'll revert to that original format.

50 years ago

About 4 million gallons of stagnant water was drained from a ravine at the rear of Methodist Hospital, making the area available for use as a landfill, according to a 1955 article in The Gleaner.

The ravine had been dammed by the construction of a road to the old water treatment plant, and the impounded water had been named by the county Health Department as "one of the city's most prolific breeding areas for mosquitoes."

25 years ago

Commonwealth Attorney Ulvester Walker issued subpoenas for practically every sworn officer in the Henderson Police Department, raising eyebrows all over town, according to 1980 articles in The Gleaner.

Between 25 and 30 officers were compelled to attend the October session of the grand jury. Walker said he was trying to deter sloppy police reports, which resulted in the correct officers not being subpoenaed for trials.

In meeting with the police chief and city manager, Walker said, "I told them that if this conduct continued that it would be necessary for me to subpoena every officer every time I have a criminal trial and at every meeting of the grand jury so that I would know I would have the right persons to testify."


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS