Studio: A collage about a murder?

Yes, the day has arrived when I am creating work about the story of a murder. What has possessed me to do so? Well, I’ll tell you.

Among the old newspaper articles inherited from my grandmother was a newspaper clipping from Sept. 4, 1927.

The article explains that Alma Petty Gatlin confessed to her preacher, Rev. Thomas F. Pardue that she had killed her father, Smith Petty. The preacher goes into detail in the article what Alma told him during her confession. He relays that “she had killed her father with an axe, that she had come in one Sunday evening and found him choking her mother and that she entered into a fight. At first she got the best of him, then he gave her a genteel whipping and she said she would ‘get him’ before morning. I then asked her, “How did you do it?” She said that on the next morning about 5 o’clock she went into the basement and got the chopping axe and brought it up and placed it behind the kitchen door and when her mother and sister had gone to work, she prepared breakfast for him. He came in cursing in the usual way. He ate the cereals placed before him and she fried an egg. She placed that before him and he began to eat the egg. She struck the first blow on the top of the head with all of her power from behind.”

Pretty gruesome, huh? Why was this story cut out of the paper and kept so long? My grandmother would only be 15 when this murder happened. Did she keep the article, or was it someone else? My great grandmother?

Upon further investigation, I discovered a book written about the murder by Phil Link in 2002, only 5 years ago! What luck! I ordered it immediately and just finished reading it today. Phil Link lived 2 doors down from the Petty’s during the time of the murder, and saw the body the day it was found in the basement of the Petty house.

It was a quick read, and gave me great insight as to why this article may have been saved. This was a BIG story in it’s day, and Phil Link painstakingly interviewed as many people as he could find to give their own accounts of the story and the people involved.

The Petty family consisted of the mother, Janie, the father, Smith, oldest daughter, Thelma, daughter, Alma, son Woodrow, and youngest son, Smith, Jr. Smith, the father had a temper and was fond of drinking. He was often gone working a job in other towns in cotton mills, and tobacco mills, depending on where there was a job to be had. Whenever he returned to town, he would take his anger out on his family. It was not suspicious when Smith was not around for long periods of time. On March 9th, 1927 the mother, Janie Petty died of double pneumonia. When Smith didn’t show up for her funeral, suspicion finally was realized, and people started to wonder where he was, especially his brother and father. It was around mother’s day of the same year that Alma “confessed” to Rev. Pardue. Of course Alma denied such confession, and the trial turned into a word against word debate. Was the jury going to believe Alma or the reverend?

It wasn’t until the trial that we learn what Alma’s defense story was. She kept quiet and did not tell her story until the trial. Her story was that it was her dead mother that committed the act of murder, and dealt the death blow with the axe in self defense. Alma, her brother Woodrow, and her mother were all witness to Smith’s death and for fear of bring gossip and slander to the family, (even if it was self defense), Janie begged her daughter and son to keep quiet about the matter. So they did. Alma’s confession to Rev. Pardue was true, but instead of saying it was her mother, she said it was her, as not to ruin her mother’s name. It was because she feared her mother’s place in heaven, and was trying to achieve her salvation and confessing to save her mother’s soul. It also weighed heavily on her conscience.

The eye of the public was heavy on Rev. Pardue. Many questioned his motives of revealing the confession in the first place. The confession was told in confidence. As a Reverend, he was supposed to keep her secret no matter what. There were three catholic nuns in NY who wrote to Alma that it was their belief that the reverend had violated a sacred trust by revealing her confession, and that they were praying for Alma’s salvation. She received many letters of sympathy.

In the end, the Jury decided to believe Alma. She was free to go home after staying in jail for 5 months.

Do I think she did it? After hearing all the evidence and the stories of the towns people many years later, yes, I think she did do it. I think she did it in self defense, and she was protecting her family from her abusive father. I think the whole family knew about it, including the mother. Her mother died only 2 months after the incident. (I’ve always believed that we bring on our own health problems.) Did she die because something weighed so heavy on her heart? Her own daughter murdered her husband. This is a heavy burden to carry, even if it was self defense. Do I think she should have been prosecuted? No. She had to live with this burden and family history for the rest of her life. That is punishment enough.

It was said that Alma was allowed to decorate her jail cell with lace curtains and chintz draperies to match the cover of the couch in her cell. She also hung two pictures of her mother and one of her husband. Over the months she would cut out pictures of movie stars from magazines and plaster them up on the walls.

Alma always kept her composure when she had visitors and it was said she kept her spirits high and anticipated that she would not go to jail for the murder.

Alma died in 2001 at the age of 95.

Woodrow died in 1969 of chronic alcoholism.

Smith, Jr. developed a drinking problem and died in CA in 1965.

Thelma died in 1957. It was not said how.

Reverend Pardue went a little mad.  It was printed in a newspaper article a few years after the trial that he said to his congregation that “he had a pistol in his automobile and would use it with deadly effect if anyone attempted to molest him.  He also told his congregation that he had been working all his life for nothing.”

Now, does that sound like an honest reverend to you?



Filed under Artwork in Progress, Collage, Inspiration, Memory, Photo, Sketchbook, Studio Practice, Trace

9 responses to “Studio: A collage about a murder?

  1. orestessaturnino

    INTERESTING ACCOUNT. There’s no mention ofn Alma’s husband, the local firechief , as shown in the newspaper headline. Did this happen in Greensboro ?
    What state does Greensboro belong to ? Where is
    Reidsville located?

  2. Orestessaturino,

    This happened in the state of North Carolina, where both Greensboro and Reidsville are. There was not much detail about Alma’s husband, though they did mention that he was very fond of Coca Cola, and would visit the local store and drink 2 cokes at at time about 6-8 times a day. He was quite “famous” for it. Someone took the time to actually count how many he drank one day, and counted 18 cokes. Of course, back then, Coca Cola had cocaine in it.

    Gene Gatlin and Alma met working in the same movie theater. He was the projectionist. When they left Reidsville, he went back to being a projectionist. He died in 1952.


  3. rainparker

    man i love what you did with this! the pieces look great, as usual! nice job 🙂

  4. Your idea of turning history into visual art is captivating. I can’t wait to see the finished piece.

  5. Sharon

    Hey are you or your family from Reidsville or Greensboro! I am from Reidsville. I talk to Phil Link today and told him i was reading his book. He is really a nice man. Sharon

  6. Hi Sharon,

    Yes, both my father and mother grew up in Burlington and Greensboro. The article was in my grandmothers collection of photos, and she and her family grew up mostly in Burlington. I hope you enjoyed my post! Are you enjoying the book? Thanks for commenting.


  7. Michelle

    I grew up listening to my grandmother tell this story. She lived a block or so up the street from the Pettys, and went to school with Alma, who was a year or so older. Grandma also had a younger brother named Woodrow. He came home from school and told that Alma’s brother said that Mr. Petty had to leave in the middle of the night to go out of town. When Mrs. Petty died a couple of months later, no one could find him. One of the other girls on Lindsey Street spent the night before the funeral with Alma. Back in those days the body was kept in the house until burial, and the other teenager said she was a little scared to go to sleep knowing there was a body downstairs. Alma supposedly said “You would REALLY be scared if you knew what I know!” Also, one of the nurses at the hospital reported that when Mrs. Petty was on her deathbed, Alma kept pleading with her mother about something. She reportedly refused Alma, saying “No, I will not die with a lie on my lips.” Now, everyone in the neighborhood assumed Mr. Petty had abandoned the family, but several months later, they found out the truth. Grandma had gotten married at 15, and a year later, she was expecting her first child. She was seven months along the day they found Mr. Petty’s body, and she gathered with the neighbors in the Petty’s sideyard to watch the commotion. She was watching when they emptied the coal bin, and carried out his body, still bent in almost a fetal position, and still wearing his BVD’s, as she put it. She delicately described the condition of his body (I was a child, for Pete’s sake!) and said between the heat, the crowd, and the smell, she nearly fainted. (She always blamed this sight for “marking” her pregnancy, and her first son was born dead several weeks later.)

    Anyway, I always wanted to write about this, and when I moved back to Reidsville about 15 years ago, I read all the newspaper stories in the library. The librarian told me then that she knew of at least 2 people who were writing about it, and that one of them (Mr. Link) was waiting until Alma Petty died before printing, out of concern for her family and her feelings.
    I feel like Alma actually killed him, but I believe that it was a result of his abusiveness and drinking. (One detail Grandma always insisted on was that she killed him in an argument over a boyfriend. I think this can be attributed to the times, when his behavior would have been ignored or overlooked as being “not our business.” For the most part, though, everything happened just as Grandma said.) (In a side note, Grandma lived just across the street from the Sharps, who would later be brought to public attention in “Bitter Blood.”)

    Anyway, the collage was an interesting concept.

  8. Michelle,

    Thanks so much for your comment. This story will always fascinate me. As far as your side note, I had no idea that there was a book where the Sharp family was mentioned. I will read it for sure. Did you realize when you made this comment that Sharpe was my grandmothers maiden name? I think I mentioned that in another post. However, she spelled it with an “e” at the end. Very intriguing, indeed. I’m ordering the book now! 😉 I love these mysteries.


  9. Carol Childrey Phillips

    I am from Reidsville and this story has always captured my attention. My father helped Phil Link get some of the information as he was writing the book. Phil had to wait for Alma to die before he would publish it.
    I ran across the original clipping just the other day and also a carbon copy of the transcripts from the trial when I was cleaning out some of my parent’s old books. The house is not too far from where my parents live and when I pass by it, its hard to imagine this happened in this house and in this small town. I would love to have a copy of this article. Mine is torn and has been pieced together and parts are missing. Would like to get together with you to discuss if you will.

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