Every woman is a rebel, and usually in wild revolt against herself.
-Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance
Not long ago, I shared with you the rediscovery of some old family photographs, including the memento mori of my great-uncle, Gary Lee. In that box of photographs, news clippings, and letters, I found not just the only pictures to exist of this little soul, but also a family story, and a dark secret. This is possibly scandal enough for the likes of Savannah, much less a little one-light town in North Carolina. You know Mayberry? Alright, well think even smaller and you get Broadway.
It all started in the late 1920s with my great-grandparents, Holton and Hermie…
Hermie was a beautiful gal by most standards. Her family had come East from Appalachia and settled in the quiet country town of Buies Creek, North Carolina. She had a taste for the expensive things in life, and was known around town for her beauty. From what neighbors had said, she was well aware of her looks and their effects on men. My grandmother always described her with one word: vain.
It didn’t take long for Hermie to get a small modelling gig out of Raleigh. For the day and age, she posed for some slightly risque photographs, showing plenty of leg and teasing cleavage. Some of the photographs display a hand-painted yellow overlay, arraying her hair with golden tones.
Unfortunately for Hermie, the townsfolk did not take kindly to her “outrageous” lifestyle of modelling and dancing. She quickly earned the title of “floozy” for her antics, and was looked down upon as a wild woman. Unfortunately for the townsfolk, Hermie didn’t give a damn, and seemed to thrive off of the controversy.
Though most of her neighbors were unimpressed, Hermie managed to catch the eye of plenty a man and boy, including a Broadway man by the name of Holton. And what strapping young lad wouldn’t want that lady fair on their arm? The two hit it off almost immediately. He enjoyed parading her around town on his arm, buying her the best and most expensive clothes, and ensuring she had the newest car to cruise around town. She enjoyed the unending attention, love, and gifts.
The son of Swedish immigrants, Holton had found success as the Broadway town butcher. He specialized in smoking and curing different cuts of meat; a practice that he continued well into retirement. In fact, in the attic where I found the pictures, meat hooks can still be seen swinging from rafters, as he argued the stale air provided the best curing environment.
Not long after meeting, the two were married. It was 1930, and things were going great for the beautiful, young couple. They settled in Holton’s town of Broadway, in a small house just off of Watson’s Lake.
Their life together flourished, despite the Great Depression that wracked the country. In 1931, they welcomed the birth of their first child, a daughter named Betty Layne.
Little Betty was everything that Hermie had ever hoped and dreamed for. She told Holton that she would be happy if they only had her, and expressed that she would not want another child.
As fate would see fit, it was not long before Hermie was pregnant again. In 1933, she gave birth to the pair’s second child, Gary Lee. Holton was over the moon to have a son. Hermie was less than thrilled at having a second child. She became moody and detached. Neighbors reported that she was incredibly irritable, especially toward the baby, but never to Betty.
Gary Lee died mysteriously in his sleep at around 8 months of age. A small funeral was held, and photographs were taken at the request of Holton.
The little boy was buried in an unmarked grave at Hermie’s family plot in the Buies Creek cemetery.
Rumors abounded about how little Gary Lee had ultimately met his end. Neighbors and friends close to Holton reported having seen Hermie strike the child on numerous occasions, and blamed her for his death. It was said that she either beat or smothered the poor baby, cutting his young life short.
Hermie had never been well-liked by the town, so it is possible that these rumors are completely unfounded. There was never an official police inquiry into the child’s death, so only speculations can be made. Reading between the lines however, the events that occurred after Gary’s death paint a certain picture:
- Holton began drinking heavily after the death of his son. This would lead him down a road of alcoholism, bolstered by later family tragedies, that would ultimately lead to his death.
- The child was buried in an unmarked grave. This was not for lack of funds; the family was well-off, especially by Depression era standards. When asked by another family member as to why Gary did not have a headstone, Hermie was quoted as saying “I don’t want to know where he is, I can’t bear the thought of him”.
- In boxes of Hermie’s belongings, there is no mention of Gary Lee. This is especially confounding, because she was a veritable pack-rat that never threw anything away. Birth announcements of her other two children are easily found, along with locks of hair, rattles, and the like, but nothing regarding Gary.
- It was Holton who had requested the memento mori and the funeral service. Indeed, he was also the one who held onto the photographs of his son.
- After the child’s death, Hermie devoted herself to the church, pouring much time and effort into religious acts where she had not shown much interest before.
- My grandfather, Billy Ray, grew up being told to never talk about Gary Lee. The subject of his older brother was taboo, and his mother would fly into a rage at any mention of the boy. When he had a son of his own, he named him after his lost brother, and this seemed to irritate his mother to no end. The young Gary Lee was often mistreated by Hermie, much moreso than his brother, Billy Paul.
All of these facts together suggest that it is highly possible Hermie was responsible for the death of Gary Lee. At the very least, Hermie was a young mother struggling with severe post-partum depression, who never truly dealt with the loss of the child. Perhaps she blamed herself for his death, even without being responsible. With no apparent support system, it is easy to see how Hermie’s reactions to the death of her child could be one of grief, and not guilt.
The truth will never be known, as Hermie and Holton have long since passed to join their son in the beyond, but I leave you with the knowledge that though things became bleak for Hermie and Holton in 1933, there would be some good days ahead. I will have to devote another post to the life and times of my grandfather, Billy Ray, and all of his misadventures.
Best wishes and sweet dreams,