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Who killed Martha Russell?

December 30, 2018

I don’t know if Paul Harvey actually said, “If you want to get away with murder, go to Rome, Georgia,” or not, but as a retired Rome Police Major turned writer, there aren’t many weeks that go by that I’m not asked about the murders of Kelly Ledbetter, Josh Smuckler, Kyle McKonkey and others. Truthfully, there were good suspects for each of those, but not enough evidence to get an indictment. Thinking something, even being pretty dang sure, won’t get an indictment, warrant or bring it to a trial.

So, when a friend asked me, “What do you know about the murder of Martha Russell?” I was totally lost. I’d never heard of her. I asked my friend, “Was she killed in the city or county?” The county had their share of murders, too, most of which I’m not familiar with. It turns out she was killed in the city of Rome, but way back yonder in 1929. My question was what made her so important in 2018.

The city does cemetery tours periodically of Myrtle Hill. They walk to the grave of where famous people in Rome’s history are buried and tell a little of their history. You know, like President Wilson’s wife, Augustus Wright (a famous Rome lawyer and member of the delegation from Georgia that founded the Confederacy). Maybe the great-grandparents of the “Doors” lead singer Jimmy Morrison (his dad was born here you know, lived at 715 Avenue A). But I was trying to figure out who Martha Russell was in history, and what was her place on the tour of famous and rich Romans.

The city tour guides introduce her as a “witch” that was murdered in her home on North Avenue, but she’s buried in the Johnson plot near the top of Myrtle Hill. A very nice plot, I might add.

Let me run a rabbit right here: Colonel J. Lindsay Johnson was the owner of the Rome Herald Tribune. He married Anne Gillespie of New York. Aunt Martha came to Rome with Anne and spent her life, or most of it, working for the Johnsons at their home, Rio Vista (built in 1879), at 601 E. Second Ave., overlooking the Etowah River.

The headlines of the March 18, 1929, edition were:

“VOODOO LINKED WITH MURDER HERE

Aunt Martha, white woman, is murdered

Throat slashed and beaten over the head, Police are confronted with a Mystery

KNOWN AS A WITCH

Money, witch bags, locks of hair and trinkets were found in the house. One item found was a small jelly jar containing two dried frog skins, string beans, shelled peas and watermelon seeds.

Funeral services were held at the Johnson home, Rio Vista, at 3 P.M. on the 18th of March. Aunt Martha was buried in the Johnson family plot at Myrtle Hill Cemetery.”

That bit of information was sent to me by Margaret Hollingsworth, who helps me with research from time to time. Also, after reading that, you know it perked my interest, so I contacted Robin Atkins, who does research full time, and asked her if she had anything on Martha or a few minutes to look (she stays pretty busy). She sent me newspaper articles from Augusta, Columbus and Macon. It seems the murder of a witch is not your common, everyday occurrence, even in 1929.

Can you imagine the police going to work on this case? I sure can. They get the call from J.A. Humphrey, a mechanic and client of “Aunt Martha’s,” that he found her lying in the hall of her small house on North Avenue. The police evidently knew her as being a fortune teller and one who casts spells.

In interviewing Mr. Humphrey and several blacks that he told about her being dead, they had two theories to go on. One of the theories was that of robbery, and the other was the murder being committed by an unsatisfied client. They found almost $200 in a small box that pretty much ruled out robbery.

Interviews are overwhelming, her client list is long. When the police mention she was bludgeoned and then stabbed, that her throat was cut in at least four places, one of the black males they talked to told them she was a “witch” and no bullet would hurt her. You can’t shoot a witch. They also had to deal with superstition in the long line of suspects. If it was an unsatisfied client, the list was potentially lengthy. Police however, never mentioned finding any unsatisfied clients. It seems just the opposite. The investigation was going nowhere.

But the press was. Now the Brunswick Papers were following the investigation, as was the Arkansas Gazette, and the Washington Star in D.C. Police were working under a magnifying glass with no real leads.

I’m not familiar with the different kinds of “witchcraft,” but a lot does come from Pagan religions scattered through the British Isles and Northern Europe.

Martha Russell was brought to this country from Scotland as a baby by her parents, William and Frances Russell. She was 26 when she came to Georgia with Anne Gillespie, as a nurse, not a housekeeper. Apparently she served for years as a nurse and nanny. She wasn’t in Scotland long enough to learn witchcraft, but her mother may have taught her, or she could have picked it up here.

Curiosity got the best of me, so I asked a friend on my Facebook page who is a self-professed witch about learning the craft. Her answer was, “When your grandmother was teaching you how to look and boil beans, mine was teaching me to conjure.”

Next week let’s look at what the witch said while in Rome, and a little about “Southern Appalachian granny witches.”

Mike Ragland is a former Cave Spring city councilman and a retired Rome police major. His most recent book is “Lucy and the Ghost Train.” Readers may contact him at mrag@bellsouth.net or mikeragland.com.

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