High Point Confidential: Who killed Mary Hopkins in 1951?
HIGH POINT, N.C. (AP) — PART ONE
No one knew how long the body had been in the old, abandoned house on Willowbrook Street — least of all Thomas Trogden, the poor soul who had the awful misfortune of finding it.
Trogden was a lumberyard laborer, not a forensic expert. All he knew was how long the body was going to stay in his head, which was forever. No span of time nor depth of slumber nor quantity of bay rum — which is what Trogden had been drinking when he discovered the body — could possibly erase what he saw on the morning of March 8, 1951.
With the aforementioned bottle of bay rum in his hand, Trogden had wandered into the dilapidated house on Willowbrook (now S. Elm Street), about a block from the downtown business district, where he could finish off his firewater without the police harassing him. In the front room of the one-story house, on a floor littered with discarded newspapers, magazines, empty tin cans and other debris, he spotted what he initially thought was a mannequin lying face up among the rubbish. After another swig of rum, though, a second glance told him otherwise — he was looking at the body of a nude woman who was clearly dead and had been for quite some time.
A silk stocking had been knotted tightly around the woman’s neck, along with a cloth belt — most likely from a dress, possibly even her own — that had been fashioned into a noose and drawn so tight that it dislocated her neck. Strangulation was the cause of death, but the woman’s body also had been forcefully defiled with a strip of ceiling molding about 27 inches long and 1 1/2 inches in circumference. Nearly 90 percent of the wooden stick had been jammed into her body, puncturing her liver, diaphragm and lower left lung. The body was badly decomposed — she had been dead at least a week, newspapers would later report — and the woman’s Caucasian skin had begun to turn dark brown and black.
Trogden’s grisly discovery rattled him so badly that the 52-year-old High Point man waited about 12 hours before finally going to High Point police. Maybe he figured he needed to sober up first, so they would believe his macabre story. Or maybe he was afraid they would think he was the killer.
It wasn’t just Trogden who was rattled. The High Point Enterprise reported that the ghastly scene “staggered some of the city’s most hardened police officers.” And Guilford County’s veteran coroner, Dr. W.W. Harvey, called the woman’s murder the most brutal homicide he’d ever encountered.
“I thought I had seen everything, but this case tops them all,” Harvey told the Enterprise. “Never in Guilford County during the time I have been coroner has there been anything to compare with this killing for sheer brutality. I would hate to pass an opinion on the type of person capable of committing such a crime.”
The killer had to be “some form of sadistic sexual pervert,” Harvey said.
The victim was Mary Mangum Hopkins, a 45-year-old Durham woman who had lived in High Point and worked at Crown Hosiery Mills on a couple of different occasions. Most recently, in January 1951, a High Point woman named Evelyn Roach had hired her as a maid for about a week. A couple months later, Roach would see Hopkins again — when she identified her body for police. She also confirmed the identity by recognizing clothes found near the victim’s body — clothes Roach had given to Hopkins when she worked for her.
As you can imagine, news of the horrific killing shocked and electrified the community. Hopkins may not have been well-known in High Point, but a murder as brutal as hers was bound to set tongues wagging. The Enterprise published a photo showing dozens of morbid curiosity-seekers gathered outside the death house on Willowbrook, and countless other residents drove by the house to get a peek at it. Another Enterprise photo showed a crowd of onlookers swarming around Yow Funeral Home, where the victim’s body was taken for an autopsy.
Meanwhile, The Beacon, a weekly tabloid known for its often-callous sensationalism, published a gruesome front-page photo of the crime scene, with parts of Hopkins’ nude body strategically blacked out of the image.
As the story played out in the press for more than a week, readers gradually learned more about who Mary Hopkins was. A wife and mother, she had worked as a looper at Crown Hosiery from 1941 until around 1948, and was reportedly a good, dependable worker. She supposedly moved back to Durham, where she had family, but returned to Crown Hosiery in late 1950.
A mill executive there told the Enterprise that Hopkins had lost 50-60 pounds since he last saw her, she wore ragged and dirty clothes, and seemed “highly nervous” when interviewing for the job. This time around, she apparently struggled with her work because she was wearing “dime-store glasses” — that’s all she could afford — so sympathetic co-workers took up a collection to get her a pair of prescription eyeglasses and help her buy better clothes.
Hopkins also had applied for assistance from The Salvation Army. The agency’s report on her said she “had a very poor personal appearance, her clothes were sloven and dirty, and her hair was uncombed and matty, and she had a very offensive body odor.”
Clearly, the woman had fallen on hard times. It’s not clear where Hopkins lived between the time she worked as a maid in January and March 8, when her body was found in the house on Willowbrook. Some speculated she may even have been squatting in the unoccupied house where she was found dead — a plausible suggestion, considering her tenuous financial circumstances.
Another mystery was how Hopkins had come to meet her death. Was it a romantic rendezvous gone terribly wrong? Had a vagrant sought refuge in the old, run-down house and killed Hopkins when he discovered her living there? Or had the killer slain Hopkins elsewhere and then taken her body to the house, perhaps thinking it might not be found there? Police felt sure the piece of molding inserted into the victim’s body had come from the house, but she still could’ve been killed somewhere else first.
The biggest mystery, of course, was obvious: Who killed Mary Hopkins, and why? What monster had committed such a brutal crime — “unequalled in the city’s history,” the Enterprise stated — and what sort of circumstances or unmitigated evil had led to such a heinous act?
Police struggled to answer those questions, but as detectives tenaciously followed the trail of evidence, circumstances increasingly seemed to point to one man, in particular — a man who, not coincidentally, shared the same last name as the victim.
He was Curtis W. Hopkins, Mary’s 47-year-old husband.
Could the man who was married to Mary Hopkins — who had fathered her children and who had even worked alongside her at Crown Hosiery — have done this to her? And if so, why?
Under intense questioning by police, Curtis would present what appeared to be a rock-solid alibi. But just how solid was it?
Curtis Hopkins was certainly no choir boy, but was he a sadistic murderer, capable of killing his own wife?
That’s the question High Point police found themselves asking in March 1951, after the nude body of 45-year-old Mary Mangum Hopkins — Curtis’ wife — was found, strangled and defiled and decomposing, in an abandoned house on Willowbrook Street.
Several days into the investigation, frustrated detectives had nothing but dead-ends to show for their work. Meanwhile, Police Chief C.C. Stoker was no doubt feeling pressure to solve the sensational, high-profile killing — which the county coroner had described as the most brutal homicide he’d ever seen — or at least uncover some promising leads.
Enter Curtis W. Hopkins, 47, whom detectives may have overlooked initially because he was in jail on a charge of public drunkenness when his wife’s body was discovered. Could he have committed the sadistic slaying before going to jail, though? It certainly seemed plausible, and even more so as other potential leads fell apart.
Then came a bombshell: More than a year before her body was found in the house on Willowbrook, Mary Hopkins had been assaulted by her husband, and he had threatened to kill her, according to High Point police.
“Dead Woman Feared Her Husband In January ’50,” a High Point Enterprise front-page headline reported on March 15, 1951, exactly one week after the victim’s body had been found. “Said She Was Abused By Her Mate.”
According to the article, sources close to the investigation told The Enterprise police had learned that Mary Hopkins feared for her life — at the hands of her husband — in January 1950.
“She confided to friends that (Curtis) Hopkins drank ‘nearly continuously,’ tore her clothes off and struck her with his fists,” The Enterprise reported. “It was also learned that she accused him of loosening her teeth during an attack. On one occasion, she is reported to have said, he held a knife against her throat until blood was drawn.”
On the same day as The Enterprise article, The Beacon — a weekly tabloid known for sensationalizing stories — published a gruesome front-page photograph of the crime scene under the bold headline, “MARY HOPKINS MURDER MAY BE SOLVED TODAY: Curtis Hopkins To Be Grilled At Death Scene.” The story said the husband would be questioned in the house where his wife’s body was found, and officers expected to make an arrest within the next 24 hours.
Both articles laid out the timeline of Curtis’ whereabouts, suggesting that although he was in jail when his wife’s body was actually found, he conceivably could’ve killed her before his jail term began. Here’s the timeline, according to newspaper accounts:
. On Feb. 14, 1951, Curtis was released from the Sandy Ridge prison camp north of High Point, where he had been serving a 60-day term for public drunkenness.
. The following day, Feb. 15, was the last day Mary was known to be alive, a fact confirmed by a former co-worker who saw her that day in Asheboro.
. Curtis remained in High Point through Feb. 18, when he took a bus that night to Durham.
. After arriving in Durham early on the morning of Feb. 19, he was arrested again, on another public drunkenness charge. He was convicted the next day, Feb. 20, and began serving a 30-day term in a Durham County jail that same day.
. On March 8 — 16 days after Curtis was jailed in Durham — Mary’s mutilated body was found in the run-down house on Willowbrook Street. Curtis was still in jail.
Initially, county coroner Dr. W.W. Harvey had speculated Mary might’ve been dead “at least a week” when her body was discovered. It was a rather inexact time frame, but it still allowed for the outside possibility that Curtis could’ve committed the crime in mid-February, before returning to Durham and being jailed there. Further supporting that possibility, doctors interviewed by The Beacon suggested Mary could’ve been dead as long as 25 days, “because it was very cold in the house where the body was found and they pointed out that a body does not quickly deteriorate in a cold place.”
Because of that possibility, High Point police brought Curtis to town on March 12 — with the cooperation of Durham jail officials — and held him here as a material witness. Given the aforementioned time frame — and Curtis’ alleged prior history of assaulting his wife in 1950 — he seemed to be a likely suspect in Mary’s death. The Beacon article, in particular, strongly insinuated that Curtis was the killer.
Alas, he was not the killer — or, should we say, he was never charged with the crime. Although he was jailed in High Point for two weeks and underwent intense questioning about his wife’s killing, Curtis never cracked, and he was released on March 27.
“Lack of evidence,” Police Chief C.C. Stoker explained.
Also, after further analysis, the coroner determined Mary must’ve been killed well after Feb. 18, the last day Curtis was in High Point.
“The coroner now states he is satisfied Mrs. Hopkins could not have died on or about that date,” The Enterprise reported. “His conclusions, drawn from a study of the condition of the body, would place the time of her death at March 1 or March 2.”
Nonetheless, the police chief said detectives interrogated Curtis one final time before releasing him, “in hopes of gaining some shred of information that might assist in a continuing probe of the murder,” The Enterprise stated.
Apparently, though, there was not a shred to share, and Curtis walked away from a horrific crime many people thought he had committed.
Meanwhile, Chief Stoker and his team of detectives found themselves back at square one. Such a sadistic killing begged for a solution, but with no suspects and no leads, they were baffled. If Curtis Hopkins didn’t kill his wife, then who did?
By late March 1951, it began to look as if justice might not be served for poor Mary Mangum Hopkins, whose nude, mutilated body had been found in an abandoned High Point house earlier that month.
The prime suspect, Curtis W. Hopkins — the victim’s husband, who reportedly had a volatile temper and a history of assaulting his wife — had been released. Hopkins might’ve been convicted in the court of public opinion — or in the court of media opinion, for that matter — but in a real court of law, there was no evidence. In fact, police determined Hopkins was locked up in a Durham jail for public drunkenness at the time his wife was killed, so he walked away scot-free.
Also walking away uncharged was Thomas Trogden, the High Point lumberyard worker who had discovered the grisly murder after sneaking into a run-down house on Willowbrook Street to down a bottle of bay rum. Police held Trogden for a few days as a material witness, but apparently they never considered him a suspect.
“We’re up against a brick wall,” Capt. W.C. Johnson, chief of detectives for the High Point Police Department, told The High Point Enterprise.
Police continued chasing leads, but ran into one dead end after another. The State Bureau of Investigation joined the case, and a local, anonymous citizen offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, but still no one was charged with the crime.
In late March, some 16 days after the discovery of Hopkins’ body, a glimmer of hope arrived when police questioned a convict named Harvey Lee Jordan. Since early March, the 37-year-old High Point man had been incarcerated at the Sandy Ridge Prison Camp for assault on a female and public drunkenness, but the time frame was such that he could’ve killed Hopkins a few days before he was incarcerated.
Police didn’t say why they wanted to question Jordan, but it turned out to be another dead end. Jordan was returned to the prison camp, and detectives returned to square one.
Another 11 months would pass before there were any new developments in the murder mystery. In February 1952, police arrested 46-year-old David R. Jones for his second charge of attempted rape in less than two months. According to the Enterprise, police said both victims — a 28-year-old widow and Jones’ 62-year-old landlady — claimed Jones “turned into a demon” when he tried to attack them. Because of the sexual and violent nature of those assaults, police wanted to question Jones concerning his whereabouts at the time of the Hopkins slaying, to see if they could connect him to that crime.
Jones had a lengthy record, including serving 12 months for assault on a female in 1935. Could police add the murder of Mary Hopkins to his list of sins?
Unfortunately, the interrogation of Jones did not go well. According to Enterprise accounts, Jones denied any connection to the killing, reportedly telling an officer, “I ain’t never killed nobody — that I know of.” And then he declared a hunger strike, telling police and an Enterprise reporter that he wasn’t going to eat any food until he was released from custody. The protest didn’t last long, but with no evidence tying Jones to the crime, he became just another dead end.
After that, the Hopkins killing became a cold case until April 1956, when an arrest in another slaying offered a glimmer of hope because of its strong similarities to the Hopkins case.
Joseph Lonnie Johnson Jr., 34, confessed to the brutal murder of 16-year-old Isabel Roena Hussey of Moore County, whose body was discovered in an old, abandoned farmhouse near the Asheboro Country Club. As in the Hopkins case, the teenage girl had been strangled — she had a man’s cotton handkerchief and a woman’s cloth belt drawn tight around her neck — but in this case, there was no evidence of molestation.
“We can’t say for certain, but we think Johnson may have been in High Point around the time of the Hopkins murder,” said Capt. Johnson of the High Point Police.
Joseph Johnson, however, denied any involvement in Hopkins’ death and was never charged — yet another dead end.
In 1963, a dozen years after the brutal killing, Lt. John Staley of the police department spoke at length with Enterprise reporter Frank Warren about the case. According to Warren’s confidential notes about that conversation — which were discovered in an Enterprise file pertaining to the Hopkins killing — Staley expressed his opinion that he knew who had killed Mary Hopkins.
According to the notes, one of the suspects failed a lie detector test in 1956, prompting the polygraph technician to tell Staley, “That is your man.”
The officer also told Warren the suspect was “a sadistic sexual maniac” whose wife confided that the suspect “would get drunk, take her to old abandoned houses and have intercourse with her, then beat her and force her to let him” commit sexual atrocities that injured her, according to Warren’s notes.
On the night of Hopkins’ murder, the officer told Warren, the suspect picked up Hopkins and took her to the abandoned house on Willowbrook, where he had sex with her, then killed her and defiled her body.
Could that suspect have been Joseph Lonnie Johnson Jr., who was arrested in 1956, the same year of the failed lie detector test? We’ll never know: Johnson died in 1986, and the police department no longer has its file on the Hopkins murder case.
One thing we can conclude, however, is that even though Staley had strong suspicions, he didn’t have strong evidence, because no other arrests were ever made.
And now, some 67 years after the death of Mary Hopkins, her killing remains a tragic footnote in High Point history — unparalleled in its brutality, unprecedented in its notoriety and, perhaps most tragically of all, unsolved to this day.
Information from: High Point Enterprise, http://www.hpenews.com