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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

 Unsolved Murder of Pine Mountain School Teacher Lura Parsons (Pt 2)

MOUNTAIN HAINTS Series continues
Part Two Of Pine Mountain Schoolteacher Laura Parsons' Murder Dives Into Some Of Harlan County’s Darker History

(As Published In The Tri-City News)

There is not much known about Lura Parsons, the Pine Mountain Settlement School teacher who was viciously assaulted and murdered on Laden Trail on Sept. 7, 1920. Even though she made headlines throughout the nation, her background is as shadowed as the lone, mountain trail where her body was found. Parsons was bigger in death than she was in life. Perhaps it is because her murder was shrouded in mystery and shady politics, as well as volatile social issues of the day, that her story has grown to be legendary, handed down from mountain family to mountain family. Folk Studies Professor Theresa Osborne said that is how lore and legends are born  -  because there is always more to the story than what has been officially recorded. The context of historical events is often more interesting, and that is no exception in Pine Mountain’s unsolved Lura Parsons murder case.

 “Lura was a single woman coming to the rugged mountains of Harlan County, Kentucky in 1920 to do some good in this world  -  to teach mountain children. What happened to her was unfortunate. And the fact that the case has never been solved makes it that much more unfortunate. Lura’s story really resonates with women, because the life of a schoolteacher with the purest of intentions was met with such a cruel and violent end. Not only was she murdered, politics and community issues of the day kept the murder from being fully investigated like it should have been, so it’s a double tragedy.”

Kentucky women of the 1920s were so moved by Parsons’ unsolved murder that many raised and donated money for a private investigation. Social elite clubs in Kentucky not only raised money, but also raised awareness about the Parsons’ murder throughout the state. In various publications, The Kentucky Women’s Club asserted “There needs to be protection of all women in Kentucky by finding Parsons’ murderer.”  The Sorosis Club of Louisville publicized a statement regarding Parsons’ murder that “For the protection of Kentucky womanhood, and that the work of the mountain school be continued, the club is sending a contribution to aid in bringing the guilty to justice.” So even though Parsons’ murder grew in epic proportions, there still seems to be little known about her before she was killed on Pine Mountain. Her name is not even listed in Pine Mountain Settlement Schools’ archived roster of teachers, but that is probably because she was new to her post.  "Lura Parsons seemed to be a ghost before she was murdered,” Osborne said. “We just really don’t know much about her, and that adds to the mystery of her story. That’s the stuff of which Mountain Haint stories are made.”

The folklore in the Parsons’ murder mystery is that her ghost continues to walk the forested pathway of Laden Trail, and that she gets into the vehicles of people crossing the mountain. Several have adamantly vowed they have seen her ghost on the mountain or have been one of those unlucky drivers whose vehicles were haunted by her presence. Former Big Laurel resident Robert Taylor Hansel, who grew up on the North side of Pine Mountain near Laden Trail, said as long as he can remember he’s heard about the Lura Parsons murder and ghost story.

“It almost comes across as the type of story parents tell their children when warning them not to go off by themselves in the mountains because there are unknown evils lurking in the woods,” said Hansel, who now resides in Lexington. “I also remember as a young child there being a song about her murder. I think the story was so unusual for our small speck of dirt in Appalachia that something so gruesome could happen just miles away.”

Hansel’s family has a rich history with Pine Mountain Settlement School. His grandmother, Illa Boggs Turner, worked at the school when she was a young girl, and his mother, Sandra Turner Hansel, attended the school and later taught there. His father, Robert Hansel, also taught there. Hansel said the Pine Mountain community has always been made up of Godly, “salt-of-the-earth”- people, so a gruesome murder in their neck of the woods created much fear, and that fear of Laden Trail and its surrounding woodlands has carried over with modern-day generations.

“I remember the spot on Pine Mountain where she was killed. Even though I’ve not seen her ghost, I have always found the area to be extremely haunting,” Hansel said. “It was kind of unnerving when I got my drivers license and would have to cross Pine Mountain. It seemed like once I got to the spot where they found her body, I would not look in my rearview mirror…this story is relatable because knowing that something like this could happen and knowing that there is something on that mountain we could encounter at any time is really frightening. Also, knowing there is potential for spirits to have unfinished business here on Earth due to their untimely passing leads to not only a definite adrenaline rush, but an acknowledgment of our own mortality.”

While the ghost stories of the Pine Mountain schoolteacher are harrowing in and of themselves, the factual, historical documentation is also disturbing. According to Dr. James Greene, who researched the Pine Mountain murder as part of his doctoral dissertation, Parsons was a native of Virginia, but at some point, her family moved to Garrard County, Kentucky. She worked in various locations around the country prior to coming to Pine Mountain Settlement School, including Richmond, Va., Maysville, Ky., and Nebraska. She was recommended in the Spring of 1920 by her good friend, Jessie O. Yancey of the State Board of Health, and the Kentucky Tuberculosis Association, which led to her working that summer at the settlement school as a volunteer. She made a “very favorable impression” on Ruth Gaines, who was the dietician at the school and who also supervised housekeeping, meal preparation, and domestic science classes. As a result, Pine Mountain Settlement School Co-Director Ethel DeLong Zande offered her a position as a domestic science teacher for the 1920-21 school year, which Parsons accepted. Prior to the start of the term, Parsons traveled to Lancaster, Ky. to assist her family in moving her younger sister to Berea College.

Greene, Pine Mountain Settlement School’s Board of Trustees secretary, said Zande’s mother, Arabella DeLong, was staying at Pine Mountain Settlement School that summer, and she described Parsons as having “a very attractive personality, efficient, interested and interesting.” From Osborne’s research, Parsons was a beautiful single woman who was not “a young, helpless maiden,” as some handed-down stories would have you to believe, but was 42 when she was murdered.

“In those times, she was considered an old maid, but she was beautiful to look upon,” Osborne said. “She definitely got Mr. Winnes’ attention.”

Osborne was referring to Dr. H.C. Winnes, the state of Kentucky’s assistant veterinarian at the time, who was the prime suspect in the Parsons’ murder case. Winnes and Parsons were traveling on the same L&N passenger train to Pine Mountain in Harlan when the schoolteacher was returning to her post. Winnes was on his way to the settlement school to conduct tuberculosis testing on the school’s cattle. Winnes later reported on the witness stand during his trial that he did not know Parsons previously, but there is some speculation that they had had a previous history.

Greene did his doctoral dissertation on Pine Mountain Settlement School’s early years, and in his research, he came across the Parsons murder. He said the murder was significant to the settlement school because of the controversy that arose during her murder investigation which threatened future operations of the mountain school. Greene said when Parsons returned to Pine Mountain after helping her family, she did not advise the settlement school that she would be crossing the mountain, as was customary of the time for safety reasons.

“She was unfortunately at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Greene said.

As part of Greene’s dissertation research, he possesses several old newspaper clippings chronicling the murder and subsequent investigation and trial. One particularly long article appearing in The Lexington Herald during the March 1921 trial coverage stated that the Lura Parsons case was “The most mysterious murder case Kentucky has ever known.” The article went on to say “There are so many unusual elements surrounding the case that it rivals a mystery case in fiction.” In-depth trial coverage was presented in the article, mostly consisting of Winnes’ testimony. He told of his arrival by train in Harlan County as well as his trek across the mountain to the settlement school. Winnes said on the witness stand that he had never laid eyes on Parsons until he saw her at a store at the foot of Laden Trail. This is odd to many researchers because the likelihood of Winnes seeing Parsons while aboard the train was very high. Speculation and hearsay convey that the two did, in fact, know each other, and it was even rumored that Winnes was in love with Parsons.

The vast newspaper coverage of the Lura Parsons murder trial all reported how feelings were intense inside the Harlan County Courthouse. The presiding judge was W.T. Davis. The attorney leading the charge against Winnes was A.F. Byrd, a special prosecutor brought into the trial by Pine Mountain Settlement School. Byrd had been a veteran of Breathitt County family feud trials. Zande, along with other settlement school leaders, had been quoted as saying they felt the need to push for their own investigation into the murder because Harlan County officials were not doing it on their own. On the other side, the majority of Harlan Countians believed so much in Winnes’ innocence that a fund was started for his defense. There was a showdown in court between the women of Pine Mountain and the “good ol’ boy system” of Harlan County. There was a general mistrust of the women, who most called “outsiders” because they came from other cities to teach children at Pine Mountain. And the settlement school women directors thought there was a conspiracy taking place to cover up for Winnes because he was a well-respected state official who had major political connections. It was stated in the book Beyond Image and Convention: Explorations in Southern Women’s History by Janet L. Coryell, Martha H. Swain and Sandra Gioia Treadway, that “There seemed to be some resentment among some Harlan County residents about the work of the fotched-on women.” It has also been said that Winnes was politically connected to a Republican former judge in Harlan who had become, at the time, the county’s biggest coal operator. Coal operators were not too fond of the settlement school because it advocated for more agrarian communities that were self-sufficient and did not depend upon coal mining operations to exist. Eyewitnesses attending the trial also reported seeing Winnes shaking hands with the judge, sheriff, and county attorney.

Settlement school leaders, particularly the women, had an instant mistrust of Winnes when he arrived to test their cattle. Several reported him acting weird and keeping to himself in his room when his work was over. School leaders even reported that he mentioned more than once how he had run into a woman schoolteacher up on the mountain. This alarmed school leaders because the only person they were expecting was Parsons, and she had not notified them of her arrival. Fearing the worst, the school organized a search party, and later discovered Parsons’ bludgeoned body behind a boulder on the South side of Pine Mountain about half a mile from a landmark they referred to as “Big Rock,” which is known as “Rebel Rock” today. Zande was successful in getting a warrant for Winne’s arrest, and he had been taken into custody by a Harlan County Special Deputy by the time he arrived back in Frankfort. Because they did not want a horrific crime against a woman to go unchallenged, the settlement school leaders hired their own, private investigator as well as their own special prosecutor. The school-hired investigator later left, saying that Harlan officials like the sheriff and county attorney were not taking him seriously nor cooperating.

Not only was there a general mistrust of the Pine Mountain Settlement School leaders because they were “outsiders,” it was said there was also resentment because they were women. This was also the time in Harlan County history when women started taking leading roles in the mountains. There had been women leaders who helped founded Hindman Settlement school in a nearby county, women were taking to horseback to traverse the rugged hills as librarians to take books to children in remote hollows, and the Mary Breckinridge frontier nurse and midwife outreach was seeing several women riding horseback throughout the mountains for medical assistance. The area was also seeing an increase in women missionaries who were coming to the rambunctious coal fields of eastern Kentucky to spread the gospel and build churches. Some of the men in the mountains at the time did not take too kindly to this increase in woman leadership.

While being questioned during the murder trial, Winnes told the jury that when he deboarded the train at the Dillon Station near Pine Mountain on the South side, he immediately asked where he could rent a mule. He was directed to a store at the foot of the mountain. “I went inside the store, there, and asked for a drink of water,” Winnes was reported in The Lexington Herlad as stating. “Mr. Lewis is the proprietor of the store, he took me into his house to give me a drink, and while I was drinking, I saw a lady passing the house. I came out of the house behind her and asked ‘how do you do?’ or something like that. I tipped my hat to her, then I went back into the store. We all went in together, Ms. Parsons in front, Mr. Lewis, and I.”

Once inside, Winnes testified that he asked the store owner if he knew how many head of cattle the settlement school had so he would know how much toxin to take along. That’s when Winnes stated that Parsons spoke up and said she was a teacher at the settlement school and felt positive that the school had no more than a dozen.

“I thanked her and asked her if she was going over the mountain to the school,” Winnes stated. “She said ‘yes’ and I said ‘Go with us.’ I thought Mr. Lewis was going to accompany me, but she said ‘I’ll walk.’ I then said to her ‘Lady, you surely wouldn’t walk six or seven miles over a mountain trail? I’ll hire a mule for you.’ She answered ‘Others have walked it, so I can.’ Then she left.”

Osborne maintains at this point that there is evidently mistrust shown by Parsons, because most would not pass up a free mule ride over the mountain, which was steep and rugged in places, and would get her to her destination faster.

Winnes continued his testimony saying as he ascended the mountain he came across African-American convicts working on the trail. At the time of Parsons’ murder, a new road was being built crossing Pine Mountain to provide better access to and economic opportunity for the settlement school and its surrounding communities. Zande and other settlement school leaders had been petitioning the county and state for years for the new road. Winnes told the jurors that he asked them for directions to make sure he was on the right path. Winnes also testified that he did not see Parsons on the trail.

There were several eyewitness reports made during the trial by the African American convicts and prison guards saying they saw both Winnes and Parsons on the mountain, but they were not together and were about an hour’s distance a part. Prison guard Anthony Broughton testified that “Six (Black) convicts watched Ms. Parsons start up the trail and two of them went up the same trail she took.” Broughton was a night guardsmen of a prison camp located near Pine Mountain who was later discharged from his job in connection to the case. Winnes’ defense attorney argued that the culprit in Parsons’ murder was one of the convicts who took the opportunity of being left alone by the guards on the mountain for a certain amount of time to catch up with Parsons, rape her, then bludgeon her to death with a wooden fence post.

The Parsons’ murder trial began having undertones of racism when Winnes’ defense attorney shifted the blame to the African American convicts. Also, Sheriff Howard did not need much motivation to charge the prison camp with a posse of about 200 hundred residents looking for the schoolteacher’s murderer. The charge came when a bloodied woman’s coat was found in possession of an African American convict. It was later determined through chemical analysis that the blood was of an animal’. Racism became blatantly evident when Winnes’ defense attorney exclaimed in court “It was a (Black man’s) crime!” The woman leaders of the settlement school became more concerned that the murder trial was not going to be fair not only for the deceased, but for what they believed were innocent African American convicts.

There was a hung jury in Winnes’ trial. One man, Moses Brewer, refused to go along with the not guilty verdict. It has been reported that Brewer, who was described as an old, gnarly mountain man, even threatened other jurors if they did not find Winnes guilty. Brewer did not give into the not guilty pressure, so Winnes’ became a free man. The woman leaders of Pine Mountain continued their fight to see Winnes convicted, and that is when a state-wide campaign began (mostly by women social elite clubs) to continue the investigation and to get Winnes back before a judge and jury. When interviewed about the status of the Parsons’ murder probe, State Senator Hiram Brock, who was from Harlan County, stated he would take the initiative of reopening the investigation. Brock was quoted as saying “There will be no difficulty in raising a large sum of skilled detectives, and I assure you that it will be done. The cause of education in the mountains must not be made to suffer, and the stain must be removed from Harlan County.” The media also put pressure on Harlan County officials for a retrial. One Louisville Courier-Journal article reported that “Seven weeks after the Parsons’ murder trial, the killer was still at large.” Harlan County Attorney J.C. Forester asked “What else could be done?” after a Louisville Courier Journal reporter inquired what steps needed to be taken since the grand jury had failed to indict a second time. Under pressure from the media, Harlan County Commonwealth Attorney H. Grant Forester told reporters he would reintroduce the case to the next grand jury. On October 30, 1921, headlines read in The Louisville Courier Journal “Murder Probe To Be Revived – Harlan Officials To Resift Death Of Slain Teacher.”

While this was considered a victory for the women leaders of Pine Mountain Settlement School, their joy was short-lived. County officials began threatening to withdraw funding for the completion of the new road construction project, and even shut the school down all together if the investigation into Winnes continued. The women did not give into the strong arming, and the Winnes investigation continued. However, many were shocked when the commonwealth attorney asked the judge for the charge against Winnes to be dropped, citing circumstantial evidence. The judge agreed, and the trial did not take place. Once again, Winnes was a free man. A trial was later held outside of the county for Jerry Reedy, one of the African American convicts who had been working on the mountain when Parsons was murdered. There was no hard evidence to convict Reedy, either, and a jury found him not guilty of Parsons’ murder. There are some undocumented statements, though, that additional prison time was added on to Reeve’s sentence that he was already serving as punishment, even though he was found not guilty.

The women leaders of Pine Mountain were left with a moral dilemma of whether to continue their fight for a conviction against Winnes, or to accept what the court system had ruled and peacefully return to running their school to educate mountain children without any more threats from county officials. Advisors to Zande told her it was in the settlement school’s best interest to not continue the investigation so that the school and its staff could rebuild relations with the Harlan County community and secure future operations for generations to come. Zande felt if she continued the investigation, it would make her school appear more like a persecutor than as of a help to local residents. She also agreed it was best to let the murder mystery fade away because of the negative impact it had on the school. Since the murder, six teachers turned down job opportunities to work at Pine Mountain Settlement School. Greene said the fact that two different men were tried for the murder of Lura Parsons and was never convicted meant there was no resolution for the community, which leads to speculation. Osborne said there had been plenty of speculation through the years because of the desire to sweep the case under the proverbial rug to avoid discord.

“Lura was not only a victim of a vicious murder, but she was also the victim of people under pressure for various reasons to cover the case up and just forget about it – to forget about her,” Osborne said. “But there are those of us who have not forgotten her story. She lives on through the many stories and ballads that memorialize her sad story, and folklore surrounding her murder continues because of the injustice in her case.”

The Middlesboro Daily News memorialized Parsons with an article written on her behalf stating “There was little opportunity for display of flowers of oratory except for such appeals as one might be made by the prosecution in the name of honor of Kentucky womanhood or by the defense in the name of the sense of fair play that is characteristic of Kentucky men.”

Robert Breckinridge editorialized Parsons’ murder in The Lexington Herald when he wrote “Have you thought of the last walk of hers? A little schoolteacher, her heart filled with gentle love for all the world, crowned with a coronet of Autumn shade through which the sunshine, soft as the silken sheen that shows on a baby’s cheeks, crept though to light the mountain path she trod with welcoming rays? Daydreams of duty well performed, of sacrifice, of labor, and of love? Of how she would strive to bring her students on until they were an honor to the state? A lonely road, a burly, hideous beast, a desperate struggle for her honor, a bruised and bleeding body, a piteous, cruel death and a shattered dream.”

There have been oral reports that when Winnes died, he confessed to killing Parsons. The road crossing Pine Mountain was eventually completed, and Pine Mountain Settlement School continues operating and thriving today, though it is more of an environmental and cultural outreach program. Time has moved on, and Harlan County has developed both socially and economically since 1920. But the terrible atrocities committed against Lura Parsons’ lie hidden and mostly forgotten in the shadows of Pine Mountain  -  covered up for the sake of progress. But some say she’s not gone, all together. She has unfinished business to do of her own, and some vow her ghost lingers in the darkness of Pine Mountain waiting for the right time to enact her justice.

You can read part one of the Parson's story by Clicking here
You can read the first post in this series by Clicking here


This is a guest post by Jennifer McDaniels. Jennifer is journalist, marketing and public relations specialist. She is also a News Correspondent & Marketing Manager for WFXY Foxy Radio and currently holds several degrees in communications and journalism.

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