Monday, August 3, 2015

From Prominent Lawyer to Murderer

When you are researching your family history, you sometimes get shocked along the way. That happened recently as I was researching one of the wives of Miles David Blankenship (1941-2004) for the book I am writing, The Descendants of Robert Muir.

Miles David Blankenship married Harriet Naomi Hott on 29 August 1977 at the Pentecostal Holiness Church in Buchanan County, Virginia. They had each been married twice previously. Harriet's second husband was John Bruce Johnson. They were married on 21 September 1968 at the Southern Baptist Church in Honaker, Virginia. Each had been married once before. John and Harriet lived in Columbus, Ohio, at the time of their marriage but returned to John's home town for their wedding ceremony. Their marriage must have been pretty short lived because John died in 1975 and was divorced when he died.

John was the youngest of five children and son of prominent attorney Henry Stewart and Mattie Belle (Davis) Johnson. His grandfather, Granderson, had also been an attorney and his great grandfather a highly regarded medical doctor. Virginia death records indicated John's parents died on the same day in 1936 when John was five years old. What in the world could have happened? has recently added large collections of Virginia birth, marriage, divorce and death records, many include the actual images of the original record. They have enriched my research tremendously since my father's family had deep roots in the commonwealth.

Mattie Belle (Davis) died of a gunshot wound and Henry Stewart Johnson committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a .32-caliber revolver. Next I found a newspaper article that described the tragedy.

The Bluefield Daily Telegraph
8 November 1936; image
courtesy of


Honaker Attorney Takes His Own Life Saturday Afternoon After Killing Wife; Tragedy Shocks Community

Mrs. Henry S. Johnson, 36, was shot and killed about noon yesterday at the home of her mother, Mrs. J. E. Davis, in Honaker, Va., by her husband, a widely-known Russell county lawyer, who a few minutes later took his own life.

News of the murder-suicide shocked the entire southwestern Virginia because of the prominence of the family.

The couple had been estranged for about a month and Mrs. Johnson had been at the home of her mother during that time. Since the separation, county authorities said, Johnson had been drinking heavily, although he had never displayed any indications of violence.

At noon yesterday he went to the Davis home and called his wife out onto the front porch. As she walked from the door he placed a revolver to the side of her head and fired a single shot. Mrs. Johnson fell upon the porch and was dead in a few moments.

Leaving the Davis home, Johnson went immediately to his own home. He went to his room on the second floor, locked the door and there took his own life.

The Johnsons had been residents of Honaker for a number of years.

Mrs. Johnson, before her marriage, taught school in Russell county for several years after her graduation from Redford State Teachers' college.

Mr. Johnson, who was a graduate of Washington and Lee university was the son of G. B. Johnson, one of the oldest attorneys of Russell county and a distinguished citizen of southwestern Virginia. Henry Johnson was associated with his father in the practice of law under the firm of Johnson and Johnson. They maintain offices in Honaker, Grundy, and Richlands.

G. B. Johnson was in Dickinson county, Virginia, at the time of the double tragedy.

Mr. and Mrs. Johnson are survived by five children, the oldest being 15 years of age, and the youngest 5 years old.

Funeral arrangements for the couple had not been completed last night.

As published in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph on 8 November 1936.

As always I am left with more questions but I believe they are unanswerable.

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