Breaking News

Man found dead at Duluth apartment complex April 19, 2014

1

Forgotten Story - The Wallace Murders of 1910

— The old Hog Mountain Cemetery is a bulging triangle of land in the shadow of a cell phone tower, overlooking an animal hospital and Pizza Hut, an ancient patch of modern day Dacula buffered from commerce by two busy roads. On a recent afternoon, country music wafted in from a neighboring auto service garage, a pristine October sky overhead. The grounds themselves lay quiet, like an afterthought.

In the heart of the cemetery stands the quartz obelisk that is J.D. Wallace's tombstone. It marks the resting place of a prosperous Lawrenceville merchant and politician who, a century ago, supplied a fledgling Gwinnett County with groceries. An observer could be puzzled, then, by Wallace's epitaph: "Death cannot come to him untimely who is fit to die."

Does it serve as a practical, final salute, or a shockingly unsympathetic jab?

To Wallace's eternal left is the diminutive tombstone of his daughter, Ethel, born to his first wife and perished on Aug. 21, 1900 -- at just two weeks old. On the infant's left lies Lula Wallace, the aforementioned wife. One plot over is another son, H. Leon Wallace, an Atlanta businessman who took residence here 23 years after his father.

Curiously distant from those graves are the tombs of J.D. Wallace's second wife, Minnie, and two of the three sons she bore him.

Their deaths came the same month as J.D. Wallace's because, driven by presumed "madness," he killed them all in a murderous rampage and suicide a couple hours after Halloween night, exactly 100 years ago.

'Blackest night' revisited

Witnesses to the fatal shootings described the facial expressions and remarks of Wallace -- who served as a Lawrenceville City Commissioner -- as cold-blooded, calculative, even demonic.

In the wake of the slaughter, several rumors permeated Lawrenceville pertaining to Wallace's motivation. Some suggested he'd been haunted by a nightmare born of regret, after he killed a midnight visitor to his home years prior. Others offered that Wallace's rarely discussed and volcanic temper had manifested itself in the form of horrific violence.

This much is certain: The triple homicide -- the first recorded in Gwinnett's history, and the last until three Gwinnett policemen were gunned down in 1964 by chop-shop operators -- lived a short existence in media accounts and oral histories. Strange, considering newspapers of the time labeled the killings Gwinnett's "blackest night" and the "most terrible tragedy in the history" of 1910 Lawrenceville.

It's the folk legend that never was.

Bill Baughman, Gwinnett Historical Society vice president, said his organization has no information on the killings, save for a few newspaper clippings. A murder file kept at the society's downtown Lawrenceville offices carries no mention of J.D. Wallace.

"I suppose the absence of information is an indication of the desire to forget about the tragedy," Baughman said.

In an attempt to recollect and understand the killings, the Daily Post gathered accounts from four newspapers of the day -- The Atlanta Georgian, Constitution and two Gwinnett-based semi-weeklies, The News-Herald and Gwinnett Journal -- and spoke with historians and other officials for the following compendium.

This centennial account examines what happened that fateful night, offering possible explanations and thoughts on why the atrocity slipped so quietly into oblivion.

Lunacy has a face

At 2:30 on the unseasonably frigid morning of Nov. 1, 1910, the three grown daughters of J.D. Wallace, all products of his first wife, then 15 years dead, awoke to the sound of a pistol shot -- then more shots, in quick succession.

The women scurried to the next room, where their father and his wife slept, but the door was locked. In seconds the door burst open, and there stood Wallace, a .38 long-range Smith & Wesson in his hand.

This version of Wallace, 46, bore contrast to the well-known grocery merchant who operated a store 25 yards from his home, near the Seaboard depot, just north of downtown Lawrenceville. A Gwinnett native, Wallace was prominent in the Odd Fellows, had two brothers and was generally regarded as pleasant. A judge later determined his estate to be worth $9,400 -- or roughly $240,000 when adjusted for inflation. He and his wife were active in the Baptist church, even heading one church society.

Neighbors recalled Wallace as being "sane" the day prior. He had attended an Odd Fellows lodge meeting Halloween night, "and nobody noticed anything out of the ordinary." But after the meeting, in the span of three hours, he devolved into "a murderous maniac," The Atlanta Georgian reported.

The girls found their stepmother in bed, gasping for breath, her night-clothing on fire from four pistol shots to her body and face. Wallace's three boys came to the room, and the oldest son, Felton, was first to catch his father's attention.

"I will get you, too," Wallace said, as he fired a ball into the 13-year old's right arm, which continued into his chest and out near his left clavicle.

Trousers in hand, Wallace bolted from the home to his store, an effort to reload, as all five chambers were spent. The girls tended to the dying woman and the wounded boy. Wallace's youngest son, Cline, 9, clasped at his mother's neck, begging her to speak. The middle son, Garland, 12, darted from the home to safety.

Wallace returned moments later, "bouncing around the room and chattering like a guerrilla," his daughters told reporters.

"I have killed your mother," daughter Estelle Wallace recounted her father saying, to his youngest son, "and now I will kill you."

With that, Wallace jerked the boy from his dying mother, and at arm's length fired two shots into his heart. The girls pleaded for Wallace to come to his senses, but "there was the expression of a demon in his face," Estelle Wallace said.

For his violent denouement, Wallace lunged toward the hallway and fired his gun into the bedroom door, then turned around and, his face exposed to his daughters, fired a ball "that went crashing through his own brain," The News-Herald wrote.

The daughters scurried next door to the home of the Rev. J.W. Montgomery and gave the alarm. A night policeman rushed to the scene, and along with a doctor entered the home.

Near the bedroom door sat the "prostrate form of Wallace with the bloody revolver sticking up." The youngest boy lay at the foot of the bed, his mother motionless above him, her clothes smoking.

The physician turned his attention to Felton, writhing on the floor, and dressed the boy's wounds.

Shock across Georgia

In 1910, Gwinnett County lay claim to about 28,800 residents, a population that could be comfortably seated in three Coolray Fields. When Miss Charlotte Anne Winn hosted "a beautiful five o' clock tea," it made top headlines in local newspapers. Residents swore by the healing properties of Lydia E. Pinkham's "remarkable" Vegetable Compound, and horse thieves were the dregs of society.

A quadruple-shooting was therefore atomic news.

As day broke on Nov. 1, The Atlanta Georgian dispatched ace reporter Archie Lee to Lawrenceville in a "six-cylinder, 60-horsepower racing machine." The 37-mile trip, boasted the newspaper, "was made in an hour and 10 minutes, a little better than 30 miles an hour."

Word of the killings spread virally, and great crowds flocked to the Wallace home. An undertaker sewed up and shrouded Minnie Wallace's face. The bodies were dressed and positioned for viewing in the home's front room, the child in between his parents. A somber funk prevailed.

"The terrible deed has cast a gloom over the town," The News-Herald reported.

The triple funeral drew an unprecedented crowd of 2,000 to Hog Mountain, a settlement near present day Hamilton Mill. Three hearses bore the remains. "Many eyes were dim with tears," The Gwinnett Journal observed, "and many hearts went out in pity."

The slain woman's father, O.A. Bowman of Buford, issued a letter of thanks to the community, while calling the death "deplorable." The family requested J.D. Wallace be buried with his first wife.

Reporters from Atlanta and their local brethren mined the surviving family and associates of J.D. Wallace for an explanation, which they never definitively found, though speculation was nothing less than rampant.

"Their married life, so far as the general public knew, was a happy one," The Atlanta Constitution reported, "although it is stated by some that (Wallace) was of a very jealous temperament."

Some contended the slayings boiled down to domestic jealousy, a quarrel or sheer insanity. Another theory went that Wallace dreamed a burglar was in the home and shot his wife, then realizing what he'd done, "continued the bloody work." Many pointed out that Wallace had brought no harm to children of his first wife, suggesting the killings were as focused as they were wicked.

The most mysterious theory went that Wallace was haunted by an episode from seven years prior. He'd awaken that night to a noise on his veranda, called for his wife to bring a light, then took "deliberate aim and shot (a) man dead." The victim was an African-American who worked for the seaboard, newspapers reported.

Buford resident Mrs. George C. Sweeney, the sister of Wallace's first wife, told a reporter she had dreamed the night prior to the killings about three coffins brought to her mother's door.

Meanwhile, the wounded boy, Felton, clung to life until Nov. 27 at the Moore Hotel, a two-story lodge on the Lawrenceville square. He succumbed to his wounds two weeks after his 14th birthday. In life, he was described as "bright" and "plucky."

The scope of the events was huge, alarming residents across Georgia, the Atlanta papers claimed.

The News-Herald's staff enthused that the tragedy "will go down in history as the blackest night Lawrenceville ever saw." The Gwinnett Journal was equally hyperbolic, labeling it "the greatest tragedy ever enacted in Gwinnett County."

Garland, the boy who escaped and the sole surviving link of Wallace's second marriage, appears in Sugar Hill District Census records in 1920 and 1930, first as a clerk and later a merchant. He married a woman named Ruth and died as Garland Ray Wallace Sr. in April 1972, according to Buford City Cemetery records.

He was 73 years old.

Long, dark shroud

At least a few descendants of J.D. Wallace and family are scattered about Georgia, Florida and New York, though most probably don't know it. There's one exception.

Wallace is the third-great uncle of Janice Heidt, a genealogy enthusiast who recently retired with her husband to the North Georgia town of Hiawassee.

Heidt said J.D. Wallace first came to her attention in a 1914 obituary for his brother, her great-great-great grandfather. The obituary prominently mentions that Nicholas J. Wallace was the brother of J.D., which Heidt mistook for reverence.

"I thought I'd find out he was really rich," Heidt said.

A cousin visiting Gwinnett from New York noticed while snapping cemetery photographs that Wallace and his family died on the same day. Heidt consulted an ancestry website, certain she would find news of a tragic fire, or a plague. Instead, she was rattled by newspaper headlines.

"We had no idea ... none of us had ever heard of this," Heidt said.

Lawrenceville resident Louise Wallace descends from one of two original Wallace families in Gwinnett, her ancestors mostly factory workers and farmers. She could descend from the Wallaces in question, but she's not sure.

Louise Wallace's grandmother died when her father, Leroy Wallace, was young, and much of the family's oral history went with her, she said. She, too, could not recall hearing the tale.

Map

Find the cemetery.

Find the cemetery.

"It's very interesting," Louise Wallace opined warmly over the telephone. "But, no, I've never heard of it."

That sentiment echoed among some of Gwinnett's most noted researchers.

Gwinnett historian Elliot Brack, a longtime newspaperman and author of "Gwinnett: A Little Above Atlanta," has yet to cross paths with J.D. Wallace's acts in his research.

"I know nothing about this," Brack wrote in an e-mail.

Lawrenceville Mayor Rex Millsaps moved to the city as an eighth-grader in the 1960s, and hasn't heard about the murders. "There's probably stranger things than that tucked away in the history of all communities," the mayor said in his city's defense. "But it's strange something like that's been kept so quiet."

Even Cynthia Rintye, director of Lawrenceville Ghost Tours, which chronicles high-profile crimes and atrocities in Gwinnett's county seat, was in the dark.

Mary Frazier Long, author of the historical compendium "About Lawrenceville," said an explanation could lie not in the maliciousness of the slayings, but with the stigma attached to suicide in the early 20th century.

Suicide in general cast a shameful, pitiless pall on families. Some churches refused to hold funerals for suicides, Long said.

"The secrecy of (the killings) probably relates to that -- suicide was a real shame for the family," Long said. "We're in the Bible Belt. They just accepted you'd go to hell. They never took into account any mental illness, any despair."

Victims revered

And so, in that far corner of old Hog Mountain Cemetery, among the Jordan and Burel families with their prominent markers, Minnie A. Wallace and her two boys rest together, their plots guarded by a rectangle of granite.

Cline and Felton share a white tombstone in the shape of a conjoined heart. Their view of the animal hospital across the way is mostly unobstructed. And their epitaphs are much more complimentary than their father's.

For Felton, the prodigious teenager:

"A fairer bud of promise never bloomed."

And for the younger boy:

"The lovely flower has faded."

And beneath all that is inscribed a single word:

"BROTHERS."

Editor's note: Some details reported by Gwinnett and Atlanta newspapers in 1910 differ slightly, though the gist of the killings runs true in all accounts. The Daily Post opted to use commonalities in the reports, such as the number of times the youngest Wallace boy was shot, whenever possible.