Saturday, September 21, 2013

When Two Similar Stories Collide- Anna Corbin and Bessie Lewis

Anna Corbin
If you have read my previous article about the life and death of Anna Corbin, the head housekeeper of the Preston School of Industry in 1950, then you are aware of the fact that I have taken a personal interest in her story. After years of research I have posted findings on my blog and in my  book, "Behind The Walls," that makes it very clear (based on the evidence) that the information various other websites, television shows and other groups have come forward with through the media in the past has either been partially tainted with fictional aspects or all together incorrect.

This article is meant to bring more interesting information to light, to show you the link I have found to another brutal and vicious attack to another head housekeeper at Preston just 29 years earlier. You see, Anna Corbin is not the only head housekeeper from the Preston School of Industry to be viciously attacked and left for dead on the grounds of the school. In fact, Mrs. Lewis' story happened before Anna Corbin's death.

Head Housekeeper Attacked at Preston- 1921

It was October 26, 1921 and the head housekeeper known as Mrs. Lewis was severely beaten and locked in a closet by four wards in their attempt to make an escape from the School. The story made headlines in the Ione Valley Echo newspaper, dated October 29, 1921.
Ione Valley Echo (10/29/1921)


"Wednesday morning, about 9:30, Mrs. Lewis, in charge of housekeeping for Company A, at the Preston School, was viciously attacked by four boys of her squad. She was knocked down and her head was pounded on the concrete floor several times. She was rendered unconscious, tied, gagged, her keys taken. Then the four boys make their escape. Another boy, who had recently been operated on for appendicitis, pretended to make a fight to save Mrs. Lewis. But it is believed he was faking. Officers hurried to A Company quarters and found her where she had been thrown into a closet. After many hours she regained consciousness, but became hysterical, then unconscious again. Yesterday morning she was regarded as quite ill, and suffering with possibly a clot of blood on her brain.

The four boys were caught at 3:30 in the afternoon by Officers E.E. Hooker and Mr. Cain on the Borden Ranch, who brought them safely back to the school. It is said these two officers "influenced" these four boys to come right along, or "perhaps" it might have been unhealthy.

Superintendent Close is absent, but the whole community is pleased at the prompt and efficient action of Assistant Superintendent Morrin in handling these vicious young criminals, and also at the successful work of messengers Hooker and Cain."----Ione Valley Echo, Saturday Edition, October 29, 1921.

What Does This Have To Do With Anna Corbin?

So you may be asking that question, "What does this have to do with Anna Corbin?" Well, a lot actually. You see, from the time I started researching and reading about Anna's death, even before I wrote about it in my book, I kept hearing and reading accounts where people describe her being locked in a closet. Some people said she was locked in a pantry in the kitchen, some say a small closet under a stairwell in the basement is where Anna was found.

Historical evidence disproves all of that. The persons who found Anna, found her in a larger room (the storage room) which adjoined a supply room which was in the basement. The newspapers quoted the eye witness account of Robert Hall (the ward who found Anna's body with housekeeper Lillian McDowall) which even specifically stated the room as being 16 x 35 in size. Now does that sound like the little closet to you? After speaking to historian, John Lafferty, and comparing our research notes, we both agreed that the room Anna was found in was the room with the disinfecting pool, in the basement. At the time of Anna's death, the pool had been boarded over and was being used as a store room.

So where did the "Closet" idea come from? Well, that is where I believe the story of Bessie Lewis* comes into play. Perhaps over the years the story of Mrs. Lewis' brutal attack and that of Anna Corbin's has been unintentionally fused with one another. The details of Mrs. Lewis being beaten, tied up, gagged and locked in a closet may have been confused with similar details of Anna Corbin being attacked, bludgeoned, strangled and locked in the store room in the basement. I think it didn't help  matters that a few newspapers reported Anna was found in a locked closet when the story first broke in the headlines, further confusing people. As time went on though, and witness accounts were actually quoted, it showed that Anna was found in the storage room covered by a rug or carpet.

The story of Bessie Lewis doesn't state whether she was in the basement or not, although it speaks of her head being pounded into the concrete, so she must have been in some area that would have concrete floors and the basement does have that. I am not certain which area Company A quarters was located at by the 1920's, whether it was the Administration building or another house on the property. I do know that when the school opened in 1895 Company A's quarters were in the basement, but over the years things did get changed around a bit, (example: the plunge bath room was later boarded over and used as a store room by the 1950s) so we may never know exactly where Bessie was attacked. However, I am fully convinced that certain aspects of Bessie Lewis' story has become a misinformed attachment to Anna's story, which is very sad for both of these women.

What Happened To Bessie?

I have searched the Census records for Amador, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Calaveras Counties for 1920 (one year prior to the accident) and could not locate a Bessie Lewis or Elizabeth (since Bessie is usually short for Elizabeth). I searched the archived microfilms of both the Ione Valley Echo and the Amador Ledger to no avail, there was never another mention of Mrs. Lewis or what happened after her brutal attack. I checked the obituaries from late October up to the end of the year in 1921, and still, no information on Mrs. Lewis.  Being that there were no more headlines or articles mentioning the outcome of such a brutal attack, one can only assume that she recovered from her injuries. It is also possible that she moved away from the area, perhaps to stay with relatives in another area, so we don't know what happened to her after that.

A Sad Thing

In conclusion, I want to remind all who read this that both Bessie Lewis and Anna Corbin were just like you and I. They were people who had feelings, hopes, dreams and fears. They had loved ones and family. I believe that it is not only a dishonor to Anna's memory by others continuing to tell her story incorrectly, but it is also dishonor to the memory of Mrs. Lewis by her story being completely forgotten for nearly 92 years.

I will keep diligently searching for answers in regards to what happened to Mrs. Lewis and where her life ended up down the line. I think we owe her that much. In the end I hope that whomever reads my blogs or my books sees that this is my passion, to uncover the truth. To set the facts straight and speak for those people who can no longer speak for themselves.  I do my best and hope that others who appreciate history and truth, will also appreciate the work I do.

(Copyright September 21, 2013- J'aime Rubio)
Also published in the book, "If These Walls Could Talk: More Preston Castle History," by J'aime Rubio, 2017.

Thank you to Becky at the Amador County Library for all your help!

Amador County Library
Ione Valley Echo, 10/29/1921
Stockton Record, 2/24/1950
State Archives
Behind The Walls: A Historical Exposé of The Preston School of Industry, J'aime Rubio
Preston School of Industry A Centennial History, John Lafferty.

* Footnote: John Lafferty's book, Preston School of Industry a Centennial History, briefly mentions this incident and also mentions her name as Bessie Lewis.

You can also read more about Anna Corbin and Bessie Lewis in both of my books,

"Behind The Walls"  & "If These Walls Could Talk" available on Amazon.

As well as on my other blog,  Preston Castle History. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Corinne Elliot Lawton- What Really Happened To Her?

Photo Credit: Historic Cemeteries- Mary Homick © 2011

What Urban Legends Imply

In 1877, a young lady by the name of Corinne Elliot Lawton tragically died after throwing herself into a river just miles from her home. The story circulated in sewing circles and afternoon tea conversations, claimed that the young lady was so depressed that she could not marry the man that she loved, that she was being forced to marry another man, and between both circumstances she chose to end her life in such a tragic way.  

So did this happen, or what? I am trying my best to address this. You see, I was scrolling along on Facebook and I noticed on a lovely page called “Historic Cemeteries”, (which by the way, has awesome photographs of cemeteries!) and I came across an album of photographs from Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. One photograph in particular stood out to me. This lovely headstone to a young lady named Corinne Elliot Lawton.

On the actual headstone it marks her date of death as being January 24, 1877 and her epitaph reads: “Allured to brighter worlds, and led the way.” The statue that appears to be of Corinne’s physical likeness, was brought in from Palermo, Cicily. It had been created by renowned 19th Century artist and sculptor, Benedetto Civiletti at her father, Alexander Lawton’s request.

Civiletti's design of monument (P-415/11)
Wilson Library-UNC

What Other Sites Claim

Many websites state very detailed and over-the-top stories of this young lady being in love with a man who was of a simpler means (lower-class), and that her parents would not approve of their relationship. They also state that an arranged marriage was made by her father, Alexander Robert Lawton. He was a widely known Brigadier General in the Confederate Army, a Lawyer, Politician and Diplomat. I can understand how easy it would be for most people searching for answers, and finding all these websites that claim the same thing, to just assume that their facts are correct and continue to tell the same story again and again. Sadly, this is what happens when facts get mixed up with rumors and suddenly a hundred or so years later it is seemingly impossible to tell fact from fiction. Or is it?

Click here to read my blog that explains Corinne's real love story! 

Who Was Corinne Elliott Lawton?

Corinne Elliot Lawton was born September 21, 1846 to her parents Alexander Robert Lawton and Sarah Hillhouse Alexander. She was the oldest daughter of this highly prestigious family in Georgia. From recorded letters and documents in historical record, it shows that her friends and acquaintances thought of her in a very flattering light. One letter from a friend of the family stated that he believed Corinne to have "elegant culture" and "surprising intelligence." In every mention of Corinne, she is  spoken of very highly as a "spiritual" young lady, with very good Christian values and having plans for her future.

What Really Happened?

Corinne Elliot Lawton (P-415/4)
 Wilson Library- UNC

Historian, Ruth Rawls discovered a most amazing entry in Sarah’s diary and transcribed it on her blog which gives a more detailed look into the thoughts of Corinne’s mother and what was going on at the time. She also goes in depth into locating letters from a friend of the Lawton’s who sent words of sympathy in the passing of Corinne, even going so far as to mention her sickness and that she was a “sweet, noble and Christian girl,” and that Sarah had the hope of seeing her daughter again (thus there was no implication of a suicide.)  Click here to read the letter!

In both the diaries and letters, there is never any mention of Corinne being depressed or distraught, and certainly no mention of any uprising within the family or suicide. On the contrary, it shows the loving and rather close-knit family the Lawton’s actually were.  This helps disprove another rumor that has been widespread online. Many people go so far as to state that her family thought she was “cursed” for taking her own life. Thus the statue of Jesus in their family plot of the cemetery is facing her back, showing she turned her back on her salvation.

The statue of Jesus wasn’t even put in the cemetery until after Corinne’s parents had died. Plus, Corinne hadn’t been buried at Bonaventure cemetery originally. First she was interred at the Laurel Grove Cemetery and years later re-interred at Bonaventure. That could explain why her grave was placed outside of the family plot and the direction it is facing. Perhaps they had run out of spaces.

I do not believe for one second that her family shunned her in death, nor do I think that they believed that she was condemned from receiving her chance at everlasting life. No, I do not believe she took her own life, and the words of her mother speak volumes in comparison to the typed opinions of various bloggers with no facts backing their stories up.  

Lawton Girls
(P-415/9) Wilson Library UNC
Bottom line is that during the weeks leading up to Corrine’s death, she had been ill. Her mother claimed that for 10 days Corinne had been sick with a cold. Other members of the household grew ill, and even notations in the diary mention Sarah's own recollection of suffering sickness the previous Summer, gave mention of a very bad illness.  It seems to me that perhaps the Yellow Fever epidemic that had claimed its toll on many in that area just months prior, hadn’t fully died down. If the weather was continuously raining as she states in her diary, and she mentions the warm temperatures that would make sense about the mosquito theory that Ruth Rawls mentions. The fact that more than one person in the house was ill tells me that something was going around, whether it was Yellow Fever or not, it was obviously bad. Another visitor to the home died only a few weeks after Corinne.

When I read that Corinne had been ill with the cold and then later seemed to be a little better only with slight fever, I started wondering if maybe she had got a slight bronchitis or pneumonia. The only reason I mention this is because two years ago around late December, I had been ill with a cold. I thought I had recovered, but slowly I grew more tired. I didn’t have a fever and if I did, it was slight. I suffered from a sore throat though, so I decided to see the doctor. They told me, to my surprise, that they wanted me to get a chest X-ray, so I agreed. It turned out that I had “walking pneumonia” and had no idea. Within days though, I took a turn for the worse and nearly died.  I was so ill that I had to move in with my mother for weeks. She cared for me and slept by my side, often wondering if I would stop breathing in my sleep. Thankfully, I recovered.

When I read Corinne’s mother’s words, I thought of my own experience and wondered if maybe Corinne’s cold had turned into something far worse, thus the reason her mother stopped writing about Corrine’s illness and referring it to the “days of darkness.”  Perhaps Corinne took a turn for the worse, just as I had. When I was ill, I had antibiotics and still I almost died. I can imagine if I had been sick while living during that time period of 1877, I would have been a ‘goner’ for sure.

Again, it is quite possible given the recorded amount of deaths caused by the Yellow Fever in the state just months prior and the fact that Wallace Cummings died shortly thereafter, that both their deaths may have been caused by that very same Yellow Fever epidemic, so we may never know for sure which illness caused her death. But we do know that illness took her life, not suicide.

Corinne's mother, Sarah even wrote in her diary the moment her daughter took her last breath, at 7:40 a.m. on January 24, 1877. Had Corinne drowned herself as the urban legends tell, then how on earth would her mother know the last moment of her daughter’s life?  Recorded in a preserved letter from a friend of the Lawton family, Mr. Stuart Robinson mentions having had read the The Savannah Morning News (January 25, 1877) which posted her short obituary, where it states that Corinne had died after a "short illness."

In Conclusion

I think that with the tales of “romantic tragedies” or “star crossed lovers” that cannot be, that people become so fascinated with it that it becomes larger than life. The tales and rumors then spread for over 100 years making it hard to decipher between the factual part and the fictional parts.  The rumors of  a young, beautiful southern bride-to-be who jumps to her death into a raging river, to escape an eminent and miserable marriage proved to be just that, a rumor! There are no historical facts backing these over embellished tales.

Corinne's monument (P-415/10)
Wilson Library UNC
In the end, we should all be happy that this young lady did not take her own life. We should be glad that she was not mistreated by her family, nor was she forced to live an unhappy life with a man she didn’t love. If that was the case, she would have been married off by her family at a younger age. No, certainly her parents loved Corinne so deeply that they never shunned her in life, nor in death and even erected a statue made by one of the most sought after Sicilian sculptor's of the 19th Century which I am sure cost a small fortune, and placed it at her grave to honor her memory. Thus, showing the love and respect they had for their daughter. In fact, genealogy records prove that Corinne’s niece was named after her, showing how much the family adored her.

Her death was tragic and very sad, because of the fact that she died so young. It was even more tragic due to the fact it was caused by an illness she could not recover from. But, we should take heart in the fact that she died in bed, surrounded by her mother, her father and her loving family, instead of dying all alone in a dark watery grave at the bottom of the river as others have claimed she did. Corinne’s story is one that should be told over and over again, but told correctly. We should honor her memory by stating the true facts and by remembering her for the good person she was. We should also take delight in the fact that she and her immediate loved ones are all together now, resting in peace.

 Rest In Peace, Corinne. You are not forgotten!

Photo Credit: Historic Cemeteries - Mary Homick © 2011

(Original Copyright 9/11/2013, by J'aime Rubio)
Also published in the book, "Stories of the Forgotten: Infamous, Famous & Unremembered," by J'aime Rubio, 2016. 

To learn more about Corinne Elliot Lawton, please check out Ruth Rawl's blog. She is certainly dedicated to keeping the correct version of Corinne's life and death alive and available to set the record straight once and for all. Thank you Ruth, for your dedication to find the truth. You are a fellow truth seeker!


All historical photos were provided to me by Alexander Robert Lawton Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Digital Southern Historical Collection: Series 6- circa 1860-1889
P-415/4, P-415/9, P-415/10, P-415/11
Thank you to Laura Clark Brown
Coordinator , Digital Southern Historical Collection

Cemetery Photos provided to me by Historic Cemeteries - Mary Homick © 2011

Thank you to Mary Homick @ Historic Cemeteries for allowing me to use her photos of Corinne's grave at Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. To see more of Mary's absolutely amazing photography please check her out on facebook.

Yellow Fever Epidemic (1876) Savannah Georgia-  Information

Sarah Lawton's diary is available at the Georgia Historical Society at: 501 Whitaker St  Savannah, GA

The Alexander Lawton Papers,  as well as many other documents regarding the Lawton family can also be obtained by Chapel Hill's Wilson Library (University of North Carolina).