Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Lawson Street Is a Dead End

The story of James Lacy Carter ended badly.  His arrival in Richmond years earlier, however, was like that of many rural Virginians who migrated to this city and similar industrial centers in the early 1900s. Born in Prince Edward County in 1889 to a Confederate veteran and his wife, Lacy married Pearl Gibbs when he was 21 and she was an alarmingly young girl of 14.  The lure of opportunity in the city drew Lacy and his wife out of rural southern Virginia, with the couple moving to Richmond in 1911.  Lacy hoped to support his wife by plying his trade in the big city as a carpenter and blacksmith.

Lacy Carter photographed when a young man.
The years before World War I found Pearl and Lacy Carter living with her parents at 3700 Lawson Street in South Richmond, a dead end street of small frame houses near the intersection of Hull Street and Belt Boulevard.  Lacy registered with the city draft board in June 1917, two months after the United Stated entered World War I.  The registration form describes him as being of medium build and complexion, with dark hair and dark brown eyes.  He listed his occupation as “blacksmith,” his status as self-employed, and his business address as 2618 Hull Street, near its intersection with Midlothian Turnpike. In his photographs, Lacy Carter appears to be a perfectly ordinary young man whose only distinguishing feature was a slightly dejected cast to his mouth.

Carter in his police uniform, 1920s.
With the birth of two sons, James and Earl, the growing Carter family was crowding Lacy’s in-laws at 3700 Lawson Street.  Perhaps it was Lacy himself who built the small and ungraceful-looking house at 3704 Lawson in 1920.  Pearl’s father, James Gibbs, was also a carpenter by trade, and may have helped his son-in-law construct his new home.  This house of 900 square feet has three rooms downstairs, each approximately 15 x 15 feet, with a tiny porch and, upstairs, one small bedroom.  3704 Lawson Street is sited above grade and could be easily seen from the house of his in-laws nearby.

Lacy Carter must have seen the job of blacksmith was a lost cause as soon as he arrived in Richmond. The same decade that witnessed World War I also saw an America flooded by millions of Henry Ford’s Model T automobiles, one of the first mass-produced and affordable automobiles. Richmond itself boasted of the 11,000 “pleasure vehicles” owned by city residents in 1923. For the first time in two hundred years, horses were no longer part of the street scape.

Third Police Station at 14th and Stockton Streets. This is the station where Lacy Carter worked and began his patrols around South Richmond.

In 1922, Lacy left blacksmithing and got a job with the Richmond Police Department as Patrolman.  He and Pearl took up permanent residence in the odd little house with its one-room second story in 1924. Pearl remained a housewife, raising the Carter’s two sons.  The boys grew to be adults and married in the 1930s, and those two couples lived in the former home of their grandparents, the larger of the two Carter houses on Lawson Street.

When Officer Carter began his patrols, they began at the Third Police Station on the corner of 14th and Stockton streets in south Richmond.  In the 1930s, being a Richmond cop was probably a pretty good job, especially for one like Carter with some seniority.  Although they were paid comparatively little, the post may have afforded policemen of the era security during an otherwise extremely uncertain decade.  This was in an era of policing on foot, and Officer Lacy must have been a well-known fixture in the Hull Street corridor and around the neighborhoods of old Manchester during the Depression.

Lacy Carter photographed in the late 1930s.

The story of Pearl and Lacy Carter was repeated all over the country as families struggled through the 1930s, a decade made more unusual, more colorful, and often more deadly by Prohibition. In October 1933, Richmonders voted 4 to 1 to repeal the same great “social experiment” whose bathtub gin and home-brewing efforts had made minor criminals out of so many Americans.  Easing the liquor laws and clearing the courts of prohibition cases must have made the task of the Richmond Police Department and its officers a little easier.  As the decade ground by, Richmond recovered from the Depression faster than many American cities, helped along because two of the main props of the local economy were inherently stable: the tobacco industry and government jobs. The city’s general outlook brightened toward the late 1930s.  Things were looking up.

The small house at 3704 Lawson Street where Pearl and Lacy Carter lived.

But on Lawson Street, during the last days of that tough decade, something went horribly wrong.  Christmas was on a Monday in 1939.  The following Thursday night, at exactly 12:20 AM, Earl Carter, his brother James and their families were all awoken by a series of gunshots coming from a nearby house – their parent’s house.  The dreadful cadence continued to echo up and down the neighborhood as Pearl and Lacy’s sons hurriedly tumbled out of bed and out into Lawson Street.

Bursting into their parent’s home, the horrified sons discovered that Lacy had taken his service revolver and fired five shots into Pearl, killing her, then put the gun to his own head and shot himself.  City coroner George Williams was quickly summoned and after one look at the two people sprawled in Lacy and Pearl’s bloody bedroom, he quickly ruled it a case of murder and suicide.

The bodies were taken to Woody’s Funeral Home, two caskets were prepared, and the couple was buried side by side in Maury Cemetery the next day.  Lacy and Pearl Carter had gone from warming themselves on a cold December night in their little Lawson Street home, to being shot to death, embalmed, mourned, and buried, all in 38 hours.

The graves of Pearl and Lacy Carter in Richmond’s Maury Cemetery, both buried the day after he murdered her and killed himself.

Nobody knows what took place that made Lacy Carter shoot his wife five times and then kill himself.  Nobody knows to what depths of misery the mild-looking policeman had descended or what role, other than victim, Pearl played in events that had such a dreadful ending.  Nor can we gauge, at the distance of almost eighty years, the effect on the sons who found their parents dead under such soul-searing circumstances.  Some things are best surrendered to time.

Still standing, although in poor condition, the ugly little house at 3704 Lawson Street has a notice of condemnation on its door and may soon disappear, taking its memories of moments in 1939 with it.  Despite its humble appearance, this house was once the stage on which two people unknowingly played out the dramatic last acts, the last minutes of their otherwise ordinary lives. The extinguishment of their hopes and aspirations, everything they knew, thought, felt or said, all utterly erased in a just few seconds from one winter’s cold hour is jarring and disturbing.  It is like a sinking ship, with all that achievement and life replaced by nothing more than the silent sky and the flat, implacable, sea.

White-hot rage, mortal fear, abject terror and desperate regret each tore through the Carter’s little house that cold night.  As vivid and real as these emotions and events were in 1939, today they are just a distant memory barely rescued from the brink of obscurity.  The life-and-death story of Pearl and Lacy Carter is now but the tiniest of events among so many in the long and colorful history of Richmond.  Today, the six terrible shots once heard distinctly up and down Lawson Street ring only in the imagination of the reader:


A pause.


- Selden.


Selden said...

My thanks to Amy Judd for research assistance with this article.

Selden said...

As more of a postscript than a comment, Lacy and Pearl Carter are not the only pair of killers and victims buried together in Maury Cemetery. Louise Beattie is buried in Maury beside her husband, Henry under the epitaph, “Beyond the River.” Henry killed her with a shotgun in 1911 and was electrocuted for the crime later that year.

HEK said...

An amazing -- and mortifying -- story that shows that crazy events such as this occurred in our grandparents time. But I'm reminded, too, of the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem, "Richard Cory," which describes Cory as " a gentleman from sole to crown" who exhibits such grace and panache that he is envied by passersby who are not as fortunate. Then, of course, comes the ending similar to this gruesome conclusion. Strange how Maury Cemetery holds two couples who died of violent means. I was told by Beattie descendants that Henry and Louise were interred side by side because after a while, nobody would remember the story, and it was less of a scandal. (Maybe, too, the family already had bought the plots). What happened with the Carters? Crazy.