A young doctor attempts to rectify his life by prescribing cyanide for his new wife.
Alice stares out at us from the darkness of a damaged newspaper photograph, but even with such a dim likeness, we can guess the character of the person in the photo. Her hair is curly and dark and her face full and round. Her smile is lopsided and bucktoothed and she has a gap in her upper teeth. Alice’s father was English, and perhaps that is where she got her round face and crooked smile that seem to signal a good sense of humor and a hearty, sincere laugh. She looks like the kind of girl who might prefer a glass of beer than a little sip of sherry. It is her eyes, however, that still shine through that dim pane of time: perhaps blue, light-colored, alert and cheerful eyes. She smiles into the camera, a new bride with her entire life suddenly broadening out and unfolding, full of promise and affection. Instead, Alice’s life hardly began when it was over, murdered by the man who was supposed to love and protect her: her new husband. According to her death certificate, Alice’s life lasted exactly nineteen years, six months, and seven days.
Alice Knight Johnson (1898-1917)
The photograph of Alice’s new husband, Lemuel Johnson is very different. Taken from the 1917 Medical College of Virginia student yearbook - the year of his graduation from the school. Lemuel hardly looks celebratory. Behind his spectacles his eyes look pained, and his downturned mouth is hardly the confident look of a young man ready to make his way in the world. Lemuel had good reason to look unhappy, even though he passed the North Carolina Dental Board exams and was ready to return to his native state and establish his practice.
The United States entered World War I in April 1917, just as Lemuel was finishing school, and he was one of the thousands of men called up for enlistment as the country prepared to go to war. The inevitability of being drafted into the Army and sent to France worried Lemuel as it would spoil his plans - never mind the threat of being killed or wounded in action. In addition, both his parents were unwell, and trying to provide for them would be impossible if the Army had him in its grasp. There was also a slight problem with his marriage.
Lemuel met Alice Knight in Richmond at the School of Dentistry, where she was a stenographer. They soon fell in love, and were secretly married September 18, 1917. Lemuel had broached the subject of marriage with Alice’s mother weeks before, jokingly asking her “Do you mind my making a Tarheel out of Alice?” but the girl’s parents had no idea of the event until they were shown the marriage license. Lemuel told Alice that he wanted to keep their marriage secret: “He said that the reason was that his father wanted him to marry an old maid schoolteacher in North Carolina,” and he needed some time to break the news to his parents. The real problem was that Lemuel was infatuated with a woman back in his hometown. What was even worse, Miss Ollie White proudly wore the engagement ring Lemuel Johnson had given her two years before. A month before Alice’s death, he wrote to Ollie, “Sweetheart, please do not speak of leaving Christmas; it causes my heart to ache,” and concluded, “Always yours, or no one’s one, Ollie.” He wrote a love letter to Ollie the morning of the day of his wedding to Alice. The two sides of his life, once so carefully bulkheaded, were converging and collapsing and Lemuel Johnson began to plan how to reduce his troubles by half.
Alice and Lemuel Johnson
Saturday night, December 15, 1917, was cold and cheerless in Richmond, with the thermometer recording a high of 26 degrees. “The sudden drop in the mercury last night served to keep the streets covered with a sheet of ice and made walking difficult,” reported the Times-Dispatch. Nevertheless, Alice Knight Johnson managed to make her way the twelve blocks from her house at 1513 North 22nd Street to the home of her friend, Mrs. B. F. Stutz at 522 North 27th Street on Church Hill. Mrs. Stutz was an old friend and confidant from Alice’s job at the Medical College. Later, she recalled a conversation with Alice, who told her five weeks before her death that she was taking medicine that her husband was giving her. Mrs. Stutz cautioned her about ruining her health by taking medicine unnecessarily, but Alice replied that she was not afraid, “because the young doctor had mixed it himself.”
522 North 22nd Street, where Alice Johnson visited her friend, Mrs. B. F. Stutz, on December 15, 1917. Alice never left alive.
Also visiting Mrs. Stutz that evening was a third friend, Mildred Taylor. The three ladies ate a late supper, after which Alice showed off some of the medicine prepared by her husband. One pill in the box seemed huge in comparison to the rest. “How can you swallow such a large one?” asked Miss Taylor, and Alice cheerfully replied, “Oh! This will knock ‘L’ out of me,” and laughingly swallowed the pill. Within minutes she excused herself and staggered off to the bathroom for water. When she emerged, Alice gasped, “Oh, I am so sick.” The girl collapsed and her friends rushed over to her. They heard the growing hysteria in Alice’s voice when she kept crying she was experiencing a smothering sensation. As the two horrified women looked on helplessly, within minutes Alice Johnson was dead.
The death of the young woman was a mystery, and the lack of proper resolution to what happened to her hung over Alice’s funeral on December 17th. After an examination of Alice’s body, the Richmond City Coroner James Whitfield listed her cause of death as “accidental poisoning by medicine.” Apparently, her pills had somehow been mixed up with those containing cyanide. Alice’s funeral service was conducted at her parent’s home at 1513 North 22nd Street, where her grieving husband accepted the condolences of shocked family and friends. Lemuel and the mourners followed the hearse carrying Alice to Oakwood Cemetery, where she was buried in a plot purchased by her parents. Afterward, Lemuel packed his bags and boarded the train for his hometown in North Carolina, while back in Richmond Alice’s grieving parents faced their first Christmas without their young daughter.
Alice’s parent’s home at 1513 North 22nd. Street, where she lived even after she married Lemuel Johnson. Alice’s body was taken from here to Oakwood Cemetery.
On December 27, Richmond Detectives Sergeants Wily and Smith had a long interview with Alice’s parents at their Church Hill home. Up until that point Mr. and Mrs. Knight resisted the idea that Lemuel may have had a hand in their daughter’s death, but that was slowly changing. “…Even the mother of the dead girl,” reported the Times-Dispatch, “who hitherto has maintained an unbounded confidence in the husband of her daughter, has turned against him.” The evidence was quickly mounting against Lemuel and all signs pointed to him as Alice’s murderer.
The story unfolded quickly during the holiday season. On December 20, Lemuel was found in a hotel room in Wilson, North Carolina on the railroad line to Richmond and twenty miles from his parent’s home in Middlesex. He had apparently taken poison and was rushed to the hospital in Wilson. Richmond Detective Sergeant L. J. Johnson arrived, armed with a warrant for Lemuel’s arrest, charging that he “unlawfully, feloniously, and of his own malice did murder one Alice Johnson,” and arrested Lemuel in his hospital bed.
The lurid story of the murdered girl, apparently cruelly deceived by her malicious new husband who was engaged to marry another, and now attempted to kill himself, had all the ingredients of a sensational thriller. It certainly captured the imagination of the press and the story spread nationwide. A Richmond newspaper opined that the affair was attracting as much attention as the hugely notorious case of Thomas Cluverius, who murdered his (pregnant) female cousin in 1885, or the shotgun murder on Midlothian Turnpike of Louise Beattie by her husband in 1911, a crime covered by Style Weeky Magazine in 2019.
An example of the sensationalism surrounding the arrest and trial of Lemuel Johnson.
Among the many Richmonders who were following the expanding story of Lemuel and Alice must have been Amos Hadley, another local physician who, like Lemuel Johnson, was balancing two different relationships. Like Lemuel, Hadley chose one woman over another, and consequently went to the electric chair for the murder of his wife. That same December central Virginia was already transfixed by the trial of Asa Chamberlin, a Goochland doctor who killed his brother (a county judge), dismembered his body, and buried the pieces behind his house in his farmyard.
When Richmond detectives returned to Richmond with Lemuel, they brought with them packets of correspondence between the young dentist and Miss Ollie White, who his neighbors in Middlesex had been assured was his fiancée. They painted a damning picture of a young man caught in the inexorable grip of his own making. One letter to Ollie White was written the morning of his marriage to Alice. “All I can do just now is love you with all my heart,” Lemuel wrote. “Some day we will be as happy as we can be. Dear, just have a long dream about me to-night and tell me all about it when I get home…” They also searched Lemuel’s hotel room in Wilson and found odd mementos: the silver plate pried off the lid of Alice’s coffin (engraved, “At Rest”), and a faded floral arrangement from Alice’s funeral on which was a card inscribed, “My Wife.” They also confiscated the series of letters Lemuel wrote and signed the night he took poison – an attempt to kill himself Lemuel said he did not remember.
The old Richmond jail in Shockoe Valley being demolished in 1958 for construction of Interstate 95. This is the building where Lemuel Johnson was held while on trial for murder.
After a brief hearing in the Police Court in the basement of City Hall before Justice John Crutchfield on January 12, Lemuel was indicted for his wife’s murder and returned to the Richmond City Jail to await trial. In the course of this preliminary hearing, Dr. A.F. Williams, who was called to the Briggs Hotel in Wilson, North Carolina, reported entering Lemuel’s room and noticing the smell of prussic acid, a derivative of the same cyanide of potassium found in Alice’s stomach. Mrs. Stutz, one of the horrified witnesses to Alice’s dying moments, recalled in an earlier conversation with Lemuel during which he had asked rhetorically, “Why should a murderer be held responsible if the Lord intended them to die by the hands of a murderer?” At one point, Justice Crutchfield cleared the courtroom so Mrs. Stutz could relate “confidences” told her by Alice, despite the objections of Lemuel’s defense attorneys from North Carolina, Harry Smith and John E. Woodward. Woodward was a particularly skillful defense lawyer and was successful in several murder cases. The prosecution was headed by Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney George E. Wise.
A blizzard of motions for delay were filed by the defense team, postponing the trial to March, to April, and then to late May, 1918, but throughout, Lemuel said nothing about his guilt or innocence. “Detectives Wiley and Smith…have been confident for the past few days that he would weaken and make a clean-cut statement of the details surrounding the death of his wife,” reported the Times-Dispatch, “but a conference with W. H. Smith, Jr., who may be retained as one of his counsel, is thought to have sealed the lips of the prisoner.”
Part of the case against Lemuel Johnson involved his access to the poison, potassium cyanide.
With the delays, the case against the young dentist appeared to be unraveling, and some important witnesses in North Carolina flatly refused to respond to the summons issued in Richmond. Two pharmacists in Wilson, North Carolina and employees of the hotel where Lemuel tried to kill himself refused to testify. Most damaging was the unwillingness of Ollie White, Lemuel’s supposed fiancé, to testify against him. There was an exciting turn in the case when an unsigned confession supposedly made by Lemuel in the Richmond jail to Lloyd Gill, a Washington newspaper reporter, was thrown out as inadmissible and the reporter banned from the courtroom. When Lemuel did take the stand, he related the perfect storm of “over-study in his dental course, his mother critically ill, about to be inducted into the National Army and nervousness as the result of the loss of sleep” that led him to take poison in his hotel room. He said yes, he wrote the letters discussing his impending suicide attempt, but had no memory of doing that or taking poison. “I had worried until I was absent-minded” Lemuel told the jury, as the explanation for his behavior.
At the end of the trial, Commonwealth’s Attorney Wise delivered what was termed “a scathing arraignment of the dentist,” that lasted two hours, but it was futile. After fourteen days of testimony, the jury only deliberated an hour and ten minutes in the case of The Commonwealth v. Lemuel Johnson, and declared him innocent and a free man. Judge David Richardson cautioned the court that he wanted no outbursts when the verdict was read, but the estimated hundred people in the room burst into cheers. “That looks good to me” Lemuel said to reporters with a big grin as his finger traced the word “innocent” in a newspaper headline that night.
Lemuel Johnson returned to North Carolina, but never married his other love, Ollie White. In 1922, she married Roscoe Pierce and moved to Franklin County, North Carolina. In 1924, Lemuel, who had established a practice in his hometown of Middlesex, married a woman named Lena Snells, but happiness did not follow for the young man despite the success of his business. Perhaps he did feel, as he mentioned to Mrs. Stutz, that his was only the hand of inevitable fate and that Alice was bound for Oakwood Cemetery at a young age no matter what course her life took. Or perhaps he was forever haunted by the face of his nineteen-year-old bride smiling up at him with trust and confidence, and Alice good-naturedly beaming at the thought of the possibilities of their new married life to come.
This weathered slab of concrete covers the grave of Lemuel Johnson in Nash County, North Carolina. Courtesy of Find A Grave and William Kemp.
The week before Thanksgiving, 1925, was cool and clear in Nash County, North Carolina. Lemuel Johnson, came out on the front porch of his father’s house and surveyed the yard and the sky. He then produced a revolver from his pocket, pressed the muzzle against his head, closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. Back in Richmond, a newspaper article hinted darkly at Lemuel’s role in the death of Alice: “No reason is known for the deed, but Dr. Johnson had seemed depressed for some time, and it is believed that some secret trouble was preying on his mind.” The same Nash County registrar who filled out his death certificate and bluntly stated Lemuel’s cause of death as “shot self in head” also calculated the dentist lived thirty-two years, eight months, and eleven days.
The grave of Alice Knight Johnson in Richmond’s Oakwood Cemetery.
Today, it isn’t easy to find the last resting place of Alice Knight and her parents. Their headstones are slowly sinking in the grass of Richmond’ Oakwood Cemetery and because of that, at first glance the Knight plot appears empty. Alice’s mother died at age 48 in early 1925, too soon to hear of the suicide of her former son-in-law, but George Knight lived until 1929 and would have had the satisfaction of hearing of Lemuel’s shooting himself when he read of the once-notorious dentist’s death in the Richmond newspapers. The three of them, mother, father, and young daughter have been there under their blanket of green for a hundred years. Still, the determined visitor can brush the grass away to reveal the marker the grieving parents chose for their once-cheerful child, the sad victim of a heartless young man who once swore to protect and love her:
Age 19 Yrs.
Blessed are the pure
of heart for they
shall see God.
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