Old News Stories
The Pulliam Family Tragedy, 1942-43
From The Sunday News
published at New York City
Sunday, January 4, 1948
WHEN JUSTICE TRIUMPHED
Mysterious Death of Six in Burning of a
Georgia Home Quickly Solved
by Ruth Reynolds
Light from the last flames of the fierce fire which had consumed the frame house cast a glow on the faces of the two men who strode toward each other, hands outstretched.
Baxter Shows Sheriff Brownish Red Spots
"This fire's your baby," grinned Deputy Sheriff Tom Crowe of Whitfield County, Ga., as he shook hand with Sheriff John W. Morrison of adjacent Murray County. "What I'm doing' here I'm blessed if I know, ‘cept somebody called into the office. It's on your side of the line for sure. You aim to take in all the dawn-time fires in your county personally?"
"No, Tom, I don't," responded Morrison. "Somebody called us, too, and I'm going to find out who right now."
Morrison moved a few paces closer to a knot of die-hard spectators staring at the embers smoking in a tangle of debris.
"Which of you-all called the sheriff?" he shouted.
A middle-aged man, grimy and red-eyed from fire-fighting, separated himself from the group and approached.
"I did," he said in a husky whisper. "My name's Baxter–George Baxter–and I live handy here. I wasn't sure which county this place is in, so I didn't take any chances. I called you boys because there's a murder–maybe a couple–been done here."
"Why do you say that?" Morrison asked.
Morrison and Crowe Go to Bereaved Man
Baxter led the way to what had been the brick and concrete steps of the house, and pointed.
"Blood ain't so common at fires."
Morrison and Crowe had no difficulty tracing the line of brownish red spots from the steps and along a path which had run around the side of the house. Then they vanished.
Baxter told the two that when he got up at 4:45 that morning of Nov. 2, 1941, to put more wood on his fire he saw the house of his neighbor, Mark Pulliam, was burning. Within 10 minutes, Baxter, his son, and a neighbor, Will Walravin, had formed a bucket brigade from a stream to the blazing house. Since the place appeared to be deserted, they concluded that Pulliam, his wife, Winnie, and their eight children were spending the night at the home of a brother, Vee Pulliam, who lived some three miles away.
The roof caved in soon after Baxter and his helpers arrived, and they saw that the house was doomed.
"It was after I sent my son over to Vee's to tell the folks what had happed that I found the blood." Then Baxter added, "Maybe I should've waited and let the Pulliams do their own calling. Anyway, I knew it would take a long time to get here. My son had to walk over and they'll have to walk back. They ought to be along any minute."
Sheriff Morrison found a 10 foot pole and the three men managed to lift one section of the twisted metal which had been the sheet-iron roof of the two-story house. Before their burden slipped from the pole and fell back, they caught a glimpse of something dark and shapeless lying in the ruins.
As they turned away from their task, Vee Pulliam and the Baxter boy, came up the lane from the highway.
"Are they in there?"Pulliam panted, pointing at the ruins.
Vee was sure that Winnie and five of the children had returned to their home after Mark had taken three of the children to spend the night with relatives in Dalton, Whitfield County seat.
The bright dawn made the ruins even more desolate as officers and neighbors dragged aside section of the tin roof and poked in the ashes.
They found the blackened form of a child, identify by Vee as "Alvie Jean–she was 11." Then they found "Katherine–she was 9." Two small bodies were "the twins, Wayne and Worth–cutest little fellers–they were only 3."
On a mattress so saturated with blood that it scarcely burned, were the bodies of Mrs. Pulliam and her 7-year-old daughter, Martha.
"My God!" breathed Crowe.
In spite of what the flames had done to the woman's body, it was plain to see that she had been deeply slashed from the right breast to the abdomen and again across the abdomen.
"So, I was right. It was murder–and such a lot of it!" ejaculated Baxter.
"This can smells of kerosene," volunteered a bystander, gingerly handing a gallon tin to Morrison.
Pulliam leaned against the woodshed muttering: "Who'd want to kill Winnie? Poor, sick Winnie? Who'd want to kill her? A good woman, Winnie. Took care of Mark and the kids, sick as she was."
Morrison stared at the grieving brother-in-law a moment.
"You pull yourself together," the sheriff said, "and tell me about the last time you saw her."
Vee said that his brother and the entire family had arrived about 1 o'clock the day before to visit with him and his old father, M. U. Pulliam, who lived with him. The visitors had stayed several hours.
Mark's plans for disposition of the eight children for the night were rather complicated. What Vee had understood from general conversation to be the final arrangement came down to this: Winnie was to take five children back home with her. Two children, Mozelle, 14, and Lovell, 5, were to be left with their maternal grandparents, Mr. And Mrs. John Charles. Mark and Mark, Jr., 16 would spend the night with a sister, Mrs. Anna McElrath, and in the morning would go directly to work at their jobs at the Rocky Face lumber mill.
"It was payday and Mark gave Winnie $50 before she left him with the kids," said Vee. "I just can't think who would want to kill Winnie."
"Maybe somebody who knew she had $50," observed the Sheriff drily. "Who saw your brother give his wife the money?"
"Nobody," Vee answered dully. "Just me. The kids had gone outside and Pa was asleep in the next room."
"You sure she went right home?"
Vee guessed she had.
"Baxter," the sheriff directed, "you better take this fellow home. He's in a daze. I'll get these bodies moved, then I'll go tell Mark Pulliam. Where did you say he worked?"
"Ernest Lumber Company at Rocky Face, outside of Dalton," Vee answered.
Crowe offered to remain at the ruins until Morrison's deputies could arrive. Morrison sped northeast to Chatsworth, seat of Murray County, at the foot of the timber-clad Cohutta Mountains, southern tip of the Great Smoky range.
Morrison stopped first at the combined insurance agency and undertaking parlor of Kennemer Brothers and arranged with Clay Kennemer to recover the bodies from the ruins, take them to his establishment and hold them for Coroner E. H. Dickie.
As an afterthought, the Sheriff asked: "By the way, were any of the Pulliams insured?"
Roper Asks Vee For Work Clothes
"Not Winnie," was the reply. "She wanted insurance, but she was so sickly we couldn't take her. ‘Bout the kids I don't rightly know. Wouldn't think so though. Ask my brother, Watson. He takes care of the living end of the business. He stays over in our main office at Dalton."
Morrison had just finished talking on the telephone to Dr. Dickie when Crowe, relieved at the Pulliam place by Murray County deputies, appeared.
"Thought maybe I could be a help, if you wanted," he volunteered.
"Good. I'm going up to Rocky Face to see Pulliam and I'd rather not be alone. It's a hell of a thing to tell a man his wife's been murdered and his family almost wiped out."
When they reached the lumber mill, Morrison went directly to the office of the owner, G. C. Ernest.
"Mark Pulliam working today? The father, I mean."
"Far as I know," Ernest answered. "Must be out in the mill. What's up?"
"Quite a lot," Morrison replied. "Mark's house burned down this morning. His wife and five of his kids are dead."
"Good God! I'll send for him right away. How'd it happen?"
"Don't send for him; I'll go out to the mill," answered the Sheriff, ignoring the lumberman's question.
Morrison and Crowe walked toward the sound of coughing engines and whirring saws, and the spicy smell of freshly cut pine and hardwood.
"Want to talk to Mark Pulliam," the Sheriff told the superintendent, explaining his mission.
A few minutes later Pulliam–a tall, brawny mountaineer of 34–shouldered through the door of the superintendent's shack. He stared at the three solemn faces.
Morrison plunged directly into the story of the fire and the finding of the bodies. Pulliam stared at the Sheriff. Then he lunged forward, seizing Morrison's coat lapels and shaking the Sheriff.
"No! No! You're lying!"
"Wish I was lying, Pulliam," Morrison said as the logger dropped into a chair, shoulders shaking with sobs. It was 15 minutes before Pulliam could answer questions. Morrison went back over the story.
"As I understand it, you and three of the kids spent the night in Dalton?"
"And before you left your wife at your brother's you gave her $50?"
"Yeah. My pay was $80. Winnie was happy with the fifty."
"When you gave your wife the money, nobody but Vee saw you?"
"Nobody else." Mark shook his head. "Why? What's the point of that?"
"Because your wife was murdered, and she could have been murdered for that $50," Morrison was blunt.
"Murdered!" Pulliam shouted. Then he quickly controlled himself. "Now, wait a minute, Sheriff. You don't think my brother Vee had anything to do with this. Why, Vee's a good man."
"We aren't accusing anyone, Pulliam."
Shocked fellow workers drove the new widower to his sister's home in Dalton while Morrison and Crowe hurried back to Chatsworth.
Dr. Russell Confronts the Chloroform Buyer
"Tom," said Morrison, "I'm going to call in Roper."
"Don't blame you a bit," he replied. "Roper'll figure it out, if anybody can."
From his office, Morrison telephone Capt. W. S. Roper of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in Atlanta. Roper started at once for Chatsworth, and before sunset he had poked through the ashes of the sunrise fire.
At the Sheriff's office, Roper sniffed at the battered gallon can found near the remains of the Pulliam house. The smell of kerosene was still strong.
"That fire was started after the woman was killed," observed the GBI man. "What beats me is why none of those kids woke up. Anyhow, let's talk to Vee Pulliam. Get him over here, will you?"
While Vee repeated his story for Roper's benefit, he clasped and unclasped his hands. Both his hands and his fingernails were conspicuously clean.
"Those the clothes you were wearing last night?" asked Roper casually.
"Why–er–." The man obviously was startled. "No, I got sorta dressed up to come over here."
"Mind showing us the clothes you wore last night?" Roper persisted.
"No. That is–I'll see if I can find them. Sorta dirty. Work clothes, you know."
A deputy took Vee home and returned with a blue shirt, blue overalls and blue socks.
"He found them in the dirty clothes bag after rummaging around a bit," the deputy reported.
Roper examined the clothing carefully.
"Looks all right to me," he said finally. "But we'll see. Got any wrapping paper?"
Carefully he made the clothes into a package and addressed to Dr. Herman D. Jones, pathologist at Oglethorpe University, Atlanta.
"We'll just get this on the train and then go talk to the coroner."
The two men found Dickie in the middle of his autopsies at the undertaker's.
"Pretty tough job with six in a bunch," Dickie said apologetically. "Bodies all pretty badly burned too. Woman sure got slashed."
"Doc," Roper interposed, "there's one thing I want to know particularly, but I won't tell you what it is. Let you find out by yourself. Look better in court that way."
"If it's there, I'll find it," said Dickie confidently.
The next morning Morrison and Roper were outside the Sheriff's office about to set out for Dalton when they were hailed by the coroner.
"Bet I found out what you wanted to know," he said to Roper. "These kids were chloroformed . I can swear to it until I send their organs to Oglethorpe University, but you can bet on it."
"That's it!" cried the GBI man. "That's why the fire didn't wake them. John, do you think you can find out who bought the chloroform?"
Morrison nodded and all three went to his office. While the Sheriff set deputies to the task of finding the chloroform buyer, Dickie told Roper that he could find no trace of the anesthetic in Mrs. Pulliam's body.
When Roper and Morrison arrived in Dalton, an industrial community, workers were making their way to the factories that line the railroad track, which pierces the heart of the town.
The office of Watson Kennemer was the investigators' first stop.
The insurance man, referring to his records, said that in July, 1940, the Pulliams had taken out policies on three children, Katherine and the twins, Wayne and Worth. The so-called "industrial policy" on the infants was small, but the one on Katherine, then 7, was $1,200, with a double indemnity clause under it would pay $2,400 on accidental death (such as by fire).
"Lucky for the Pulliams they got that premium paid," said Watson. "My man, Tome Smith, said they were in here and paid the premium night before last just a few hours before the fire. Policy would have lapsed if they hadn't."
"Mrs. Pulliam was here?" asked Roper.
Kennemer nodded. "Sure, they were together."
"Didn't Vee Pulliam say she went right home?" Roper asked Morrison.
"He said he though so," the Sheriff replied. "We best check up. Mark'll be at his sister's, I expect."
They picked up Crowe, then went to Mrs. McElrath's house. As they stepped from the car, a fragile-looking, dark-haired, teenage girl walked slowly down the path to the gate. She was the picture of grief. Her hair straggled. Her mouth drooped. She dropped the lids of her red-rimmed eyes as the men looked at her.
"Mark Pulliam in?" asked Crowe.
The girl shook her head, started on, then turned back and touched Roper's sleeve.
"Well I don't aim to tell you your business, but you go see Della Hall here in Dalton. Maybe she knows where he is."
The girl nodded.
"Who is Della Hall?"
"You just ask around. You'll find out." And with that the child fled down the street.
When Mrs. McElrath answered their ring at the door the officers introduced themselves, and Roper asked: "Who's that girl who just went out of here?"
"Mozelle," the woman answered.
"Oh, Mark's daughter?"
Mrs. McElrath nodded. When the officers asked for Mark she invited them in, saying she expected her brother to return shortly.
"Who's Della Hall?" asked Crowe. Mrs. McElrath looked at him sharply.
"Why do you want to know?"
"Mozelle mentioned her."
"‘Pears like young people talk a lot these days," snapped Mozelle's aunt. "Well, Delia's a candlewick spread worker, same as all the rest of us in Dalton. Mozelle's got some notion that Della was trying to get Mark away from Winnie. She says she wouldn't put it past Della to have set the fire."
Roper surprised his two companions by telling Mrs. McElrath they wouldn't wait because they "had a little job to do in Dalton." They would be back later.
Outside the house, he said he wanted to find Della Hall "quick."
While Dalton is the center of the candlewick bedspread home industry, it also has several factories devoted to spread-making. A few telephone calls located Miss Hall. She proved to be a woman of 40 who admitted sullenly that she knew Mark Pulliam and would say nothing further.
"Crowe, you keep an eye on her," Roper requested. "We'll go back, and talk to Pulliam."
This time when Morrison and Roper arrived at the McElrath house, Pulliam himself opened the door.
"Annie Mae says you-ll are looking for me. Can I help you?"
"You can if you won't mind driving over to Chatsworth with us," replied Roper.
The big man readily agreed and on the 12-mile trip talked much about his life with his ailing wife and large family–a happy life, he declared, in which each new child was more welcome than the last.
"People say you can get too many mouths to feed but I always say," philosophized Mark, "that every time there's a new baby the Lord finds a way to feed it. True, too."
The car stopped in front of the Murray County courthouse and the adjoining jail. Pulliam followed the two men, not into the courthouse, but into the jail.
"Think we're going to keep you here for a while, Pulliam," said Roper.
"What for?" the mountaineer gasped.
"The murder of your wife and five kids. Where are the clothes you wore the night before last?"
"In the loggers' shack at Rocky Face," Mark replied calmly. "But if you-all think I had something to do with the burning of my home you're crazy as hell. I think as much of my family as any damned man."
"You think something of insurance, too, don't you? And of Della Hall, don't you?" scoffed Roper.
Pulliam had no answer.
A few hours later 70-year-old Dr. C. C. Russell was escorted into the jail to confront Pulliam.
"Pulliam, Dr. Russell tells me he's treated your family for a good many years," said Roper.
"That's right," said the prisoner, "And he'll tell you how good I was to them, how glad I was every time we had another baby."
"He tells me, too, that he sold you some chloroform the other day."
"That's right," Pulliam said.
"He says you told him you wanted that chloroform to dope some mean horses so you could shoe them. You haven't got any mean horses, Mark."
That night Roper sent Dr. Jones, the Oglethorpe University pathologist, a package containing Mark Pulliam's clothes taken from the loggers' shanty, a clasp knife taken from Mark's pocket, and trimmings from Mark's fingernails.
On Feb. 12, 1943, Pulliam stepped across the green lawn that separates the jail from the courthouse to go on trial before Superior Judge John C. Mitchell.
The State, in the person of Solicitor General J. H. Paschall, showed by witnesses that after Mark and his three children reached Dalton the night before the fire, he left them to see Della Mae Hall, to whom had had been paying marked attentions. She accompanied him to the Kennemer office, where he paid the insurance premium to Tome Smith, who mistook the woman for Mrs. Pulliam. At midnight Mark left Della and, borrowing a car, started toward Chatsworth. He was back with her again before dawn.
In the interim, Paschall charged, Mark returned to his home, chloroformed five of his children, butchered his wife with his clasp-knife, and set fire to the place in the hope that evidence of the murders would be destroyed.
Dr. Russell told of the purchase of chloroform. Dr. Jones testified that Mark's clothes which he examined carried the odor of chloroform and that he had found blood of Mrs. Pulliam's type–different from Mark's–in scrapings from the front door steps, from the grooves of the clasp-knife handle, and from Mark's own fingernail trimmings.
Neighbors testified that Mark had been having "family troubles," but the most important witnesses were 14-year-old Mozelle and 16-year-old Mark, Jr.
"Pa was always beating Ma, ‘specially after she found that he was going over to Dalton to see Della Hall. And more than once he said he'd kill us all," said Mozelle.
Mark, Jr. corroborated this testimony.
Della, arrested as an accessory to the crime and then released, did not appear to testify. Nor has she been much in evidence in Whitfield or Murray County since Pulliam, convicted in short order, joined a Georgia chain gang in Pickens County to serve a life sentence.
Now five years after Pulliam cremated most of his family, young Mark, suffering a change of heart, is circulation a petition asking the Governor to pardon his father. Therefore, it remains to be seen to what degree Justice finally will triumph in this case.
Old News Stories
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