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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Death In The House Of Strathmore–Strange Murders On The Black Prairie Of Mississippi

“I did not kill that man”, said Lavinia Holt in the Beecham County courthouse to the judge, the jury, and Harlan Pickens, the District Attorney.  The entire country suspected she did, although the evidence presented by the defense was enough to acquit.  Yale Holt had been drunk that night, belligerent, and half-cocked as he came up the stairs after her, standing like Cleopatra in her silk caftan, embroidered with snakes; a diamond tiara on her trussed and gold-braided hair.  

He had stumbled and fallen two floors to his death, soaking the Kashmiri carpet with his blood and flecking the Roman copy of Apollo with bits of his brain.  “He fell, and that was all there was to it”, Lavinia testified.

Beauty Flashback: Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra

Of course that was not all there was to it, and as much as the jury had been instructed to disregard any innuendo or suggestion of impropriety in her past life, this was Beecham County where everyone knew something about Lavinia Holt, the suspicious drowning of her lover, the untimely deaths of her two Natchez cousins, and stories of strange visitations of the dead.

It was the house itself, however, which was recalled more than any of the happenings within it or the doings of the five generations that had lived there. 

Lavinia, in a long soliloquy of reminiscence and illusion allowed by the judge because of ‘context’, provided far more than a background of innocence, but the stuff of the rumors and innuendoes which she hoped would acquit her.

“After my husband left the first time', she began, "I moved to the front bedroom. It has a balcony overlooking the street, and if the weather wasn’t too cold at Christmas, I would step outside and watch the guests arriving.  I always imagined how it must have been in the days before the War – polished black phaetons with finely-groomed horses drawing up to the gate, our gas lights lit, the door decorated with a wreath and holly berries, the Negro butler opening the door, and the master of the house greeting his guests. It would have been warm inside with fragrances of flowers, perfume, firewood and pine.

“My room was at the top of the stairs across from the Southern Room. While it was decorated with the same care as the others, all the furnishings were my own. I had my own vanity table with the comb and brush I used as a girl. My own grandparents’ photographs are on the walls. My diary, covered in pink lace and secured with a little brass lock and key, was on my bedside table along with the books I read as a child. 

"I created a sitting area in the sunny corner of the room like the one my mother used and put her oval Victorian mirror, her tortoise shell combs, her cut glass perfume bottles with their crystal stoppers in it. On the writing table I put my souvenirs – two tickets to the rides at the Augusta fairgrounds and one from the Atlanta Symphony."

Lavinia said that she had decorated and furnished every room differently. On the vanity table in the Southern Room she put a diary of a young Civil War bride whose husband had been sent to Vicksburg; and put a small potpourri next to it, imagining that the dried flowers might be just like those that the bride’s husband had given her, and that the scent might be like that of those she had pressed in the book.

She put a silver hand mirror nearby and a comb and brush for ladies’ toilette at night. Next to the potpourri she put a photograph of a young man, an officer in the Confederate Army who could very well have been her husband. The picture was very small, and visitors could only see his stiff collar and a few of the brass buttons on his tunic. She covered the table with lace embroidery and next to the diary put a pen, an inkwell, and a Bible.

Pin on Favorite Period Photos

The Magnolia Room had a floral motif.  She put silk flowers on the end tables and a large vase of gardenias touched with perfume on the dresser; and put two Victorian urns of a dozen long-stemmed roses on the mantelpiece, one red and the other white. The bedspread was a floral print, and each of the throw pillows of a different flower. The wallpaper was a very Southern scene with a white mansion, horse-drawn carriages, live oaks, and a garden filled with phlox, asters, and roses.

The Sitting Room was in the back of the house and Lavinia imagined the same young war bride spending her afternoons there. She put a lot of old photographs on the walls, many of Civil War soldiers. She had found pictures of women who could have been her mother, aunts, and sisters and placed them on the mantlepiece. She wanted to make the room comfortable and lived-in, so gave her mother a rocking chair and wicker sewing basket, a small library of poetry, extra large pillows and a mahogany bed tray painted with Southern scenes.

It was a dead house, a crypt of Dickensian memories, rooms shut up and preserved like that of Miss Havisham, dressed in the same white wedding dress she wore before being jilted by her fiancé, now after fifty years crumbling on her bones, falling to the floor in flakes of white lace, the floor of a room all white and never been touched since the moment of the fiancé's departure. 

I regret to inform you that Miss Havisham, Dickens' embittered crone, is  actually only . . . 40. ‹ Literary Hub

Anything could have happened in that house, but nothing so simple as a deliberate murder.  Yale Holt could not have been pushed down the stairs by an angry, vindictive wife.  There had to be more to it – a deliberately loosened stair, a flickering light from the Victorian chandelier at the top of the stairs, distracting him for a moment as he tripped on the bunched carpet on the last stair before the landing on which she stood.  No, the jury reckoned, it all could have happened incidentally or planned by Lavinia but in a way that only an accident could be concluded.

A rich uncle had died the same way, the jury was told, but then told to disregard, stumbling up the same circular staircase in the dark, the same swaying Victorian chandelier, and the same precipitous fall to the Italian marble floor below.

“The House of the Seven Gables”, the Beecham Beacon had written as the trial opened.  “The horrible legacy of Strathmore” the front page article went on, uncovering one murderous rumor after another.  “A fiction, a novelty, an imagining of absurd proportions”, thundered the defense attorney to the jury and the crowded courtroom. “You are here to judge this alleged crime and this one only!”; but there was no way of dismissing the facts, stories told by boys who had peered through the windows of the house and saw Lavinia Holt sitting alone in a white, long dress, tresses down to the floor, combing them with a silver brush which reflected the light of the full moon.  Or she was on her knees in the Magnolia room amidst the red and white roses now dried and brittle, looking up at the image of a Confederate officer who had died in his sleep there but was said to return.

The voir dire was only a formality, for although each of the jurors had never personally met Miss Lavinia or had any reason to judge her before the fact, there was no way to avoid the strange, unsettling presence of Strathmore.  Their parents and grandparents and great grandparents had stories about the house and what went on within it – strange disappearances, the Cotillion of 1820 where a fire in the very ballroom which was to celebrate Beecham County’s most beautiful young men and women killed all of them; and the urns of their ashes were placed within floral arrangements in the new, graciously appointed hall of mirrors; or the disappearance of 500 Creek Indians in the War of 1812, taken up and away from the front lines in a swamp fog never before seen on the Black Prairie.

Lavinia Holt was acquitted.  How was one to convict someone of Strathmore, bedeviled by the ghosts of ancestors and the legacy of impossible doings?  Hawthorne was right, the dead are immured in the walls, in the rafters, in the staircases and railings, and they cannot be ignored.  The supernatural? Never; but there had to be something in between, a limbo, where memories lived. Lavinia may not have deliberately pushed her husband over the railing, but certainly wished him dead and saw his body spattered on the floor below, just like her great-great uncle and what her longsuffering great-great aunt must have wished.

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