by Roxie Milam Wallace
My mother Linnie Britt Milam heard this story from Fleatie Milam Johnson Stanfill, my father’s sister. After marrying Papa, Mother became close friends with his younger sibling, and the two of them shared personal stories, as friends will do. Of course, Papa shared his story with her even before they married. It isn’t clear how much they discussed the tragedy over their 25 years together, but it is certain that he added details to his sister’s account.
I have heard it said that there is a pivotal moment or situation that occurs in each person’s life that determines his or her future. For me, that auspicious event occurred before I was even born: My father suffered a personal tragedy of mammoth proportions that colored the rest of his own life and affected his progeny for, perhaps, many generations to come.
Our defining family drama began on the sultry day of August 3, 1933. By 2:00 P.M., the atmosphere had become heavy, and occasional breezes blew hot as Acalee Milam placed minimal harness on two mules that he and his wife Bertha mounted and rode toward their corn crop plantings along Cane Creek in the Chesterfield Bottoms of West Tennessee. Mopping the perspiration from his forehead, he felt an involuntary shudder run the length of his spine, despite the heat.
The shudder was puzzling. He could have been spooked by such an unusual occurrence, but time was too precious to waste in analyzing premonitions. The creek had overflowed, after a two-inch rain the day before, due to a drift of flotsam—leaves, tree branches, and logs—that threatened to wash away a whole crop of young, corn plants already standing knee high.
If he and Bertha were unable to save the flourishing grain, there would not be enough time in the growing season for another crop to mature that year. A corn crop failure would just about break them financially. The Great Depression had wrecked the United States’ economy and many farmers were losing everything.
The Milams owned their farm, several acres of bottom land, free and clear, but they had borrowed from the bank to purchase equipment, seed, livestock, and living supplies. Should they be unable to grow enough corn to feed their animals through the coming winter, it would be necessary to mortgage the place in order to buy feed on the market, risking the possibility of missed notes and forfeited holdings.
Acalee Milam and Bertha Johnson had been husband and wife for twenty-one years. Their two older children Ray and Ralph were married and on their own, but Ruth and L.B. were thirteen and eight years old respectively and still living at home. The couple felt an acute weight of family responsibility that August day as they hurried to get the drift broken up ahead of a threatening storm that had already turned the northern sky a grayish-yellow color.
Upon reaching Cane Creek’s banks, the Milams surveyed a spreading lake formed by raging creek waters held back by an impromptu dam. After determining that breaking up the drift would be an arduous and extended task of labor, Ack and Bertha decided that she should take the mules back to the barn right away. Returning them would be very difficult during or after the storm. The sky was growing ever darker toward the northwest over Lexington, the nearest town, and the wind had picked up bringing a chill to the air.
Bertha rode away on the back of Old Bill the bigger mule, while holding the reins of Bud his teammate, heading toward the bridge over Cane Creek and home. Turning back to the task at hand, Ack waded into the edge of angry waters. That was the last time Acalee Milam ever saw his wife alive. The events of this tale changed one man’s life forever, but their effects also reached to many individuals over time and space.
Upon hearing the faint sound of a scream coming from the direction of Cane Creek bridge where Bertha would need to cross in order to reach their house, Ack ran that way. Tracking the mules through deep mud, he found his team standing beside the barnyard fence, but there was no trace of his wife. Family members and neighbors were called in and everyone spent many hours searching for the young woman.
Beside himself with first worry and finally terror, Ack drove his body and mind to exhaustion trying to find Bertha. When the others called off their search at about midnight, he refused to give up, thinking she might be lying injured somewhere in the muddy Bottoms or along the banks of Cane Creek in need of medical attention. Nobody could be completely sure what had happened. All assumed there had been an accident, and the lady had been thrown from a frightened mule, a normal assumption since it was well known to those living on farms that equestrian animals will almost never cross an ordinary wooden bridge, much less one with raging waters rushing beneath it.
With the coming of sunrise at 5:30 A.M. the next morning, August 4th, Ack found the disfigured body of his dear wife. She was lying supine across a pile of brush—tree limbs and twigs—that had been flung up onto the creek bank, approximately two miles downstream from the bridge. With the storm’s termination around three o’clock, the water had immediately begun to recede leaving flotsam of all kinds behind. Bertha’s form lay in a contorted, acrobatic position, indicating that her back was broken. A fissure opening one side of her head and her demolished face, which long red hair could not completely cover, presented an image that broke Acalee Milam’s heart forever.
There was no question that she was dead. He hurried home to inform his children and to call county authorities. At first, neighbors in the Middleburg community of Henderson County were sympathetic and helpful. Friends and relatives brought food to the house and grieved along with both the Milams and the Johnsons, Bertha’s family. However, not long after the funeral at Oak Grove Methodist Church was over, whispers began.
Family legend has it that Bertha’s brothers started the gossip. Probably, many individuals envied the Milams and coveted their farm. Ack and Bertha had earned their place through frugality and intense labor. Even the children had worked, as was the practice in those days and in keeping with their father’s philosophy of responsibility for family members. Acquaintances might have been jealous of what they saw as the Milams’s good fortune.
Whatever the cause for growing suspicion, law authorities were petitioned to arrest Acalee Milam for murder. The husband had been alone when he discovered his wife’s body, so people were allowed to imagine any scenario they desired as to how Bertha had died. With the dearth of entertainment available to West Tennessee country folk in 1933, many imagined the most dramatic and the worst.
Ack was arrested and, ultimately, tried for murder in the death of his wife. According to an article appearing in the Lexington Progress newspaper, in the October, 1933 session of Circuit Court, the Grand Jury handed down an indictment and bound him over for trial. The proceedings that began on December 13, 1933, were sensational, generating so much interest that, according to the paper, the old 14th District (Middleburg) was practically “depopulated.” One John Fesmire, who had been coming to Lexington for 80 years, was quoted as saying the courthouse had the greatest jam he had ever seen.
“The Milam family is so well-known that widespread interest has been felt,” the Lexington Progress further stated, “and the trial has brought to the courthouse more witnesses (118 subpoenaed and four others failing to be served) and more spectators than ever before in the history of Henderson County.” The State rested its case on Tuesday, and following the defense’s presentation, it went to the jury on Thursday, Dec. 17th. On Friday, a verdict of “Not Guilty” was returned.
Editor of the Progress, in an editorial published on December 22, 1933, stated that no more vigorous prosecution could have been had than that presented by the team of Atty. General Dave Murray and attorney Joe C. Davis. “…the defense backed their belief in the innocence of Milam by employment of such counsel as Judge E.W. Ross, of Savannah, Judge E.C. Kennedy, of Decaturville, and Attorney Winfred H. Lancaster, of the Lexington bar,” according to editor Barry.
He goes on to say, “…and if Milam was not guilty, it is a pity that he should be put to an enormous cost—to fight a false charge—but such is the ‘system’ in this republic.” (I’ve included all these details because I chose to write about this event especially for my children, grandchildren, and future progeny.)
An accusation of murder is too dramatic to die with exoneration. Some Decatur and Henderson County citizens believed that Acalee had killed his wife, and nothing could change their minds. They punished him and his family with gossip and innuendo when he went on to build a new life. I was the firstborn of that “Phoenix from the ashes” family. As long as any of my father’s contemporaries were alive, and even afterward from families who had recounted rumors to their children, I had to face insidious gossip and outright rude questions as to the guilt or innocence of my father.
I would like to be able to say that Papa put the tragedy behind him and faced the future with equilibrium. That, however, is not the truth. Before tragedy struck, this good and honest man had been a Christian who attended Judson Baptist Church at Middleburg where he taught shaped-notes singing schools on a regular basis and sang with a gospel quartet. Afterward, his hurt brought suspicions, paranoia, and sometimes bitterness to his relationships with others. He couldn’t forget that some of his best friends had doubted him when their support was most needed. Even some of his siblings had become enemies. Adding to pain was the loss of his beloved farm.
Most people who owned land in those times possessed little cash money. When it became necessary for Papa to hire an attorney to represent him in court, he borrowed from his sister Fleatie Stanfill, to whom he was forever grateful. The debt only amounted to a few hundred dollars, but when the note became due, he was forced to sell his land to pay her back. Thereafter, we the new family became his primary focus. He dedicated himself to sheltering and protecting us, forging few new friendships with associates and avoiding situations where he might be vulnerable to pain.
Led by Uncle Luther and Aunt Lillie Milam, our group joined the Parsons Church of Christ and maintained a personal relationship with God, but a pall could often envelop our lives, only relieved by mirth and pleasure when Papa attended our youthful musical, educational, or athletic performances. Mother’s natural, light hearted spirit was checked, and her sweet, gentle voice, singing folk songs and hymns as she went about her work, was heard less and less.
We children learned to keep to ourselves any interactions we might have with the offspring of Papa’s enemies. Heaven forbid that we should ever date one of them! However, our parent’s disappointment with his fellowmen created in Ginny, Buddy, and me a desire for the opposite attitude.
For the most part, we’ve managed to maintain a positive outlook, loving, believing, and trusting in others. At the same time, I’ve pushed myself tirelessly to do well in multiple arenas to prove my worth and to demonstrate the inherent good character represented by those wearing our family name.
There is no way to know just how much Papa’s tragedy affected—molded and shaped—my siblings and me. It is reasonable, however, to assume that the episode had a huge role in making us who we are.