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Mugshot of Edith Maxwell
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Edith Maxwell behind bars
Clarence H. Albers shot Edith Maxwell behind bars for the pages of the New York Journal in 1935.
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Mugshot of Edith Maxwell
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Edith's father, a coal miner, was respected but known for being strict.
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Edith and Earl
This photo of brother and sister dates from around the mid-1920s.
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Wise County courthouse
where the trials of Edith Maxwell began.
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Pound, Va. today
Edith Maxwell's hometown is still a small one, with a population a little more than 1,000.
Kentucky-born, Virginia-raised reporter Sharon Hatfield has published a book on a crime that’s been half-forgotten and never satisfactorily resolved. In 1935, Edith Maxwell, a 21-year-old schoolteacher, became an overnight celebrity – for patricide she may or may not have committed. Seventy years later, residents still resent the backwoods image the newspapers printed of rural Wise County, Va., and still dispute whether Edith, who died in 1979, was guilty.
“The so-called first photograph of Edith in jail was emblazoned on page 1 beneath a banner headline: ‘Hill-Billy Girl’s Own Story.’ The picture showed Edith looking out through the bars of her basement cell. Her pale eyes, framed by thin, arched brows, stared straight into the camera in seeming contemplation of her twenty-five-year sentence. Edith posed in a wool coat, velvet hat, silk stockings and high heels for other pictures, looking more like a visiting social worker than an inmate.” —From Sharon Hatfield’s “Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell”
Free-spirited, young schoolteacher Edith Maxwell returned home late one July night in 1935 to her conservative and domineering father, Trigg Maxwell. Hearing a scuffle, a neighbor arrived at the four-room house in Pound, Va., to find Trigg, a blacksmith, lying unconscious on the kitchen floor.
Fifteen minutes later, Trigg was dead.
The following day, Edith and her mother, Ann, were indicted for his murder.
Local law officers in Wise County saw the case as just another homicide – a domestic dispute that bubbled over after the hard-drinking Trigg argued with Edith about her staying out late.
But factor in the possible murder weapon – a high-heel shoe, maybe an iron, perhaps a skillet or a small ax.
Then consider the place: the culturally rich Virginia coal fields in the mysterious Appalachian mountains. For months after Trigg’s death on July 21, 1935, big-city presses pounced on this story of “The Lonesome Pine Girl” who struck her daddy and killed him.
Reporters followed Edith’s everyday life with words and pictures, tracking her down in Wise County and, between trials, on a farm outside of Richmond. Curly-haired and photogenic, Edith became an American sweetheart-behind-bars. The Washington Post set up a defense fund for her legal expenses. And she was heralded in headlines as a “Hill-Billy Girl.”
But the locals didn’t like how reporters came to Wise County looking for the moonshine, corruption and shootouts depicted decades earlier in John Fox, Jr.’s “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” a million-selling novel set along the Virginia-Kentucky line. They also did not like unflattering portraits of places, like printing a picture of a cow strolling down the sidewalk of the Wise County Courthouse, where Edith Maxwell’s trials took place.
“People didn’t want to be thought of as hillbillies,” says author Sharon Hatfield. “But the press wanted to depict us as hillbillies.”
Hatfield, who wrote the recently-published “Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell” (University of Illinois Press), was born in Middlesboro, Ky. in 1956 and grew up near Wise in Lee County, Va. Her 296-page true-crime drama traces the story of Edith Maxwell through two murder trials, her rise to international fame and her prison terms. It also touches on fast-changing ideas about a woman’s place in society during the 1930s and how Edith could not be tried by a jury of her peers because, by law, women were not then allowed to serve on juries.
Hatfield borrowed the book title from a 1930s journalist, who said Trigg Maxwell had kept Edith under such close scrutiny that she was not allowed out after dark and, therefore, had “never seen the moon.”
Edith was twice convicted of killing her father. But Maxwell’s mother, Ann, was cleared of any charges.
“It was always really unclear what the mother’s role had been,” Hatfield says. “A lot of people think her mother killed Trigg, and she took the rap for her mother.”
Following her second trial, Edith served four years of a 20-year prison term. She was pardoned by Gov. James H. Price in December 1941 – thanks, in part, to a letter written on her behalf by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Upon her release, Edith changed her name to Ann Grayson and eventually made a new life for herself in Jacksonville, Fla., after marrying Otto Abshier, the owner of an Indianapolis trucking company.
“She chose her mother’s first name as her first name, Ann,” Hatfield says.
She found her new surname, Grayson, in a telephone book, just before she left prison.
But Ann Grayson left behind no books – not even a diary – to connect her to her past life, Hatfield says.
“The Lonesome Pine Girl” died in Indiana in 1979.
Q & A: Sharon Hatfield
From 1977 to 1983, author Sharon Hatfield served as a reporter in Wise County, Va., for the Coalfield Progress. Now living in Athens, Ohio, Hatfield spent about 14 years working on “Never Seen the Moon,” her first book, which carefully and cleverly examines young Edith Maxwell’s wild ride through the American legal system in the 1930s.
Joe Tennis: When did you start working on “Never Seen the Moon”? Sharon Hatfield: I started in 1991. They say the average non-fiction book takes seven years to write… It took me quite a bit longer. There was one period of time in the late ’90s where I just put it down on the shelf and went on to an office job.
JT: How many stories did you write for the Coalfield Progress concerning this? SH: Zero. I never knew anything about it at that time.
JT: When did you hear about it? SH: I was back here visiting at Christmastime, and there was a lady that was a friend of our family, Evelyn Slemp from Wise. She was a retired court reporter, and she was a collector of lots of records. She remembered the case from when she had been a teenager here in Wise and had collected lots of newspapers, detective magazines and even had a transcript of the first trial. And I just begged her to let me copy her stuff.
JT: What’s the fascination with this case? SH: When you have a female accused of a violent crime, that’s very unusual. It’s statistically really low that that happens, so that makes it a curiosity. When you have someone who’s in one of the more respected professions, teaching, they’re expected to be a role model, and then something like this happens, it really captures everyone’s attention. I also think the fact, back then, that it was set in Appalachia, in a very exotic and mysterious part of the country, really got a lot of the outside press interested in it.
JT: It bothered you, as you said earlier, to read the press about what they were saying about us. Why was that? SH: Once I moved here and became a reporter and developed some consciousness about my culture, I became really proud of it, and then when I saw how it had been misrepresented, it made me angry. It made me want to do a little something to change that.
JT: Do you find that we’re still misrepresented in the mountains? SH: Yeah. There’s lots of stuff that still goes on. I do think that we have more tools to resist stereotypes now, because we have more homegrown media. We have more opportunities to make our own films and publish our own books. But it’s, by no means, wiped out as a problem.