Mike Ragland -Cotton in my Blood

Mike Ragland, Guest Columnist

Last week we talked about Martha Russell being born in Scotland and brought to this country as a baby. She had grown up in the State of New York and was friends with Anne Gillespie. When Anne married Col. Lindsey Johnson of Rome and moved here, she brought “Aunt Martha” with her as a nurse and nanny.

Martha lived in the same house with the Johnsons for many years, but after her so-called retirement, she wanted her own house. She lived in a little red cottage on North Street in East Rome (A street I cannot find, but is listed on her death certificate. I assume it doesn’t exist anymore.) and privately ran her business from there. Outside her home was a tree with several knives stuck into it which she explained to potential customers was for magic.

Her business was that of what was described as witchcraft. Supposedly she was a practitioner of the black arts that had been practiced in the heaths and moors for centuries. Thousands came through her little parlor to ask her aid. Some wanted enemies “hexed” or advice on business. Others wanted to find lost jewelry or other items. A wand tipped with a feather was found at the scene, but it seems that most wanted advice on “love problems,” as cards with initials of those she was trying to bring together were also discovered.

The little old woman, described as having long white hair and a wrinkled face with a heavy growth of hair on her chin and upper lip, would pound an old cane and in a wheezy voice dole out her warnings and suggestions.

In boxes she kept dried spiders, various roots and herbs, dried frog skins, watermelon seeds and string beans. She made and sold charms made out of these items depending on the seriousness of the questioners’ ailment or problem.

A mechanic (Mr. Humphrey) suffering from a skin disease found her body when he came to receive aid.

Police found her collection of the aforementioned items scattered around the cottage. They ruled out burglary after finding a box with almost $200 in it (which was a lot of cash in 1929). They did find a letter that read in part:  “Dear Aunt Martha, I want you to do some work for me. I want you to bring back this man to me for I love him and I don’t want him to go with other girls … I will see you before long. Please go to work on this man as soon as you get this letter.”

Based on that letter and interviews conducted by police, they assumed it was an unhappy or unsatisfied client that murdered Miss Russell.

Miss Russell was found and reported at about 2 p.m. on the day of the murder. It was sensationalized almost immediately by the press. The story was run in newspapers all over the South. They loved to attach voodoo in the story, but that’s a doubtful add, mostly used to —once again — sensationalize the column.

Police work in the South in 1929 was not an art form that had been accomplished, nor was it considered or listed as a profession. There were no crime labs or crime scene investigation techniques. There were no fingerprint files. This went on for many years.

Even after I started to work, there were older officers that had trouble reading and writing. They were great guys and could go into a beer joint after receiving a call, and slap you silly, but engaging in a homicide investigation was not part of their expertise. And truthfully, there were few “whodunits” in my entire 40 years. Most murders were simply killings, with the perpetrator standing over the victim (usually an acquaintance or family member) squalling when police arrived, with the smoking gun still in his or her hand.

A coroner’s inquest was convened the day after the body was discovered, reconvened again the following day and announced she was killed by persons unknown. It almost seems that the criminal justice environment didn’t want this case lingering around and maybe they thought she got what she deserved from being engaged in the practice of things that was recognized as taboo.

The Johnsons had a funeral for her at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and buried her at Myrtle Hill with a fine tombstone in a beautiful lot. They had a reception and received friends at Rio Vista after the service. They considered her a good and loyal friend. I find it hard to believe they would do that if they thought she was some kind of evil or voodoo practitioner.

Voodoo was in the public consciousness as a Caribbean religion brought to Louisiana by former slaves. It appears the mention of frog skins excited reporters all over the South.

When Martha left the Johnson’s employment she was offered a home with them for the remainder of her life. She refused, saying, that if she stayed, some of her friends might put a curse on her. She didn’t elaborate, but moved to her own place. And a few days before she was murdered, she walked to the fence and told a neighbor to watch out for her, something was going to happen. It seems she had a premonition.

Eight years after Aunt Martha was murdered, Mrs. Anne Gillespie Johnson fell on Rome’s Broad Street and broke her femur. She died shortly after the fall from contracting pneumonia.

It ain’t over, let’s do a part three. There’s more to say, we still got to talk to our modern day witch. I hope you don’t think they ain’t still around, I mean a lot of them, too.

Mike Ragland is a former Cave Spring city councilman and a retired Rome police major. His most recent book is “Lucy and the Ghost Train.” Readers may contact him at mrag@bellsouth.net or mikeragland.com.