“I went up to Wise that night along with my cousin and not meaning no harm,” testified Edith Maxwell at her murder trial. “Along in the evening Raymond Meade came along and said he would give me a lift back to my house in Pound. There was some more people in the car with him but we let them out down the road a piece and Raymond Meade says to me: ‘Let’s go to the Little Ritz and get something to eat.’ ”
“The Lonesome Pine Girl,” accused of killing her father Trigg on July 20, 1935, attracted the attention and support of newspaper, magazine, and radio reporters, as well as women’s organizations, across the United States and Canada. Her nickname is a reference to a well known 1908 John Fox novel, The Trial of the Lonesome Pine, that portrayed the lifestyle of mountain residents in a rather one-dimensional manner.
So popular was the tale with the American public that a third production of it– this one in sound and color–was being filmed, with considerable publicity, even as Edith Maxwell faced the first of two trials in the Wise County, VA courthouse.
The media coverage the case received for nearly two years rivaled that given to the Scopes “monkey trial” of the 1920s. By the end of Maxwell’s ordeal, even Eleanor Roosevelt had gotten involved.
Why the national spotlight? The Maxwell case was a clash between modernity and tradition, between “women’s rights and reason against bigotry and fanaticism.” On the side of bigotry and tradition was the “code” of the Virginia mountains, where women and children had to obey and submit to the father, even when he physically abused them.
Edith had left home for two years of teacher’s college, highly unusual for a young woman of her circumstances. After attending Radford State Teachers College (later Radford University), Maxwell reluctantly returned to Pound, where she associated with the “bright young set,” tested the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and became frustrated by the limitations of small-town life.
Raymond Meade tried to get her to drink some liquor, Edith continued in her November 1935 court testimony, but all she took was some potato chips and a glass of ginger ale. She told him it was getting late and she had better be starting for home because she was going blackberrying next morning. When she got home around midnight her little sister, Mary Catherine, warned her: “Your bed covers is in Pappy’s room but don’t go in there. He’s drunk and he’s going to run Ma out of the house tomorrow.” But Edith went in anyhow. Pappy woke up.
‘I’m goin’ to whip you,” he said.
“Pappy, don’t you do it,” said Edith.
Pappy chased her out of the bedroom and grabbed a carving knife. “Pappy, don’t you cut me,” said Edith.
“I’ll show you I can whip you,” said Pappy.
Edith fell to the floor and fumbled for a pair of old high-heeled shoes she had given her Ma. She flailed out with one of them. Pappy fell back. Edith, half-naked from the fight, caught up a covering, ran out of the house. She could hear Pappy moaning: “Jesus, Jesus, why can’t a man whip his own child?” Trigg was soon dead, allegedly from the beating Edith gave him.
The prosecutor tried to show that Edith was a fast filly who had saddened her honest mountaineer father with her late hours and citified ways. But he could not shake her story of the fight. It was further corroborated by Edith’s 11-year-old sister Mary Catherine who, when twitted by the prosecutor for forgetting certain details, leaned out of the witness chair and yelled: “And you wouldn’t remember so good either if you had been as scared as I was that night with Pappy a-yellin’ and a-cussin’ and Edith a-tryin’ to outrun him!”
Edith, argued her lawyers, had exercised no more than her “God-given right of self-defense.” But that did not impress the jury, which, after less than an hour’s deliberation, returned a guilty verdict.
Despite expert medical testimony that Trigg’s wounds could not have caused his death and that he had probably died of a stroke or heart attack, rumor and innuendo were enough to send Edith to jail for five years of a 25 year sentence.
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.
The day after Trigg Maxwell died, his wife Ann, along with their daughter, had been indicted, but never brought to trial. Was Trigg Maxwell hit by Edith? Or was it Ann? Or was he hit at all?