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Last hanging in Surry County haunts family

By Tom Joyce

The Associated Press

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MOUNT AIRY, N.C. (AP) — Victims of a horrific murder can include more than just the person killed, and his or her loved ones left behind.

The pain and suffering also can extend to innocent relatives of the alleged perpetrator who pay a terrible price despite having committed no crime themselves.

Such a scenario has long plagued descendants of John Jack Mays, the last man legally hanged in Surry County, on Nov. 11, 1898. Mays, who was 40 at the time of his execution, was arrested, tried and convicted of murdering elderly widow Martha Thompson Higgins, a neighbor who lived off Haystack Road near the Mitchell River in northwestern Surry County.

Martha was killed with an ax stemming from a plot to steal the substantial sum of cash she had accumulated from her dead husband's Civil War pension.

However, more is to be found between the lines of the 114-year-old story than those basic facts, which a great-grandson of Mays recently sought to unearth from the confines of history.

Exhaustive research from numerous sources has left Ralph Shaw with the notion that John Jack Mays may have gone to the gallows knowing someone else committed the murder, but concealed that party's identity to avoid deadly retaliation against his family.

There also are indications Mays was a victim of double jeopardy due to possibly being found not guilty at an earlier trial in Forsyth County before his conviction in Dobson, according to materials Shaw has accumulated.

"I have lived with this for 50 years," said Shaw, 57, a Greensboro-area resident, explaining that "pent-up shame" kept Mays' descendants from discussing his hanging for generations.

"This story scared me as a child, which gave me shame and left a severe mental scar on me, which I have carried for my entire life," Shaw wrote in an account detailing his interest in trying to clear his great-grandfather's name. It is titled "Family Shame: A Search for the Truth."

Shaw grew up in the State Road community north of Elkin and might be well-known to Surry residents for his 35-year broadcasting career. It includes stints at radio stations WPAQ and WSYD in Mount Airy, as well as co-hosting the "Brad and Ralph" morning show on Rock 92 for four years.

While growing up, Shaw attended Rocky Ford Baptist Church, where John Jack Mays had served as choir director many years before.

He first learned about Mays' story in the early 1960s.

Shaw was about 6 or 7 years old at the time and listened to his elderly grandmother, Hattie Mays Wilmoth, cry while describing the sight of her father hanging dead on the gallows when she was only 12 years old. Hattie was one of Mays' six children.

In addition to him, Shaw said descendants of John Jack Mays now live in Mountain Park, Zephyr, Thurmond and Jonesville, as well as other parts of North Carolina and throughout the nation, stretching to California.

Historical accounts of the killing of Martha Thompson Higgins paint a rough portrait of life in rural Surry County in the late 1800s.

Higgins had lived on a farm with her husband Sam, who elected not to enlist in the Confederate Army during the Civil War along with others in mountainous areas of North Carolina who shared an isolationist mindset. These folks had no interest in the conflict and just wanted to live in peace.

However, Sam Higgins eventually was apprehended by the Home Guard, whose duties included rounding up those not serving the Confederacy. Higgins was jailed in Dobson until he could be turned over to the Rebel army, and subsequently was killed in action in Virginia with his body never returned.

That left Martha to look after the family farm with the help of her only son and that of a neighbor — John Jack Mays.

Along the way, Martha accumulated her husband's Civil War pension payments and was known to keep the money in jars under rocks in her fireplace as well as a trunk.

On the night of June 14, 1898, flames engulfed the Higgins home, with Martha's body later found in the ashes but no sign of the money. It was quickly theorized that she was killed using the ax and robbed, with her house burned in order to cover up the crime. The trunk was found forced open and empty in a nearby creek, according to one account.

After then-Surry County Sheriff J.M. Davis went to Mays' home and questioned him, Mays told him where the money could be found and it was recovered.

Mays was arrested, admitting that he did take the cash but didn't harm the woman. Some in the community believed Mays, while others were skeptical, according to historical accounts, but when a jury got the case in October 1898 during a well-attended trial, he was quickly found guilty.

Thousands of people gathered for Mays' hanging the next month at a site in the county seat now occupied by Wells Fargo Bank, including Shaw's late grandmother Hattie — Mays' daughter — and at least some of her siblings.

Eyewitness accounts reveal a grim scene of Mays riding a wagon to the gallows atop the casket he would be placed into after the trap-door fell on that windy November day and delivered its ghastly result.

Among the artifacts at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History are black-and-white photographs showing a hooded Mays hanging dead, which Shaw admits were painful for him to see but necessary for his understanding of the event.

After Mays' body was moved to his home to lie in state, blood dripped from the coffin and the stains remained visible on the floor for years.

Mays was buried at a remote site off River Road in the Devotion community near Dobson, where he is the only occupant of an abandoned cemetery bearing his name.

A couple of disclosures spurred Ralph Shaw's interest in reviving the case involving his long-dead great-grandfather.

"I have cousins and friends, with whom I never have discussed this crime," he confides in his written account of his quest for the truth. "Many of my older relatives did not talk about John Jack Mays with their children and they never knew the stories or even their connection (to him)."

Shaw said he personally shied away from investigating the family tragedy and kept quiet because he didn't think there was anything he could do to change the historically accepted version of events.

Yet there were Mays descendants spread out here and there, including in Florida and Rocky Mount, Va., who were dabbling in the case. They were able to connect and compare some compelling notes with the aid of the Internet which caused Shaw to change his mind.

Through such contacts, Shaw, who has experience in the legal field as an assistant with a Greensboro law firm, learned there might have been an earlier trial, maybe in Forsyth County, at which Mays was found innocent due to lack of evidence. He also got wind of a possible deathbed confession to the crime by another man.

It is conceivable that a change of venue might have occurred due to the sensational nature of the Higgins crime. But while Shaw's search has turned up minutes from Mays' trial in Dobson, no records could be found of any second trial, either in Forsyth County or at the state archives in Raleigh.

Shaw did find newspaper and other accounts of the period showing that Mays was held in Winston-Salem after his arrest because of fears he might be lynched in Surry. Such a lynching had been committed in 1892 by a band of hooded men, at the fabled "Allison Tree" along the present U.S. 52-Business about a mile from the center of Dobson.

An oral history Shaw recently gleaned from the 87-year-old daughter-in-law of Constable Henry Moore, who investigated the murder and arrested Mays, produced aspects of reasonable doubt surrounding his guilt.

Based on the Moore family account, Mays is said to have told the constable that he and others were playing poker and drinking the night of the murder and discussed robbing Martha Higgins.

While the robbery was under way, she recognized some of the men and was struck in the head and died, with the house set afire to destroy the evidence.

Mays told Moore that he did not kill the woman, but refused to name who did because he feared for his life and that of his kin. One family story has it that Mays told his oldest daughter, while she was visiting him in jail, that the men involved had sworn an oath not to tell on each other.

Damning evidence against Mays, who had unusually large feet, included boot prints found at the crime scene which were traced to him. But Shaw uncovered other versions suggesting that someone else used Mays' boots to make tracks that made him appear guilty.

Another blow to the defense surrounded Dan Jones, a member of Mays' extended family who was staying at the Mays home the night of the murder. Mays is said to have paid Jones $5 not to tell about his late arrival home afterward.

Jones apparently provided an alibi for Mays during a coroner's inquest shortly after the woman's murder, but later panicked and disclosed what he knew — which helped seal the fate of Shaw's ancestor.

Mays, however, maintained his innocence until the moment the noose was placed around his neck.

Although his exhaustive quest so far has not turned up any hard facts that might clear his great-grandfather's name, Shaw remains philosophical about what his efforts have produced.

"At this point, I'm kind of saddened that I was not able to discover any evidence of double jeopardy or any legal evidence beyond just rumor that there had been a deathbed confession," he said Tuesday.

Yet as he's delved into the case, Shaw has found solace in the notion that Mays likely went to the gallows without implicating others in order to protect his family. Had his children been killed, for example, they would not have had kids of their own, with Shaw and many others alive today because of that.

"We are the result of him being quiet," added Shaw, who is "absolutely" glad that he undertook the mission of finding out everything possible about the case.

Based on everything he has learned, Shaw formulated the belief that his great-grandfather basically was a good man — but one who made some mistakes.

"It shows that even a good person can be tempted and things can go wrong," Shaw said of Martha Higgins' robbery and murder and at least the accomplice role John Jack Mays played. "Each individual must make the right choices in life."

Shaw added: "At the same time, he also was thinking about his family."

Mays' great-grandson believes there is some information out there, perhaps personal knowledge possessed by descendants of others involved in the crime, which could shed more light on what really happened in the summer of 1898.

Shaw said this specifically includes two men whose names have surfaced as possible suspects in the death of Martha Higgins.

By keeping the story in the public realm, Shaw hopes it might prompt someone to come forward and share long-concealed details — just to clear their own conscience, if nothing else.

Such a breakthrough would allow the seeking of a full pardon or similar remedy in his great-grandfather's case, Shaw said.

He also believes keeping the story alive could dispel misinformation about John Jack Mays that has circulated among the public throughout the years. "For instance, so many people think he was hanged at the Allison Tree," Shaw said of the earlier lynching at Dobson.

One thing is for sure: Ralph Shaw is not about to quit looking for facts that could lead to a different ending for the case than the one accepted by local residents all these years.

"The story may not be over yet because my family's search for the truth will continue as long as we live."


Information from: Mount Airy News, http://www.mtairynews.com


Bless your heart
Bless your heart