His sister watched him through the lace covered glass as he came up the walk. It was late afternoon, Thursday, June 15, 1892, and 37 year old Isaac Shiloh Hembree had just picked up his mail from the Long Island (Carpenter), AL post office just across the street. He was carrying a wooden box and reading a letter. His sister watched as he removed a small pint bottle from the box, opened it, and lifted it to his lips. He took a swig, made a face, and came on in the house.
The front door slammed and Isaac’s heavy tread resounded across the hall. He poured a bit of the whiskey into a glass, added some sugar, tasted it again, and offered a taste of it to the others in the room. Leaving the bottle and packaging on the table, he went out the back door and returned with a freshly dug onion from the garden, to clear the whiskey’s bitter taste from his mouth. Isaac called for an emetic and grabbed the pan of potlikker from the stove, water that had been used to cook greens, gulping it down. His sister called for help, as Isaac began to vomit and collapsed in convulsions on the floor.
The strychnine (sic) hidden in the bottle of whiskey would settle in his organs, leaving a permanent and ultimately deadly residue. The water from the greens, ‘potlikker‘ as it was called, was universally used to help an upset or sick stomach. His swallowing it probably saved his life that day.
Not yet married, Isaac kept house with his unmarried sister in a big white clapboard house across the street from the post office. Isaac was a major landholder in the valley, with many rivals. Being unmarried, he was considered a ‘catch.’ Family legend says the plot was hatched so that a forged marriage certificate could be produced and his ‘widow’ would be able to claim everything he owned.
Two facts of life in the rural 1890’s could have given birth to the murderous plan…
First, rural postmasters had the authority to sign marriage certificates. Second, before prohibition, liquor was often delivered through the US mail, packed in small wooden boxes filled with sawdust to keep the bottles from breaking in transit.
Isaac had been handed the box with its deadly cargo, along with a few pieces of mail, by the assistant postmaster, who was a neighbor and friend. That day, Isaac had no reason to notice the strange mixture of stamps, and the enclosed, unsigned letter indicated the whiskey was a sample from the J.W. Kelly wholesale liquor house out of Chattanooga:
“We have just purchased the product of one of the leading distilleries of the country, and send you this bottle as a free sample, just to show you what the whiskey is. And if you will take a full goblet of the whiskey, and drink at one swallow, you will find it will not burn or strangle you; which will prove to you that it is first class in every respect. Or, if you drink the entire contents of this bottle in a few hours, you will find there will be none of the disagreeable effects to follow a poor article. We will make you this goods at 25c per bottle, or $2.00 per case, of one dozen.”
At trial, Isaac would later testify that the whiskey just tasted “off”. The chemist who later checked the bottle testified the whiskey in it contained enough strychnine to kill 70-100 men.
Three people were initially arrested.
The postmaster was an unmarried woman, Angeliene Troupe. The assistant postmaster was her brother, B.E. Ladd – the man who handed Isaac the mail, including the box with it deadly contents. It was no secret that the Ladds also enjoyed acquiring land, often finding themselves in direct competition with Isaac when properties came up for auction. The other player in the drama was their brother, Vince D. Ladd. All three were arrested, until an initial hearing could determine the facts.
June 26, 1893
At the preliminary trial, the box, the letter and the bottle, all purporting to come from a Chattanooga wholesaler, were found to have separate origins. The letter from the Chattanooga company was unsigned, and the owner said he did not write the letter, nor had he ever sent anything to Mr. Hembree.
Further, while the bottle, a size G flask type bottle, was possibly one of his, and the label was of a type that he used, the box was not one of his boxes. He testified that he had done business with Vince Ladd, mailing him whiskey at South Pittsburg, TN, but that it had been several months prior.The stamps on the box also came under scrutiny. They had different postal cancellations, one in March, another April, and it was pointed out that the postage of ten cents wasn’t sufficient to have mailed the box. Evidence from Postal Inspector R.S. Sharpe, from Chattanooga, TN, confirmed the box had not been mailed from there, but several witnesses said they saw the box in the official mail bag the day of the poisoning. B.E. had told Isaac that the box had been there for one or two days. His sister, the postmistress, said the box had come in on the down train that afternoon. There was even a report of a stranger seen at the post office that day. That B.E. Ladd was seen to have removed the box from the bag and handed it to Isaac, may have been a deciding factor, as the judge ordered B.E. and his sister bound over so that the case could be heard by the Circuit Court. While Vince appeared to be involved, no evidence could be found that would tie the the box to his workshop, and he had not visited his brother for several months before the poisoning. He was released. All in all, the preliminary trial took more than three weeks, and involved over 40 witnesses.
Circuit Court Judge Bilbro only took a week to hear the evidence. What seemed an enormity of facts, wouldn’t be enough for the jury. According to The Bridgeport News, “After taking up the week, the case resulted in a mistrial, the jury failing to agree.” The paper reported that, “the jury in the case polled 11 jurors for conviction and 1 for acquittal.” The case would come up for a rehearing at the next term.
Another trial never took place.
Newspaper accounts from March, 1895, reported that B.E. Ladd was too ill to appear in front of the Curcuit Court during that session. There was no mention of the case in the newspapers again. So what finally happened?
So what finally happened?
According to The Bridgeport News, on December 3, 1896, B. E. was working with a group of men collecting logs on Sand Mountain. The chain attached to a log being pulled off the mountain broke, sending the uncontrolled log barreling down the mountain. B.E.’s head was crushed between two logs. He did not survive. In the end, the only piece of real estate he would own would be his gravesite at Harris Chapel Cemetery in Hog Jaw Valley.
Ike Shiloh Hembree took a wife not too long after the events related here. He and his young wife Sara had many children and grandchildren, one of whom grew up and became my dad. B.E.’s sister, Angeliene, who died in 1911, never re-married, and no forged marriage certificate was ever found. Vince, B.E.s brother, died in 1904 from an accidental gun shot. In a wry twist, Isaac would be the one to acquire the beautiful antebellum house (pictured above) where Vince died, and property surrounding it, when it was auctioned upon Vince’s death.
I can only imagine what would drive someone to willingly take another’s life. At the same time in 1892, while the paper was reporting on the Hembree poisoning, Isaac and his brother, ‘Doc’ Hembree were involved in a shooting that killed another man on the streets of downtown Bridgeport. Rough goings on in the little town that was in the same year predicted to be ‘the city of the future’ and promoted as ‘a new industrial empire.’
The details above were gleaned from the actual typed transcript of the Circuit Court trial, as well as newspaper reports from Bridgeport and Scottsboro, AL. If I have made any mistakes in reporting the above, they are all mine. You may contact me through this blog post. I look forward to sharing more stories, legends, and history!