Betty Boyd of Statesville remembers the long drive she used to take as a child with her parents on Old U.S. Highway 70 between Statesville and Salisbury. About a mile east of the Barber depot they would pass a large two-story frame house that sat upon a knoll. Her parents would point at the house as they drove by. They called it the “Murder House.”
On the night of Friday, the thirteenth in July, 1906, Isaac Lyerly, his wife Augusta Barringer Lyerly and their five children bedded down for the night at around nine pm. Sometime before midnight daughter Addie was awakened by the smell of smoke. Running downstairs to her parent’s bedroom she found her parents and younger siblings covered in blood and their beds on fire.
What occurred on that night in the Lyerly ancestral home has been called the most brutal murder in Rowan County history. Isaac Lyerly, his wife and two youngest children were murdered in their beds with an ax and then covered in kerosene before being set on fire. The tragedy was not over. On the night of August 6, shortly before midnight three black men who had been accused of the crime were taken from the Salisbury jail and lynched by a crowd of between two and three thousand. One of those lynched, 15-year-old John Gillespie, cried and maintained his innocence to the end.
Susan Barringer Wells grew up in Salisbury and is now an artist living on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Her new book, “A Game Called Salisbury: Spinning of a Southern Tragedy and the Myths of Race” examines the murders, the lynching, and the social and political climate in which they occurred in North Carolina in 1906. The book focuses on the murders and the lynching of Jack Dillingham, Nease Gillespie, and John Gillespie.
“I was looking into my family history when I discovered the murders of my great great aunt, her husband (who is also a past 5th cousin), and two of their children. Shocked that my mother had never mentioned this to me, I was determined to get to the bottom of what happened. But then when I tried to gather the facts from 1906 papers, something about the duplicitous nature of the reporting made me want to get to the bottom of that story. Soon afterward, as if the cosmos was answering my questions, PBS aired, “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” and I heard, for the first time, about the Wilmington, N.C. massacre of 1898. Then I read “Democracy Betrayed” and learned about the propaganda campaign that had ignited that massacre. Well, after that, the whole thing just exploded into a story that moved far beyond the borders of Rowan County and N.C.”
The judge that was to preside over the trial of the accused was Benjamin Franklin Long of Statesville. His wife Mary Alice Robbins Long was the founder of the Statesville Women’s Club and is credited with helping found the Statesville Public Library. One of their descendants is the fresco artist Ben Long. Judge B.F. Long would later send one man to prison for his role in the lynching. The author uses articles published in the “Statesville Landmark” in her book and pointed out that the Iredell County Courthouse was the venue for one of the trials. J.P. Caldwell, publisher of the Charlotte Observer at the time of the crime and former publisher of the “Landmark” also plays a prominent role in reporting the Lyerly story.
I asked Wells if the men that were lynched for killing her ancestors were guilty. “I don’t believe both were guilty, and likely neither were. Certainly, the third victim, a child was innocent. By law, they were all innocent.” She believes that, “someone alive today may have information or oral history that could help solve the crime.”
She said the book “is about 450 pages and contains approximately 60 photographs, spaced throughout the chapters. The Salisbury Train Depot is on the front cover. It took me 10 years from when I first discovered the Lyerly murders to complete the book.”
The “Murder House” burned down in the 1950’s. For years though, one chimney remained standing to mark the site. Wells says people would often stop on the road near the chimney and tell their children the story of the Lyerly ax murders. The site where the house stood is on old highway 70 just west of Hwy 801 next to an athletic field.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Author of Lyerly murders book to sign copies Sunday” on Dec. 5, 2007