A Charmed Enclave, a Tragic Life, and a Haunting Crime
Trey Holt is a genial family counselor based in Franklin, TN. One imagines his unpretentious charm probably serves him well in that professional context.
And yet, for all his bonhomie, Mr. Holt, raised in Brentwood, Tennessee, has spent quite some time brooding on a rather dark subject: the short, tragic life of Rosa Mary Dean. Now not even a humble headstone commemorates Dean’s existence—a hard life which ended unceremoniously one December night in 1949, in a boarding house on the bad side of town.
That was the evening an anonymous young woman took the train to Franklin and wound up dead before dawn in the parking lot of Franklin High School, her throat slit.
Within hours, the community was transfixed by the grisly crime which took the life of this mysterious young woman. So many curious onlookers came to view her body, the funeral home’s rug was worn bare.
A newspaper clipping from December 22, 1949’s Review Appeal features a lurid headline (THREE INDICTED IN KNIFE SLAYING OF MRS. ROSA M. DEAN) juxtaposed with an ad for “A Complete Hog Killing Service.”
Decades after her death, Holt’s seventh grade gym teacher at nearby Battleground Academy kept the boys indoors one rainy day and mesmerized them with the story of Rosa Mary Dean. Holt became fascinated by Franklin’s answer to the Black Dahlia, and he has since fashioned himself a lone keeper of the Dean flame.
This year he self-published his novel, Bottomland, inspired by that largely-forgotten life and death.
“I think I identify with Dean so strongly because she reminds me of my mother’s people,” said Holt. “They were just poor, poor people. But I will be goddamned if they didn’t have just as much dignity as anyone else.”
An excerpt from Holt’s Bottomland appears below:
Adapted from Bottomland, by Trey Holt:
The hall of Franklin Memorial Chapel was still full of people when Lucky, George Preston and I exited to return to Celestial Gardens. The reprieve George Preston, the undertaker, had hoped the dinner hour would bring had in no way occurred. Conversely, more people seemed to have taken this time to make their way to the chapel, to see the woman who had been found dead behind the high school some thirty-six hours before. The circus sideshow.
Of the hundred and fifty chairs in the visitation room itself, a hundred and twenty-five of them were filled with Franklinites’ asses. Strange, I thought, how no one looked at the other. People talked over one another’s shoulders, or quietly cast words back over their own. Until I found Lucky crawling over the railing on the front porch, I don’t believe that my eyes made contact with the eyes of another human being in Franklin Memorial Chapel either.
“Sons-a-bitches,” Lucky said to himself. “Goddam motherfuckin’ sons-a-bitches. I try to do what’s right and this is what I get in return?”
He glanced up at them then lowered his head and tried to make it in through the door.
Later I would tell him that I saw them, too. That it was the reason I had come outside, to warn him. But he probably didn’t believe it and I, too, knew it was a lie. I had come outside to have a cigarette to avoid the situation inside the building. George Preston had been right: It had turned into a spectacle, a circus. So much so that I found myself as ashamed I was a part of it as I had for having left her where we did the day before.
“Police Chief Hall?” one of them called. A medium-built, dark-haired man in his early thirties. “Any changes in the case? Anything new?”
Lucky didn’t say a word to him. Kept walking.
“Dillard Hall?” another man called. This one older, white hair topping his head.
Lucky took me by the arm and tried to make his way, while pulling me, through the double front doors of the chapel. The manner in which Lucky had me, my arm, the one door was not quite big enough for us to pass through quickly. My shoulder hit the door still closed, and Lucky stumbled into Mrs. McFadden’s ample bosom, as the reporters closed in.
From the impact, Lucky’s hat flew backward and then his head and then his short legs, until he was resting on his ass there on the front porch of Franklin Memorial Chapel, the three reporters now circling him.
“Chief Hall?” the older one said, “we’ve heard you now have two men in custody. Is that true?”
Lucky looked up at him like if he could have gotten away with it, he would have, in fact, shot the bastard. The three men converged around us, so close that Lucky couldn’t have stood by himself if he had wanted to. Lucky took my hand and pulled himself up.
“Did you take another negro man into custody, Chief Hall?” the older man asked, the one with a tussle of white hair. He had a pad in his hand, a pen ready for Lucky’s response.
Lucky appeared to have resigned himself to the hard fact: He was going to have to hold conversation with them. “Yessir,” he told him.
“So, were they both involved?” the younger one asked, his pad and pencil poised, too.
“I ain’t sure that either of them were involved,” said Lucky.
It sounded like Lucky might have done more than go home for “supper.” It sounded like – and I imagined – that he had been sitting out under the carport, nursing his bottle in the car. Probably the only place in town no one would bother him.
The other two scribbling, silence was opened for the third, Fred Creason, from our hometown paper, a three-time a week rag called “The Review Appeal.” “Why do you say that, Chief Hall?”
“Just a hunch I got,” said Lucky.
Although I had no idea what they were writing, it seemed like they were noting ten words for his every one. As far as I could remember, reporters from the Nashville papers had never been to Franklin to interview him about anything.
“Then why’d you take them into custody?” the younger one asked. A tag on his shirt read, “Larry Beaman, Nashville Banner.”
From the look on his face, I imagined the war in his brain waged between what-should-I-say? and what-shouldn’t-I-say? somehow moderated or impeded by the alcohol it was swimming in. With each inquiry, he looked a little more deeply into the eyes above the mouth that had asked. He took out a cigarette.
“‘Cause I thought it was the right thing to do,” said Lucky.
“Why? If I might ask,” the older one said. Herman Garrison, from the Nashville Tennessean.
I knew what Lucky didn’t want to say. That some good citizen of Franklin – somebody he was probably friends with – would probably try to kill them, just because they could. Because not a jury in the county would convict a white man for killing a black man in Franklin, Tennessee, in December of 1953.
“It’s what we’ve got to go on right now. We’re lookin’ into every available lead,” said Lucky. He arose from the bench and stepped between two of the reporters on his way to the front door once more.
“What other leads do you have?” Larry Beaman asked. He had positioned himself where Lucky could not pass through the doorway.
Lucky’s feet weren’t steady. On his second and third steps from the place where he had stood, they had moved laterally to help him steady himself. He raised his hand casually and propped himself on the wall.
“If you’ll ‘scuse me,” he said to Larry Beaman, “I’ll be passing through the door now.”
Covertly rude but not obviously defiant, Mr. Beaman moved his feet enough to have appeared he moved, but still not enough where Lucky could pass easily.
“Have you been drinkin’, Chief Hall?” he asked. His voice, its inflection, had a nagging quality, like fingernails sliding lightly across a chalkboard.
Lucky looked at him like he had been slapped. Nobody in Franklin would have ever asked such a question. With a church and a beer joint every mile, a still in every stand of woods, it was as common for a lawman to drink as for his wife to attend church. It was how he had gotten in with Oscar Garrett, his predecessor, to begin with. Drinking buddies. Crap-shooting buddies.
“I ain’t sure that’s any of your business,” he said.
“Oh, everything’s our business, Chief Hall,” said Herman Garrison, the older one.
“Our business and the business of our readers,” said Beaman, the little prick.
Lucky there, propped up on the wall, appeared as if one strong breath might finish him. He eyed the men as if he were trying to decide what course of action to take. He drew from the Lucky in his free hand and started to drop it on the porch but seemed to suddenly realize where he was. He kept the cigarette in his hand, the fire growing ever closer to his thumb and forefinger. Finally, he exposed the bottom of his boot and snuffed out the burning butt there. Then dropped it in his pants pocket.
“219 Russell Street,” he said. “Ike Beatty.”
Their pens went to scribbling again. “What’s that?” Beaman asked.
“An address and a name,” Lucky said sarcastically.
“Whose?” said Herman Garrison.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Lucky. “It was the only thing we found with the body. In the pocket of them ridin’ pants she had on. That’s all it said. Just a name and number.”
“And no idea who that is… or where?”
“No sir,” said Lucky. “I’ve had a couple of men who’ve been checkin’ but they ain’t turned up anything yet.”
Lucky, now having given them the only piece of information I figured he’d been holding back for the better part of two days, must have thought them sated. He turned his bloodshot eyes from one to another, the little young man, our local man, then to the older one, Garrison. His jaw locked, he turned his face to West Main Street, watched a couple of cars pass, people move down the concrete sidewalk glowing white in the darkness and toward their cars. Then he turned himself back to Beaman.
“Now, if you’ll ‘scuse me,” he said, “I’ll be goin’ in. I’ve got some other things to take care of.”
“Chief Hall?” he said.
“Yessir?” said Lucky.
“Why’d you take those negroes into custody if you don’t think they did it?”
“‘Cause the whole town thinks they did,” he said. He grasped the door handle and passed through one of the double doors and motioned for me to follow him. He nodded at George Preston, still standing in the front foyer, now appearing none the worse for wear. Like he had set sail on the sea of contentment via another bottle somewhere. This time, he allowed his eyes to float toward the front, where the line seemed to have remained as long as it had been most of the afternoon and evening. He shook his head, I assumed, in amazement.
“What time do we cut it off?” George Preston asked him.
“What time is it now?” Lucky said.
George Preston said, “You have a watch, Dillard.”
Lucky turned his wrist and peered at its face. “Son of bitch either quit or I forgot to wind it. I ain’t sure.”
I looked at my Mickey Mouse, sometimes the only vestige of childhood I had left. The reason I took shit from everybody about it. Seemed important for some reason. “It’s seven-thirty,” I said. “Or just a couple of minutes after.”
“Quarter to eight,” said Lucky. “I say that’s when we stop lettin’ people come in. How’s that, George?”
George Preston turned and looked at the line, then turned his gaze to what had been a fine, deep burgundy, floral patterned carpet before this day. Now a soppy mess of embedded footprints and mud.
“Maybe I can find Michael in Nashville,” he said. “Find out from him what his secret potion was.”
Lucky raised his eyebrows, pursed his lips and nodded his head. I followed them as they both took refuge behind the closed door of the front office. Soon, Lucky and I would begin to turn people away at the front door and George Preston could finish his job.
About the author:
Trey Holt is a writer, an avid bowler, a lover of bulldogs, and a fan of Americana Music. He is a licensed professional counselor and lives in a rural area outside Franklin, Tennessee, with his wife and two children. You can order Bottomland, his Gothic Southern novel based on a real-life 1949 murder, on Amazon.com.