A hundred years ago, two of the town’s most prominent citizens were at the center of a murder case that made headlines across the Southeast. Many of the events took place at buildings still standing in town. The victim and the shooter are buried yards from one another in the Davidson College Cemetery. It’s a fascinating tale, worth retelling during the centennial year of the tragedy.
In February 1914, citizens throughout Mecklenburg County were shocked at news of a murder on South Street in Davidson. Monroe Jetton, the town druggist, was accused of shooting his friend and business partner, Dr. W.H. Wooten, “in a fit of jealousy” over the doctor’s alleged relationship with Mr. Jetton’s wife. The “distressing affair” – as one news account called it – was front-page news in the Charlotte newspapers and the subject of whispering in town for decades.
I first heard this story at the closing for my house, at 231 South St., in 2002. My wife and I bought the 2,300-square-foot home from the late Dorothy Beam, who leaned in amid the signing of documents and said, “You know there was a murder.”
That set me on trail of research, using newspapers, documents and interviews, to find out more about the case.
This drama has three principals: Dr. Walter Herbert Wooten (1867-1914), Robert Monroe Jetton (1881-1939), and Jetton’s wife, Josie McLauren Shipp Jetton (1883-1949).
The action takes place in three main locations:
Dr. Wooten built the house at 231 South St., where my family and I now live, in the 1890s. Born in in Clarkton, in eastern North Carolina’s Bladen County, he came to Davidson in 1889. He studied at Davidson College and was one of the first 44 graduates of the North Carolina Medical College in Davidson in June 1893. [It was one of the only medical schools around at the time, founded in the 1890s by Dr. John Peter Monroe.] Wooten stayed in Davidson after winning his license, set up a practice, built a house and started a family. Wooten had married a local girl, Mary Potts, on Sept. 8, 1893. According to the Davidson Monthly, Dr. Wooten had boarded in her family home.
- Jetton was a druggist and apparently a business partner with Dr. Wooten in the White-Jetton Drug Co. at 131 North Main St., a building that in recent history has been the gnome-filled Tom Clark Museum and Davidson College’s Cats on Main store. [It’s now Kindred Restaurant, which opened in 2015.]
- Jetton lived farther down South Street, in a cottage at Spring and South streets, on the current site of the Johnston House. That home is now owned by Wilson and Suzanne Sadler, and the cottage long ago was moved behind the Sadler home.
THE EVENTS OF TUESDAY NIGHT
The story begins at 7pm on Feb. 10, 1914, as our two main characters meet briefly. It was a Tuesday night, and Dr. Wooten went into the White-Jetton Drug Co. on North Main Street.
On the night in question, Wooten was 46 years old, not only a doctor, but also a respected citizen, serving in his first year on Davidson Town Board, after his election in the previous fall. The Wootens were at the pinnacle of local social life. He was important enough to warrant frequent mentions in the social columns of Charlotte’s newspapers for his trips there with friends, including Charles Knox, for shopping and socializing.
At the White-Jetton Drug, the doctor said hello to Jetton, a 32-year-old druggist and one of the company’s junior partners. Dr. Wooten likely was a partial owner of the pharmacy – such arrangements were common at the time. The two men were said to be good friends, and in fact Wooten’s wife, Mary Potts Wooten, was a cousin of Monroe Jetton.
Monroe Jetton was a frequent visitor to the Wooten home at Academy Heights, along with his wife, Josie – the woman at the center of our story.
So Wooten checked in at the drug store at the end of the work day. As it became clear later, he headed down Main Street on foot to South Street, past his own house, to the cottage at corner of South (School) and Spring Streets, where Jetton lived with Josie.
Josie Shipp and Monroe Jetton had been married the previous summer in Gulfport, MS. Newspaper accounts of the time say Josie Shipp had been a frequent visitor to town in the preceding years before they were married. In 1914, Josie Shipp Jetton would have been around 30 years old, or 31. When people told the story in the years following the incident, it came out something like this: That Dr. Wooten was visiting one of his patients that night.
Monroe Jetton must have had some suspicions, because on that night, after Dr. Wooten stopped into the shop, he waited a bit, then left the shop himself and headed home. And this is curious: He made sure to bring along his revolver. Maybe he always carried it. It was a Smith & Wesson Special, blue steel 38 caliber six shooter.
The Charlotte Observer reported in the days following: “When the druggist reached his home it, it is stated, he went into the house through a hall or passageway, saw the doctor in a room with Mrs. Jetton, standing near the foot of a bed. Mr. Jetton did not enter the room it seems, but fired through the door … ” A later account told it differently: A coroner found there were powder burns on the doctor’s overcoat, indicating he was killed by an extremely close shot – not one through the door.
The bullet struck Dr. Wooten, “taking effect close to the heart,” according to a news account. The first-day news report said Jetton had called for help from neighbors, asked them to care for Dr. Wooten, and told them: “My home was being invaded.” Later reports said the neighbors came running when they heard the shot.
‘NO CHANCE TO EXPLAIN’
Dr. Wooten was taken by friends to his own home, up the hill at 231 South St., where he was laid out on his examination table, bleeding. His account differed: “He shot me in a fit of jealousy,” Dr. Wooten told his friends just before he died. “If he had only given me a chance to explain.”
The rumors around in town in later years were that Dr. Wooten had been found in a compromising position with Mrs. Jetton. The news accounts of the time seem to take great pains to contradict that. Remember, the doctor was wearing a raincoat. The coroner said it appeared Dr. Wooten had been standing. “The coat, vest, shirt and underclothes all were pierced,” the coroner said.
The bullet hit Wooten on the left side of his chest, just below the heart. The coroner said he was probably standing up when shot.
Neighbors heard the shots and came running. Neighbor T.F. Lottery said Jetton and his wife were on the porch when he arrived, and Mr. Jetton seemed “kind of wild.”
Mr. Lottery testified at an inquest the next day, Wednesday, saying Mrs. Jetton had protested: “I’m innocent.” But Jetton said “Oh, I saw, I saw.”
Lottery goes on to describe what he found inside the house: “I said, “Doctor, what’s the matter?” He said, “Monroe shot me.” He added. “I’m innocent. He didn’t give me any chance to explain. He said, “He came right in and shot me.”
Lottery reported that the doctor said he was standing at the foot of the bed when Jetton came at him. And Mrs. Jetton was in a chair. Mr. Lottery also reported that he found the doctor fully clothed.
The doctor knew his wound was fatal.”I’m gone, I’m done for,” he told another doctor who came to his side.
So Wooten passed away, and Jetton was taken by train to Charlotte, where he spent the night in jail awaiting a morning hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 11. His wife Josie came down the train the following afternoon.
The Charlotte Observer account two days after the shooting is hilarious in its warning to readers. “The public should wait,” it reads. “The fact should be borne in mind by the public that the hearing before the coroner is usually “ex parte” in such affairs and therefore judgment should not be made up until all the evidence in. There have been many rumors afloat, the majority of which have absolutely no foundation in fact. … When Mr. Jetton makes his statement,” the report said, “the other side of the case will be exhibited.”
PUBLIC OPINION, AND A VERDICT
So we know that Monroe Jetton fatally shot Dr. Wooten in a jealous rage. Those are the facts. But at this point, should we add a question mark to the title of this article – “Murder (?) on South Street.”
The newspaper accounts of the day suggest the public was divided. “That the young druggist believed he had provocation when he fired the fatal shot no one will deny.” But the reports also say that respected citizens of the community “will not believe that the dead man was guilty of any improper act.”
“Of course, another newspaper said on Feb. 13, “it is generally accepted that the physician did not have any business in the home, and that he had not been called in professionally, and this is the weightiest feature in the case against him.”
The various court hearings tell us that Mrs. Jetton had been a patient of Dr. Wooten’s at some point. But there’s some confusion about that on the night in question, especially when we read how Josie eventually testified. One detail that came out in the days after the shooting: The doctor told friends Mrs. Jetton was only showing him a new Mardi Gras dress she had bought. Supposedly, both Mrs. Jetton and a neighbor, Mrs. Roy Caldwell, had talked to the doctor about the dress and suggested he should come see it. So he may have been there on an invitation of sorts.
A funeral for Dr. Wooten was held on Feb. 12, at Davidson College Presbyterian Church. It was described as one of the largest gatherings ever assembled in town. He was buried in the Davidson College Cemetery, off North Main Street.
Wooten’s brothers, from out of town, wired the solicitor urging him to indict Jetton on murder charges.
Five days after the killing, more of the story, or at least another version of the story, emerged. Josie Shipp Jetton took the stand in the hearing – in a packed courtroom – and this time the press speaks of “the untoward circumstances” leading up to the killing. “She told of three previous visits of the dead man to her home, all made at night and all unsolicited, two of these at times when her husband was not there.” A news account speaks vaguely of “his proposals, her entreaties, his efforts at compulsion.”
We know that Jetton was indicted on murder charges on Feb. 17, and tried almost immediately. Apparently the Superior Court judge was due to be in session the following week, and Jetton’s case was scheduled for a full trial on Thursday, Feb. 19. (Imagine that happening now?)
There was testimony from the president of Davidson College, W.J. Martin, the Rev. C. M. Richards of the Presbyterian Church and others, who talked about “Mr. Jetton’s good character.”
Then Josie testified in the most detail to date: The doctor had come to the house without invitation a little after 7pm, and when she asked why he was there, he said, “You know what I want.”
She said he led her to the bedroom by her wrist, with his hand over her mouth. She claimed he threw her onto the bed. Then Jetton arrived. The two men had words, Dr. Wooten allegedly struck Mr. Jetton, and she ran out. Then she heard the pistol shot. Cross examination showed that Mrs. Jetton had visited Dr. Wooten several times in the preceding weeks, including at his home the afternoon of the shooting. She was asked why she did not protest when he took her to the bedroom, and she said she had been afraid of the doctor, because he was a large man.
Jetton also had his chance on the stand, and told of finding Dr. Wooten in the bedroom with his wife, pushing her onto the bed. The two scuffled, and he fired the pistol. He said it was in self defense. He told the jury that he feared Dr. Wooten, who was “larger and more muscular than himself,” according to The Charlotte Observer.
At 11pm on Feb. 21, 11 days after the killing and after a one-hour deliberation, the jury declared Jetton not guilty. That prompted the overflow crowd in the Charlotte courtroom to “unloose its pent-up exuberance of approval in a clamor that continued for nearly 60 seconds.” Friends crowded around Jetton and clapped him on the back, and shook his hand. The Observer reporter wrote: “The verdict is regarded as a pronouncement in favor of the unwritten law that a man may with impunity slay the man who has invaded his home.”
That ended the case, at least the legal case. But what about the postscript? What happened to the principals in the case, the people touched by the killing?
There are signs that things never got back to normal for the families involved. We have a few tantalizing tidbits. In the week after the case, the Jettons left Davidson and went to stay with friends in Mount Holly.
On April 4, The Observer reported that Jetton’s home had been marked with a splotches of red paint, some in the shape of crosses, and that his name had been wiped out from White-Jetton Co. drug sign, also with red paint. Witnesses reported seeing three or four men on horseback coming up the street from the Jetton home around 2:15am.
Some time in the weeks after the fatal shooting, Jetton quit or was pushed out and his name erased from the drug business. An article in Davidson College’s The Davidsonian student newspaper, which had been founded only that month, reports that stockholders of the White-Jetton Drug Co. met, and “important changes were made. … Dr. Martin, who was formerly president, has resigned and Mr. J.A. White, of Mooresville, who was vice-president was made president, and is the largest stockholder. Mr. Will and Monroe Jetton have withdrawn from the firm.”
After his acquittal, Monroe and Josie Jetton left School Street and moved to Georgia. I had a chance to meet his niece, Betty Jetton Liffrig, at The Pines at Davidson two years ago. She remembers visiting Josie and Monroe in Georgia. He was always busy with his business, another pharmacy, she recalls.
Robert Monroe Jetton died in 1939, at 57. That seems young. I still haven’t tracked down details of his death – where he was and what he was doing. Josie never had children.
It’s interesting to note that Jetton and Wooten both are buried at the Davidson College Cemetery, only 25 or 30 feet from one another.
And who was Josie Shipp? We’re told that she had been visiting Davidson for years before she married Jetton. How long had she known Dr. Wooten? Is there more to that story? I’m still working on those questions.
She lived until 1949, which would have made her 65 or 66, according to my research. And this is curious: Josie Shipp Jetton’s grave marker is next to Jetton’s at the cemetery, but has only her name – no birth and death dates. Is that some kind of hint from the family? Another family member told me it was because she was vain about her age.
Wooten’s widow, Mary Potts Wooten, continued living at 231 South St. until her death in 1933, at age 63. Sara Wooten Johnston lived on in the house with her husband Willis Neal Johnston.
Sara Wooten apparently was not a happy person. Her physician was Dr. James Johnston Withers who lived on South Street. I spoke to his granddaughter Charlotte Daly, who remembers the murder story, and Sara.
“He (Dr. Jim Withers) would go to see Sara. She was so sad, grieved over her father’s death. She was embarrassed because her father had died,” Charlotte Daly told me. She said she remembers hearing that Dr. Wooten was caught in a compromising position with one of his patients, but she didn’t know when or where. It turns out she grew up in a house right next door to the scene of the crime.
Charlotte Daly told me that kids would play in the schoolyard next door to Dr. Wooten’s house and see Sara Wooten Johnston come out, looking sad. “She walk across to speak top the children. Then she go see the doctor.” Sara Wooten Johnston’s husband, Mr. Johnston, died in 1958. Sara passed on in 1962. Her house was sold 2 years later.
History has not dwelled long on this case, though it’s a fascinating – if dark – part of the town’s history – even the region’s history.
The Wooten-Jetton spat didn’t make Mary Beaty’s book “Davidson: A History of the Town” (1979), and while Dr. Wooten’s name turns up there, Monroe Jetton doesn’t even get a mention.
Jan Blodgett and Ralph Levering did mention it briefly in their 2013 history, “One Town, Many Voices.”
Even today, older people with connections to this story don’t like to talk about it. When I met Betty Liffrig, a relative of Monroe Jetton’s, last year, she asked me why I wanted to go digging into the story.
But it is a story, the history of a family. And for that, it is worth retelling.
Reach David Boraks at boraksd@ gmail.com
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