If Walls Could Talk
By Dr. Harold Graham
NCHGS member Bobby Caldwell remembers vividly the rental house in Hickory where he lived with his parents as a child. It was known as the Old Dr. Semmes house and Bobby remembers vividly waking up to be greeted by a blood stain on the wall that had been left there when Dr. Semmes committed suicide in 1916.
But what circumstances would cause a small-town doctor to take his own life? If walls could talk, what would they say?
Frank Grey Semmes was born in 1854 in Lauderdale County, Mississippi, the son of Francis Cooksey Semmes and Mary Elizabeth Hubert, both of whom died when he was young and who are buried in the Semmes Family Cemetery in Meridian, Mississippi. His grandparents were Dr. Ignatius Semmes and Henrietta Thompson Semmes, members of two prominent Catholic families who were driven out of Maryland at the end of the Revolutionary War. Some of these Catholic families moved to Missouri. Others, including Ignatius and Henrietta, settled near Sharon in current Taliferro County, Georgia where they formed the first Catholic church in Georgia—Locust Grove, founded ca. 1791.
In the late 1830’s and early 1840’s, many of these same families, including the Semmes, Brookes, Griffins, Queens, and Thompsons, migrated to Mississippi, some settling in Sharon, Madison County, some in Leake County, but most settling in Meridian, Lauderdale County, where they became an important part of the professional and merchant classes. They built their own churches, lived in their own tightly-knit communities, and rarely married outside their own religion.
Frank Grey Semmes married Martha Ann Thompson on January 4, 1876, already having arrived in Newton County by that time. By 1880 Frank was a practicing physician in Beat 2 of Newton County, but would soon relocate to the town of Hickory where he practiced for many years prior to his death. Medical records show that he graduated from Louisville (Kentucky) Medical School in 1882; however, he was practicing long before this.
As a resident of Hickory Dr. Semmes kept a garden and some livestock. That was normal for even professional families of the time. Among other reasons, the garden would provide some plants and herbs that he could use in medical treatment. A cow provided milk for the family and a stable of horses provided transportation. These livestock he kept in a pasture and fenced-in-lot apparently became the basis for a quarrel that he developed with Thomas D. Lawson.
Thomas D. Lawson lived two doors down from Dr. Frank Grey Semmes and by all accounts was a hard-working progressive farmer, but to get to some of his fields he had to cross Dr. Semmes’ property on a public road. Thomas D. Lawson may have had few faults, but one short-coming would prove fatal—he is believed to have had a tendency to leave the gate open when he crossed Dr. Semmes’ property which allowed Dr. Semmes’ livestock to wander at will through the streets of Hickory.
In an attempt to solve the problem, Dr. Semmes filed a petition requesting closure of the road, an action that only led to further tension with Thomas D. Lawson. That tension came to a head in April 1903. Here, we turn to a newspaper account of the confrontation between the two men, as reported in The Newton Record, April 16, 1903.
Killing at Hickory
Dr. Frank Semmes Shoots
Instantly Kills T. D. Lawson Tuesday
Dr. Frank Semmes shot and instantly killed T. D. Lawson at Hickory Tuesday evening, the shooting taking place just in front of the former’s home, and the weapon used being a double-barrel shotgun.
Immediately after the killing Dr. Semmes mounted his horse and rode to Meridian, going to the home of his sister, Mrs. J. H. Kennedy, where his wife was visiting, after which time he surrendered to the sheriff.
Reports of the tragedy are conflicting, there being two. One is that Mr. Lawson went to the home of Dr. Semmes, called him out and threatened to kill him, but was fired upon first by Dr. Semmes, who claims self defense. The other is that as Mr. Lawson passed the home of Dr. Semmes, he was fired upon several times by the latter.
The killing was the result of an old feud, arising from a dispute about a road which led through Dr. Semmes’ place to the home of Mr. Lawson. Said highway had been closed by the doctor, and an affidavit, charging him with obstructing the public highway, was sworn out by Mr. Lawson and caused his arrest. Hence the tragic result.
Owing to the prominence of both men, our neighboring town of Hickory is considerably wrought up over the affair.
As we learn from other newspaper accounts, both men were so prominent in the community that a fair trial was thought impossible; therefore the trial was remanded to Clarke County, Mississippi where a verdict was rendered in September 1907. We turn to the Newton Record for September 12, 1907 with a front page story.
DR. SEMMES ACQUITTED OF CHARGE OF MURDER
VERDICT OF NOT GUILTY RENDERED BY CLARKE COUNTY JURY.
Case that has Been Pending in the Courts of this County for four Years at Last Settled.
After pending in the courts of Newton county for several years, the notable Semmes case has been at last settled, by the acquittal of Dr. Semmes in the Clarke county court at Quitman, to which place a change of venue was granted from this county at the July term of court. The matter was heard in R. F. Cochran's court, and in thirty minutes after the case was given to the jury, they had made up their verdict of "not guilty." Owing to the prominence of those concerned, considerable interest has been manifested all along in the matter and it is well that the matter has been at last disposed of.
It will be remembered that in April, 1903, Dr. F. G. Semmes shot and killed Thos. D. Lawson at Hickory. The killing was the result of an old feud arising from a dispute about a road which led through the property of Dr. Semmes to the home of Mr. Lawson. Dr. Semmes had been considerably annoyed by passing through his place, and decided to close up the road. This infuriated Lawson, who had an affidavit made out against Dr. Semmes, charging him with obstructing the highway, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Feeling between the two men finally reached such a tension, that one evening as Mr. Lawson was going home, a shooting took place, resulting in the death of Lawson. The killing was not denied by Dr. Semmes, but justification was claimed, a plea of self defense being entered.
At the preliminary hearing which followed, Dr. Semmes was put under a bond of $6,000 to appear before the circuit court. When circuit court met in July an indictment of murder was returned by the grand jury. The defendant was then released under the same bond that was fixed in magistrate's court, until habeas corpus proceedings could be instituted to name the amount of the bond he should be placed under until the ensuing term of court. A little later at the habeas corpus hearing, the bond was increased to $12,000, which was promptly made.
At the January term, 1904, the case was called, and on account of the unavoidable absence of some of the leading counsel, it was continued. At the July term, 1904, and the January session, 1905, continuance was again granted, for different reasons.
In July, 1905, the case was brought to trial, but the jury failed to agree. At the courts intervening since then, the case has been continued for various causes, until the recent July session, when a change of venue to Clarke County was granted.
A considerable array of legal talent had been employed on both sides.
While in this county the prosecution was looked after by the late district attorney, R. S. McLaurin; Amis & Dunn, of Meridian, and N. M. Everett, of Hickory. When the case was transferred to Clarke county, District Attorney J. H. Currie was also engaged in the prosecution. The defense was at first represented by Attorneys S. A. Witherspoon and Ethridge & McBeath, of Meridian; J. R. Bryd (now judge), Geo. C. Tann, and the late Thos. Keith of this county; and T. H. Campbell, of Yazoo City. When the matter went to Clarke county, J. A. Anderson, of the local bar was also added.
Dr. Frank Grey Semmes returned to Hickory in 1907 as a free man, having been acquitted of the murder of Thomas D. Lawson, but the facts of the case remained the same. He had killed a neighbor. Having been trained in a profession honored for saving lives, he had taken one. What ghosts ran through his mind during the next nine years? If walls could talk.