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  • Texas | Columns | Bob Bowman's East Texas

    Three Tragedies

    by Bob Bowman
    Bob Bowman

    An intriguing family mystery spanning more than 135 years is told by three tombstones lying behind a rusting iron fence in a small East Texas cemetery.

    Each of the tombstones provides cryptic inscriptions that, when linked together in time, offer glimpses of three tragedies that stalked the family of Robert and Sarah Smith in 1869 and 1872.

    On January 21, 1869, the Smiths’ twenty-three-year-old son, Robert Emmett, was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery near Coldspring in San Jacinto County, His time-weathered tombstone tells a tale of a probable murder: “In memory of my beloved son, Robert E. Smith, born December 24, 1846. Assassinated in cold blood...”

    Smith’s body, pierced by gunshots, was found lying by the front gate of his family’s plantation home near the Trinity River. His head rested on the removed saddle of his prize horse, Black Prince.

    On June 3, less than five months after young Robert’s death, his father died, leading the remaining family members to erect a monument with a poignant inscription beginning with four words: “He never smiled again,” adding that Smith died “of grief and broken spirits.”

    Not far from her father’s grave, seventeen-year-old Edith Smith was buried on May 18, 1872--some three years after the untimely deaths of her brother and father. Her inscription, penned by a grieving mother, is perhaps the most intriguing of the three tombstones: “Erected in memory of my darling child, Edith...died a victim to an experiment of surgery by Dr. Warren Stone Sr., of New Orleans...”

    Robert Smith’s murder, if it was such, was never solved. Because the body was carefully placed at the family’s gate, with the head resting on the saddle, the death may have been an accident by an unknown friend.

    At the same time, there are few clues to the tragic death of Edith Smith.

    Edith’s mother carried any explanation to her grave, which also lies in Laurel Hill Cemetery. Sarah Carson Smith died at Shepherd, near Coldspring, on February 8, 1891.

    Born in 1812 at Barnwell District, South Carolina, Robert Smith and his cousin, John Stephen Smith, were among many Southerners attracted by the prospect of free or cheap land in the new Republic of Texas in the 1840s.

    Robert soon acquired about 3,000 acres in the James Rankin Survey on the west side of Trinity River in 1845 at a sheriff’s sale on the steps of the Polk County courthouse at Livingston.

    During the Civil War, Robert Emmett, his brother John William (Billam), and five of his cousins--Quishenbury William Smith, Robert Eason Smith, James Otis Smith, John William (Big Hoss) Smith, and Edwin Eason Smith--succumbed to the lure of “fighting the Yankees.”

    All of the young Smith men returned from the war except John William (Big Hoss), who died at the Battle of Chickamauga.

    But by 1869--four months after his return from the war--Robert Smith was lying in an East Texas grave, his murder never solved.


    © Bob Bowman
    March 20, 2006 Column, updated August 19, 2012
    More Bob Bowman's East Texas >
    A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers
    Related Topics: Small Town Sagas | Texas Cemeteries

    (Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 50 books about East Texas history and folklore. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)
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