Saturday, January 30, 2010

30 January 1918: Murder-Suicide on UGA Campus

On this day in 1918, sometime between 2am and 3am, three shots rang out in one of the dorm rooms housed in Waddell Hall. The first shot killed 17-year-old Belle Hill of Jefferson, Georgia; the next two shots were self-inflicted by 20-year-old Jaime Johnson, also of Jefferson. Neither was a student at the University, but had crashed for the night with three friends from their hometown on a rainy, cold evening in Athens.

The three students who lived in the room, Alva Pendergrass, Howard Dadisman, and Tom Holliday, were awakened by the last shots. They had to go to the New York Cafe on Clayton Street to use the phone to call the police, and the bodies were then taken to Dorsey Funeral Home, also on Clayton Street. The remains of Hill and Johnson were returned to Jefferson by train approximately 12 hours after they died. Both are buried in their respective family plots in Jackson County.

A couple days after the event, the Athens Banner published Jaime Johnson's suicide note in full. His tone is despondent as he asks his family and friends for forgiveness, lists debts of his to be paid, and states that "my burden is so great I can't go with it any further." He does not indicate why he murdered Belle before taking his own life.

The murder-suicide caused quite a sensation in Athens, with rumors flying around town about how and why it had occurred. At one point, rumors spread that the three students in whose room the crime took place had fled town, but actually they had gone to give Johnson's widowed mother, whom all three knew, the details of what had happened in person. The Athens Banner sought to debunk rumors as they arose, saying at one point that "the young men are all from splendid families," and hoped that investigation reports "will set at rest any wild rumors which may be afloat or have been circulated since the unfortunate occurrence."

Two inquiries into the case were held in Clarke County. First, a coroner's inquest to verify how the two young people died; and a second by the Clarke County Grand Jury, in an attempt to disprove all the rumors about the event, including clearing Pendergrass, Holliday, and Dadisman of any criminal wrongdoing. However, by the end of the second investigation, all three had been dismissed from the University for "knowingly permitting an unmarried couple to enter their room and disrobe for the night and occupy said room with said students."

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