Tragedy Stricken: A Pike County resident digs into the past of her ancestors to figure out what really happened to the family of Pike County resident Alonzo Boutwell

Published 3:00 am Tuesday, December 9, 2014

On July 7, 1928, Dixon Boutwell of the Center Ridge community in Pike County died of a massive heart attack while attempting to turn-crank his touring car.

The death of the patriarch of the Boutwell family set off a string of events that would end in tragedy on Dec. 8, 1928 at the Red Wing Travel Court in a small town in north Texas.

On that date, Alonzo Boutwell, his wife, Mattie F. Jernigan Boutwell, and three young children were found dead at the travel court. The tragedy rocked the entire Pike County community. The day the five bodies arrived by train in Troy was reported to be one of the saddest days in the county’s history.

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Marsha Boutwell’s curiosity about the deaths of the Alonzo Boutwell family was spurred by the dates of death on five family graves in the Center Ridge Cemetery.

“I was walking through the cemetery and noticed the five graves with the same dates of death,” Boutwell said. “There were two large graves and three smaller ones of slightly different length, indicating those were children’s graves. I realized that something tragic had happened.”

As Boutwell began to research old newspapers, the story began to unfold.

“Dixon Boutwell’s family was one of means for those times and he had purchased a 48-acre tract of land in north Texas, an investment of sorts I would guess,” Boutwell said. “What he planned to do with the land, I don’t know.

“Dixon Boutwell had four children and, after his death, it was decided that Alonzo and his family would go to Texas to live and develop the land. They traveled to their new home in a Ford roadster that had been purchased in Elba. When they arrived in North Texas on Nov. 27, 1928, a barn had been built on the property, the lumber had been delivered to build the house and 2,200 citrus trees had been ordered for planting. The family was to stay at the Red Wing Travel Camp until the house was built.”

Little is known about the family’s activities after they arrived at the travel court, except the owners were, evidently, familiar with the family and its routine.

“When, on Dec. 8, the family was not up and stirring in the early morning, the owner went to check on them,” Boutwell said. “He found the door open and went inside. He realized immediately that the family was dead.”

The apparent cause of death was asphyxiation from gas fumes from the stove.

“Just why the stove was on and who left it on, no one knows, but the family had been dead for several hours,” Boutwell said. “What is important to remember is that the family was accustomed to a wood-burning stove. Gas would have been new to them.”

Mattie Boutwell was known to suffer from the after effects of malaria.

“She would have hard chills and they found rocks that had been heated and placed in her bed for warmth,” Boutwell said. “She could have heated the rocks on the stove and left the gas on or Alonzo could have. That is one theory.

“But others at the travel camp, reported hearing children crying in the night and a man’s voice telling them to be quiet and go to sleep. It’s possible that, when Alonzo got up to see about the children, he could have lighted the stove to warm their quarters and left it on. But either way, the gas escaped and the Alonzo Boutwell family died. The last sounds to have come from the Boutwells’ quarters were those of crying children.”

The Boutwell family had been in North Texas for short time when tragedy struck.

According to school records, Helen Boutwell, age 9, had enrolled in school on Dec. 3.

“Not knowing anything about the family and what arrangements would be made, a mortuary took the bodies of the five family members and prepared them for burial,” Boutwell said. “I suppose it was the mortuary that sent a photograph to the family to show they had been well cared for. The family had been placed in ornate caskets with Alonzo and Mattie on either side of the three children whose caskets where raised in tiers between their mama and daddy.”

The news of the death of the Alonzo family was sent by telegram to a Troy banker who delivered the news to Alonzo Boutwell’s sister, Julia Irene Grimmer in Troy.

“Back then, on those dirt roads, it could have taken 30 minutes for Irene Grimmer to reach her mother’s house,” Boutwell said. “I can only imagine how excited her mother, Martha Mattie Eddins Boutwell, was to see her daughter arrive. But I can’t image what it was like for Martha Boutwell to hear that her son, his wife and her three grandchildren were dead. Just a few months earlier, she had lost her husband. I can not image the pain.”

The Alonzo family was buried at Center Ridge Cemetery. The church and the churchyard were filled to overflowing. Grief hung over the Pike County community so heavily that the entire community was brought to its knees, Boutwell said.

Boutwell’s son, Cliff Boutwell, lives in the Dixon Boutwell home.

“Every time I drive up to Cliff’s house, I can see Martha Boutwell standing on the porch, ready to welcome her visiting daughter, not knowing the grief before her.