Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Mother's Day: The Murder Quilt

The Murder Quilt, 1915
 Oregon Historical Society
One of my favorite short stories is  Susan Glaspell's A Jury of Her Peers, published in 1927.  In it, a woman has been arrested for murdering her husband.  But a conviction requires motive, and the sheriff's men head to her home to look for one.  Two of their wives come along to gather clothes for the woman in jail.  As the wives look at the woman's kitchen, quilt blocks, and dead pet, it is suddenly and painfully obvious why the woman killed her husband.  They feel guilty for not being better friends, and deep sympathy as well.

"I might 'a' known she needed help! I tell you, it's queer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together, and we live far apart. We all go through the same things--it's all just a different kind of the same thing! If it weren't--why do you and I understand? Why do we know--what we know this minute?"

It is a story about the importance of women's deep understanding of each other - an understanding which is sometimes enunciated too late.  It gets lost in gossip, competition, jealousy, and the sheer exhaustion of daily wifehood and motherhood.  In Glaspell's story, it takes a murder to finally turn that understanding into sympathetic action.

This is a similar story, but it is a true one . . .

On October 8, 1915 William Booth was shot and killed in Willamina, Oregon.   Witnesses saw a man in a dark shirt and hat near the river where William was found.  They saw Anna Booth walking to visit her sick mother, and William Branson walking down the same road a little later.  Witnesses also suspected Anna Booth of having an affair with William Branson, her long-time neighbor and a cousin of the Bransons in earlier blogs. 

The Medford Mail Tribune, Oct. 19, 1915:
It seems that in the peaceful village of Willamina, William Booth, a farmer, was slain. The arrest on suspicion followed of William Branson, an employee, and of Mrs. Booth, wife of the murdered man, whom village scandal stood ready to accuse of undue intimacy. They were arrested because the authorities did not know who else to arrest.

The first trial of William and Anna began in late November 1915.  From the start, the women of Willamina attended the trial and quilted the crazy quilt shown above.  They quilted in squares, which were later sewn together.  For 15 cents, community members could have their names embroidered into the quilt.  Many of the names embroidered were also prosecution witnesses.  The quilt itself was a raffle prize, and the proceeds from the raffle went to William and Anna's defense fund.

So it seems that somewhere between the gossip and the accusation of murder, women in the town determined to act on their allegiance to Anna.  Today, the "Murder Quilt" is an Oregon Historical Society artifact, and the subject of a PhD thesis.  The accusations of adultery are thought to have originated in William Booth's mind, not in fact.  So the quilt may have been a product of the village's collective guilt.  Women couldn't sit on juries in Oregon until 1921.  Once they realized the mistake that was being made, the women had to turn to the skills and options they had available, and the quilt was the result.

That first trial resulted in a mistrial, as the jury couldn't reach consensus.  But they were convicted in a second set of trials in March of 1916.  Both received life sentences.  Anna's mother died 10 days after her conviction was handed down.

These convictions were overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court, but William was convicted at a 3rd trial.  Anna, desperate to get back to her children, agreed to a manslaughter charge with a 1-15 year sentence.

Photo from Why Some Men Murder
In May of 1917, another man, William Riggin, confessed to the crime, and went to great lengths to show that he had done it, where he had hidden the gun, etc.  He was already in jail for stealing a gun, and made the confession without being asked about the case.  He said he had fought with Booth because Booth had accused Riggin of being a 'con' and was jealous of Riggin's attention to his wife.  Despite a variety of statements that supported Riggin's claim, the District Attorney refused to reopen the case.  In 1919,"Why Some Men Murder" included a full investigation of Riggin's statements and a plea to reopen the case.

But both William Branson and Anna Booth were still in the State Penitentiary in the 1920 Census.  Anna's daughter Laura was living with her sister Laura Jones, and her son Ermel was living with her brother Walter.  Late in 1920, we know that William Branson was finally pardoned, and he went on to marry and have children of his own.  It isn't clear what happened to Anna, I can't find her in the data after that 1920 census.  The quilt remains, but the woman herself has disappeared.  I am continuing to search . . .

So it is Mother's Day, and these are the stories I have in mind: stories of women who helped each other in the end.  

 Margaret Atwood said "Forgiving men is so much easier than forgiving women" and it's true.  We are too likely to tend away from forgiving, supporting, and reaching out to each other.  And who knows what the consequences might be, for ourselves, our sisters, or our neighbors.  Poor Anna, living with a jealous and angry man, whose life was ruined because people saw her talking to a farm hand she'd grown up with and came to the wrong conclusion. No wonder so much work went into that quilt.

May we find ways to connect with the women around us this Mother's Day, whether they are mothers or not, whether we approve of their habits or their children's habits or not.  We may have nothing in common but the strong sheer wonder of womanhood, but that should be enough.


  1. Ever since you told me this story I think about Anna a lot. I hope that she was able to get out of jail and see her children. So sad!

  2. I read a book about this murder yesterday. I learned that Anna was released, and she married a fellow prisoner that had been released. She began using her middle namek. The book The Murder Quilt will give you an update on her.

  3. Anna was eventually released, and married an ex-con. She began using her middle name for her first name, and she moved away. The book The murder quilt gives a few more details about what happened to her after she was released.

  4. Thanks KC - I've been trying to get a hold of that book for years, but haven't found a copy.

    1. I will soon have my MFA nonfiction writing thesis finished.
      The title is "Nothing Ever Happens in Willamina"
      It is "the rest of the story"