It all began with a hat. A hat stolen from Evona Allred’s shop in the lobby of the Robert E. Hotel on Fifth Street, or perhaps her later location at 217 West Fourth Street…the Journal said the Robert E. Lee, because that had more sex appeal, but the truth is that she had already moved to Fourth Street. From there, things went just a little bit nuts.

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The cast of leading characters:

Mattie May Bowers Johnson was born to William E. and Eliza Ferguson Bowers in Forsyth County, NC on October 10, 1887. Her father worked in a tobacco factory. They lived on Oak Street, near the current Winston-Salem Public Safety building. In September 1895, she entered Mrs. J. A. McDonald’s first grade class at North Winston Graded School. She would attend school into the eighth grade, quite an accomplishment for a working class girl at the time.

By 1902, at age 15, she was working for the Bailey Brothers Tobacco Company and living in a room of her own on West Fourth Street in the West End. Three days before Christmas, December 22, 1908, she married Charles W. Johnson, a conductor on the Southern Railway, at the Calvary Moravian parsonage in the “Reservation” in Winston. The service was conducted by The Reverend Edward S. Crosland before three witnesses, Minnie G. Hege and J.A. and Earline Johnson. Mattie was 21, Charles was 26.

For a decade or so they lived at the corner of First Street and South Liberty on the Winston and Salem dividing line. Their neighbors were foremen and bookkeepers and skilled laborers in the tobacco and textile factories. During that time Mattie sometimes worked as a private nurse, which in those days might have been taking care of children or looking after older folks.

In 1923 she and Charles bought a house at 1824 Elizabeth Avenue in the new Ardmore section of Winston-Salem. In the fall of 1925 she and Charles sold their Ardmore house and moved to Charlotte, where he continued his career as a railroad conductor and she worked for quite a few years as supervisor of the sewing room at Presbyterian Hospital. Charles died sometime in the 1950s.

On November 23, 1963, the day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, while watching television, possibly at her sister’s home in Farmville, NC, Mattie had a massive heart attack and died instantly. She was 76 years old.

Charles W. Johnson was born in 1882 to John Rich and Kate P. Winkler Johnson. They lived at 520 South Main Street in Salem. His father was a Salem town policeman. By the time he was a teenager, Charles, the oldest of six children, was driving a delivery wagon for his mother’s family’s business, the Winkler Bakery. Sometime around 1905, he got a job with the Southern Railway as a flagman, and not long afterward, became a conductor, an important job on the railroad.

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When Salem was established in 1766, the original water supply came from springs located near the current intersection of Fourth and Spring Streets…thus the name Spring Street. To prevent contamination of their water, the Moravians established a “reservation” in the surrounding area in which nothing could be built. By the late 19th century, they had developed a better water system elsewhere, and as the town of Winston grew, they established a new congregation in the reservation area. The Calvary Chapel, shown here, was built in 1888 at the corner of Holly and Poplar Streets. The parsonage is seen in the background. It was in the parsonage that both of the Bowers girls were married. The picture is from the Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection.

Carrie Lee Bowers was Mattie May Bowers’ younger sister. Early on in her life, something went wrong. There is evidence, not entirely conclusive, that her father might have committed suicide in the early 1890s, possibly just before she was born.

We know little after that until September, 1907 when she left town for the new Industrial School in Brevard, under the sponsorship of the Young Ladies Aid Society of Centenary Methodist Church. In those days, an industrial school was part orphanage, part repository for unruly children, even juvenile delinquents. It would appear that Carrie fell into all three categories.

We next encounter Carrie in September, 1909, when the Winston-Salem Journal reports that she has become the first resident of the brand new Methodist Children’s Home on Reynolda Road. After that, nothing until this joyous announcement in the Twin City Daily Sentinel on June 8, 1916:

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Grayson Renner was much more than just a window dresser. His services were much in demand throughout the Carolinas-Virginia region for decorating streetscapes and even whole downtowns for parades and other major civic events. It would appear that the Bowers girls had done quite well for themselves, moving up a notch or so from their beginnings.

John Santford Martin, editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. Santford was a brilliant journalist who dragged the Journal out of the 19th century into the 20th. A liberal in a very conservative city and state, over the course of his career he would do much good for his fellow citizens. But, like most of us, he had a serious weak spot, in his case an ideological hatred of alcohol. By 1925, it was obvious to all but the most obtuse that Prohibition had become a huge mistake, but Santford, looking through the eyes of a true believer, could not see that. We will do a bio of him soon which I hope will redeem at least part of his brief failure.

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John Santford Martin, senior picture, 1909 from “The Howler”, Wake Forest College yearbook.

Judge Thomas Watson of the Winston-Salem municipal court. I will say nothing more about him here, but let his own words and actions as the story unfolds speak for themselves.

Four Winston-Salem plain clothes policemen, one Detective Teague, who investigated the hat theft and made the arrest, and three others, Detective Sergeant William M. Cofer, and detectives Ronda Gregory and Benjamin Phelps, all of whom were fired by the board of aldermen for “conduct unbecoming an officer”, conduct that was never specified publicly by anyone. Oh yeah, and former WSPD detective Paul Flynt, who had recently been fired for a “morals” failure of his own, who brought down the whole house of cards.

Six women, some of them married, who were named in court and in the Journal as frequent visitors to the Johnson house. Both former mayor Eaton and the editor of the Journal claimed that there was a list of “prominent” male citizens as well and both advocated exposing them too, until Judge Watson, at the behest of others far more powerful than him, told everyone to just shut up.

Viola (Mrs. R.A.) Spainhour, the chief complainant, who lived right next door to the Johnson’s at 1822 Elizabeth Avenue. In her trial testimony, one of her chief complaints was that the Johnson’s curtains were often drawn so she could not see what was going on. And she is the one who named the six women visitors…three of whom she said were women of bad character. How did she know that? Hmmm…

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Mayor Thomas Barber led the investigation of the Police Department. Despite constant badgering by the Journal, he kept his head down and focused on what needed to be done…but…

Not to mention a cast of dozens of mayors and police chiefs and aldermen, including one whose name will be quite familiar to most, and irate neighbors and ministers and passersby on the streets, not to mention some made up (and I don’t mean lipstick and eye shadow) nymphs de paves and so on.

Growing, up my friends and I, while playing our daily football game in the vacant lot at the corner of Academy and Lockland, had no idea that we were in the very shadow of demon rum and the devil’s handmaidens. We had all we could handle dealing with the troll that lived under the bridge on the creek down in the woods.

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