If you intend to read BACK WHEN: A TASTE FOR DEATH, the convicted murderer is revealed in this next section. Don’t read if you want suspense.
My father’s younger sister married in 1927, had two children and was pregnant with a third when she was murdered in August 1931by her husband Houston Roberts for the insurance proceeds. She was buried very quickly before her family even knew of it. He and his mother took care of the two children, Gladys and John; but there was a third child, Myra, listed in the census as being two years younger than John in the 1940 census. I have found no other information on Myra. Update 9/2015: Myra was born to the union of Houston and Etta McRaney. Etta was the second wife not to succeed her marriage to this man, dying within one and one-half years of Aletha.
Charles and I made the trip on 9/24/15 to Hopewell Cemetery, across the road from Hopewell Presbyterian Church in the northeastern corner of Jefferson Davis County on Jaynesville Road, just west of MS Highway 541. I hoped to find Houston’s unmarked grave in the edge of the woods to take a picture to give to Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Although they have a printed copy, it is of poor quality, and I wanted them to have an original print for their files. I also need to share with them the newspaper articles I found from across the country that tell of this Bluebeard murderer.
When Houston made his confession to his wives’ deaths, he was made out to be heart-broken with a statement that he did not know why he had killed them and that he had loved them both. His was a love that kills. I took pictures in the area around the graves of his mother (Sallie Butler Roberts), father (John), son (John Edward, died in 1958), and his two wives. Both tombstones listed their maiden names, then wife of H.M. Roberts. Aletha lived to be 21, born April 28, 1910; she died August 17, 1931. Etta McRaney was born September 20, 1910 and died January 13, 1933; evidently she was the mother of Myra. Both wives had the same verse inscriptions on their rather plain tombstones: “She was a faithful mother/And sunshine in her home/No one can take her place/ Where has my mother gone?”
The family account of his arrest follows; this is not what was reported in the newspaper nor in the crime magazine story written shortly after his death by electric chair execution. In 1949 he was arrested after Aunt Ethel, another of Daddy’s sisters prevented him from giving a poisoned hamburger to his sick grandchild, Shirley Ann Hill, Gladys’s daughter. Ethel’s husband was a highway patrolman, and the two arranged to send the hamburger over to Mississippi State A and M because the child was in the hospital and had told her mother that her grandfather had given her a pill. Aunt Ethel Rutland (married to Lavell Rutland, formerly Mt. Olive, MS City Marshal and later Mississippi Highway Patrol trooper) had one son, currently a banker in Arkansas, Dwight Rutland. Dwight was born in 1951, two years after me, and he received as much of this story from the Ainsworth siblings as I—that is, none!
When Dwight was in his mid-twenties and working in a Collins, MS, bank, one of his colleagues, Marilyn Roberts, stated they were somewhat related. She told him of the story of this unheard-of aunt and her killer husband. Her father was Laverne Roberts, a State Farm agent in Mt. Olive, and he was either a nephew to Houston. Dwight states his understanding that after Houston’s arrest before he was released on bond that Aunt Ethel and Aunt Vondell left the courtroom to go to his home and they discovered poison in various medicines. On the other hand, I have found no record of his release on bond and question whether the two would have known contents of the medicine bottles to be arsenic or other poison. They might, however, have taken them to the authorities to be analyzed.
Another distant cousin of ours, my friend in grades 3-5 when I attended Mt. Olive, has since become a Facebook friend; she informed me that she was related to the Roberts side through her grandmother. Janet Easterling Smith has stated she had heard of him as a child but did not know I was related to his wife. She confirms hearing the story of his setting a cornfield of fire with a child trapped inside the fire. She had thought the child died. I have not seen a second account of the child’s dying.
According to newspaper reports of that time, Houston was arrested in Jackson after arsenic of lead was found in the hamburger. When Houston realized the truth was coming out, and the body of the grandchild (also Gladys’s) he had poisoned in July of that year was to be exhumed, he confessed. He confessed to killing two of his four wives as well as his five year old grandchild, Mary Louise Hill.
I am still grappling with the information that Gladys and John both asked for leniency regarding their father’s upcoming execution. As a daughter and mother, I find myself holding onto the idea of vengeance—let me flip the switch. I am unsure whether I will portray Gladys as very weak and submissive, or as a forgiving Christian, or someone who has had an unhealthy relationship with her father and had returned to his domination. She was at the time separated from her husband, and I have no records available yet to tell me what happened.
I will probably have to dig some into land titles and deeds to find the Hills. I have read the newspaper articles at the archives, checked through census records, read the Supreme Court of Appeals decision, but the actual case did not make it to the Archives. I have not read the Parchmen Penitentiary or the Mississippi State Hospital for the Mentally Insane information yet.
No one in the Ainsworth family ever discussed it. We knew about it because the older siblings lived through the trial when young teens; it was written up in a True Crime-type magazine in the 1950’s with names changed. I like murder mysteries and literary fiction so this is the result, so far. I do hope for a print version when I finish, but there is a great deal more to imagine and tell. One scene needs to blend into another, but I have several decades to cover.
It will continue until Houston is dead.
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