Although written records leave no clear motive for the vigilante attack against the Matlock family in October 1891, George Matlock’s lifestyle offers some insight.
Matlock and Sarah E. Browning began co-habiting around 1870. Burt Matlock was born the following year. But the couple didn’t marry until 1878. Sarah gave birth to two more children, Walter and Rachael Ann. Matlock’s drinking led to a separation in July 1885. Sarah and the two younger children moved to Ewing, but Burt remained on the farm with his father.
About this time, the 49-year-old Matlock brought his aging mother and 23-year-old niece, Drusilla, from Tennessee to live with him. George soon became romantically involved with Drusilla, and in December 1886, Drusilla bore him a son, Dink. The following year, Sarah divorced George, citing abandonment and excessive drinking. Three years later, Drusilla gave birth to George’s next son, Thomas. Almost immediately, Drusilla became pregnant again.
George’s drinking problem continued. In September 1890, he rode his horse to Ewing, became intoxicated and engaged in a drunken brawl with James Drinnen and Wilburn Fields. In January 1891, a jury found Matlock not guilty of attacking Drinnen with a knife. But Matlock’s problems were just beginning.
On Sunday morning, Feb. 22, 1891, Drusilla Matlock woke up, made breakfast and walked 100 yards to the barn to milk the cows. Near the apple house, Drusilla gave birth. She claimed the child was stillborn, but Dr. Edward T. Tinch testified otherwise.
“She said she had the child to drop from her,” Tinch claimed, “while standing near the apple house.”
He testified that Drusilla admitted to carrying the newborn by the neck about 100 yards and deposited it near a cornfield. And then inexplicably, she carried it back. The doctor also testified the infant was well-developed but had discolored skin, a smashed skull and bore finger marks on the neck. Its contracted muscles were not consistent with that of a stillborn child.
Neighbor David Kyte also testified he saw finger marks on the neck. Isaac Smith conducted the inquest and confirmed the child’s skull was slightly crushed and reported a spot in the mud the size of the infant’s head as if formed by pressure. Prosecutor William T. Branaman argued Drusilla grasped the “child’s neck with her hands” and strangled it.
Interestingly, George Matlock disavowed himself of Drusilla, her actions and his intimate relationship with her. He claimed since Drusilla moved in, “she had three children at my house.” This last time, “I thought she was pregnant … Her looks indicated it…” but he wasn’t certain until he came home that evening and “found … (the) child was dead.”
Twenty-one-year-old Burt reported they raked back some leaves and “found a child in the hog lot … The child was dead.”
However, considerable evidence suggests George was indeed Dink and Thomas’ father. Twice in the next few years, George and Drusilla would face fornication charges in a Jackson County court. George likely downplayed the consanguineous relationship to avoid additional legal problems and additional conflict with his neighbors.
When the jury found Drusilla not guilty in August 1891, this was likely the last straw for several of Matlock’s neighbors. Many must have felt Drusilla had gotten away with murder.
In January, the courts had failed to provide the justice that Fields and Drinnen expected in the drunken brawl case. George had abandoned one family, his drinking was out of control and now, uncle and niece were free to continue their illegitimate relationship. So Matlock’s neighbors decided to do what many other rural Jackson County communities were doing at the time: Take the law into their own hands.
Craig Davis, who was born in Seymour and graduated from Brownstown Central High School, currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and works for a U.S. government contractor on school-based violence prevention. He is the author of “The Middle East for Dummies” and is conducting research for a genealogy and social history book in Kurtz and Freetown. You can visit the Living with Cancer weekly blog at marvingray.org and write him at [email protected].