The following Thanksgiving story features ups and downs, pathos, passion, more than a hint of extramarital sex, murder-suicide and a surprising plot twist. It sounds like a Hollywood movie—or maybe like life itself. I've fleshed out some details with period research and my own imagination.
As I envision it, this particular Thanksgiving starts out as have many others at the Thompson residence, that big place in the town's better neighborhood. The kitchen hums with activity. That's some good cooking you smell.
The six kids will be arriving soon, along with their families. Thanksgiving has a way of shining a spotlight on family. Mrs. Thompson wants to have everything ready. Oh, it's not as if the President were coming. He and Mrs. Coolidge are upstate this weekend, several hours northeast of Big Stone Gap. Big honor for Virginia, hosting the vacationing First Couple for five whole days. The President read out the traditional Thanksgiving proclamation a few days early this year to allow him to get away from it all.
That's what John Winton Thompson wishes he could do—walk away from everything. Instead, the very walls seem to be closing in around him. He feels trapped, desperate. And all because of that Catron woman.
Rosa Bishop Catron moved to town a couple years ago, lives alone in a little house down by the hosiery mill. Been married three times, has three sons (three that people know about). She's quite the character. Ask almost anyone in town. Young, too. At 41, Rosa is 14 years his junior. She makes him feel like a kid again. Or did at first. Today he feels old, terribly, terribly old.
And angry. Very angry.
He fingers his pistol. How could he have let it come to this? As former deputy sheriff of Wise County, he once swore to uphold the law of the land. He knows rules. He's about to break a whole lot of them.
I wonder how he leaves the house this morning. With a goodbye to his wife? A promise to be back in time for dinner? He won't make it. For John there will be no clink of glasses around the laden table, no clattering of plates. No happy family gathering, no feasting, no giving of thanks. Rather, the taking of life.
Here's what the Virginia Post, Wednesday, December 5, 1928, has to say: "TWO DEAD FROM DRINKING POISON HERE THURSDAY, John Thompson Forces Catron Woman to Drink Drug and Then Poisons Himself — Both Die Within Few Minutes.
"John Thompson, 55, former deputy sheriff of Wise County and road contractor, and Mrs. Rosa Catron, a resident of the district around the hosiery mill here, are both dead as the result of an affair which occurred Thursday morning at 11:00 o'clock in which Thompson is said to have forced the woman to drink a deadly poison at the point of a pistol and to have taken the remainder of the deadly poison himself.
"Thompson it is stated went to a local druggist Thursday morning and purchased forty cents worth of strychnine and a bottle of Abbott Bitters. Upon being questioned by the drug clerk, he declared that he intended to poison some rats. He then went to the home of [Rosa Catron], and according to her story told just before she died, poured the drug into the bottle and told her to drink it. When she refused, she said, he drew a pistol and threatened to shoot her. She complied and drank a part of the poison. He then told her what she had taken whereupon she rushed of out the house to the home of a neighbor where she told her story as doctors worked over her in the half hour before her life was gone.
"Thompson was found in the Catron house dead as the result of drinking the remainder of the deadly drug.
"According to the woman, Thompson and she had been acquainted and had quarreled for reasons not disclosed. Thompson is survived by his wife and six children while Mrs. Catron is survived by three sons."
That's the official story. Now for the plot twist. According to genealogist Brenda H. Reed (weberiteheresy.com), members of the Catron family believe Rosa killed John, then drank the brew herself.
Who knows what really happened. That's life—not knowing. That's life—ups, downs, passion, love, loss, wonderful moments, elusive truths. We all die in the end, that's life, too. Yet we're called to give thanks. The most contented, gentle angry person I know is a gay man who looks life full in the face, as it is, and without flinching, with deep sincerity, says, "thank you."
This essay appeared in The Community Letter, November 2010