Medical History of DeKalb, part 1

By Melissa Swindell, Collections Coordinator

Five and a half decades passed between the founding of DeKalb County in 1822 and the founding of Atlanta in 1877. During this time, DeKalb County was a remote and forested area, a full day’s journey from the state capitol at Milledgeville 90 miles to the southeast. On this frontier landscape, most of DeKalb County’s early doctors relied on plant-based remedies. Their healing techniques were referred to as eclectic medicine, a branch of medicine that used “noninvasive therapies and healing practices.” The heyday of eclectic medicine occurred across the US during the second half of the 19th century and was particularly popular in rural areas. But where did the theory of eclectic medicine come from? How and why was it practiced in DeKalb County?

Eclectic medicine, like most medical theories before the 1890s – when germ theory was widely accepted – relied on the balance of humors to restore health. The Eclectic physician aimed to provide healing therapies that were in harmony with the body’s natural curative properties. They primarily used plant-based drugs that were indigenous to the United States. The Eclectics rebelled against the old invasive medical practices primarily those supported by American’s best known 18th century physician and founding father Dr. Benjamin Rush.

From the mid 1700’s through the turn of the century, Dr. Rush and many of his Anglo-American and English colleagues practiced medicine based on the humoral theory. This was the belief that illness was caused by imbalances in bodily fluids – also known as humors. Doctors who embraced the humoral perspective studied fluids such as urine, vomit, and blood for signs of health, and prescribed treatments such as bloodletting and vomiting in hopes that this would restore the character of those fluids into their proper balance. 

One type of treatment for humoral imbalance was heroic therapeutics, which meant practicing the standard medical treatments to extremes, such as bleeding a patient until he fainted, or purging her to the point of causing extreme weakness.

Bleeder, DHC Collections

Dr. Rush employed this practice during the 1793 outbreak of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia. He estimated that the average person contained 25 pounds of blood and recommended that up to 80% be removed. 

Over the course of “the 100-day Yellow Fever epidemic, there were at least 4,044 deaths in Philadelphia.” Two centuries later, researchers “made an effort to identify by name as many of Rush’s patients as possible and to track outcomes of his management. It is estimated that 46% of Rush’s patients died.

Despite the fact that probably more than half of Rush’s patients did recover from both Yellow Fever and the doctor’s purgings, reports on patient symptoms and treatment results might have raised serious doubts about the effectiveness of his methods, and many of Rush’s peers in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, openly questioned his treatments. 

In 1826 Dr. E.N. Calhoun was one of the first recorded doctors in DeKalb County. He applied heroic therapeutics to patients with Typhus and Typhoid Fever. Prescribing what he called the “black dose,” Dr. Calhoun treated patients with a concoction that included calomel – a form of mercury chloride often used as an ingredient for purging, who’s toxic effects also produced salivation, gum inflammation, loosening of the teeth, gastrointestinal upset, and an ashen appearance, arm and facial tremors, and personality change. He mixed this with quinine (which is used to treat malaria, today), capsicum also known as red pepper or chili pepper, camphor oil (used today for insect repellant and embalming fluids) and the narcotic opium.

Quinine, DHC Collections

Over the course of the next three decades yellow fever, typhus, and typhoid would continue to wreak havoc in urban areas and by the 1830s when the new epidemic of cholera caused heightened panic and heightened mortality rates traditional medical treatments of bloodletting and vomiting exacerbated dehydration and hastened death. 

Trust in doctors who were predominately using heroic therapeutics was quickly waning, and as more and more people were moving onto the frontier and expanding America’s territorial control. This expansion meant that they did not have access to formally trained medical doctors or pharmacies and so they started to rely on natural cures.

For example, in 1832 “When medicine was unobtainable” DeKalb County doctor “Philip H. Buford used herbs from his own garden as well as those from nearby forests from which his medicines were made.” By this time the precursor to Eclectic Medicine claimed 1.5 million adherents – or close to 12% of the population in the United States. 

Dr. Powell’s Medicine House

In 1833, DeKalb County doctor Chapman Powell and Mrs. Elizabeth Hardeman Powell built a log cabin home on the section of Shallow Ford Trail now known as Clairmont Rd. Powell’s home became known as the Medicine House. Dr. Powell’s medicines often included a gallon of whiskey as the first requisite in which to mix the pulverized roots and herbs.” The result of this process in compounding medicines is commonly referred to as a tincture and was a well-recognized medical practice at the time. 

Dr. Chapman Powell and Mrs. Elizabeth Hardeman Powell

However, Dr. Powell “did not graduate from a regular medical college and is not listed among those granted a license to practice medicine by the Georgia Board of Examiners. He inherited a love for nature and was a natural botanist… and acquired a knowledge of remedies and a cleverness in employing them which justified his claims as a physician.” 

Dr. Powell’s practice is described as a forerunner of the Southern Botanico-Medical College, which was established 1839 in Forsyth Co and whose charter would later be transferred to the Georgia College of Eclectic Medicine and Surgery where his grandson would attend.

In all, 16 medical colleges opened and either merged or closed in GA during the end of the 19th century. “Few medical schools existed for more than a few years w/o a major conflict between faculty members. These disagreements were often marked and divisive and public. … The public arguing helped undermine public confidence in medicine and physicians. This attitude was responsible for the demise of many medical schools, with the principals often leaving to start a rival school nearby.” The sole remaining practice is the Medical Department at Emory University in DeKalb County, founded in 1915. 

But before we jump ahead into the 20th century important discoveries were being made in the late 1800s. By the time Atlanta was named the state’s capitol in 1877, germ theory had been discovered in Europe and was making its way across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, in the States, the use of every-day alcohols such as whiskey were being employed more and more frequently in medical tinctures and elixirs.

In the next segment of DeKalb’s medical history, we’ll explore medicines such as the poisonous Vapo-Cresolene and Dr. Thacher’s Liver and Blood Syrup. 


“Eclectic Medicine.” Lloyd Library. Accessed September 18, 2020. https://lloydlibrary.org/research/archives/eclectic-medicine/. 

North, R L. “Benjamin Rush, MD: Assassin or Beloved Healer?” Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center). Baylor Health Care System, January 2000. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1312212/. 

“Orthodox Medicine.” Encyclopedia.com, 11 Aug. 2020. Accessed, September 18, 2020. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/orthodox-medicine. 

“What the Doctor Ordered: Dr. Benjamin Rush Responds to Yellow Fever.” Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Accessed September 18, 2020. https://hsp.org/education/unit-plans/diagnosing-and-treating-yellow-fever-in-philadelphia-1793/what-the-doctor-ordered-dr-benjamin-rush-responds-to-yellow-fever. 

DHC Archives

Osborne Gibbs, Jeanne. From Cowslip to Cobalt: A Century and a Half of Medicine in DeKalb County, Georgia, 1971. Obj# 975.8.GIBB

DHC Collections 

Brass Bleeder Kit Obj# 1981.103.86

Medicinal Whiskey Bottle Obj# 1980.38.1

Medicine Glass Obj# 1988.29.7

Quinine Obj# 1981.103.81

DHC Photographs 

Chapman Powell Collection Acc# 1985.160.0

Dr. Chapman Powell Home Acc# 1984.280


The DeKalb Branch of the NAACP and the Fight for Equal Education after Desegregation

by Maranda Perez

The DeKalb Branch of the NAACP started in 1955, meeting in Lilly Hill Baptist Church in Decatur, and quickly grew to be the second largest branch of the NAACP in the state of Georgia. The branch in its early days was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in protests and registering as many African American residents to vote as possible. One major cause the NAACP has fought for is equal education for African American children. The DeKalb Branch of the NAACP supported efforts to gain and improve school buildings, resources, and transportation through various court cases, meetings with the school board, and protests fighting to ensure that black children received the same quality of education as white children in DeKalb County. When talking about racial equality or inequality in education most people focus on the eras of segregation and mandated desegregation before and during the Civil Rights Movement, but the fight continued on through the remainder of the twentieth century. Records here in the archives show that tensions regarding racial equity in schools reached a peak in the 1980s. It was during this decade that the DeKalb Branch of the NAACP found a new momentum following a lull in membership during the 70s, and decided to take on some of the prevalent issues African American students faced in DeKalb County classrooms.

Despite the mandate to desegregate schools based on Section VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, DeKalb County School System was declared guilty of segregation in 1969, and placed under the watch of federal courts until they fully integrated. One effort made by DeKalb County to fulfill the court order to further integrate schools was the Majority to Minority (M to M) Program established in 1977. This program allowed students to transfer to schools outside of their zoning if they were a racial minority in the desired school if that school had room for new students. Despite this program, some schools were still accused of wrongfully denying African American students admission. The NAACP in DeKalb County specifically took Lakeside High School to court over this issue. In the early 1980s, the NAACP accused Lakeside High School of intentionally barring African American students admission to maintain the white majority at the school. Lakeside High School claimed that they were merely trying to maintain their average classroom size at twenty-three, and that there was no racial bias in their decision to deny admission to transfer students. The NAACP took Lakeside High School to court, and won the case, requiring the school to admit more African American students through the M to M program. The NAACP also took on other cases regarding schooling that were not as successful for the organization such as a case against Redan # 2. The school board was planning on building a second building to house eighth and ninth grade students, and the NAACP believed that DeKalb County was building a new school to avoid rezoning and placing more African American students in predominantly white schools. Even though they lost this second case, the African American community of DeKalb County was pleased to see that the NAACP was active again, after being relatively dormant in the 1970s.  

In the years following these cases, tensions remained high between the NAACP and DeKalb County School Board. These tensions reached a breaking point in the summer of 1989 during a routine school board meeting where the NAACP made five proposals to improve the educational situation for African American children. The main rejection that led the NAACP to protest the school board meetings was a refusal to hire more African American officials for the school board, specifically to hire an African American superintendent to oversee South DeKalb schools. The NAACP pointed out that DeKalb County school systems had a majority of African American students, but only one black official on the school board, Phil McGregor. McGregor supported the NAACP in their effort to convince the school board to hire officials that represented their student population. They believed that changing the racial make-up of the school board was a crucial step to making equitable schools in DeKalb County. Throughout the summer, the NAACP joined together at subsequent school meetings hoping to convince the school board to approve their proposals. Tensions between the NAACP and the school began to ease up in September, as the two groups tried to find a compromise that appeased both sides. The school board agreed to hire associate superintendent Dr. Eugene Walker, an African American man, and created the position of Affirmative Action Officer who would report to him. Though these were not the demands the NAACP made to the school board, they agreed to the compromise hoping that the school board would follow through. They were also eager to put the controversy behind them, and move on to other pressing issues on their agenda. The School Board was concerned about the perception of DeKalb County schools that arose due to the controversy, and were also eager to end the protests and make these compromises.

Moreover, in 1989, the NAACP was also tackling the issue of the disparity of highly experienced teachers between predominantly white and predominantly black schools. Many African American parents, with the support of the NAACP, took the school board to court to address this issue leading Judge O’Kelley to rule in favor of the NAACP and required the school board to equalize teacher experience throughout all DeKalb County schools. The school board decided that the best plan of action was to create a random lottery for teachers with twenty or more years of experience, and use the results of the lottery to decide which teachers would move from a predominantly white school to a predominantly black school. Teachers working in DeKalb County schools were on contract through the county, not individual schools, so they were never guaranteed a spot in the schools they taught at previously. However, the county historically did not transfer teachers often. For the lottery, teachers met at Stone Mountain High School and drew a number out of a container. The teachers that drew a number between one and one hundred seventeen they would be transferred to a new school. Teachers, parents, and administrations on both sides of the argument were concerned about the potential outcomes of this plan. Since the lottery happened during the summer, many teachers were concerned that they would not have enough time to plan lessons for their students if chosen to move in the lottery.  Phil McGregor expressed his concern that the prejudices of unwilling teachers would prevent them from properly teaching their new students. Many teachers were outraged by their new assignments and protested in various ways. Some teachers said they would use their collected sick days, resign, and some even filed a lawsuit against the school board because of the lottery. The outrage of teachers agitated African American parents who, like Phil McGregor, did not want unwilling teachers affecting the quality of their children’s education. Despite the controversy of the lottery, DeKalb County experienced a below average rate of resignations with only eight teachers leaving DeKalb County Schools. Moreover, some teachers were pleased with their new schools, students, and parents saying they felt welcomed by the communities, and that they would always give any child the best education they can. 

The fight for a quality education for African American children has always been a crucial issue taken on by the NAACP all over the country, and the DeKalb Branch is no exception to this. The DeKalb Branch has not been afraid to challenge the school board or even specific schools if they feel they are not doing all they can to include and adequately educate African American students. Even when the NAACP does not get the outcomes they hope, they continue to fight for more equitable classrooms for DeKalb County students. It is widely understood that a quality education is important for people to be productive citizens and lead successful lives.

Works Cited

Bell, Chuck. “DeKalb NAACP continues to grow under first woman leader.” DeKalb Extra, February 26, 1987.

Harris, Narvie J. and Dee Taylor. Black American Series: African American Education in Dekalb County. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 1999.

“Historical Sketch.” NAACP: 59th Annual Freedom Fund Awards Dinner 2015.

Neal, Paula. “Lawsuit sought in effort to stop teacher transfer.” DeKalb News/Sun, July 12, 1989.

Ordner, Helen. “Again the Victim: Black Parents’ Courtroom Victory may Work to Detriment of their Kids, McGregor Says.” DeKalb News/Sun, August 17, 1989.

Ordner, Helen. “Lottery Chooses Teachers to Go.” DeKalb News/Sun, July 12, 1989.

Ordner, Helen. “Teacher Betty Baldwin Terms Herself ‘A Winner’ in Controversial Lottery. DeKalb New/Sun, August 23, 1989.

Ragsdale, Spencer. “Blacks Disrupt School Meeting over Promotions.” DeKalb News Sun. July 12, 1989.

Ragsdale, Spencer. “School Board, NAACP Nearing Compromise.” DeKalb News/Sun, August 16, 1989.

Ragsdale, Spencer. “NAACP, School Board May be Near Truce.” DeKalb News/Sun, September 20, 1989.

Watkins-Murphy, Carla. “Judge rules schools need race balance.” DeKalb Neighbor, July 6, 1988.

Watts, Robert Anthony. “DeKalb School Board Leans Toward Rejecting 3 of 5 NAACP Proposals.” Atlanta Journal, September 6, 1989.

Watts, Robert Anthony. “Hymn-Singing by NAACP Adjourns Meeting.” Atlanta Journal.

Watts, Robert Anthony. “Teachers’ Outcry Irks South DeKalb Parents.” Atlanta Journal, July 21, 1989.


A Walk Through the Past: A History of DeKalb County’s Native American Trails

by Maranda Perez

A marker for Hightower (Etowah) Trail, the most marked, and well-studied Native American trail in DeKalb County.

Before white settlers occupied today’s DeKalb County, two prominent Native American nations, the Creek and Cherokee, lived on and traveled through the area for thousands of years. These nations had a tremendous effect on the development of Georgia that largely goes unnoticed in modern day, but is nonetheless important to consider. There were three main Native American trails that ran through modern day DeKalb County: the Hightower Trail, the Peachtree Trail, and the Sandtown Trail. These trails were used by the Creek and Cherokee people for travel and trade between each other and other Native American nations in the Southeast region. These trails traced the shortest possible distances between destinations and least treacherous routes. Because of this, white settlers used these trails for themselves as wagon roads in the early settler period, and they have since become parts of prominent roads, boundaries, and rail lines in DeKalb County. 

Image showing Peachtree Station located on land that once was part of Peachtree Trail.

Generally, the Native American trails followed the highest ridges, which is why many converged at Stone Mountain. Moreover, they avoided streams as much as possible, making the areas where the trails were originally established ideal points of travel even to this day. This can be seen most prevalently with how we currently use the old Peachtree Trail. Peachtree Trail connected to Sandtown Trail in Stone Mountain and ran through today’s Peachtree Road and Peachtree Street, two frequently traveled roads today. Moreover, Southern Railway followed the same path as the Peachtree Trail, and was a railroad that connected much of the Southeast. The proximity of Peachtree Trail and these areas of transportation is no coincidence. Developers of the Southern Railway sought out high ridges for the railroad.  Even though the Creek and Cherokee people have since been pushed out of the area, their most important trails, being ideal points of travel, have become essential roads and railways for the county today.   

Image of Decatur Station, part of Georgia Railroad, where Sandtown Trail ran through Decatur, Georgia.

Sandtown Trail makes up the part of Georgia Railroad that runs from Stone Mountain through Decatur following today’s Decatur Street to Five Points in Atlanta. It is one of few Native American land sites in Georgia that has retained its original name given by the Creek nation. The Sandtown Trail is a direct translation of the Creek Oktahasasi, and was named for the communities that the trail connected. The first community known as Sandtown was located in Alabama, and the trail ran from there to another Sandtown in Fulton County on either side of the Chattahoochee River. It can be inferred that the trail was used for trade, travel, and communication between the Sandtown communities the trail connected. Sandtown in Fulton County was known by white settlers as Buzzard Roost until 1821 when a map of the trail was drawn connecting Buzzard Roost with Sandtown in Alabama. Buzzard Roost during the time of western expansion in the nineteenth century reflected the kind of communities portrayed in old western films where both white and Native people lived together, and fought often. The trail was used frequently by white settlers travelling west to establish gold mines in parts of Georgia and Alabama where the metal was rumored to be found.

Even though all three of these Native American trails are important, the archives here at DeKalb History Center contain the most information about the Hightower Trail. The name Hightower itself is an anglicized version of Etowah, which is the name given to the trail by Native American people. Dr. John H. Goff, believed that Hightower was a corrupted version of the name caused by the language barrier between Native Americans and English settlers. Moreover, the importance of this trail was abundantly clear to residents and surveyors in 1958 of both DeKalb and Gwinnett County when they ‘lost’ the boundary between the two. The Hightower Trail determined part of the original boundary between Gwinnett County and DeKalb County.  Surveyors could not definitively mark where certain parts of the trail were, leaving some residents and businesses unsure of which county they actually resided in. Surveyors had to go into the archives to review the J.T. Cunningham survey of 1819 that marked the boundary between Georgia and Creek territory during that time. This example is telling of both the importance of the Hightower Trail in DeKalb County, but also demonstrates issues that arise with a lack of documentation. There are not many sources from pre-colonial Native American nations preserved today to be researched creating a gap in knowledge that makes something as simple as finding a county line difficult. 

Over the years, the people of DeKalb County have found ways to commemorate these contributions made by Creek and Cherokee people mostly by placing historic markers where the trails were located. Georgia Department of Travel placed numerous markers along the highways where many of the old trails used to be located. In 1997, a plaque was placed at the original 1822 county boundary between DeKalb and Gwinnett County to commemorate the importance of the Hightower Trail. There are innumerous ways beyond the Native American trails that the Creek and Cherokee nations affected DeKalb County, whether we are aware of it or not. However, next time you drive down Peachtree Road or hear the train passing by your work or home, perhaps you’ll remember the Native American people who lived on and used this land long before we did, and think about how their lives here continue to affect daily life here in DeKalb County now.             

Works Cited

“Gwinnett, DeKalb Need Indians to Find Lost County Border”. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Jan. 1, 1958. 

Goff, John H. “The Sandtown Trail”. Atlanta Historical Bulletin 11, no. 4 (Dec. 1966): 34-52.

Goff, John H. Summary of Remarks at DeKalb Historical Society, March 30, 1961.

Hemperley, Marion R. Historic Indian Trails of Georgia, 1989.  

Hudgins, Carl T. DeKalb County Indian Trails. Jan. 22, 1951.

Martinez, Sherron. “Signs Point to the Past: DeKalb’s Indian Heritage Recalled in Highway Markers as Georgia Reacher 250th Year”. News Sun, July 20, 1983. 

Moser, Charles. “Hightower Indian Trail Dedication Today”. The Atlanta Constitution, May 4, 1997.

Wells, Frank. “Not so Deep: They’ve got to Find the Hightower Trail.” Atlanta Constitution, Aug. 24, 1959.   


Hunting Mrs. Gray: True-Crime in Decatur

Mrs. Gray owned many cars, having developed a taste for the finer pleasures in life. Pictured above is an advertisement for a 1957 Pink Lincoln, the same car that she owned.

“Tis strange – but true; for truth is always strange,

Stranger than fiction: if it could be told.”

Lord Byron

It seemed like a strange place for a crime. A small, sleepy town of under 20,000 people, Decatur was a backwater in comparison to its larger, glamorous, bustling cousin, Atlanta. Yet, soon, the events set in motion here would be the talk of the nation.

It all began with one woman. Tall, older and stately, but with a youthful face unburdened by wrinkles, she automatically stood out of the crowd. Her cascade of silver hair made her appear glamorous if slightly cold. She cut a stylish figure, ensconced in the wide, oversized, flouncy skirts of the 1950’s. She was respectable and classy.

Yet, don’t be fooled, appearances can deceive you.

Many were drawn in by her. She spun stories deftly, like a spider deftly weaving her web. Her father was the former President of Panama. She owned mining interests out in Colorado. Her husband, a former colonel, had died. All of these factors served to make her independently wealthy, fitting into the respectability politics for a woman. Additionally, it provided an explanation for her extravagant spending. She seemingly had it all: stylish clothes, a multi-acre home, and numerous show dogs.

She arrived in Decatur in 1954 and quickly set her sights on the Decatur Clinic. Though it was a modest but handsome brick building, by the 1950’s, business was booming. Seven doctors were on staff with five visiting specialists, and, short of major surgery, most medical procedures could be performed within the office. Cash was flowing and the times were good.

Though she was well-off, Mrs. Janet R. Gray applied for the office manager job. She loved a good challenge and claimed that the job would keep her mind occupied. In return for her services, she received $400 per month. This was a generous salary, exceeding that of many male officers workers at the time. The doctors at the clinic liked her immediately: she was self-assured, possessed an air of refinement, and, strangely, bandied complex medical terminology about with casual ease. Under her, the clinic appeared to run smoothly.

The doctors were unaware of the developing underlying tensions. The administrative staff strongly disliked their new boss. Mrs. Gray was a stern and demanding supervisor. She pushed those under her purview to work hard, but did not put in a similar effort. Carole Whitney, a University of Georgia co-ed, who worked at the clinic in 1956 noted that “More often than not Mrs. Gray would come in the morning, leave at 10 or 11 [AM] and return later in the afternoon.”

Some found her to be tyrannical. Morale was low, and workers quit due to their inability to secure a raise. Mrs. Shelnutt, a clerk at the clinic, claimed that she was forced to work overtime by several hours per day but was not properly compensated.

“Mrs. Gray “would demand that I stay there and pound her fist on the desk at me… We were at the disposal of Mrs. Gray and whatever she told us we had to do.”

Ora Shelnutt, Clerk

Employees were also disconcerted by the haphazard business practices in the clinic. The cash and receipts for the day, which often totalled over $600, were left in an unlocked drawer. This meant that employees had easy access to the money, though someone was always present, in the seat or by the desk. This made clerks nervous: Mrs Henderson noted that this kept her in a state of anxiety: she “didn’t like being held responsible for cash that other persons had their hands in.”

This sense of suspicion was transferred to Mrs. Gray. Employees began watching her. Mrs. Whitney once saw her leave with the cash receipts in her brown briefcase. June Thurmond, another clerk, thought that it was strange that Mrs. Gray solicited delinquent payments. When Mrs. Gray did so, she used a nome de plume, J.M Royer. Queerer yet, when Thurmond balanced the receipts against payments received, she noticed that the total was off. Mrs. Gray would not let her check the adding machine records to rectify the discrepancy.

Furthermore, Mrs. Gray’s control over money extended to the deposit safe. One night Mrs. Thurmond made the mistake of locking the filing cabinet safe. The next morning, it could not be opened as no one knew the combination. Apparently, Mrs. Gray typically locked the drawer overnight and only she had the key. Despite the many irregularities, the staff excused them. Mrs Gray was the bookkeeper, a competent office worker, wasn’t she?

The interior of Mrs. Gray’s Happy Hollow living room. The room had a “peaked cathedral ceiling” with Empire and Victorian love-seats. With the abundant light, one writer described it as comfortable, lived-in country house with lavish decorations, including a room full of jade figurines (Atlanta Journal Constitution)
A hallway with luxurious wood siding. The Renaissance cabinet on the left cost more than $600, more than a month’s salary. One onlooker said that she “wouldn’t pay more than a nickel for a truckload,” illustrating how relative taste is (Atlanta Constitution)
On a tour of Mrs. Gray’s home, Peggy and Mrs. R.R Patillo try one of the hats on Mrs. W.C Patillo (Atlanta Constitution)

During the interim years, Mrs. Gray’s social reputation grew rapidly. Her wealth guaranteed her access to the upper echelon of Atlanta society. She looked the part too, stylishly attired. Her wardrobe was extensive, and she owned over fifty hats and 113 dresses alone. She was addicted to luxury: dogs, fine cars, and fur coats, she tolerated only the best.

Her house was similarly lavish. She lived in the affluent suburb Hollow Hills and owned over fifteen acres. Her house had seven rooms and a pool which allowed her to throw “sumptuous and gay” parties. It was furnished with fine French and Italian antiques.

Mrs. Gray worked hard to preserve the veneer of wealth, even with those who surrounded her. Her niece, Candace Lane, was the daughter of a countess. She attended the prestigious private school of Westminster, whose name served as a password into elite circles.

Rise and Shine, one of Mrs. Gray’s more than 50 cocker spaniels, wins Best In Show in 1954 at the Westminster Dog Show (Westminster Dog Show)

Most importantly, she became a influential dog fancier. Her cocker spaniel, Rise and Shine, won the Westminster Dog Show in 1956, and was considered one of the best living examples of the breed. Spaniels were her passion project: she had more than fifty. From these dogs, she started Gala Kennels which was well regarded. She also had a flair for unique names. What is better for a dog than Piccolo Pete and best of all, Capital Gains?

 Though the clinic was growing, the doctors were concerned by their declining gross income; thus, the clinic hired a new accountant, John C. Walsh. Moving forward, Mrs. Gray was demoted to being Mr. Walsh’s assistant. Yet, this was to be her downfall. 

On July 30, 1957, Mrs. Gray got a fateful telephone call. The clinic discovered a shortage of cash. They asked her would she be available to come in and explain the discrepancy? By all appearances, the doctors seemed to be in disbelief, thinking that she was blameless. 

Margaret Burton enters the DeKalb County courtroom for her first trial. Many people came from around the area to see her trial and newspapers referred to her as a ‘star.’ She was a media sensation with newspapers across the country tracking her every move from her cell accommodations at Fulton County Jail to how she spent Christmas (Atlanta Constitution)

Mrs. Gray’s almost three years in Decatur were an elaborate fabrication. Her name was not Janet R. Gray; in truth, she was Mrs. Margaret Lydia Burton, a British citizen born in Tientsin, China in 1906. She had a long history of embezzlement spanning over eighteen years in America, beginning in 1939 in Honolulu where she was working for a local Chinese rug company. She had committed crimes in three countries, four additional states and had over twenty-three aliases. During her thirty-one months at the clinic, Mrs. Burton allegedly stole $100,000 and that number would continue to rise as more details came to be known. 

Most shocking, her ‘niece,’ Candy, was, in truth, her daughter, Sheila Joy Burton. Sheila had posed as a fifteen-year-old student but was really twenty years old. She herself had over nine aliases, and authorities were unsure about her complicity. Her mother’s crime spree had begun when she was eighteen months She fled. What else could she do? This was her habitat; whenever things got sticky for her, she would pack up and leave. America was an easy country to vanish within. She could create a new past and identity for herself easily. She would commit a crime, rinse and repeat.

Mrs. Burton slipped away easy. She gave away ten of her dogs to local friends. She packed up remaining thirty-eight dogs and personal belongings into a caravan of cars, driving throughout the night Greensboro, North Carolina. She led the charge in her pink sedan, followed by her ‘niece’ in a station wagon and was followed by two vans with hired drivers. When the vehicles became too conspicuous, she abandoned them in Greensville, South Carolina. The dogs (with the exception of three prominent prize-winning dogs: Rise and Shine, Piccolo Pete and, ironically, Capital Gains) were transferred over to her dog trainer, Ted Young Junior, who took them back to Connecticut (He later faced charges for criminal conspiracy). After that, the FBI lost track of Mrs. Burton. She drove off with her daughter in a Pontiac and went unnoticed through one police checkpoint after another. 

The case of Mrs. Gray was carried widely, ranging from Connecticut, Indianapolis, Arizona, New York, Ohio, Missouri, Texas, Michigan, and even internationally in Hong Kong. These stories often emphasized her exotic nature. The Hartford Courant labeled her as an “international adventurer.”

Much of the fascination can be traced to the ways in which Mrs. Burton both transgressed and fit within normative gender values of the 1950’s. On a surface level, she was a perfect woman: she possessed feminine charm and had a classic elegance, she could entertain guests while being a mother. She was also a kind of Marion Crane-esque figure: she committed a lengthy crime spree and was a divorcee. It was difficult to categorize her and this dichotomy fascinated the public.

Former friends of ‘Mrs. Gray’ were in total shock, especially members of the Cocker Spaniel Club, who had recently begun to nominate her as the Southeastern Representative. Mr. and Mrs. Estes, close friends of ‘Mrs. Gray,’ described how they were shaken, comparing it to “picking up the paper and reading that President Eisenhower was a communist.” Initially, they did not believe the charges levied and they had planned to aide her. Now, they knew better and thought that she was “beyond help.”

When asked if they had ever suspected her, Mr. Estes replied, “Would you be suspicious of your own mother? Why she was the most motherly lady my wife and I ever knew.”

His wife chimed in, stating that ‘Mrs. Gray’ was one of the most gracious hostesses as well.

Government men tow off Mrs. Gray’s car from her rented home in Tulsa, Oklahoma to go towards repaying her debtors and former employers. The FBI agents also recovered three prize spaniels and a mink stole (Atlanta Constitution).

Mrs. Burton, despite being the subject of a national manhunt, boldly applied for a bookkeeper position at a local doctor’s office under the name Madge Barton. Remarkably, Mrs. Burton and her daughter managed to integrate themselves into the community in a short period of time. Sheila Joy Burton, alias Joy Barton, enrolled at the local business college and was described by a teacher as a “quiet girl, refined in manner.” Mrs. Burton received the job and her employers, as usual, were impressed by her intelligence and acumen; however, Mrs. Juanita Hellwer, a receptionist, recognized Mrs. Burton based on a page one story that had run in the Tulsa World, a local newspaper. Mrs. Burton’s heavily freckled face, similar last name, and interest in bookkeeping aroused suspicions. These were confirmed when Mrs. Burton’s daughter came in to be treated and matched the description of “a buxom blonde.” Federal officers were tipped off, and Mrs. Burton and her daughter were arrested shortly after.

People in Atlanta had mixed emotions when Mrs. Burton was captured. Her former hairdresser, C. Charles, was glum, telling a reporter, “I surely thought she would give them a more exciting chase… And just what will the ladies in my saloon have to talk about now?” The doctors at the Decatur Clinic were unabashedly ecstatic: Dr. Robert P. Shinall told a reporter that “You can say this, we are happy!”

This image appeared in the Atlanta Constitution on October 27, 1957. Pictured are A.P Turnmyre and Joe Davis men who bid for “Shiney,” Mrs. Gray’s prize-winning cocker spaniel. The dog was sent to live with its breeder.

All of Mrs. Burton’s many belongings were put up for public auction. The funds from the sale of Rise and Shine, the prize-winning dog, was valued over $5,000. The dog fetched an aristocratic price of $1,555 which was funded by cocker spaniel fanciers across the United States.

When Mrs. Burton took the stand, she sought to discredit her previous statement given to the FBI. She had previously admitted that she had stolen $50,000 when she was arrested in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She claimed that her confession was forced, she had only given the statement to free her daughter from jail. She explained to the jury that “If you [the jurors] had a daughter in custody, I believe that you would have done the same thing.” She continued, describing how the FBI showed her crying daughter to try and coerce her. Furthermore, she was not given access to a lawyer.

Mrs. Burton’s testimony denied that she stole from the Decatur Clinic. She claimed that the doctors had practiced income tax evasion. She had fled because she knew that the clinic’s accounts “were in a mess and she feared an income tax investigation.” She was in constant fear that the doctors would blame her; Mrs. Burton testified that “I knew that the doctors would throw it all in my lap.” She claimed that, had she committed the crime, she would have not turned over and worked to sort out the clinic’s accounting books.

Mrs. Burton described the clinic as a hectic place that did “tremendous” business.

Purportedly, doctors had a competition over which one of them could see the most patients in one day. Dr. Shinall confessed to her that “he could spend only 25 seconds with a patient and he’d never know he had been treated in so short a period of time.” Dr. Heard went so far as to keep a chart in his desk which graphed patients who were seen with business outcomes.

Some doctors were heavily criticized for not keeping pace.

The trial appeared to be difficult for Mrs. Burton. She was noted for her solemn mien “with a mouth slightly downturned, giv[ing] her a sort of weary, supercilious look.”After court adjourned, people would wait near the balustrade, clustering in groups, brushing past her and chattering with the latest speculation. Public interest meant that her every step was hounded: the Atlanta Journal noted that “not until she disappears… does the curtain go down for the day, and she has been the star all the way through.”

The shenanigans surrounding the trial were not limited to the courtroom. Rev. R Frank Crawley, a minister at the Decatur First Methodist Church, preached a Christmas sermon which sympathized with the doctors at the Decatur Clinic. He jested, “Instead of Mrs. Burton being on trial for taking money from four physician-employers, it appeared that the physicians might be on trial for making that much money.” While apparently, it got a good laugh from the congregation, the judge was not as pleased. A jury member, William Pitman, was attending Sunday service was there. The sermon was an opinion expressed to a juror. When asked how things looked (with the likelihood of a mistrial looming), the solicitor general cheekily quipped “Gray.” After a short recess, the judge ruled that the prejudicial comment could affect the presumption of innocence and thus declared a mistrial.

Due to this, Mrs. Burton was re-tried for a second time in February 1958. Her two trials caused Mrs. Burton immense stress, and it soon began to show. Towards the end of the trial, she experienced frequent fainting spells and suffered a fall at the DeKalb County jail. On February 8, 1958, Mrs. Burton was indicted on two counts of larceny; the court ruled that she could serve two to five years per count concurrently at Reidsville State Prison.

On May 1958, the United States Federal Government brought deportation charges against her for “failure to keep the Government informed of her address and conviction of two crime involving moral turpitude and criminal misconduct.” Mrs. Burton could not be deported until she completed her prison sentence. Furthermore, she still had pending charges in California, Texas, Virginia and British Columbia.

“Mrs Janet Gray” (left) and “Candy Lane” are shown playing with puppies. Mrs Gray was especially fond of animals (Image credit: Atlanta Constitution).

So where did the two end up?

Sheila Joy, Mrs. Burton’s daughter, left Atlanta on September 2nd, 1957. According to local newspapers, her departure “ended a chapter in her life that would rival the wildest television drama.” She would stay with her uncle (on her mother’s side), Ian McGlashan, who was a movie producer. Charges against her as an accessory to her mother’s crimes were later dropped. Reportedly, she attended college and got excellent grades. When she was twenty-two, she married. It appears that after this period of excitement, she lived a largely ordinary life and had one child.

McGlashan, who was a movie producer. Charges against her as an accessory to her mother’s crimes were later dropped. Reportedly, she attended college and got excellent grades. When she was twenty-two, she married. It appears that after this period of excitement, she lived a largely ordinary life and had one child.

Mrs. Burton was released after serving eighteen months. Despite her attempts to fight it, she later was consensually extradited to California to face a charge of six counts of grand theft. After that, her fate is unknown. She died on October 2, 1992, in Los Angeles, California at the age of 85.

The case of Mrs. Burton is undeniably compelling. Criminal acts continue to enthral us, the general public because they address some of the most simplistic questions: Who are, and what has shaped us? What makes us behave in the ways that we do?

If you have any additional information about this story, the DeKalb History Center would love to hear from you! 

By Samantha Mooney 


 Ashworth, Richard. “Mrs. Burton Goes from Prison to Jail.” The Atlanta Constitution, August 8, 1959. Accessed June 6, 2018. ProQuest. Byron, George Gordon Baron. 2001. Don Juan. Argentina: Longseller. 

“China-born Divorcee Denies Stealing.” The South China Morning Post(Hong Kong), February 8, 1958. Accessed June 1, 2018. ProQuest.

The United States. United States Census Bureau. Census of Population and Housing. 2000.

The New York Times. 1958. “Clinic Aide Guilty of Larceny,” February 8, 1958. Accessed May 30, 2018. ProQuest.

“Doctors Fire Accountant Who Trapped Mrs. Burton.” The Atlanta Constitution, June 18, 1958. Accessed June 5, 2018. ProQuest.

“FBI Identifies Woman Sought in Fraud; ‘International Thief’ Likes Pastel Cars.” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 17, 1957. Accessed June 6, 2018. ProQuest.

“Freckles Are Downfall for Wanted Woman.” The Austin Statesman, August 22, 1957. Accessed June 1, 2018. ProQuest.

The South China Morning Post. 1958. “Hongkong-Born Woman Facing Deportation,” May 13, 1958. Accessed June 1, 2018. ProQuest. 

“Mrs. Gray’s Dog Trainer Is Jailed in Connecticut.” The Atlanta Constitution, August 14, 1957. Accessed June 7, 2018. ProQuest. Johnson, Oscar. 1957.

“Mrs. Gray Put Cash in Satchel, Co-Ed Testifies.” The Atlanta Constitution, December 13, 1957. Accessed May 29, 2018. ProQuest.

 Johnson, Oscar. “Decatur Semon Causes a Mistrial for Mrs. Gray.” The Atlanta Constitution, November 17, 1957. Accessed June 5, 2018. ProQuest. 

Keasler, Jake. 1957. “Oh, How She Fooled Them.” St. Louis Dispatch, September 1, 1957, sec. The Everday Magazine. Accessed May 29, 2018. ProQuest. 

McCartney, Keller. “Hunted Mrs. Gray Grey Quits Caravan in N. Carolina.” The Atlanta Constitution, August 2, 1957. Accessed June 5, 2018. ProQuest. 

McCartney, Keller. “Mrs. Gray Seized in Tulsa at Job in Doctors’ Office.” The Atlanta Constitution, August 22, 1957. Accessed June 6, 2018. ProQuest. 

McLemore, Margaret. “Cocker Club Holds a ‘Wake’ to Swap Views on Mrs. Gray.” The Atlanta Constitution, August 22, 1957. Accessed June 6, 2018. ProQuest. 

Moore, Charles. “Candy Slips Away to California.” The Atlanta Constitution, September 2, 1957. Accessed June 6, 2018. ProQuest. 

“Mrs. Burton and Sheila to Face Georgia Trial.” The Austin Statesman, August 24, 1957. Accessed June 5, 2018. ProQuest. 

“Mrs. Burton Gives in to Extradition.” The Atlanta Constitution, September 5, 1959. Accessed June 6, 2018. ProQuest. 

“Mrs. Burton Is Given Deportation Hearing; U.S Referee Expected to Rule in Week.” The Atlanta Constitution, May 22, 1958, Constitution State News Service sec. Accessed June 4, 2018. ProQuest. 

“Mrs. Gray Sits Alone As Yule Comes, Goes.” The Atlanta Constitution, December 26, 1957. Accessed June 1, 2018. ProQuest. Shannon, Margaret.

“Amid Trial’s Hue and Cry- Mrs. Burton Sites, Quietly.” The Atlanta Journal, December 15, 1957. Accessed June 6, 2018. ProQuest. 

State of California. California Death Index, 1940-1997. Sacramento, CA, USA: State of California Department of Health Services, Center for Health Statistics. State of California. 

California Marriage Index, 1960-1985. Microfiche. Center for Health Statistics, California Department of Health Services, Sacramento, California. 

“Theft Trial Halted by Pulpit Comment.” The New York Times (New York City), December 17, 1957. Accessed June 4, 2018. ProQuest. 

“Woman Fleeing Law Called Noted Thief.” Detroit Free Press, August 17, 1957. Accessed June 6, 2018. ProQuest. 

“Woman on Trial in Clinic Theft.” The Arizona Republic (Phoenix), December 9, 1957. Accessed June 4, 2018. ProQuest. 

“Woman on Trial Today on Embezzlement Count.” The Hartford Courant, December 9, 1957. Accessed June 5, 2018. ProQuest.    


In the Kingdom of Dreams and Madness: Clark Ashton’s Druid Hill

“Art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.” – Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor & Park

Clark Ashton remembers the first time he saw him. There was a man who wore the three-piece white suit; he would hang out on the street corner, swinging a gold chain. To a young Ashton, this man was fascinating. The man who fearlessly stood out in the small town of Augusta, Georgia. He was unique, inimitable.

For a new generation, Ashton has become a similar figure, “that strange man over on Druid Hills road.” Each year, for the past twenty-four years, he has sat on a throne in his front yard, waving at local school children who are trapped in morning traffic. He is trying to show kids that it is okay to be different, that people can prosper in alternative lifestyles. In his view, independent thought and action are increasingly important in a highly regimented society. Most people react favourably, but a few laugh or yell. It doesn’t bother him. Ashton believes in what he is doing. Continue reading “In the Kingdom of Dreams and Madness: Clark Ashton’s Druid Hill

Finding a WWII Hero from Decatur, pt 6

By G. Michael Pratt, Ph. D.

Catch Up Here:

Part 6: Robert J. Rogers, Jr., a Decatur Hero

Post war information supplied by the survivors provided the evidence needed for the War Department to change Robert Rogers’ status from MIA to KIA. His parents were officially notified in July 1945 and the Atlanta Constitution published a Death Notice.

Lt. Robert J. Rogers, Army Pilot, Dead
Lieutenant Robert J. Rogers Jr., 26-year old pilot, has been declared dead by the War Department, his parents Mr. And Mrs. Robert J. Rogers Sr., of 204 South McDonough Street, Decatur, have been advised. Lieutenant Rogers had been missing in action over Yugoslavia since April 2, 1944.  A graduate of Decatur Boy’s High School, Lieutenant Rogers enlisted in 1941. He won his wings at Williams Field, Arizona. Besides his parents, survivors include one brother, Flight Officer Lyman L. Rogers, of the Eight Air Force, now home on leave; three sisters, Miss Jane Rogers, a Red Cross staff assistant stationed on Guam; Mrs. C. L. Lee, Decatur; and Mrs. G. R. Essex, Atlanta, and his grandmother, Mrs. Susan Reed Bottenfield, of Decatur.

Atlanta Constitution, 15 July 1945

The War Department also recognized the heroic actions of Lt. Robert Rogers and his personal sacrifice for his men. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in October 1946. The award was presented to his parents in Atlanta by Major General Edward H Brooks, then Deputy Commander of the Seventh Army, in Atlanta on November 14, 1946.[37] 

The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) to Robert J. Rogers (0-735819), Second Lieutenant (Air Corps), U.S. Army Air Forces, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as an Officer of a B-24 Heavy Bomber in the 460th Bombardment Group (H), FIFTEENTH Air Force, while participating in a bombing mission on 2 April 1944, against enemy targets in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. The personal courage and devotion to duty displayed by Second Lieutenant Rogers on this occasion have upheld the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 15th Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.
Headquarters: U.S. Army-Mediterranean Theater of Operations, General Orders No. 68 (1946)  Home Town: Decatur, Georgia

Synopsis of DSC Award to Robert J Rogers, 1946

Following the war, the United States Government launched a global initiative, “The Return of the World War II Dead Program,” to locate aircraft crash sites, comb former battlefields for isolated graves, and disinter temporary military cemeteries around the globe. The U. S. Army created the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) to perform this task. Once remains had been recovered, they were transported to Central Identification Laboratories (CIL), where technicians confirmed or established identifications of more than 280,000 individuals. The identified service members were then buried according to the wishes of their next of kin. The program operated from 1945 to 1951, working until all known leads were exhausted.  Robert Rogers remains were recovered from a military cemetery in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, identified and, following his parent’s wishes, were returned to the United States. He came home in April of 1950 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Section 34, Lot 4189.[40] 

The story of Robert J. Rogers, Jr. is fascinating, but there remain many, many untold stories from those, like Frank W. Rogers, Jr., and Wade D. Pratt who survived the war and returned home to start families, and businesses. They were the forces behind building up our nation and the world in the post-war period. Seventy-five years after VE and VJ Days, that generation and their untold stories are fading away. The DeKalb History Center collects these stories through our oral history program and biographical/genealogical files. If you have a story to tell, please contact us.

By G. Michael Pratt, Ph. D.

Mike Pratt is a DeKalb History Center board member and volunteer. He is a battlefield archeologist and forensic anthropologist who retired to Atlanta in 2016. Formerly Associate Provost and Dean of Miami University’s Regional Campuses in Ohio, Mike spent 28 years as an anthropology faculty member and administrator at Heidelberg University, Tiffin, Ohio. As an archeologist he conducted research and archaeological surveys at the 1794 Fallen Timbers, 1813 River Raisin, 1815 Mackinac Island and 1863 Buffington Island Battlefields. As a forensic anthropologist he was a consultant to the Lucas County, Ohio Coroner for more than 20 years and was a member of DMORT, a federal mass fatality response team. He is a graduate of Case Western Reserve and Miami Universities.

Mike and his wife, Patty, now live in Tucker.

[36] Death Notice, Atlanta Constitution, 15 July 1945. Wilson Family Tree for Robert Jackson Rogers (Ancestry.com)

[37] Major General Brooks, https://www.geni.com/people/Lt-General-Edward-H-Brooks/6000000023806981771

[38] Synopsis of DSC Award to Robert J Rogers, 1946  https://homeofheroes.com/distinguished-service-cross/world-war-ii-distinguished-service-cross-recipients/air-corps-p-s/

[39] Award of DSC to Roger’s Family, The Atlanta Constitution Thursday, November 14, 1946: 4 (Newspapers.com, courtesy of Marissa Howard, DHC.)

[40]History, World War II Accounting, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. https://www.dpaa.mil/Our-Missing/World-War-II/ Arlington National Cemetery Interment Form for Robert J Rogers Jr. April 13, 1950 (Ancestry.com).

Finding a WWII Hero from Decatur, pt 5

By G. Michael Pratt, Ph. D.

This essay will be presented in six installments, publishing Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Catch Up Here:

Part 5: The Survivors’ Stories

Lt. Robert Rogers never made it. At about 500 feet above the ground the aircraft, now “totally eclipsed in flames” broke apart and plunged to the ground in pieces. Co-Pilot Birnsaum and gunners Caldwell, McCreedy, Wills, and Welch observed the crash while floating to the ground. Unseen from the air – by now their squadron was beyond the target area – six crewmen parachuted to the ground and were quickly picked up by German military personnel, probably from the Luftwaffe base that had been their target. Sgts. Robert McCreedy and James Caldwell apparently landed close to the wreckage, or were brought there by their captors. It was not unusual for captured flyers to be taken to the crash site to identify their aircraft and its dead. Sometimes these men were required to bury their fellows and at other times bodies of the aircrew were collected by the Germans or the dead were left behind to be buried by local civilians. (Lt. Birnsaum was not at the site, but gathered information from other crew members while they were together as POW’s.)

Co-Pilot Birnsaum, based on information from McCreedy and Caldwell, later reported that Lt. Sundeen had died on the ground, presumably of his wounds.  It isn’t clear whether or not Lt. Sundeen successfully opened his parachute. They also reported Burns died on the ground, presumably from a combination of injuries incurred inside the aircraft, from being struck by the aircraft as he jumped from the top hatch and from a parachute that failed to fully open.  Caldwell reported that the rest of the crew was “killed in the nose and the flight deck and were burnt very bad.”

Once the survivors were gathered together, all were taken to the Luftwaffe interrogation and transition center known as Dulag Luft, near Frankfurt, Germany.  The interrogation of Allied POW’s at Dulag Luft generally followed provisions outlawing physical violence or torture, but no amount of calculated mental depression, privation, and psychological blackmail was considered excessive. Upon arrival, prisoners were stripped, searched and sometimes issued German coveralls. At other times, they retained the clothing in which they were shot down. All were shut up in solitary confinement cells and denied cigarettes, toilet articles and Red Cross food. Usually the period of confinement lasted four or five days but, occasionally, as a punitive measure a surly POW would be held in the “cooler” for the full 30 days permitted by the Geneva Convention.

Interrogators often used threats and violent language, calling POWs “murderers of children” and threatening them with indefinitely prolonged solitary confinement or starvation rations; unless they would talk. POWs were threatened with death as spies unless they identified themselves as airmen, by revealing technical information on some such subject as radar or air combat tactics. Confinement in unbearably overheated cells and pretended shootings of “buddies” was resorted to in the early days, but intimidation yielded inferior results and the “friendly approach” was eventually considered best by the Germans. Since the survivors of Rogers Rangers were the first crew captured from the new 460th Bomb Group and 763rd Squadron, they were probably subjected to more intense interrogation than the average airman.[33]

Dulag Luft was also a transition camp and from there the POWs were transferred to a regular POW camp for flying personnel, a Stalag Luft.  Lieutenant Stanley Birnsaum and Sgt. Robert McCreedy (and probably the other surviving crewmen) were sent to Stalag Luft 17B near Krems, Austria. This camp opened in 1943 and primarily housed non-commissioned officer aircrew.  How or why Lt. Birnsaum was sent there isn’t clear. They remained imprisoned there until April 8, 1945 when those capable of walking were forced to march 281 miles in 18 days so they could not be freed by advancing U. S. and Russian forces. This group of about 4,000 was liberated on May 3rd by the U. S. 13th Armored Division near Braunau, Austria.  A group of about 200, too ill to march and left in hospitals at Stalag Luft 17-B, were liberated by Russian troops on May 9th.[34] The released POW’s were flown to France and then were evacuated home.

Allied POWs in the open yard of Stalag Luft 17B, barracks visible in the right and rear[35]

End of Part 5

[33] Dulag Luft.  https://www.b24.net/powDulag.htm

[34] Stalag Luft 17B https://www.b24.net/pow/2luft17lg.jpg, Stalag 17-B http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/stalag-17-b/

[35]Stalag Luft 17B https://www.b24.net/pow/2luft17lg.jpg  

Finding a WWII Hero from Decatur, pt 4

By G. Michael Pratt, Ph. D.

This essay will be presented in six installments, publishing Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Catch Up Here:

Part 4: The Forensic Investigation of a crash and the actions of a Hero

“If we ever get hit, I will be the last one to leave the plane”

Lt. Robert Rogers

With the end of the war and the release of American POWs, more information came to light on the events inside the aircraft and the heroism of 2nd Lt. Robert Jackson Rogers, Jr.  Although Rogers and four of his crew were killed in events surrounding the crash; five others survived the explosion and fires, bailed out, and successfully parachuted to the ground.  Following the war, several of them were interviewed and recalled what they saw or heard during the late morning of April 2, 1944.

Lt. Rogers was piloting Rogers Rangers toward their target, the Luftwaffe Airfield at Mostar and flying at 20,000 feet. They were position #3 in the lead element of the lead squadron, the first of the 460th Group (and perhaps the first three aircraft of the entire mission) to approach the target. In the nose turret, Staff Sgt. Johnnie Beaver reported over the aircraft interphone that his nose turret was not working and asked for help in fixing it. Just behind the nose turret in the Navigator-Bombardier compartment, Navigator and 2nd Lt. Baily Stivers reported their position and weather to the crew. Also, in that compartment, 2nd Lt. Joseph Sundeen, Bombardier, was crouched over his top-secret Norden Bombsight, an early calculating and optical device considered the world’s most accurate.  Sundeen’s device would actually take over flying the aircraft in the seconds before the bombs were released.  Behind and slightly above the nose compartment was the flight deck.  2nd Lt. Robert Rogers, Pilot, occupied the left side seat and 2nd Lt. Stanley Birnsaum, Co-Pilot, occupied the right. Both positions had flying controls and the center console and instrument panel contained the throttle and mixture controls for the four engines. Either pilot could have full control of the aircraft. Through an opening between the pilots’ seats was the rear portion of the flight deck, occupied by radio operator James Caldwell and engineer/top turret gunner Charles Burns. The radio operator’s chair, desk and equipment and the flight engineer’s position. The flight engineer now occupied the top turret, standing within a rotating apparatus with his head and shoulders in the plexiglass turret. Aft of this turret, a door to the bomb bay opened into a chamber which featured bomb racks (with their now armed bombs) and a narrow catwalk that permitted crew to cross and enter the rear fuselage through another door. The ball turret (a spherical turret that enclosed the gunner and hung mostly below the aircraft) was aft of the door followed by the “waist” an open area with opposing windows, each armed with a single machine gun. The single waist gunner manned both gun positions.  At the very end of the fuselage, the tail turret, like that in the nose and ball, completely enclosed the gunner. The three gunners in the rear were Wakefield Wills, William Welsh and Robert McCreedy.

Crew locations, Rogers Rangers, April 2, 1944
Beaver (nose turret), Stivers/ Sundeen (front compartment)
                 Rogers/Birnsaum (Flight Deck), Caldwell/Burns (Rear Flight Deck)
                                                         McCreedy/Wills/Welch (rear fuselage)

As the formation began the bomb run, the large bomb bay doors rolled open to allow the bombs to drop. Lt. Rogers reported “Flak” over the interphone and seconds later a 20-pound 88 mm cannon shell burst against the right-side nose area of Rogers Rangers. The concussion of the blast visibly shook the bomber and the crack of the explosion was loud enough to be heard in nearby aircraft.  Blast pressure, whirling steel shrapnel of various sizes and the fire from the explosion seriously damaged the nose and flight deck.  Flak shrapnel ripped into the right engines and wing, which contained fuel tanks, the engine oil system, hydraulic lines, and flight control cables in addition to the numbers 3 and 4 engines. The number 3 engine (inboard) immediately caught fire, followed by the number 4 (outboard). Injured or not, the immediate response of the pilots was to activate the fire extinguishers, cut the fuel and “feather” the propellers (turn the prop blades into the wind to reduce drag and stop them from wind milling on the burning engines). The sudden loss of power caused the trailing bomber to duck under Rogers’ right wing to avoid colliding with him. On half power, Lt. Rogers’ aircraft was now rapidly falling back into his squadron’s formation (NASCAR fans can visualize a front row car in the restart pack suddenly losing speed!) so he maneuvered to the left, outside of the formation, as Lt. Sundeen called out “bombs away.” The bombs were seen to drop in trail, probably representing an emergency release.  As the last bomb fell, the tail gunner of an aircraft that had now passed beyond them saw the number 2 engine (left, inboard) catch fire and shut down.

With only one engine, Rogers Rangers could no longer fly. But if Lt. Rogers and his co-pilot could prevent a stall – when the wings of an aircraft lose “lift” because of too slow airspeed or an aircraft position that interrupts air flow over the wings – they might be able to maintain a controlled descent, giving the crew time to bail out. This appears to be what happened.  As nearby aircraft reported flames visible on the right wing, the top of the fuselage, and in the bomb bay, the aircraft began rapidly descending and making a wide circle to the right before disappearing into clouds below the formation. It later emerged from the clouds while making a part of a second circle before crashing to the ground in a cloud of black smoke.

Inside the aircraft, Lt. Rogers ordered the crew to bail out. First, a word about parachutes. Pilots wore “seat pack” parachutes which were attached to the harness and hung below and behind the waist when standing, but formed the seat padding when in the seat and flying. The other crewmen generally wore a harness in flight with a “chest pack” parachute attached to an aircraft panel near each crewman’s battle station. In an emergency, these crewmen grabbed the parachute chest pack and clipped it to their harness before bailing out. Pilots unfastened their seat belts and then made their way to an escape hatch. Further complicating escape was the altitude; though now rapidly losing height, the formation was at 20,000 feet. Neither the B-17 or B-24 had pressurized crew areas and above 10,000 feet, oxygen masks were required.  At 20,000 feet, a person without a working oxygen mask would be unconscious in minutes and unable to pull the parachute’s ripcord. Air crews received little training on parachutes.

Evacuation of a B-24 D; the B-24H had a third man in a nose turret and only 3 gunners in the rear.[30]

In the nose turret and nose compartment, the turret gunner, navigator, and bombardier could exit via a small hatch near the nosewheel, but all were thought to be killed in the explosion. At some point in the descent, Lt. Sundeen, still alive, managed to escape the aircraft via this hatch. In the rear fuselage, which was not on fire, aerial gunners, Sgts. McCreedy, Welch, and Wills found their normal escape route into the bomb bay blocked by fire but were able to drop through a floor hatch in the rear of the fuselage.

On the flight deck, Rogers himself was badly burned by the explosion and fires and the top turret gunner Sgt. Charles Burns was also injured. The other two flight deck occupants were Co-Pilot, Lt. Stanley Birnsaum and the Radio Operator, Sgt. James Caldwell. Their normal route of escape was via the door to the bomb bay behind the flight deck, but the bomb bay was engulfed in flames. Instead, they climbed through a ceiling hatch designed for use in water landings. The first crewman off the flight deck was probably James Caldwell followed by the injured Charles Burns who received help in fastening his parachute pack from Lt. Rogers. In climbing out through the roof of the burning and diving aircraft, Birnsaum thought Burns hit a propeller or the tail assembly and his parachute was pulled from the pack but did not fully open. His “streaming parachute” was seen by squadron mates in the formation above. It was the only figure they saw exiting the aircraft and several estimated that it had fallen about halfway to the ground when the streamer was seen. Co-pilot Lt. Birnsaum did not have a parachute and Lt. Rogers gave him his and helped to push Birnsaum “from the burning plane as I was unable to get out under my own power.” Birnsaum, the last to exit the flight deck said Robert Rogers was attempting to make a crash landing. He later recalled Lt. Rogers had once told his crew “If we ever get hit, I will be the last one to leave the plane.”[31]

460th Bomb Group B-24 crash (note standing figures at left for scale)[32]

End of Part 4

[30] Normal bail out escape routes, B-24 D.  http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~webermd1/family/Liberator-Info.html

[31] Individual Casualty Questionnaires (Postwar), MACR 3971: 18-32 (Fold3.com)

[32]  460th B.G. crash photo http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~webermd1/family/wwII.html

Finding a WWII Hero from Decatur, pt 3

By G. Michael Pratt, Ph. D.

This essay will be presented in six installments, publishing Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Catch Up Here:

Part 3: The combat history of Lt. Rogers in Rogers Rangers

It still doesn’t seem possible does it? Today was a high price to pay. A hell of a way to earn a living if you ask me.

460th BG and Squadron Diaries

The 460th Bomb Group was activated and flew its first mission from Spinazzola, a U. S. built airfield located in southern Italy.  The first mission, on Sunday, March 19, 1944, was part of “Operation Strangle” a new campaign designed to interdict enemy supply movements by destroying marshalling yards, rail lines, and ports. The 460th BG’s first targets were the “marshalling yard” (a rail hub with many siding tracks where trains could be disassembled, rearranged and formed) and docks at Metkovi, Yugoslavia.  Robert Rogers and his crew were in the  763rd Squadron, one of four squadrons in the 460th Bomb Group.  They flew their first mission on B-24 H, Serial Number 41-28698, which the crew had named Rogers Rangers, a nod to the pilot and likely to the 1940 Film Northwest Passage, starring Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers, leader of the famous ranger group in the French and Indian War.[18] The bombing mission was successful and the group returned with no losses.  The second 460th BG mission, on Thursday, March 30, 1944 targeted the Luftwaffe (German Airforce) airfield at Mostar, Yugoslavia. There is little information on this mission, but Lt. Rogers and his crew did not fly that day.

Spinazzola Airfield, 1944.
The parallel taxiways, top right quadrant, are the hard stands of the 460th B. G.[16]
763rd Squadron 460th Group aircraft marked “5-X”, 1944[17]

Sunday, April 2 was the 460th’s third combat mission and the second for Lt. Rogers and the crew of Rogers’s Rangers. The crews were awakened at 5:00 a.m. for breakfast and then briefings. The target was again a marshalling yard, this time at Brod, Yugoslavia. The four squadrons of aircraft took off, and then spent the usual prolonged period of forming into a squadron, then group formations, and then joining with other 15th Airforce Bomb Groups heading for Yugoslavia.  In-flight issues caused three aircraft to abort, or turn back, before reaching the target.  As the remaining 29 aircraft of the 460th approached Brod, clouds obscured the primary target and so the group was redirected to the bomb the secondary target, the Luftwaffe airfield at Mostar. As they started the “bomb run”, the final approach to the target, Roger’s Rangers and its crew were lost at about 11:30 a.m.[19] 

The World War II Army Airforce, like all bureaucracies, tried to keep accounts of everything. When aircraft crashed or went missing, a MACR (Missing Air Crew Report) was filed. These were classified  until after 1973. My father flew combat missions until the last days of WWII and on the night of May 11-12, 1945, three days after VE Day, he crashed a B-17 while attempting to land in “below minimum” weather conditions. One crew member was killed and the rest were injured, but survived. I had seen photographs taken after the crash, but in the early 1970s, I filed a next of kin request and received portions of the still classified MACR report on his crash. I have since obtained the full 11-page report. I’ve read several other MACRs while seeking information for friends. The MACR for Robert Rogers’ crash is unusually long at 34 pages, because many of the questions raised by the crash could not be answered until after the war when surviving witnesses were debriefed by the Airforce officials.

763rd Squadron Formation, 460th Bomb Group on April 2, 1944[20]

Rogers Rangers was flying in the number 3 position (above). The 763rd Squadron was the Group Lead, and were the first aircraft to approach the target. The formation had turned on the bomb run and were flying at 20,000 feet. Six airmen in nearby aircraft reported what happened next.

  • 2nd Lt. George A. Swazey Jr.  (pilot of the aircraft in position 6) noted that Rogers “lurched” and slipped towards him forcing him to “duck” under Rogers Rangers’ right wing to avoid a collision. Rogers then “broke away to the left” and “dropped his bombs in train.  As his last bombs left, he peeled sharply away and down…I was unable to see his trouble at any time.”
  • Staff Sgt. Clarence Outten (tail gunner on the same aircraft) reported a “crack and blast of flame” from Rogers’ number three engine. “…the aircraft maintained level flight for a few seconds then went into a side dive to the right and passed from my vision.”
  • Staff Sgt. John Dunn (tail gunner on the aircraft in position 1) also reported the number three and four engines (on the right wing) were out first and the ship slipped off to the right, then the number two engine (left inboard) went out. Dunn watched “Roger’s Rangers” fall to the ground and saw one crewman bail out, but reported the parachute did not open.
  • Staff Sgt. Theodore F. Best (right waist window of the aircraft in position 1) saw the ship go “past our tail in a wide circle going down. Number three and four engines were burning and flames were shooting out of the bomb bay. The ship continued its down ward circle and approximately half way down one man bailed out, the chute did not open but just streamed out…”

Two other airmen noted Roger’s aircraft left the formation with fire in the bomb bay, fuselage and left engine or wing. One of these also saw a falling airman with a streaming parachute. The aircraft made a wide descending circle, became invisible in clouds, but later reappearing in a second circle of descent. It was seen to explode upon impact or just before impacting the ground.[21]

The barely visible smoke trail (outlined in yellow) left by the burning Rogers Rangers (inner box)
was captured in this photo taken from another aircraft in the formation. From the MACR. 22

The aircraft had been struck by anti-aircraft fire known to aviators as Flak, an abbreviation from the German term Fliegerabwehrkanone (air-defense cannon). The airfield defenses at Mostar included three heavy and six light Flak positions within 1.5 km of the airfield.[23] The three “heavy” batteries used the highly effective and feared ‘Eighty-Eight’ (in German, Acht-acht), 88 mm cannon.  They were usually grouped into an air-defense battery of four to six cannons assisted by an early computer or early radar fire control system that calculated altitude and speed of the bombers for better firing accuracy. The Eighty-Eight fired a 20-pound explosive shell able to inflict damage sufficient to destroy an aircraft within 30 yards of detonation and inflict serious damage out to 200 yards.  

A four-gun battery firing at night, and loading the “Eighty-Eight.” [24]

The effective ceiling of the 88 mm was 34,770 ft,[25] well above Rogers Rangers 20,000 ft bombing altitude at Mostar. Aircrews feared flak the most. Enemy fighter attacks were fast and devastating, but gunners could shoot back and pilots could take evasive action.  

763rd Squadron, 460th Bomb Group in heavy Flak[26]

Flak first appeared as visible puffs of dirty black or brown smoke ahead of the formation. When the flak barrage was at your altitude and you were coming increasingly closer, an airman watched the puffs begin to show a flame in the center. Then came the rattle of small splinters striking the aircraft and then came nearby explosions with a distinctive, deafening, thump or crack that shook aircraft violently, hurled larger pieces of shrapnel through the aluminum skin and into the vitals of the aircraft, and also its crew. Direct hits blew off engines and entire wings or tore off the nose or tail. Resulting onboard fires were fanned by one-hundred-plus mile per hour winds generated by the airspeed. Since flak batteries were usually sited to protect target areas, the pilots in the bombing formation were unable to take evasive action while lining up on the target and the gunners had nothing to shoot at. The airmen had no defense against flak; they just had to “take it.”

Under attack by Flak, a B-24 falls out of formation with the number 2 engine afire[27]

Fortunately, most flak hits were survivable. During my father’s 28 combat missions, his aircraft were holed by flak fragments at least ten times. Comments from his letters and microfilm of 100th B.G. maintenance records indicate the hits on dad’s aircraft ranged from “a nick in one propeller” to “picked up a few holes” to “serious Anti-Aircraft damage” to a direct hit through the left wing by a dud 88 mm shell. This shell passed outboard of his left outboard engine (No. 1) severing the wingtip fuel tank lines and causing the engine to fail.  His B-17 on this mission, 42-97071 LD-P, Andy’s Dandys, straggled home on three engines, falling far behind the rest of the 100th Bomb Group. Neither my dad or his crew were ever injured by flak splinters.  Following the war, Wade Pratt hunted rabbits and pheasants, but only with a single-shot shotgun. When asked why, he told me “nothing deserves to be shot at like we were by the German flak.”

Lt. Rogers and his crew were the first to be lost from the 460th Bomb Group. The dramatic damage and crash of the bomber and its entire crew weighed heavily on those who completed the mission.

763rd Bombardment Squadron (H).

SUNDAY 2 April 44.

It still doesn’t seem possible does it? Today was a high price to pay. A hell of a way to earn a living if you ask me. Roger’s Rangers they call themselves, all good boys. What an outfit! …The boys are quiet tonight. The usual joking, arguments, even the bitching, have taken a back seat to thoughts of boys we lost today, and wondering what they are cooking up for tomorrow’s mission. Things are getting rough all over.

761st Bombardment Squadron (H).

SUNDAY 2 April 44.

The third mission was flown. Cloudy weather prevented the dropping of the bombs on the primary target and Mostar, the secondary target, was the victim. Of the thirty-two planes scheduled, twenty-nine attacked the target. Heavy flak brought down one of the ships with a direct hit. No losses were sustained by this squadron. Comments began pouring in from all directions as to the effectiveness of flak from the nervous, excited crews. It seems flak has been underestimated.[28]

Historical Records of 460th BG and Squadron Diaries

Within 48 hours of the crash the MACR report process commenced with interviews of crew members on the surrounding aircraft, an inventory of the engine and machine gun serial numbers and an accounting of the crew members known to be involved. As more information surfaced, the form was updated.

First page of MACR form, file 3791[29]

Back in Decatur, the Robert Rogers family, still at 204 South McDonough would have received a telegram from the War Department telling them their oldest son was Missing in Action. It is likely that the Group or Squadron CO, or perhaps the Group’s Chaplin also sent a letter with, perhaps, a little more detail. But there were many details the family could not know; the full extent of their son’s heroism would not be uncovered until after the war.

End of Part 3

(work cited 1-15 on previous posts)

[16] Spinazzola Military Airfield, American Air Museum in Britain http://www.americanairmuseum.com/place/168164

[17] 460th BG photo https://15thaf.org/55th_BW/460th_BG/Aircraft/images/X-large.jpg 

[18] Northwest Passage, 1940 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northwest_Passage_(film)

[19] Historical Records of 460th BG and Squadron Diaries, May 20, 1044: 9, 16. http://15thaf.org/55th_BW/460th_BG/History/PDFs/April%201944.pdf

[20] modified from http://ancientlights.org/images/veterans/image009.jpg

[21]  Adjacent crew reports, MACR #3971, U. S. Army Air Forces: 10-16. https://www.fold3.com/image/1/28619544

[22] Photo from MACR 3791:9  https://www.fold3.com/image/1/28619544