It was mid-March and I was in the middle processing a collection of photos from the DeKalb County Board of Health. I love the feeling of the photos in my hand, not to mention the experience of traveling back in time when looking through archival material. The act of putting a collection together in folders and boxes is very satisfying. Organizing is my jam! But the work had to be delayed. COVID-19 hit, we closed the DeKalb History Center, and began working remotely. I never imagined the day, when, as an archivist, I would need to work from home. But it happened. It happened to many of us. I boxed up the photo collection until I could get back to it, grabbed some files and books from the shelf to read from home, and left the archives. That was two months ago. Health in general, health care workers, and the health of DeKalb citizens have been on my mind a lot lately. I find it so ironic that I was processing the Board of Health collection when this pandemic hit us all.
The DeKalb County Board of Health was formed in 1924, with one health officer, a school nurse, a maternal health nurse, and a clerk. It was located in an old house on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Decatur. A new facility in Decatur was completed in the 1950s, with health centers in Doraville, Lynwood Park, Brookhaven, and Scottdale. Services provided included dental work, a school health program, and insect control. DeKalb County was the first county in Georgia with a fluoridated public water supply. In the 1960s, there were 136 employees. By the 1990s, there were many more services under the umbrella of the DeKalb Board of Health. In 2000, the Board of Health had slightly over 500 employees. And in 2020, the DeKalb Board of Health is on the frontlines of COVID-19 care for its citizens. For all the work they are doing, we say “thank you!” And we thank you for the contribution of archival material to the history center. The collection of photos, scrapbooks, newsletters, and more will be available for researchers once we are again open to the public. We look forward to seeing you!
All photos are part the DeKalb Board of Health collection at the DeKalb History Center.
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.
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.
Rebecca Latimer Felton was born on June 10, 1835 in DeKalb County near Decatur, GA, and died January 24, 1930 in Atlanta. She made history in 1922 when she was appointed to be the interim senator after the death of Thomas E. Watson making her the first woman in United States history to serve in the Senate. Unlike most senators who are elected into six-year terms, Felton held the position for only one day. Even though her time in the Senate was short, for a large part of her life, Felton dedicated herself to local and national politics, and was a staunch activist for the temperance movement, women’s suffrage, and prison reform. Her involvement in politics over the years opened doors previously closed to women, and she is an inspiration to many women all over the nation.
Rebecca Felton was raised in a traditional Antebellum southern home. Her father was a plantation and shop owner, and Felton, later in her life, spoke about how her father supported and encouraged her independent and determined spirit. During the mid-nineteenth century, directly before the Civil War, southern women of her status were expected to lead domestic and refined lives, and were not to get involved with affairs outside of the home. Felton remembered that it was the women in that time who typically made anything a family needed such as clothes, shoes, or blankets. Felton was a bit of an anomaly since she was well educated, and received a college degree from Madison Female College in 1852. She met the commencement speaker, Dr. William H. Felton, during her graduation, and the two were married a year later in 1853. During the Civil War, she worked alongside her husband as a nurse for injured soldiers, and the two began a school directly following the war. It was during the time following the Civil War that Felton became involved in politics with her husband.
Dr. William H. Felton ran for Congress in 1874, and Rebecca Latimer Felton was his campaign manager. During this time, it was quite scandalous for a woman to be involved in politics in any capacity, so Rebecca Latimer Felton taking on such a major role in her husband’s campaign brought criticism to them both. Many women actually avoided being seen near campaign rallies fearing criticism from their communities. Despite these social qualms, Dr. Felton won the congressional election, and Rebecca Felton went with him to Washington D.C. to work as his secretary. Moreover, Felton was involved with various social reform movements outside of her work in Dr. Felton’s political career. Being a woman in politics, she was a suffragist, advocating for women’s rights to vote. She was a member of the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association in 1895, and was a correspondent for the National Woman’s Party, advocating for the passage of state suffrage laws with the hope that a federal law would follow suit. Like many suffragists of the time, Felton was also active in the temperance movement, an anti-alcohol movement that preceded prohibition. She was a leader of the Georgia Woman’s Temperance Union beginning in 1886, and led multiple campaigns calling to make prohibition local and state law. Moreover, she advocated for prison reform. She, as well as her husband, believed that the convict lease system, the program that allowed cheap prison labor, was corrupt. She was also involved in the movement that established separate prisons for men and women in 1896. As you can see, even though Rebecca Felton is most known for her one day serving in the United States Senate, her political career and influence expands far beyond that.
On September 16, 1922, Senator Thomas E. Watson died from complications with bronchitis and asthma, leaving a Senate seat open, and in need of a replacement. Governor Thomas William Hardwick of Georgia was given the task of appointing an interim replacement, as they prepare to hold an election for a new senator. He initially asked the late senator’s wife who declined. He then called Rebecca Latimer Felton, who excitedly accepted the interim position. Some were suspicious that Governor Hardwick appointed Felton strategically, since he wanted to run for a Senate seat in the upcoming election, and appointing a woman could gain him the new voting demographic of women. He also did not want to appoint an interim that could possibly defeat him in an election. Rebecca Latimer Felton was sworn into the Senate on November 22, 1922, becoming the first woman to officially hold a seat in the United States Senate. Felton addressed the Senate that day saying that this was a major step forward for American women. She believed that her presence in the Senate would encourage women in upcoming years to run for political office. Judge Walter F. George, was sworn in the next day, taking her place as the newly elected senator for Georgia. Though Felton’s time as Senator was short, she recognized the importance of her brief presence there. From growing up in a time where women were confined to the home to being able to hold political office, Felton said that one of the biggest changes she witnessed through her long life was that of the roles of women, and her role as the first woman Senator is a clear sign of that.
Since her time in office, Rebecca Latimer Felton has become an icon of women’s rights and achievement in Georgia. She was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement Hall of Fame in 1997, having been nominated by DeKalb History Center. She was a pioneer for women’s rights, and political activism not only here in DeKalb County, but for all American women who have since held political office, and made their mark in the world of politics. It is important to honor the legacy of Rebecca Latimer Felton, and to remember all of her accomplishments outside of her time in the United States Senate. Her political career spanned decades, and had tremendous influence over local, state, and national law and politics. Felton was an incredible woman, and residents of DeKalb County should be honored to claim her as one of their own.
Dictionary of Georgia Biography A-J 1, 302-303.
“First Woman Takes Oath as Senator.” Nov. 22, 1922.
Garrett, Franklin M. Atlanta and Environs: A Chronicle of Its People and EventsVolume II. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1954.
Notable American Women1607-1950, A-J, Vol. 1, 606-607.
“Rebecca Latimer Felton, 1835-1930.” Found in DeKalb History Center Archives.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“Gwinnett, DeKalb Need Indians to
Find Lost County Border”. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Jan. 1,
Goff, John H. “The
Sandtown Trail”. Atlanta Historical Bulletin 11, no. 4 (Dec. 1966):
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,
“Tis strange – but true; for truth is always strange,
Stranger than fiction: if it could be told.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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
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“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“