Aug. 1—DAVIDSON COUNTY — What are the odds of two daughters from the same family dying of arsenic poisoning in separate incidents, four months apart?
Surely, foul play must've been at hand, right? Surely, the poor girls' mother — who came under a dark cloud of suspicion and actually faced criminal charges — had something to do with this tragedy.
But what if she was innocent? What if her grief was more than just an act? What if, despite the circumstantial evidence that pointed an accusing finger her way, she had nothing to do with her young daughters' death?
What if? What if? What if?
That's the mystery area folks found themselves pondering some 90 years ago, when a Davidson County widow named Lola Pendleton Pickett faced the death penalty in one of the most sensational trials the Triad had ever witnessed.
The questions began in the fall of 1931, with the mysterious death of Elizabeth Pickett, a 6-year-old Lexington girl. Elizabeth died on Sept. 16, following a brief illness that doctors couldn't even diagnose, much less remedy.
The perplexing death heightened the suspicions of Lola's in-laws, who already found it odd when Elizabeth's older sister, 10-year-old Virginia, died four months earlier. And now it was happening again? Under similar circumstances?
The in-laws requested an autopsy, and the county complied.
Two weeks later, a coroner's jury heard from a state chemist who had analyzed the contents of Elizabeth's stomach and found arsenic "in dangerous quantities." Furthermore, a sample of rat poison taken from the Picketts' home contained the same type of arsenic. The jury ruled the child was a victim of arsenic poisoning "administered in a manner unknown to the jury," and recommended her sister's body be exhumed to determine whether she'd been poisoned, too.
Virginia had died on May 3, after a brief illness characterized by the same symptoms Elizabeth had suffered — nausea, vomiting, intense abdominal pain, a severe rash. The High Point Enterprise reported Virginia's autopsy results on Oct. 19: "Both Pickett Girls Died From Arsenic Poisoning."
The article suggested "murder charges against someone" likely would be forthcoming — hinting that the "someone" might be Lola Pickett — but it also included her denial.
"The mother of the children ... steadfastly denies giving them arsenic, or any other poisoning, saying that she loved them and was crushed by their tragic deaths," The Enterprise reported.
Before we go any further, you might be wondering right about now what became of the girls' father, Cleat Pickett. Well, he died in 1926 at the age of 39, and — we know what you're thinking — no, it wasn't arsenic poisoning. His death certificate says he died of typhoid fever.
Back to Lola, though. Despite her denials, she was jailed in mid-November on a first-degree murder charge in Elizabeth's poisoning death. Her photo was published in newspapers across the country, identifying her as the chief suspect in the death of her daughters.
As Lola awaited trial, life in the Davidson County Jail apparently did not suit her. According to newspaper accounts, she battled depression and fainting spells, spent many an hour praying, and claimed she had no appetite. Only when a relative brought her some barbecue sandwiches — this was in Lexington, after all — was she finally able to eat.
On one occasion, Lola was found in the jail's bathtub fully clothed, except for her shoes and stockings.
"I must be losing my mind," she told a jail attendant.
Still, she continued to proclaim her innocence.
Finally, in March 1932 — some four and a half months after Lola's arrest — the case went to trial. Spectators packed the courtroom for what promised to be a dramatic legal showdown, the likes of which probably had never been witnessed in Davidson County.
Day after day, circumstantial evidence mounted against the 40-year-old widow: Lola had purchased arsenic-laced rat poison only days before Elizabeth got sick. And when Elizabeth did become ill, Lola waited until too late before calling a doctor.
After Virginia's death, Lola had taken out an additional insurance policy on Elizabeth.
Several pets in the Pickett household had been poisoned to death, as had two cats belonging to a neighbor.
Since her husband's death, Lola had been seen with a parade of, um, shady men unbefitting the character of a widowed mother.
The pressure weighed visibly on Lola. During a break in the testimony, she complained to a reporter, "I am being treated unjustly. To lose my children is bad enough — to have this terrible accusation adds to my sorrow and troubles."
The trial's most dramatic moments occurred when Lola took the stand in her own defense, answering questions between her sobs. When asked point-blank whether she had killed her daughter, she turned feisty.
"I absolutely did not," she vowed. "I loved her, and I did my duty to her. God is my judge — He knows."
Lola answered the accusations as best as she could: She'd bought rat poison because her house had rats. She'd taken out more insurance on Elizabeth at the insistence of other relatives. She hadn't called the doctor right away because she hadn't realized how sick Elizabeth was.
Several witnesses testified to Lola's good character, including her son, James, who said his mother had always treated his sisters kindly.
When jurors finally got the case, their deliberations lasted only an hour. Whatever they had decided, there apparently hadn't been any disagreement.
"Not guilty," the jury foreman read.
Lola threw her hands in the air and shouted, "I knew God was with me!" She hugged her attorney. Supporters clapped and cheered until the judge shushed them with his gavel.
Nearly a century later, we can only wonder ... if Lola Pickett didn't poison her two daughters, who did? Did someone else lace their food with arsenic? Did the girls accidentally ingest the rat poison their mother had put out to kill rats? A 6-year-old might conceivably do that, but probably not a 10-year-old.
So if Lola wasn't guilty, who was?
Sadly, that question still hasn't been answered — and presumably never will be.
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