I promised you murder and mayhem.
The principal characters in this story were not close relations of mine — fifth cousins twice removed — but it’s a fascinating story nonetheless, and one which was widely covered in the newspapers of the day. One of the interesting aspects to me is the difference sixty years can make in the development of law and social norms.
First some background: There were six children in the family of Edward D. Garr. They started out in Louisville, where in 1910 Edward owned a dog kennel. By 1920 they had moved to Oldham County, Kentucky, and opened a kennel there. The three boys grew up to become a veterinarian, a farm manager, and a businessman. One girl became a teacher, whose husband was Dean of a college in N.Y. One daughter married a civil engineer. They were no “hillbillies.” The remaining daughter was Verna Elizabeth Garr, one of the victims in this story, who was, herself, a woman of means.
In her senior year of high school, Verna married Barclay Taylor who was just a few years older. By 1930, he was manager of a laundry in LaGrange and they had two daughters. But Verna became a widow in 1931, at the age of 35, when Barclay died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix.
In his book Dinner with D.W. Griffith and Other Memories, Joseph Oglesby writes:
Verna Garr Taylor, a young widow, was considered the prettiest woman in LaGrange. She was also among the wealthiest citizens of that little Kentucky town. She owned the only laundry there and two houses. Her customers included the cadets of the Kentucky Military Institute, which lacked its own laundry . . . . Mrs. Taylor bought her clothes in the best shops in Louisville. She played bridge and drank a cocktail now and then. She was “modern” for her day, running the family business after her husband’s death and living an independent existence.
Enter Brigadier General Henry H. Denhardt. A lawyer, Denhardt served as prosecuting attorney and judge in Warren County, Kentucky. In 1916, he joined General John J. Pershing’s expedition into Mexico, and two years later fought on the western front in World War I, earning commendations for valor and a promotion to lieutenant colonel. Continuing his military career in the Kentucky National Guard, Denhardt attained the rank of brigadier general. He was elected Lieutenant Governor and served from 1923 to 1927, when he unsuccessfully ran for governor, but he remained involved in local politics. On election day in 1930, a political rival shot Denhardt in the back at a polling place. After his recovery, Denhardt served a four-year term as Kentucky’s Adjutant General. When his term ended in 1935, the recently divorced Denhardt retired to his 800-acre farm in Oldham County and began a romantic relationship with Verna Taylor, twenty years his junior.
By the summer of 1936, Verna had accepted a ring from the general and announced their intention to wed. At least one of Verna’s daughters is said to have objected to the match.
On November 6, 1936, Verna and Henry had dinner in Louisville with friends and were to return to LaGrange to chaperone Verna’s daughter at a dance. Verna complained of a headache, called to cancel her appearance at the dance, and asked Henry to take her for a drive to get some fresh air. On Highway 22 in Henry County, at about 9 p.m., the car stalled and Henry drained the battery trying to restart it. At that point, Henry said he wasn’t feeling well, so Verna walked to a filling station, returning with a farmer and his wife who used their car to push the Denhardt vehicle down the road and into their driveway. Another good Samaritan offered to go in search of a new battery.
Several times, the farmer invited the couple inside to wait, but they declined. Then the farmer and his wife heard a gunshot, followed by another sound that may or may not have been a shot. When the farmer went outside to investigate, Denhardt was walking toward the car and remarked on the gunshot. He told the farmer that Verna had gone up the road to look for her glove and he had discovered that the revolver he kept in his glove box was missing.
The man who had gone to get a new battery returned, with a helper and a battery, and they all unsuccessfully searched in the dark for Verna. They installed the new battery, then again went looking. This time Verna was spotted lying 200 yards away in a ditch, shot through the heart, and the General’s gun was about four feet away. The General was said to have remarked, “My, my, ain’t that awful!”
Denhardt was subsequently arrested and charged with Verna’s murder. The prosecution based its case on physical evidence and expert testimony, such it was in 1937. Paraffin tests on the victim’s hands did not show gunshot residue. Experts in the trial testified to finding at least a dozen blood spots on the General’s overcoat and gunshot residue on his right hand. To test blood splatter and other gunshot-related factors, they dressed a hog in fragments of Verna’s dress and slip and shot it.
The two-week trial in New Castle was a hot topic. The book Oldham County: Life at the River’s Edge says that over one thousand people gathered on the courthouse lawn, with entertainment and refreshments being offered. Courier-Journal coverage of the trial included a photograph of the jurors, along with their names, addresses and occupations (!), as well as daily front-page coverage of the proceedings, with maps, diagrams and photographs of reenactments.
Because CNN had not yet come on the scene, people relied on the newspaper to give them detailed descriptions of the drama and its cast of characters.
- Circuit Judge C. C. Marshall was described as the “elderly, blue-eyed, tobacco-chewing … holder of the Twelfth Distrct bench for thirty years, a sturdy, brusque man who loves the Kentucky statutes and laughs at smoking-room jokes [but who has] a rigid sense of judicial decorum and an intense feeling that the dignity of the court must be upheld.”
- General Denhardt sat at the defense table, “a bald, portly, ruddy-jowled veteran of three wars and many a hard-fought Kentucky political tussle … known not only by repute but in person to hundreds of thousands of persons all over Kentucky.”
- Defense attorneys were W. Clarke Otte, “spare-faced, alert-eyed, ascetic of mouth, a man of cool, steely qualities, known in Louisville as a hard-hitting prosecutor; Rodes K. Myers, frowning, hawk-nosed, black-haired, longtime political associate of the General; and John Marshall Berry of New Castle, a gaunt young man with towering forehead and chill green eyes and a gift for salty colloquial phrase as witness his rabbit-hunter’s dictum on prosecutors: ‘They’ll shoot you settin’ when they can.'”
- Prosecutors included “square-jawed Commonwealth’s Attorney H. B. Kinsolving, a short man with pale eyes and high forehead, who has been known to labor to break down a case against accused men he believed innocent, and chubby little Henry County Attorney James Thomas, whose bright button eyes gleam down a great curved blade of a nose, whose round cheeks when freshly shaved are still black with beard, and whose pipsqueaky voice never deals in arguments an average voter couldn’t understand.”
- Hired by the Garr family as special prosecutors were “round-faced, tousle-headed, sharp-eyed J. Wirt Turner, the nearest approach to a political boss Henry County has, who speaks in a considered drawl and smokes a short pipe and is reputed one of the shrewdest rural lawyers in the state” and “tall, soft-voiced, lip-pursing J. Ballard Clark of La Grange, a lawyer who studiously keeps his own counsel behind a smile and a pair of twinkling eyes.”
(All quoted matter from the Courier-Journal.)
On the day the General took the stand, the courtroom was literally standing room only. The crush of the crowd was so great that two women fainted. Denhardt’s defense was that Verna was depressed over her daughters’ objection to their plans to marry and committed suicide. An alternate theory was proposed that an enamored young laundry truck driver was the murderer.
The all-male jury deliberated for two days before reporting to the judge on May 7, 1937, that they were deadlocked 7 to 5 for acquittal. A mistrial was declared and a retrial scheduled for September.
The day before the second trial was scheduled to begin, Denhardt and his legal team were in Shelbyville preparing for trial. After dinner, Denhardt was returning to his rooms at the Armstrong Hotel on the corner of Sixth and Main, when Verna’s three brothers stepped out of a parked car to avenge their sister’s death. Seven shots rang out, striking the General in the head and back and killing him instantly.
E. S. (the veterinarian), Jack (the businessman), and Roy (the farmer) immediately surrendered. Roy said he fired all the shots, but his revolver held only five bullets. The other two bullets were fired by E.S., who was said to be suffering from shell-shock after service in WWI. E. S. was voluntarily committed to a sanitarium, diagnosed manic depressive, and died at the VA Hospital in Lexington two years later of a perforated ulcer.
Within one month of Denhardt’s shooting, the other two Garr brothers, Jack and Roy, went on trial in Shelbyville. Their defense was that they shot in self-defense after seeing Denhardt reach for something in his pocket. But the arguments to the jury focused on “the right to draw” and a family’s right to avenge a wrong. Before the end of the trial, the judge dismissed the charges against Jack, who was not armed that night.
One of Roy Garr’s attorneys pleaded with the jury, “Send that man back home to his sick wife and old mother and the sun will shine bright again in my old Kentucky home.”
After an hour and 15 minutes of deliberation, the jury acquitted Roy Garr.
Roy died at the age of 71, still farming; Jack died at 63 in Clermont County, Ohio, the owner of a dog kennel there.
What Wolf Blitzer wouldn’t give to have been on the beat in Kentucky in 1937!