A Feature From Grandfathers Clock Main Page Profiles

Murder In Salisbury 95 Years Ago

Citizens Stunned As Young Katie Adkins Is Killed In Crime Of Passion In 1903

While rolling through the old newspapers in the library in search of some tidbits of history for and essay I was working on, I came upon a story that caught my attention. My undisciplined focus was easy to break so I allowed myself to stray and read about a horrible murder.

A young man, desperate with passion and the rejection by his girl shot her in the head with a borrowed pistol and them attempted the same on himself. While such a crime would hardly be front page news today, the peculiarity of reading the events through the eyes of the newspaper some 95 years later was intriguing enough to cause me to dig deeper and learn more.

Seventeen year old Clarissa Katherine Adkins, known about town as Katie, was being courted by Elmer Heath, eighteen years young and restless. Though Katie’s family objected to their match, her mother eventually consented to a marriage which was to have taken place about the time of the incident if it were not for young Heath’s involvement in a theft.

Curiosity caused me to visit the cemetery behind the Old School Baptist Church in Salisbury. The graves of Miss Adkins and her mother and father are there. Oddly, the murdered young lady’s father died exactly 1 year to the day before her murder.

The following is the text of the newspaper articles covering the murder and the trial of young Heath in the ensuing months.

Wicomico Weekly News Thursday, June 25th, 1903


The Young Couple Were To Have Been Married, And The License Hand Been Secured, But She Broke The Engagement Because He Had Been Charged With Theft Of Money - Heath Sent For Miss Adkins Saturday Night And When She Met Him At The Home Of A Neighbor Took Her Life.

A strange, sand and pathetic story of love, betrothal, and murder is interwoven in the terrible tragedy which happened at the home of Mr. Leon Messick, beyond the New York, Philadelphia & Norfolk station, Saturday night last. From its consequences there is today a new made grave in the Cemetery, a family broken by grief and a young man awaiting the terrible punishment of the law for murder.

More than two years ago, Elmer Heath, a young man of about eighteen years, began paying court to Miss Katie Adkins, a sweet, beautiful young lady who lives on East Church Street, extended. The young couple seemed happy in each others love, and were betrothed a shore while ago. While the young lady’s family objected to the match, the mother finally gave her consent and the marriage was to have taken place last week, the marriage license having been secured from the Court House on June 11th.

The Match Broken Off.

About this time young Heath was accused of having stolen eighty dollars from his employer, and the young lady hearing of the affair, sent for him and told him the marriage could not take place until his name had been cleared of the charge. He immediately returned sixty-four dollars of the money and promised to make the other good. Not withstanding his pleadings, however the young women would not consent to the marriage for some time yet, and Heath, in despair, left Salisbury Sunday night June 14th, for Camden, N.J., to obtain work. Not being satisfied he returned to Salisbury early Saturday morning last and at once wrote a note to his sweetheart, telling her he was again in Salisbury, and wanted to see her. From his report he received an answer to his missive, but he does not tell what it contained. He remained around the vicinity of Miss Adkins’ home all day, and at four o’clock in the afternoon borrowed a revolver form Larry Collins with which (as he says) to kill himself.

Tragedy At The Messick Home.

From the best reports obtainable it seems that Heath and his sweetheart went to the rear of the Messick home, and seated themselves upon a bench in the back yard. What transpired after that no one but the murderer knows, but within a space of fifteen or twenty minutes a revolver shot rang out on the gathering gloom of night and with it’s report the soul of the young girl was ushered in to eternity. Following close upon the first report were four others and when the neighbors rushed to the rear of the house the body of Miss Adkins was found lying on the ground with her feet on the bench. Heath was nowhere to be seen, but a smoking revolver, with five empty chambers, was found within ten feet of the girl’s body. Lifting the body it was taken to the porch a few feet distant but life was extinct. There were two bullet holes through the right temple and death must have been instantaneous. Dr. Dick was summoned and he examined the body and pronounced that life was extinct.

Great Excitement In The Crowd

Great Excitement took charge of the gathering crowd, and search was at once instituted for the murderer, who was found two hundred yards away, fist upon his face on the ground, with two bullet holes in his head. He was taken at once to the jail, and Drs. Slemons, Morris, Dick and Truitt, went to work to bring him around. It was soon discovered that he was not seriously hurt, but the reports of his real condition were somewhat exaggerated, as by this time there had gathered a large crowd of determined friends of the young of the young lady, who were breathing vengeance against the cold blooded murderer. All Saturday night a guard remained at the jail with Sheriff Fooks. Heath rallied by Sunday morning and his wounds were not considered dangerous.

Justice Trader summoned a jury of inquest, who examined the body and turned it over to the family of the deceased.

Scene At The Girls Home

The scene at the home of the murdered girl when her body was taken there was a most pathetic one. Her mother was prostrated with grief, and here brothers and sisters wild with despair. An examination showed that the first bullet had gone straight through the right temple to the left side of the head. The second bullet had glanced upward and was lodged in the forehead. The young lady had a peaceful expression on her face, as if her sweetheart had said something very pleasant just before he sent her soul into eternity.

All day Sunday crowds of people passed the house where the body of pretty Katie Adkins lay cold in death, and more than a hundred people called at the house to view the remains and lend consolation to the bereaved family. The body presented a life like appearance. There was a peaceful expression on the face, and but for the two ugly bullet holes in the temple, one might have imagined the young lady asleep. Miss Adkins was a beautiful blond of fine form and appearance, and of the most kindly disposition. She was a favorite with the girls of her set, and all the men spoke in the highest terms of her. In disrobing the body after being taken home, a breast pin was discovered at the lady’s throat on which was a picture of Heath.

The awful tragedy happened on the first anniversary of the death of the young lady’s father and her body was interred at the same hour and in the same place as his was a year ago.

Young Lady Was Well Connected.

She was a daughter of the late Lambert Adkins and a niece of County Commissioner Elijah J. Adkins and City Councilman Herbert H. Hitch, and a cousin of Prof. William J. Holloway principal of the Salisbury High School. She was a favorite with both men and women. Heath has not borne the very best reputation since his residence here. He is a member of Company I, Maryland National Guard, and was to have attended the encampment at Belair this year.

All night long Saturday night there was a large concourse of people passing around the streets near the jail and it was fearful at one time that something dreadful might happen to the young murderer behind the bars, and but for the fact that he did not regain consciousness until Sunday morning, is thought to have saved him from an awful fate at the hands of the crowds gathered there.

The Murderer Tells His Story.

Heath’s condition was so far improved Sunday morning that several of the prominent citizens were allowed to visit his cell. He however refused to talk to anyone, and upon the advice of the States Attorney, Sheriff Fooks closed the doors to all parties, except the newspaper reporters. The News man had a half hour’s interview with Heath Sunday morning. He was perfectly rational and told his story in a straight forward manner. He said:

"I have been going with Miss Adkins for several years. We both loved each other very much. Several weeks ago we decided to be married, and I asked her mother for her. Mrs. Adkins gave her consent, but asked us to wait a short while before being married. We consented, but later we decided to be married at once, and on June 11th, I got G. Brittingham to get a set of marriage licenses, and we were to be married right away, but my name became mixed up in the stealing of money, and the young lady sent for me and told me that we could not get married until after that matter had been cleared up and my name cleared of the charge.

Being despondent over the breaking off of the match, I left Salisbury Sunday night, June 14th, and went to Camden, N.J., to get work. Arriving there I wrote Katie a letter and forgot to put my house number on it, and immediately wrote her another one, in which I told her I could not live without her. she answered and told me to be sure and behave myself and make a man out of myself. Failing to get work I returned to Salisbury early Saturday morning, June 20.

I wrote her a note Saturday and told her how unhappy I was. I sent the note by a little boy, Thos. Dawson, and received an answer, I told her in this note that I would not be living long and she answered and told me to take care of myself and be a good boy. During the day I became more and more determined to kill myself and about four o’clock I met Larry Collins, a young man who I new very well and asked him to loan me his revolver. He did so and I found it was loaded with five bullets. Shortly after that I went to the pond, intending to kill myself, but my uncle, Mr. Leon Messick, had sent someone to watch me and I had no chance. While down there I shot a dog with one barrel of the pistol, and then I went back to Mr. Joseph Davis store and bought two more cartridges and replaced the empty shell with a new cartridge. I did this because I wanted all five barrels full when I started to shoot myself.

I then went to the house of my uncle Mr. Leon Messick and went around the house to the back porch. I was crying and my uncle’s wife came out to me and said, "Elmer, Katie is on the front porch, do you want to see here?" I said yes. Katie came around there and sat down on the bench on my left side. She put her hand on my shoulder and laid her head against mine and asked me what was the matter. We were both crying and I told her that I would not be living but a short while longer and before I left I wanted to see here. Katie said I should not talk so and we had several minutes conversation in which she told me she loved me and would never marry any other man but me.

I was then crying very hard and so was she. About this time two children of my relatives came around where we were and they were playing. I got up went to the back porch, got some mint candy and gave them and asked them to go away, which they did. About this time my uncle’s wife came around and said that Mrs. Adkins was coming toward the house. Katie said, "let her come, I won’t move". We were then sitting close together, with my left arm around her neck and her right hand on my shoulder. Our faces were close together, my head being partly down on her shoulder. I then told her again that I would not be living in one hour and then said "she wanted to go before I went " and I immediately pulled the pistol from my pocket and shot five times at our heads, without stopping. The first two bullets must have struck Katie, as she loosed her hand from my shoulder and started to fall backwards, but I kept on firing and the other three bullets struck my ear. We both fell from the bench. I threw the pistol in front of me after the shooting and started to run across the yard. I fell and then crawled some distance when I became unconscious. There had never been any quarrel between us. I loved her very much and could not stand being separated from her. I did not start out to kill her. I started out to kill myself and wanted to die in her arms or near her."

Murderer’s Story Is Doubted

Heath would give no other version of the awful affair. When asked what were his thoughts when he borrowed the pistol, he only said to kill himself and if he had not been watched he would have killed himself at the pond and the young lady would now be living.. He said he was perfectly sober, that he was not a drinking man, although he had drank some beer at Wilmington, Friday night, but not enough to make him drunk. His mind seemed to be clear during the interview although he complained of being cold and had several shivering spells.

The story seems to be doubted by a great many persons who are of the opinion that Heath had made every preparation to kill the young lady. It seems that his great anxiety to kill himself was something of a fake, as he had ample time and opportunity to have done so before he met the young lady and he had been so anxious; then again the wounds he inflected upon himself ware of so slight a nature that they almost seem to have been cautiously measured before he shot himself.

Heath Carried To Snow Hill

Sunday towards evening, a considerable crow had gathered in the vicinity of the jail and Court House and as the night grew older the crowd increased and it looked threatening for the prisoner. Sheriff Fooks put the light out in the jail early and all was darkness and quiet inside.. About ten o’clock Mayor Disharoon and Judge Holland held a consultation and it was decided that it would be safer to spirit Heath out of Salisbury and if possible get him in the Snow Hill Jail. A talk was had with Sheriff Fooks and he was instructed to have the prisoner handcuffed and dressed, ready for a moment’s action. At 10:30 the crowd around the jail had somewhat thinned out, the rendezvous having been changed to another section of the city and a double team drove hastily to the jail yard and up to the jail door. The door opened and an object was thrown into the carriage and in less time that it takes to write it the horses were going at a dead run down Division street toward the southern limits of the city . The whole affair was skillfully planned and executed and the removal of the prisoner to Snow Hill no doubt saved him from the ands of Judge Lynch and saved the community from the awful stigma of mob law.

Verdict of Jury Of Inquest

The jury of inquest held a meeting at the office of Wm. A. Trader Monday morning and examined several witnesses in the murder case. The jury consisted of H. L. Brewington, foreman; E.W. Adkins, J. H. Tomlinson, Wm. J. Holloway, Naaman P. Turner, B. T. Callaway, Wm. W. White, Wm. Records, Jackson Matthews, Levin I. Tindall, John H. Spence and Eben Hearn. The witnesses examined were Leon H. Messick, his wife Mrs. Beulah Messick, Mrs. Luther Messick and Mrs. Linwood Messick. The testimony of the four witnesses was substantially the same. The chief witness, Mrs. Beulah Messick, testified that all the above parties were sitting on the front porch of her home, Saturday evening, seven o’clock, when Miss Katie Adkins came to the house and took a seat on the front porch with them. About a half hour later as they were all sitting on the porch, Elmer Heath came to the house, and without addressing any of the company went to the rear of the house. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Messick said she went to the back porch to give a child a drink of water and while there Heath told her he wanted to speak to Katie. Mrs. Messick went to the front porch and remarked to the entire company that Heath has asked to see Katie. Katie at once left the porch and went to the rear of the house. No conversation was heard by those on the front porch between the parties and the first intimation they had of trouble was the reports of the pistol. Immediately after the reports. Leon Messick wen to the rear4 of the house and found that Miss Adkins had been shot. On his return to the front porch Mr. Messick met the three ladies going to the rear of the house and told them what had happened and they all turned back without having seen the body. The witness testified that she visited the home of Katie Adkins about six o’clock Saturday evening but did not see Katie alone. She carried no message form Heath to Katie and Katie did not accompany her home. She said she knew of no arrangement for a meeting between the lovers Saturday night.

After hearing the testimony the jury returned the following verdict. "That on the 20th day of June, 1903 at Salisbury, Md., a certain Elmer Heath feloniously, voluntarily and with malice aforethought, shot with a pistol loaded with powder and ball, inflicting a mortal wound, of which said wound the said Katie Adkins then and there instantly died and the said Elmer Heath feloniously murdered the said Katie Adkins."

Funeral Services Monday Afternoon

Funeral Services over the remains of the murdered girl were attended by hundreds of people Monday afternoon in the O. S. Baptist Church. Elder A. b. Francis officiated. Beautiful floral tributes went by loving friends covered the casket. A choir composed of young lady friends of the deceased sang two hymns, by special request. The pall-bearers were six cousins of the young lady, Marvin Holloway, Frank Adkins, Carroll Adkins, Elmer Adkins, Charles Adkins and Fred Adkins. The remains were interred by the side of her father in the churchyard.

.....and to come .... The trial and sentencing of Elmer Heath

August 1998 Web Page Author George E. Richardson, III