Hudson Alexander’s Around the Block

HUDSON ALEXANDERUpdated

I’ve said it before, but now I might need to say it again: it never ceases to amaze me at all the comments I continue to get regarding the four-part series I wrote in The Herald last year on the Burge murder trial of 1950. There’s no telling how many emails I’ve received on this subject, not to mention the numerous comments from people around town who still remember the case like it happened yesterday.

To recap the case briefly, for those who are joining the discussion late: back in December 1949, a young Pennsylvania woman’s body was discovered early one morning behind the gymnasium at Franklin High School, back in the days when the school was located off Columbia Avenue. It was a grisly murder scene. The victim’s throat had been cut “from ear to ear”…her head almost completely severed. After an intense probe, police arrested: Bettie Burge, then 60, who operated a notorious boarding house within 100 yards of the crime scene; and her 37-year-old son, Sherman Burge. Officers found bloodstains on the floor in the boarding house, along with several pairs of bloodstained overalls belonging to the son.

What followed, in January 1950, was a four-day trial that proved to be one of the most intense and sensational events ever held in the Circuit Court of Williamson County. Everyday during the trial, the courtroom was packed with curious spectators. In the end, both of the Burges were convicted of first-degree murder and sent to prison. But a co-defendant in the case, who turned state’s evidence, was acquitted on charges of being an accessory to the murder. He testified that Sherman Burge had killed the woman in his mother’s bedroom- and, he said, Burge had then forced him to assist in dumping the victim’s body on the school grounds.

The most recent comments I’ve received about this case — and certainly some the most

Interesting — came during a phone call just last weekend. The voice on the other end of the phone that night was a familiar one. In fact, it was an old friend of my family, going back some 50 years.

“I enjoy your columns in the paper,” she told me. “I really liked the ones you wrote about the Burge murder trial. I remember that real well. But I thought you should know that there’s part of it you got all wrong.”

“Really…what was that?”

“Well…you wrote, in one column, that it was just a myth…and not true…that they’d tried to dump the victim’s body in the incinerator behind the high school — and they DID try to dump her there!”

“How do you know that,” I asked. “There was nothing to indicate that in the trial transcript.”

“No … you’re right. It wasn’t in the transcript,” she said. “But I know it to be a fact. You see…I had a brother who ran a business in town, and the state’s star witness used to hang out down there with him all the time, back in those days. They talked about it. He told my brother, first-hand, that they’d tried desperately to dump her body in the incinerator that morning, but they couldn’t get the door open. So they wound up dumping her up there behind the gym.”

“So why didn’t he say anything about that in court?” I asked. “And why didn’t he mention it to Marshall Morgan, the reporter, when he did his newspaper interview during the trial?”

“My brother said the man was scared to death, and especially after he’d become the star witness for the state. He didn’t want to say any more than he absolutely had to…he wasn’t about to volunteer any more information because he already feared for his life.”

“Oh … and there was one more thing, too,” she said. “He told my brother that the Dean woman, the victim, had been in Franklin — and in the Burge’s boarding house — on several occasions before the night of her murder. She’d showed up before to get money from Bettie Burge, in exchange for her keeping quiet about another murder that Burge had been implicated in a few years earlier.”

At the end of our conversation, there were two thoughts that immediately came to my mind:(1) Although the major players in this case have been deceased for many years, just maybe they didn’t take all the secrets in this case to the grave with them, after all; and
(2) If the door to that incinerator had opened early on that fateful morning, we probably wouldn’t be discussing the case today. You see …with just that slightest twist of fate it could have become, quite possibly, the perfect crime!