The Woman in a Blue Dress

The small town of Mountain City, Tennessee was very quiet after dark, and a late evening in the autumn of 1947 was just like any other. Most businesses were closed, but young people were enjoying malts at the drug store and the movie theater had just started the last showing of the day. The weather had turned cool and there had already been a couple of frosts, typical for the middle of October.

On that particular night, a light rain was falling and gusts of wind were ripping the last fall-tinted leaves from the branches of the big maple trees along Church Street. The fine old houses on that street were set back from the road, and soft lights glowed in their windows as families listened to the radio, relaxing after their busy day.

There was very little traffic, but a black car was moving slowly north along the street, stopping in front of a house belonging to one of the town’s most prominent families. It sat at the curb for a few minutes. One of the rear doors opened and closed and then the car drove away and vanished into the night, leaving a dark shape near the curb. Two high school girls, hurrying through the rain to their homes after having fun with their friends at the drug store, had noticed the car, saw the strange-looking lump at the edge of the street and stopped to investigate. For an instant, the headlights of a passing car illuminated the object. It was the body of a young woman in a lovely blue dress, her eyes open but fixed in the cold stare of death. The screams of the two girls brought people out of their houses and someone called for the police. She had not been shot or stabbed but the coroner did later discover that she had died from drowning.

She was never identified, the black car never found, no clues were discovered and after a few days, the mystery was forgotten.

Mountain City was my hometown and as I was growing up there in the 1970s, I heard about that terrible night from Mrs. Lois Goodman, an elderly woman who often thrilled me with stories of the town’s past, and most of them were mysterious and dramatic.  I was never able to forget that story and every time I walked along Church Street, I looked at the spot where the woman’s body had been found so many years earlier.

In the summer of 1985, when I was hired as a reporter for The Tomahawk, the town’s newspaper, I thought about that strange night and decided to investigate. Mrs. Goodman had died, but I thought there must be other people who remembered the event. I was the paper’s only reporter and my daily schedule was full, but that unsolved mystery was never far from my mind.

I enjoyed working for The Tomahawk. My limited experience as a reporter had been as a feature writer for a mid-size daily in a nearby city during the summers between college terms, and working for small weekly paper was very different. There were only a handful of employees and we became very close, almost like family, and we wore many hats. I not only wrote copy, but often took pictures and developed my own film, answered the phone, helped lay-out the front page and occasionally vacuumed the carpet. Anyone who wants a career in the newspaper business should begin at a small-town weekly, if there are any left.

When I joined the staff, I was responsible for writing features and covering important news events, but another writer was soon hired to handle the news beat, much to my relief, allowing me to focus on the human interest articles which I preferred.

Regrettably, I did not keep a scrapbook during those months and have no copies of the issues, but I do have memories. I remember visiting a snake-handler who lived in a remote area of the county, going with him into the fields as he hunted copperheads. I kept my distance as he’d spot one and deftly grab it quickly by the neck and sling it into a bag. He would later add it to his collection of caged snakes and entertain visitors by letting them wrap around his arms. It terrified me and fascinated me at the same time, and it made for an exciting story.

And I interviewed a musician who had his studio deep in the woods, where he would record mountain ballads and rural melodies which caressed the ears and delighted the soul. He was hoping to land a recording contract, and I hope his dream came true.

Writing an article for the next issue. The computer looks clunky and awkward now, but in 1985 it was State of the Art.

Every time I found myself talking to someone who was over 80, I’d ask if they remembered the body of a young woman being dumped on Church Street on a rainy night in the late 1940s, but no one remembered anything about it. I also talked to an old man who had served as county sheriff in the 1950s, but he didn’t recall the event either. I wasn’t getting any closer to solving the mystery, but those wonderful people did have interesting stories that needed to be told.

I especially like talking to veterans and hearing the harrowing tales of the battlefields of France during World War I and about surviving a torpedo blast near the island of Guam at the peak of World War II. Another veteran told me about going into Berlin just as the war ended and being part of the group that was searching for Hitler himself. Almost all of those men are gone now and I hope their families have kept the newspaper clippings and are passing the stories down to a new generation.

I was learning to be a pretty good reporter, but I also used bad judgment more than once. One day a woman called and begged me not to run the story about her son’s arrest. Because she and my late mother had been good friends, I killed the story, even though the young man’s problem was certainly newsworthy. He had been arrested at a big-city airport carrying an enormous amount of heroine. And another woman called one day and pleaded with me to leave her husband’s name out of a crime story involving a property dispute. The woman’s family had always been very kind to me, and I granted her request. And when the administrator of the local, financially-challenged hospital asked me to write a series of features promoting the institution, offering to pay me $50 per article, I agreed. After the third article was published, I casually mentioned to our editor about picking up my fifty-dollar check, and he turned red with anger. He accused me of prostituting my position and demanded that I not only terminate the agreement, but reimburse the hospital. He then said the only thing preventing him from firing me on the spot was my ignorance and innocence.

“I don’t think you realized the ethical problem,” he said. “Anyone else would be terminated, but I’ll let it slide… this time.”

It wasn’t easy coming up with ideas for feature stories every week, but one of my best ideas was asking schoolchildren to complete the proverbs of Poor Richard. I took a list of the wise sayings penned by Benjamin Franklin, cut off the end of each one and asked the children to write their own conclusions. The results were sometimes wise and always witty. Some examples:

Don’t throw stones at your neighbors… if they are playing baseball.

If your head is wax… don’t scratch it.

Never count your chickens… or they will get angry.

Fish and visitors… are not good friends.

A bird in the hand is worth… a peck on the finger.

He that drinks fast… will eat the glass.

A man without a wife is… able to work all day.

He that speaks much… is a jabbermouth.

Early to bed and early to rise… keeps me from having any fun.

That article was a big hit with the readers. We received many complimentary comments, which helped to repair my damaged relationship with the editor.

In March of 1986, Halley’s Comet re-appeared in the heavens for the first time since 1910. It was a big deal and I decided to find the oldest people in the county and ask if they had seen it 75 years earlier. I recorded their memories, which were fascinating. Ada Grindstaff, a woman in her early 90s who was not well enough to be interviewed, wrote a poem for me instead.

It was just after twilight in nineteen hundred and ten

When Halley’s Comet first appeared and now it’s coming again.

The years have swiftly flown since I was just a kid.

Some watched in amazement while others ran and hid.

We sat out on the lawn until it came in sight.

Some hearts were filled with glee and some were filled with fright.

Twice in a lifetime is such a rare thing.

I’ll not be here next time. I’ll be with the King.

Many friends have gone since it was here before.

They are asleep in Jesus. They’ll be there forever more.

When Halley’s Comet returns again, when it sails across the sky.

I’ll watch it from Heaven, where man will never die.

Those people, in their 80s and 90s, remembered clearly seeing the comet in 1910, but they had no memory of a woman’s body being left on the curb of Church Street. I began to wonder if Mrs. Goodman was just a raconteur, a skilled weaver of tall tales. Had the strange event really happened? I left my job at The Tomahawk in late May and my efforts to research the case ended at the same time. But I could never forget it and I began to form my own version of what had really happened.

I imagined a handsome young man in his early 20s, the son of one of the town’s most well-known families who were known for their elegant dinner parties and social connections. One afternoon he spotted a young woman in a blue dress walking into a drug store on Main Street. He did not know the girl but he followed her inside and watched as she purchased a roll of gauze and some alcohol. He was fascinated by the loveliness of her face and the way her soft brown hair fell in waves, touching the top of her shoulders.

He bumped into her accidentally on purpose, causing the package to fall from her hands. As he picked it up, he smiled and made a joke and was delighted by the sound of her laughter. He tried to engage her in conversation but she was evasive and said she had to hurry back to take care of an ill friend. She got into a black car and drove out of town on the main highway, heading south.

He didn’t know that she was a woman with a dangerous secret. She was what was known at the time as a gun moll. She had a boyfriend, an escaped convict who had robbed a bank in a nearby state and was on the lam. She had driven the get-away car but he had been shot while running out of the bank and jumping into the car as it sped away. The bullet had only grazed his arm, but the wound was deep and needed attention. They had driven all night and had taken refuge in a small house at the edge of town owned by the man’s distant cousin, a farmer who lived alone. The bank robber was good looking, but he was mean and cruel, and although the young woman did not love him, she had been seduced by the promise of money, lots of money.

The handsome young man in town could not stop thinking about the mysterious woman in the blue dress and was excited to spot her again a couple of days later. She was coming out of a grocery store, her arms wrapped around two large bags bulging with food items. She was headed for the same black car parked close by. He rushed to the woman’s car and was waiting there with the door open by the time she got there. She laughed merrily and he asked her to join him at the malt shop for a soda. She said no at first, then changed her mind. Their conversation was light-hearted, and she continued to skillfully sidestep his questions, only telling him that she was from out of town and was taking care of a sick friend. They continued to sit and talk long after the malt glasses were empty. A flirtation slowly became something more serious and she told him she’d be in town again the next day and invited him to meet her at the malt shop around two. She was there, just as she promised. She was there again the day after and the day after that. Before long they were spending time together every afternoon.

One day they picnicked in a pasture but a sudden storm darkened the sky and they had to run to a barn to get out of the rain. It was warm and quiet in the barn and the hay was soft. A clap of thunder scared the girl and she was comforted by the strong arms of the young man. She melted in his embrace and as two cows and a horse watched silently, they made love. She was wearing the same blue dress.

The criminal, who was slowly recovering from the bullet wound, also loved seeing her in that blue dress, but when she got back to the house late that afternoon, the dress was badly wrinkled and he saw wisps of straw in her hair. He had been suspicious of her frequent drives into town and decided to follow her the next day, borrowing his relative’s old farm truck.

He saw her meet a well-dressed young man on a street corner and watched as they walked, arm-in-arm, to a city park where they sat on a bench and kissed. His hands were clinched into fists as he observed the couple, then he followed the young man, learning his name, where he lived and that he was from a wealthy family.

The young woman did not know that her companion in crime was aware of her afternoon trysts, and after a few weeks, she discovered that she was pregnant. She knew the young man in town was the father and when the bank robber saw her crying and gently caressing her stomach, he angrily confronted her. She admitted that yes, she was pregnant, that she was leaving him and running to the baby’s father. The man only laughed at her and violently slapped her face with the back of his hand.

“You can never leave me,” he snarled. “You and me. We’re a team. We’re joined by something more important than love or a bastard baby. I’m all healed now and we’re blowin’ this town, but not before we make one more big score.”

He said he knew all about her rich boyfriend.

“I want you to make yourself look pretty,” he said. “Put on that blue dress. We’re going to his house tonight and ask for money. Tell him that if he doesn’t pay, you’ll accuse him of rape. He’ll pay. He’d be a fool not to, and we’ll be long gone by the time he gets up the nerve to tell anyone.”  

“I won’t do it,” she declared. “I love him and won’t do that to him.”

”Either he pays or you die,” he said, his lips curled in a sneer. “And you know I’ll do it. Come on, baby. Make yourself pretty. We’re gettin’ out of here!”

The girl had another plan.

“Give me an hour,” she told him. “I need to take a bath first.”

He didn’t notice that she took a piece of paper and a pencil with her into the bathroom. As the water ran noisily, she put on the blue dress, scribbled some words on the paper, folded it neatly, wrapped it in a small piece of plastic and tucked it deep inside a pocket. Then she slid into the tub, fully dressed. She sat there for a minute, the water up to her chin, as she allowed a tear to drop into the warm bathwater. Then she slowly exhaled and clenched her fists as her head slipped below the water’s surface. It took all of her courage, but she opened her mouth and breathed in… but instead of air, her lungs filled with water. For a few seconds she fought the powerful urge to leap out of the tub… but then light turned to darkness.

When she didn’t come out of the bathroom the man forced open the door. The noise attracted the attention of the homeowner who came rushing in, demanding to know what was going on. The criminal panicked, grabbed a pistol and fired a bullet into his cousin’s heart. As the man fell backwards onto the carpeted floor, the killer cursed and screamed and pulled the limp body out of the tub.

It was dark by then and a light rain started falling as he carried the woman’s lifeless body to the black car and gently laid it on the backseat. He drove to the house where the young man lived with his parents and dumped the body.

He didn’t know about the note in the pocket.

My name doesn’t matter, but what does matter is that I participated in a crime. I have been helping a criminal to hide out, and he is forcing me to participate in another crime. He will kill me if I don’t. I have nothing to lose. I am taking my own life to prevent a great deal of suffering and unhappiness. May God forgive me.

She also identified her cruel companion.

When the police arrived to examine the body, they put it on a stretcher and loaded it into the back of an ambulance. No one noticed that the little note fell out of the pocket of the blue dress and landed in the gutter. It was swept away by rain water as the lights of the ambulance reflected on the wet street as it pulled away.

The young man and his parents had been out of town that day and got home just as the ambulance disappeared in the distance, swallowed in the darkness of the rainy night.

I’d like to think that it really did happen that way and that an old man is living in the town, still looking for a pretty woman in a blue dress.