SEARCH FOR TRUTH: The Enduring Mystery of the Katie Dewitt James Murder of 1905

The StoryOn July 7, 1905, the woman from Lenora, Katie Dewitt James (1874-July 8, 1905) with her 13 month old daughter, her father had taken her to Custer City to the train and watched them boarded it to go visit her aunt and uncle in Ripley. She had been having marriage problems and was sueing for divorce and custody of the child. On July 25, Dewitt hires Sam Bartell of the Oklahoma Detective Agency. They followed a trail to Clinton and then to Weatherford where they learned a matching the description of Mrs. James had stayed with a Mrs. Fanny Norton, of Clinton, at the residence of Norton's brother-in-law William Moore. The two women were reported to have have left in a buggy for about a three hour trip. It was found "Mrs. Norton," (if it was her) returned the rented livery about four hours later without Mrs. James.
The Subjects
Henry Dewitt, father of Katie
. A look at the 1900 census for Dewey County locates a Henry Dewitt, b. 1844 in Canada who called himself a farmer and next door lives a young woman with a name that looks like "Katie Dewitt", b. 1874 in Iowa, listed as a schoolteacher. Is this Katie Dewitt the woman who marries James? In 1910 he is listed in Beaver County and dies there in 1930.

Fannie or Fanny Bray Ham Norton. In the nearby Custer County is a "Fannie Ham, b. 1872, Tx" listed as a laundress with several children: Roy, Diela, and Lula. Is this "Fannie Ham" the later "Fannie Norton"? Some sources indicate this woman had killed a bartender in Weatherford and had been a prostitute. The grave of the woman who committed suicide in Shawnee while under arrest lists the information for the Fannie Ham on the Custer Country Census.

Martin Luther James, husband of Katie and father of the 13 month old baby girl. In the Dewey Co., OK 1910 census is a “Luther James” with a wife of three years Cynthia and a 6-year-old daughter, Blanche and a 2 year old son. The wife was born in Kansas but the daughter’s information lists that her mother was born in Iowa.

The SearchHer father, who was alarmed his daughter had gone to visit her sister and never arrived, reported her missing, hired a detective, and it is her father, Henry Dewitt of Taloga, Oklahoma, who offers a reward. This may be the Henry Dewitt listed in the Knowles cemetery with a photo on the tombstone.

Bartell reported he hired a buggy and began searching the area where the women went and found a woman matching Norton's description had left a baby at the farm of Peter Bierschied with claims she would return soon for the babe. A boy at the farm said he had seen a woman throw out a bundle of baby clothes wrapped in a blanket.
Bartell retrieved the child and hurried on to find the Norton woman and tracked her down in Shawnee at the home of a butcher, R.T. Patty on east 10th in Shawnee. She told a tale of meeting a wagon, of Katie leaving with a man and her being told to take the wagon back to Weatherford. A report surfaced that two days after her disappearance Katie filed for divorce from her husband. What was the truth?

August 31, 1905, the decomposed body of Katie James was found six miles northeast of Weatherford and one mile north of the Morton schoolhouse. The skeletal remains where found along Deer Creek by local hunters. She had been shot in the head (from behind the right ear), but her head was laying some distance from the body and was still wearing the hat she had been wearing when she disappeared. A gold ring was on one finger. The coroner’s jury declared robbery the motive but what robber would leave a potentially valuable ring?

Investigating the disappearance and the murder was the noted Sam Bartell, now part of the Oklahoma Detective Agency, but one time US Deputy Marshall and OKC constable and Deputy Sheriff.

The SuicideFinally, the detective quickly tracked the wobbly story back to Fannie Bray Ham Norton (1872-July 28, 1905) and finally found her in Shawnee. About to arrest her and take her to Oklahoma City, the woman committed suicide on July 28 by taking poison she had secreted on herself. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Shawnee.

Some investigators in years to come would muse that Mr. Martin Luther James, observably a little distant in the affair, perhaps did not grieve as much as a man in his position might be expected. A follow-up article suggested that the murderer had possibly been with help from Mr. James.

Other articles labeled both victim and alleged killer as "Jezebels” with a history. As women who had tried to kill him earlier. Rumors of possible divorce and perhaps even loss of property and land have been discussed, and caused many to wonder if Norton had been hired to do the dirty work, as their appeared so little motive otherwise. This unusual labeling of the victim and her killer as "Jezebels”, which some have interpreted to mean they were prostitutes, is intriguing but apparently without any evidence. The term comes from an Old Testament story about a corrupt Queen and is simply implies a woman capable of seducing and manipulating for her own ends and not one living as a "whore" or in reference to any woman who did not fulfill social expectations of behavior. This colorful label seems to have emerged in the coroner’s court as the widower James (and possibly Hamm) testified. James is thought to have said his wife had pretended to be invalid and she and the Norton woman (then Mrs. Ham) had tried to kill him.

By September, a bizarre and convoluted story was circulated of some nefarious connection between Katie James and Fannie Norton aka Mrs. Ham (from when she lived near Webb in Dewey County). Mrs. James, it was said, "claimed to be an invalid" and Mr. James charged these two women had schemed and tried to kill him. Both husbands so testified, the coroner ruled case closed because the murderer (Norton) was dead, and that was that. James may have stayed in the area of Weatherford, remarried, and raised his daughter. Mr. Norton, Mr. Ham, and Mr. Dewitt are harder to pin down in subsequent years.

The SuggestionsAn even stranger wrinkle emerged, years later when a man comes forward to claim he had been a young boy when he had seen the buggy with 2 women, followed by 2 men on horseback. He was forced at gunpoint to take part in the incident and chopped the head off the body. While possibly a tale of lies (and the story has no sources), the question remains why was she killed? A mere $25 dollars taken but more valuable a gold ring and lovely hat left on the body? A small amount for robbery and murder.

What are the motives for murder? Revenge and gain are two strong one. Reports indicated that Katie had filed for divorce two days after her disappearance. If their finances were from her and she divorced him then there would be no more money. Was there an insurance policy on Katie? Who owned the land, and who had paid for any real estate, or estate, left by the woman? Was it James, or DeWitt, or someone else? We may never know the full details after more than a century, yet, once, this story gripped the people of Oklahoma as they wondered the fate of the young woman and her small child.

That baby raises other questions. A murder with a crying baby left with a family that might identify the killer? A lot of questions linger. If the tale of the young boy forced to abuse the body are true, just who were the men? Did Luther James have something to do with his wife's death? Was the other man husband to Norton? If she was the schoolteacher from the 1900 census, his declared accusations of her attempted murder, do not seem to mesh with an image of a schoolteacher who lived next door to her father. Where was Katie Dewitt in 1900? When did she marry James? When did she allegedly live near Webb?

Yet, he strangely stayed with the alleged near murderous woman and had a child with her in 1903-04. In fact, the bad influence, Fannie Ham-Norton, comes back into the circle of acquaintances to the point she drives Katie James and child on the last fateful day?

The Summary
The conflicting elements, the allegations, and the nuances of this story suggest there was more, much more to the story. Research into the newspapers of the area, such as the Arapahoe paper cited as the source of the “Jezebel” stories, investigation into inheritance, the alleged murder of the barman in Weatherford by Ham/Norton, and other threads will need to be explored. Perhaps most telling of all is the haunting inscription placed on Katie's grave. It may be merely a bit of forgotten poetry or a father's attempt to lay blame, and its pronoun can be open to many interpretations: " How many hopes he has ended here." Until more is discovered mystery remains,as it always does in the loss of any life, and until that time, the tale retains its ability to raise interest, inspire sympathy, and generate questions as much in 2010 as in 1905.

Sources:Brenner, Susan Woolf. "Dead Woman's Crossing: The Legacy of a Territorial Murder." Chronicles of Oklahoma: Volume LX (Fall 1982). If you can find it in a library (this one frequently is missing from collections).
Dewitt, H. (1844-1940), Find a grave, at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=dewitt&GSby=1844&GSbyrel=in&GSdyrel=in&GSst=38&GScntry=4&GSob=n&GRid=9547925&
Federal United States Census, Dewey County, 1900 and 1910.
James, Katie A. Dewitt (1874-1905), Find a Grave, at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=James&GSfn=Katie&GSbyrel=in&GSdy=1905&GSdyrel=in&GSst=38&GScntry=4&GSob=n&GRid=10619462&. Includes photo of grave and states inscription reads: “How many hopes he ended here.”
Norton, Fannie Bray Ham (1872-1905), Find A Grave, at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=ham&GSbyrel=in&GSdy=1905&GSdyrel=in&GSst=38&GScntry=4&GSob=n&GRid=42469111&
Oklahoma newspaper (1905).

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