Learning Early About Marijuana and Murder
Robert G. Cowser
From the time I can recall until I went away to college, I heard my parents and my uncle discuss the local events in the rural community of Northeast Texas where I grew up. In Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen Larry McMurtry mentions the favorite topics of the workers and others of Archer City, Texas, who took breaks at the local Dairy Queen. They talked almost exclusively of current events in their county. This phenomenon also existed in our household when I was a youngster. After I grew up and heard peers mention their childhood experiences, I learned that generally the adults in their families withheld comments about violent crimes and even misdemeanors when the children were present. However, neither of my parents nor my uncle told my younger brother or me to “run along and play” when either of them wanted to report hearsay, even if that rumor involved a citizen breaking the law.
As a pre-schooler, I heard talk about the effects of smoking marijuana twenty-five years before the news media circulated reports concerning the use of marijuana by the hippies and others coming of age in the sixties. In 1936 the teenaged son of a neighbor went to New Mexico to visit relatives. When he returned from Santa Fe bringing a supply of marijuana with him, he brought a supply of marijuana with him.
Not from their own experience but from reports of our neighbor, my older sister and my parents talked about the strange effects of marijuana. They reported that the marijuana smoker spoke of feelings of contentment. Others in the community spoke of the “wild” behavior of our neighbor and his cousin, who, while under the influence, drove about the countryside that summer, the dust from the unpaved roads billowing behind the cousin’s Model A Ford coupe.
I heard talk in our house not only about those who smoked weed in the community but also about murder. One of the first murders that I remember hearing about was the murder of Edgar Poor, a postman in the county seat. Poor was in his forties when he died of arsenic poisoning, according to an autopsy performed by the county coroner.
A week or two later, Poor’s widow was charged with the murder of her husband. The authorities claimed that over a period of weeks Guyeula Poor had laced her husband’s iced tea with small amounts of arsenic that eventually proved fatal.
The murder trial in the county courthouse at Sulphur Springs was the most sensational trial of the decade. It caught the attention of most of the adults in the area, but particularly the attention of my parents and my uncle. They had known Edgar Poor since childhood. They were also acquainted with Guyeula Poor and members of her family. Mrs. Poor inherited a small farm adjacent to my father’s farm.
Roger Poor, the alleged murderer’s son, hired Tom Ramey, a criminal attorney in Sulphur Springs, to defend his mother. Ramey was notorious for getting acquittals or light sentences for accused murderers. The few murder trials conducted in our county during this period hardly ever ended with a conviction. When I was a few years older, I decided that our county would be a good place in which to commit murder if I were ever so inclined because the odds were that I would not be convicted. The fact that I was white gave me better odds, and if I had been female, the chances of being acquitted would have been even greater.
That summer I heard neighbors and family members mention often the hard-working postman who had been poisoned. Much of the information about the upcoming murder trial came from my uncle. A veteran who was wounded in France during World War I, he spent hours every day at one or the other of the two general stores at Greenwood, two miles from our house. Drivers of trucks belonging to wholesale grocers that served the two stores brought information daily from Sulphur Springs.
Like most in the community, my parents and my uncle believed Guyeula Poor was guilty. Of course, they were condemnatory of her heinous act. But after hearing my father and my uncle comment on the case, I detected that they also blamed Edgar Poor for his own death. I could not understand it, nor can I now, but it seemed that they believed because of his docile behavior, Edgar Poor was asking his wife to poison him.
More people in the county wanted to attend Guyeula Poor’s trial than wanted to attend the carnival associated with the annual Old Settlers” Reunion at Sulphur Springs or the annual “protracted” revival at the Baptist Church in Greenwood. In an attempt to get a seat in the small courtroom, some farmers arose earlier than usual. They milked their cows while their wives hurriedly cooked breakfast and then packed a lunch. The lunch was necessary if the couple did not want to skip a meal because if the two were lucky enough to get seats, it was certain someone else would take them if they left the seats at lunchtime. As a child who longed for a chance to sit at the counter at the café and place my order, I felt pity for those who chose to eat a cold lunch rather than a hot, juicy hamburger.
Though my mother hardly ever left me and my brother under anyone else’s care, she asked my uncle and my older sister to watch us while she and my father went to the courthouse. They spent two consecutive days at the trial. I heard my mother tell my uncle that each of the two days when Guyeula Poor was brought into the court room, her hair was disheveled and her dress rumpled. My mother said that the woman being tried for murder gazed vacantly into the distance. The plea that Mr. Ramey offered for his client was “Not guilty, by reason of insanity.”
Several years later when my brother and I were teenagers, we rode to Sulphur Springs with our father, who had business at the Agricultural Stabilization Office. We had an hour or two to kill before the motion picture theater opened at noon. The courthouse had water coolers and public restrooms, so we stopped by after having walked around the square in front of the courthouse. We walked up the marble stairway past the spittoons on the landing to the empty courtroom on the third floor. As I stood there that morning, I could see in my mind’s eye Guyeula Poor without make-up and hair in disarray. She was wearing a beltless crepe dress, just as my mother described her. Her eyes had a vacant stare. I could almost hear Mr. Ramey presenting his argument for the defendant, and I could see the intense expressions on the faces of the jurors, all men, of course, at that time. Women had the right to serve on juries, but in the ‘30s our county’s tradition required that only men would serve.
The jury bought Mr.Ramey’s argument. The judge remanded Guyeula Poor to a state hospital for the insane. Within a few months, she was released from the hospital. A rumor was that, with her son, she left for California in the middle of the night.
Roger Poor, Guyeula’s son, lived in Riverside, California. A few years later, when I was in high school, a story circulated that after she left the state hospital, her son brought his mother to her farm. As I reflect now on the story that circulated, I can imagine a driver and a passenger in a black sedan with California tags turning off County Highway 900 to drive a hundred yards or so to the abandoned farm house on the property. It is a calm, summer evening, and the dew has already formed on the clumps of bluestem grass and the stand of wild mustard in the front yard of the vacant house. The dew is glistening in the starlight, and I imagine I hear the sound of an owl perched in one of the gum trees nearby. It is close to midnight, so the grasshoppers have already begun their concert. For a moment, there is the brief groaning sound an engine sometimes makes immediately after it stops. After a short time I hear Roger Poor saying, “Come on, Mama. We have to go now. We’ll have to head west early tomorrow morning.”
For several years after Guyeula Poor escaped to California, my father rented her farm to use as a pasture for his cows. The rent was lower than normally charged.
Once a year I would see on my father’s desk an envelope postmarked Riverside, California. Mrs. Poor would write my father to inquire whether he wanted to rent the farm for another year. Her handwriting was almost illegible. I associated the almost indecipherable handwriting with the woman’s alleged insanity. How could one expect a disturbed person to write legibly? Or why would a woman who may have felt compelled to look over her shoulder every time she left the house worry about her penmanship?
I wonder if I had not learned in my formative years about our neighbor’s stash of marijuana or Guyeula Poor’s evasion of a conviction whether my curiosity about human behavior would have been whetted as often as it has been since.
Robert G. Cowser was born near Saltillo,Texas, and earned a diploma at the consolidated school there. He earned a Ph.D. in English at Texas Christian University and has taught English at both the high school and college level in Texas, Oklahoma, Connecticut, and Tennessee. He currently teaches college-level courses in a state prison.
Robert G. Cowser