Genealogy is a popular past time for many, and for those who practice it — well, you never know what you’ll find in your “woodpile.” Here’s a story uncovered several years ago.
The Trial of the Century
Most people in our society would remember the “Trial of the Century” or the trial of the 20th century as being the highly publicized trial of O. J. Simpson for the murder of his wife, Nichole, and Ronald Goldman. The actual trial, the events happening before and after the trial were completely televised and reported daily in the print media.
One hundred years earlier North Carolina’s trial of the 19th century had its links to Laurinburg. It also had its links to my great-great uncle, 49-year-old Simeon Conoley who lived near Shannon and my great uncle, 35-year-old Daniel Archibald McDougald of Laurinburg. Uncle Simeon was the victim, and Uncle Dan was the accused.
The trial transcripts were published daily in North Carolina newspapers, and afterward published in a book. From the beginning of the trial until its close, it was the talk in North Carolina.
As the story begins on April 21, 1891 Simeon was living with his mother, Effie Conoley, at her home near Shannon, today known as the community between Red Springs and Lumber Bridge in neighboring Robeson County. Dan was a local and well respected businessman in Laurinburg, a partner in a business known as McDougald and Phillips. He was also the choir director at Laurinburg Presbyterian Church and a very talented actor in many of the local theatre productions at the local opera house.
Simeon, a farmer, was allegedly lured that evening from his home by a man who identified himself as Lum Johnson and who was asking directions to the home of a Mr. Wilkes. Walking several hundred feet with the “stranger” two shots soon rang out from a .38 pistol and entered Simeon’s head. His lifeless, cold body was found the next morning beside the road.
Simeon’s body was buried in Antioch Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Dan McDougald was the first person to throw a shovel of dirt into the grave after the coffin was lowered.
Several suspects were brought in for preliminary hearings held at the Mill Prong House, but all had alibis and were released. As news spread of the crime, a “Negro” came forth and reported seeing Dan McDougald washing up early the next morning at Campbell’s Bridge, and changing clothes. (Campbell’s Bridge is located on the route across the Lumbee River on N.C. 71 that ironically almost 100 years later saw Campbell’s Soup build a production facility just a few hundred yards away.)
By May 1, word began to circulate that Dan McDougald was to be arrested and lynch mob mentality prevailed, the clothes found at Campbell’s Bridge mysteriously disappeared, and Dan McDougald boarded the railroad about 300 yards past the Laurinburg station and disappeared.
Months later he was found by Pinkerton detectives living in Oregon, practicing optometry and using the name “D. H. Laurin.” He was arrested and returned to North Carolina.
Interesting trials often involve many strange twists and stories, and in this particular case there were many, or enough to keep people in North Carolina talking and voicing their opinions.
The trial was held in Fayetteville. Dan McDougald was defended by six attorneys: Maj. John D. Shaw of Rockingham, Col. W. F. French and Capt. W. F. Norment of Lumberton, John D. Shaw, Jr. of Laurinburg, Hon. James C. McRae and John G. Shaw of Fayetteville.
For the State was Solicitor Frank McNeill of Rockingham, Neill Archie McLean and the Hon. Alfred Rowland of Fayetteville, and W. H. Neal, Esq. of Laurinburg.
The trial began November 18, 1891.
The score of initial witnesses for the State were damning against Dan McDougald. He was positively identified as being in Maxton on April 21, arriving by rail, and identified as wearing a duster (a long coat), carrying a valise (a small suitcase) and carrying a bundle or something wrapped in paper. He was clean shaven with only a mustache.
Witnesses also placed him on the train toward Red Springs, where the depot of his alleged final destination was about 8 miles from the Conoley home in Shannon. Numerous witnesses reported seeing a man wearing a duster and carrying a valise walking in the direction of the Conoley house on the afternoon of April 21.
Further testimony by P. G. Graham of Laurinburg reported that he had sold Dan McDougald some lamp black between March 17 and April 15. Dan was know to portray “Negroes” in minstrel shows that he often performed in Laurinburg and Mason’s Cross. Others began to give testimony that was completely contrary to the earlier alibi given by Dan McDougald. He stated that he had taken the train to Wilmington overnight and had returned to Laurinburg on April 22. No one could verify Dan’s alibi, and only offered contradicting sightings on the railroad in Maxton, Shannon, and Campbell’s Bridge.
More witnesses identified a black man, wearing a duster, sporting whiskers in the area on the day of the murder. One witness reported seeing the defendant wearing lamp black on his face and hands, but was obviously a white person. Another witness reported seeing the defendant washing off and changing clothes at Campbell’s Bridge on the early morning of April 22.
Further investigation revealed that Dan McDougald had purchased a $5,000 life insurance policy on the life of his uncle Simeon Conoley from Metropolitan Life. A local druggist even reported that Dan had purchased some candy and strychnine in the previous months and wanted to know how much of the poison was needed for a fatal dosage.
Certainly, the early testimony appeared to paint the defendant squarely in the corner. Dan McDougald’s guilt was unquestionable.
Yet, the defense had not begun.
Dan was a master of disguise and a master of voice changes. He was a very talented actor. Witnesses reported the person they had seen as a white man, a black man, a white man wearing lamp black, with whiskers, with a possible wig, there were various differences in the colors recalled for the duster that was worn, and even different descriptions of the hat that he wore.
Could Dan’s gift of acting and voice be the key?
Simeon’s own bed-ridden mother, Effie, who would live only a few more months after the trial, even could not positively identify her grandson, Dan, as the visitor to their home that evening.
The defense had raised “reasonable doubt.”
On December 1, 1891, the “Trial of the Century” in North Carolina came to a close. Daniel Archibald McDougald walked out of the Cumberland County Courthouse as a free man and returned to Laurinburg.
Several years ago I gave a copy of the trial transcripts to the the late Honorable Henry A. “Sandy” McKinnon of Lumberton and a noted historian, and asked him to read the 198 pages and render his opinion. Sandy did so and reported his legal opinion: “The judge allowed the defense attorneys way too much leeway.” Sandy was a true legal mind and would add nothing else to his opinion of the trial, despite my gentle prodding.
Dan died suddenly in July 1928. The eloquently worded story and obituary of an outstanding local citizen and gentleman graced the front page of The Laurinburg Exchange. Nowhere in the story was mentioned the murder and trial that occurred 37 years earlier.
This episode proved to be a tragedy in the Conoley and McDougald families. Christian Conoley McDougald lost her brother, Simeon, and her son Dan stood accused of the hideous crime.
Whether Dan was guilty or not will always be a question for our families, but until our own days of judgement, all of us in the Conoley/McDougald families knowing about this story will always have some strong personal opinions.
Also notably revealed in the trial is the changes in our legal system since 1891. From the onset of the crime, to the capture of the accused, to the trial and acquittal was 8 months. Truly, our Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial. That was indeed the case in 1891.
Another sign of the times: my great grandfather or Dan’s father, M. A. McDougald was 63 years old at the time of the trial, and was reported as “the elderly, frail father.” Indeed, 63 years old was well past the life expectancy in those days, but he lived for yet another 19 years.
Beacham McDougald is president of McDougald Funeral Home and Crematorium in Laurinburg. He serves as vice chair of the Scotland County Highland Games, on the Scotland County Tourism Development Authority, and is the founder and liaison of the Scotland High School-Oban High School student exchange program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.