Tag Archive for religion

Confession is Good for the Soul

Alma Petty Gatlin

To everything there is a season … a time to keep silence and a time to speak.
~ Ecclesiastes 3:1,7.

One of the most well-known legal privileges — the sanctity of the confessional — is also one of the most misunderstood.
Not only is the privilege not absolute, it is up to the minister to decide whether or not to share a confession in court. In other words, the penitent/defendant has no power under the law to stop a minister from testifying regarding something the “confessee” thought was sacrosanct. In the eyes of the law, there’s no difference between admitting a crime to your bartender and confessing one to a minister.
We are talking, of course, about what secular law allows, not what the tenets of a particular faith require of its clergy. The Catholic Church considers what is said between a priest and penitent to be an inviolable confidence: “It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason…” (Canon 983.1 of the Code of Canon Law). According to Canon Law, a priest should choose death over revealing the contents of a confession.
Most Protestant and some non-Christian religions have rules that may not be as strict as the Catholics because the ability of a person of the cloth to forgive sins varies by faith, but they do discourage clergy from publicly discussing what is shared in confidence.
Some states have statutes or rules in place that do prohibit evidence from religious confessions to be entered into a case. Most of those statutes pertain only to civil lawsuits. The intent is to relieve clergy from having to testify for one side or another in divorce proceedings.

n.b. See: Fred L. Kuhlmann, Communications to Clergymen: When Are They Privileged?, 2 Val. U. L. Rev. 265 (1968) and Frank Columbo, Forgive Us Our Sins: The Inadequacies of the Clergy-Penitent Privilege, 73 NY. U. L. Rev. 225 (1998).

Ignorance of the minister/penitent privilege is one reason why the people of Reidsville, North Carolina, were shocked in September 1927 when news broke that the Rev. Mr. Thomas F. Pardue had shared with Rockingham County and state law enforcement officials the confession of a young woman who admitted she had killed her father with an axe and buried his corpse beneath the family home.
Even though 20-year-old Alma Petty Gatlin freely admitted that she beat Smith T. Petty to death with the axe and locked his body in a trunk until burying it in the cellar, and no one who knew him had much good to say about Petty, it was the traveling evangelist who was always considered the real bad guy in this strange morality play.
The Danville Bee, however, agreed with the court that ruled his testimony admissible and supported the minister, correctly pointing out that the sanctity of the confessional only applies to Catholic priests by virtue of their job:

Some have attempted to draw an analogy between the inhibition imposed on Catholic priests from revealing secrets entrusted them in the confessional, and the position of Pardue. This, however, is countered by the argument that the doctrine of the Catholic church does not apply to Protestant ministers. Pardue was ethical and obeyed the principle of good citizenship in making a difficult decision between things temporal and things spiritual. Then it is also pointed out that the minister would have found himself in an embarrassing, if not a dangerous, position should the murder of Petty have leaked out in after years and had it come to light that Pardue had kept the confession a secret. He would have been regarded in the eyes of the law an accomplice after the fact.

Thomas PardueThe most curious part of this very curious case might just be the cool reception Pardue was given when he went to the authorities to respond to a possible murder. A Reidsville cop named Carroll was the first person told by Pardue of the crime — just a day or so after Alma confessed. He did not seem to be moved by the news, according to Pardue. When the minister went back to see Carroll and asked him what he was going to do, Carroll told him he consulted with his superiors and that “My hands are tied.”
Pardue then went to Greensboro and employed detectives of the Home Detective Bureau. A private dick named Noell was assigned to the case and accompanied Pardue to a meeting with Reidsville Solicitor Porter Graves. Pardue said Solicitor Porter Graves told them to go back to Reidsville and take it up with City Manager Mayberry, who, Pardue says, “refused to have anything to do with the affair.”
Eventually Pardue was able to convince the governor of the seriousness of the crime and he put state authorities on the case. Pardue also leaked his story to the local newspaper and from there it broke wide open.
Alma, a young dental assistant who by then had become the wife of the local fire chief, confessed her crime to Pardue on Mother’s Day 1927 while he was conducting a revival in Reidsville.
“I preached a message one night on ‘the Confession of our Sins,’ Pardue told the Danville Bee in a story that the Bee made abundantly clear was an exclusive. “She, Miss Alma Petty at that time, now Mrs. Eugene Gatlin, came to the altar for prayer with a number of other people and seemed to be right much concerned.
“And when we had dismissed the congregation, she still lingered undecided, and when I questioned her concerning her trouble, telling her the thing that stood in between her and victory to her soul was the thing she needed to confess and make right.”
Pardue’s counseling was enough for Alma, and she asked to speak with him privately.
“She made the statement that she had committed two of the biggest sins in the world,” Pardue continued. “She asked if there was any forgiveness for her.”
Pardue assumed that she had — in his words — “destroyed a child” — and he was not prepared for what she told him.
Mrs. Smith PettyThe murder was particularly violent, but the circumstances were the kind that might resonate with a sympathetic jury. Petty, a 50-year-old unemployed cotton mill overseer, was a mean drunk. He regularly abused his family, particularly his wife (the Register searched without success to find out the name of the poor woman. In dozens of articles about the case she is only referred to as “Mrs. Smith Petty.” She didn’t even have an obit.)
His murder was a long-time coming, Pardue later testified that Alma told him.
For more than two years, the minister said he was told, Alma had it in her mind to kill her father and had waited for a favorable opportunity. Once, the minister quoted the girl as saying, she obtained a pistol with which to kill him but for some reason the opportunity never presented itself.
On the night of December 9, 1927, Smith Petty was in a particularly foul mood. Cold weather had kept the family cooped-up inside their cramped bungalow all day. Smith spent the day with his jug of moonshine and by dinner time he had passed over from being a mean drunk to being an abusive one.
According to Alma, at one point Smith grabbed his wife at the throat and was strangling her; she said he might have killed her if the children had not intervened.
After they did, Smith threatened to “twist off” his daughter’s head “like a bird.”
It was then that Alma decided the home was no longer safe, but the time was not right for murder. Before she went to bed, however, Alma warned her father that she would “get him” for what he had done. She admitted later that she even told him she planned to spit in his face as he died.
Shortly after midnight the next day Alma retrieved the axe from the garage and stored it behind the kitchen door. Then she went to bed with the plan to kill her father after her mother and sister left the house that morning.
The Rev. Pardue told the following story of how Smith Petty died, swearing that this was how it was related to him by Alma:
Smith PettySmith Petty awoke at 7:30 a.m. on December 10 and Alma served him his breakfast of cold cereal and two fried eggs. Undoubtedly feeling a bit peckish from his bout of drinking the night before, Petty was still in a foul mood. He criticized Alma’s cooking and sealed his fate.
Then she stole to the corner of the room, got the axe, raised it above her head and with all of her might gave him a blow on the head from behind, using the blunt end of the tool.
“His head flopped over,” she said. “Then he rolled to the floor and I hit him again.”
Petty knew what was happening, she said.
“Alma, why are you trying to kill me?” the half-conscious bully asked.
The girl dragged her father to the middle of the kitchen, grabbed a length of lead pipe and laid into him again.
“He tried to cry out so I put my hand over his mouth, but he bit me,” she said.
As he lay dying, Alma spoke to him one last time:
“Now do you believe in hell?” she asked. “I told you once that if I could ever see you die I would spit in your face.”
“Alma, pray for me,” were Petty’s last words according to his daughter.
Once Petty was dead Alma stuffed his body into a large trunk, which she dragged a closet. It was this act that led many to speculate that the diminutive woman had not acted alone.
The she went about clearing up the tell-tale signs of violence.
“She told me she was all bloody,” Pardue later testified in court. “There there was blood everywhere. After keeping the body in a trunk in a closet for two days, she became frightened as evidence began to seep through the flooring.”
Then she dug four-foot deep grave in the cellar and dumped Petty’s body into it. Rigor mortis had set in and when officials unearthed his body, Petty was still in the position he had been in when he was placed in the trunk.
The only person who could save Alma Petty Gatlin from prison was Alma herself, and when she took the stand in her own defense, some 800 people were present in the courtroom to hear her testify.
She admitted that she confessed the murder to Pardue, but then stunned the observers by claiming it was all a lie. The real murderer, she said, was her mother. Conveniently, the woman had died between the time that Smith Petty was murdered and Alma was arrested.
“The night before the killng was one of terror,” Alma said dramatically. “Father was insanely drunk and constantly threatening to kill the whole family.”
The next morning was more of the same and when Smith Petty went after Alma with a carving knife, her younger brother grabbed the axe and tried to attack his father. Mrs. Petty took the axe from her son and hit her husband several times in the head, killing him.
The children wanted to go for the police, but Mrs. Petty refused to let them.
“I have always kept things secret and will not start telling them now,” Alma recalled her saying.
The wounds suffered by Smith Petty were not fully explained by Alma’s testimony. They included three fractures: two long cracks across the right side of the head and one in the jaw. Over the left temple there was a round penetrating hole like one would expect if a lead pipe was used as a weapon. On the stand Alma said nothing about her mother using the pipe.
Within days of the murder, Mrs. Petty became ill with pneumonia and also suffered a miscarriage, which Alma blamed on the fatal battle. In fact, she added, it was her mother’s pregnancy that had caused Smith Petty to become enraged in the first place.
“My mother was pregnant. He had told her to get rid of it and he said he wanted no more little rats around the house,” she said from the stand. “He had told my mother he would kill her if she did not get rid of it.”
There was nothing the doctors could do for Mrs. Petty and she died shortly in bed at her home, just a few feet away from where her husband’s body was stored in the closet.
But why, Alma’s defense counsel asked, confess to a murder you did not commit?
“I decided then and there (at the revival) that I would take this thing on me,” she replied. “I could not bear to think of my mother in hell, as she had not been able to confess, though she wanted to.”
Alma’s response made no sense because if her mother was indeed in hell because she died without atoning for her sin, Alma’s confession would make no difference. It’s one thing to take the fall in the here-and-now, but another to try and pull one over on the Almighty.
The state had no answer for the testimony of Alma’s 15-year-old brother, Woodrow, who confirmed her story that it was Mrs. Petty who slew her husband. It took the jury just one hour to acquit Alma Petty Gatlin of murder.
Although Alma had confessed that she committed “two of the biggest sins in the world” — one obviously being the killing of her father — no one ever bothered to determine what the other sin was.
Pardue was in the headlines again in May 1931 when he pleaded guilty to a Prohibition violation. Empty liquor bottles were discovered in his home but the minister professed ignorance of their origin. He was sentenced to serve 8 months on the Forsyth County (N.C.) chain gang.
The sentence was so harsh, the judge said, because Pardue had been preaching and telling people to “go and sin no more.”
“When a preacher falls, it makes a loud noise,” said Judge Thomas Watson.

Took His Life But Saved His Soul


In 1924 Elsie Sweetin got away with murder. Her accomplice/lover, the Rev. Lawrence Hight, wasn’t as lucky.
By her own admission the 32-year-old mother of three gave her coal miner husband, Wilford, three doses of arsenic which had been provided to her by her lover.
“(After) my husband was hurt in the mine Lawrence Hight gave me a paper package which he told me contained poison, and he told me to give some of it to Wilford in anything,” she told authorities after she was arrested. “I gave Wilford, my husband, some chocolate candy in which I had mixed some of the poison. He became very ill but seemed later to grow better and on Tuesday I gave him more poison in oatmeal.
“On him Friday, July 25, I administered the final dose of poison and he grew worse and died July 28, the final dose having been mixed in tomato soup,” she testified. ” Every time Mr. Hight came to the house during Wilford’s illness, he gave me a note of encouragement to give Wilford more poison.”
Before Wilford died the Rev. Hight converted the dying man and after presided at his funeral.
“I saved his soul, friends,” Hight told the congregation. “I sat by his bedside as he lay dying and fought the Good Fight. And I won! It was the best sermon I ever preached,” Hight later told parishioners.
On the way home from the cemetery Hight turned to Sweetin and said: “Well, that’s over. I just wish the rest of the job was off my mind.”
Hight and Sweetin met in the small Illinois 400-person village of Ina when Hight, a circuit-riding Methodist Episcopal minister began preaching at Sweetin’s church.
Soon after he arrived, Hight stopped Mrs. Sweetin in the aisle of the church after a service and professed his love (or at least lust) for her. Sweetin’s marriage to Wilford was troubled and with just a little convincing she was open to new adventures.
“I wanted love and Wilford Sweetin didn’t give me the kind I wanted,” she told reporters. “He was a glacier, cold, no words of affection.”
By contrast Hight, who raised racehorses before finding religion, knew the proper things to say.
“He was our preacher and he told me later that he loved me the moment he saw me,” she continued. “He won my confidence from the start — and later my heart.”
There were several impediments to the couple being together, not the least of which was that they were both married. So Hight came up with the plan that Sweetin would murder her husband and he would kill his wife, Anna.
“It was on another night and again in church that my pastor told me that I belonged to him and that he was mine,” Elsie told reporters after she was arrested. “‘We’ve got to get rid of them,’ he said, ‘We’re going to kill them.’ I ran down the steps and down the road. It was terrible, too terrible to think about. I went home and dropped to my knees and prayed…The more I tried to forget what Hight had said, the more it persisted In my mind.
“And then, it just seemed that I had to do what he told me … It didn’t seem terrible anymore.”
The plan almost worked, but in small towns like Ina there are no secrets.
Wilford Sweetin died first and the doctors simply assumed it was a result of his injuries from the mining accident. Two months later, Anna Hight became ill from what the doctor thought was ptomaine poisoning. However, she failed to improve and on September 12, 1924, she died.
Even before the murders Sweetin and Hight were the subject of gossip. Hight was seen lurking outside Sweetin’s home and signalling to her after Wilford left for work. The fact that the pair spent a great deal of time together before and after church services and even had adjoining cabins at a revival set tongues wagging.
“Elsie just couldn’t see enough of him,” one citizen told a reporter.
It wasn’t long before the town druggist, John Webster, heard the talk and became suspicious. He consulted his poison registry and sure enough, found the entry where Lawrence Hight bought a large amount of arsenic. “To kill rats,” the minister said. Webster went to Sheriff Grant Holcomb and prosecutor Frank G. Thompson, who, six days after Anna was murdered, ordered her body disinterred and autopsied.
The results clearly showed that arsenic, not ptomaine, killed the minister’s wife. An autopsy of Wilford showed the same method of death.
Arrests followed quickly and the Rev. Hight was the first to crack, admitting that he poisoned Anna and gave Sweetin arsenic to kill Wilford.
Elsie was not so fast to crumble and it took an all-night course of the third degree by officials and reporters — along with a plea from Hight to come clean — before she admitted she poisoned her husband. As with so many other cases where lovers murder together, the affection the pair felt toward each other disappeared quickly.
“I gave him a pure heart and I got back a sinful one,” Elsie said. “I was a good woman and now I am bad.”
Anger in Ina toward the couple was so bad that the sheriff was forced to move them out of the county to avoid a lynching.
Since this was the 1920s, the trials happened quickly and each was convicted of the murder of his or her spouse. Among those testifying against Elsie was her father-in-law, who said she had confessed to him in prison.
Because he was deemed the director of the plot, Hight was given a life sentence. Elsie was ordered to serve 35 years.
Hight and Elsie Sweetin disappeared into their respective prison cells until 1927 when the Illinois Supreme Court ordered that Elsie be retried. She had asked to be tried separately from Hight but her motion was denied by the trial court. The state high court ruled that was a reversible error and in September 1927, she went back on trial.
At the second trial Elsie claimed her confession to reporters which proved to be the evidence that convicted her had been coerced. She claimed that “relays of reporters hurled accusations at her,” and that the reporters “became drunker and drunker and more threatening” as the night wore on.
Eventually Hight was brought into her cell, she testified, and urged her to confess.
“Hight told me to confess to anything — anything to get away from the mob he said was waiting for us outside the jail,” she said.
The confession printed by the papers was false, she said. A second confession made to her father-in-law, “Uncle Lum,” was misunderstood. At the end of her testimony she gave the jury an ultimatum: “Either give me death or send me back to my children.”
It took the all-male jury just one ballot to find Elsie not guilty.
Prosecutors sought to have Hight testify to her role in the crimes, but the preacher-turned-prisoner had already adapted to life inside and refused. Prison etiquette prevented him from talking against Elsie.
“I would not have a friend inside if I gave evidence to convict anyone,” he said from the stand.
Reporters said he looked hale and hearty, as if prison life agreed with him. He told them that his only complaint about prison was the food.
“It’s not like home cooked,” he said. “It’s just not seasoned enough.”