Home Work: The murder of a home economist

The history of home economics has drama. It has heroes. It has injustice—a lot. It even has a murder.

But first: Thanks for your concern over my well-being during Hurricane Ida. I actually moved away from New Orleans earlier this summer and am starting to get settled in Durham, North Carolina. If you’re looking for a place to donate, I like Imagine Waterworks. I hope you and yours are OK too after this storm wreaked havoc across the Gulf and east.

And now on to our true-crime story.

The teenage girls must have been so worried. Their chaperone, the teacher in her 20s who had just so proudly received her graduate teaching certificate, had disappeared.

The group had come to the New Homemakers sectional meeting in Tallahassee, the state capital. For some, it might have been the farthest they’d ever gone from their homes in Marianna, Florida, near the Alabama-Georgia line. At Florida A&M University, wearing official NHA blue and white, they would recite the NHA pledge promoting justice in the nation and peace in the world; present their long-worked-on projects for their badges: talked about the national service project, equip a room at the Tuskegee hospital for polio patients; and discuss final preparations for National NHA Week, starting April 10, 1949. Perhaps they’d seen the capitol. All under the eyes of Miss Mary Frances Spears, their first-year, assistant home economics teacher at the Jackson County Training School, who’d helped them all along the way.

But partway through the conference, on a Monday night, Miss Spears went missing. As did their other chaperone, Mr. Edward Rutledge, supervisor of Black schools for the county.

Soon enough, the students didn’t have to wonder about their teacher’s whereabouts anymore. On Tuesday, April 5, the authorities found Spears, dragged to under a turpentine still off Bellaire road, dead from multiple pistol shots to the head. Mr. Rutledge was nowhere to be found. The girls said their two chaperones had gone for a drive in his 1940 Chevrolet.

The entire conference was shocked, as were the FAMU faculty and students. It made no sense. Spears had grown up in Long Branch, also in the Panhandle, one of 13 children born to Joshua Spears and his wife. At a time when only about 15 percent of Black women graduated from high school and less than 5 percent from college, off Spears had gone proudly to Bethune-Cookman College, which the great educator and founder Mary McLeod Bethune herself still led. She’d graduated with a B.S. in home economics just the year before.

“The slain teacher had an active campus record in college, was a good student and was credited with having a high standard of morals,” the Pittsburgh Courier, a Black paper, reported. Spears belonged to the H.E.M.I. Club and the Zeniths. In her senior yearbook portrait, she has wide-set eyes; she looks away from the camera and wears a string of small pearls, with her hair in a pompadour bob, one of 55 graduates. Spears’ murder would have been devastating to the class, W. E. B. Du Bois’ talented tenth.

The white police were grilling Spears’ suitors, but her community might well have feared the very worst. After all, three years earlier, a group of 20 white men in Walton County, Georgia, had dragged two Black couples from a car and murdered them. Just three months later, four young Black men in Groveland, Florida would be falsely accused of kidnapping and rape; two were murdered, two were sentenced to life in prison.

Rutledge was a married father, a pillar of the community: He co-chaired a Red Cross drive and spoke at small local conferences, the Dothan Eagle reported. He had taught for years before returning to earn his bachelor’s degree. Two weeks later his car turned up 160 miles away in Union Springs, Alabama. Despite a two-state hunt, the trail ran cold.

One year later, a hayseed named J.C. Brown arrived in Erin, Tennessee, a small town in the north of the state, looking for farm work. He seemed pretty stupid. The police arrested him on a vagrancy charge, though they released him without prosecution. He also seemed troubled. In the summer of 1951, someone told the sheriff that Brown had been talking about hanging himself.

The sheriff arrived just in time. Brown was unconscious, but alive. In his pocket was a note saying that he was in fact Edward Rutledge, Florida teacher. He’d killed a woman, another teacher. “The note outlined the facts of the slaying in complete detail,” the Nashville Banner reported on July 28, 1951.

The locals couldn’t get over it. “Brown” had “acted kind of dumb and ignorant,” the Houston County sheriff told the Panama City News-Herald on Aug. 1, 1951. “Nobody around here had an idea he was an educated man.”

When “Brown” came to, he first denied knowing anything, then confessed.

Rutledge described a tragic scene. The two had “accumulated many debts and feared losing their jobs,” the Panama City News-Herald wrote. The clear implication is that they were having an affair. Desperate, they agreed to a suicide pact. After Rutledge shot Spears, he chickened out. But haunted by the fear that police would eventually track him down, he had decided to complete the pact.

“He is sick or something mentally wrong,” the Tennessee sheriff said. The Florida authorities indicted Rutledge on a charge of first-degree murder, and the case disappeared from the papers.

That’s Rutledge’s story, and the white police of 1949 evidently bought it. Knowing what we know now about both racist assumptions and domestic violence, I’m not so sure. Perhaps Spears feared disappointing her family, especially in light of her status as a college graduate. Perhaps she was pregnant. But she was just one year out of college, with her whole life ahead of her. She had a job, and with her bachelor’s degree, greater earning potential than most Black women. How many debts could she have accumulated with Rutledge? How could she have accumulated them? The students said she’d been in her usual good spirits at the conference. Isn’t it at least as likely that she’d spurned Rutledge, whether or not they’d ever had an affair, and he killed her in anger, then fled?

We shall never know.


Book News

Labor Day reading alert: My book, and many others, is half off at Barnes & Noble through Monday. This may well be the cheapest option for a physical book until the paperback comes out next spring. So if you read the library book and now want a copy to keep, or to gift, click on over.


Recipe of the Month

Monday is not only Labor Day but the start of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Apples and honey are among the holiday’s symbolic foods, promising a good and sweet year. That said, I never, over many years, made an apple honey cake that was worth its salt. Until last year, when I Frankensteined two recipes together, we all declared the resulting cake worth eating at any season—dark, dank and spicy—and then I forgot to write down what I did. (Or if I did write it down, I can’t find the notes.) Fortunately, I am still me, despite having really quite the year, and I took one look at the recipes and presumably made the same adjustments I made in 2020.

You’ll be shocked to hear that as usual, this is one of my slapdash affairs.

A note on the apple butter. Really it’s just long-cooked applesauce with some brown sugar. We had gone apple-picking, so I made it from scratch. You don’t have to.

Joan Nathan’s Apple Honey Cake à la DJD

3 c. apple butter or cooked-down applesauce
3/4 c. neutral vegetable oil
3 large eggs
3/4 c. honey, prepared as in step 3 of Samin Nosrat’s Russian Honey Cake recipe
1/4 c. whiskey
2-1/2 c. | 310 g whole-wheat flour
1 t. salt
1-1/2 t. baking soda
3-1/2 t. baking powder
2 t. ground cinnamon
2 t. ground ginger (the pantry spice, not the fresh root)
1/4 t. allspice
1/4 t. cardamom
[all spices are to taste]
Confectioner’s sugar for presentation

Prepare the Bundt pan by either spraying with flour baker’s spray or buttering (margarine for kosher) thickly, then coating with whole-wheat flour.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In one bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. In another bowl, vigorously whisk together eggs, applesauce, honey, oil and whiskey. Whisk in the dry ingredients until smooth. Scrape into prepared pan and bake for 50 to 70 minutes or until the cake is firm to the touch and a tester comes out clean. Cool for 30 minutes, then unmold. Dust with confectioner’s sugar. Optional extra applesauce on the side.


If you’re a lazy bun like me you can skip the separate bowl and simply pile the dry ingredients on top of the mixed wet ingredients, then gently stri the dry together with a fork before you mix together the whole megillah. If you have problems with this approach, email me. You can order my book The Secret History of Home Economics in hardcover, e-book or audiobook. If someone forwarded this email to you, consider subscribing to it here.

Copyright 2021 Danielle Dreilinger/DreiGoods LLC

Loading more posts…