GREENVILLE — Exactly 115 years ago today, the Greenville Evening Banner reported what is perhaps the biggest scandal in Greenville’s history: the mysterious, late-night deaths of millionaire Thomas H. King along with two women in a cattle pond.
King, Greenville’s wealthiest resident who made a fortune in banking and cattle operations, was one of four people who went swimming the night of June 16, 1897. Three of them ended up dead, and the lone survivor was never prosecuted.
In a truly bizarre coincidence, Greenville resident Pud Kearns, with the help of local historian Carol Taylor, was sorting through some old family papers this past week — just days before the actual June 16 anniversary of the tragedy — when she came across a folder labeled “Desserts.” Inside the folder Kearns found a fragile, folded copy of an edition of the Evening Banner which had probably been saved by her great-grandmother.
Kearns was amazed when Taylor, on closer examination of the newspaper, said, “Look at this headline.”
The paper was dated June 17, 1897, and the headline said, “Three Tragic Deaths, T.H. King, Miss Kate Austin and Miss Schenck Drowned, Were Bathing in Mr. King’s Pool. Their Bodies Recovered and Brought to the City.”
A Greenville native, Kearns was familiar with the King mystery and could hardly believe her good fortune in finding an original copy of the news story. The 115-year-old newspaper’s account sheds new light on a puzzle that remains unsolved to this day.
The news story’s lead sentence reported the drowning, adding it “has been the sole topic of conversation on the streets today.”
Gossip is probably a more accurate description of the talk around town. Rumor had it that Kate Austin was King’s mistress and that she was pregnant with his child. He had installed her in a small cottage on Washington Street, directly across from the large home he occupied with his wife and three children. Austin had come to Greenville with few resources, but at the time of her death she owned a considerable amount of real estate, presumably given to her by her lover.
In sworn testimony, Fred Norsworthy, who was the loan officer of King’s First National Bank, later said he had accompanied his employer out to a pasture on property owned by King, northwest of Greenville. “By chance” they met Kate Austin and her friend, Ida Schenck, who had driven out in Kate’s buggy. About 9:30 or 10 p.m., the foursome decided to undress, get into their bathing clothes and take a dip in the pond. Neither of the women could swim.
According to the newspaper account, Norsworthy said, “I led Miss Schenck into the water about four feet deep and Mr. King and Miss Kate also went into the water together ... Mr. King and Miss Kate turned in a northerly direction towards deep water, and Miss Schenck and myself turned a little south where the water was not so deep. We were all talking and playing in the water when all at once my attention was attracted by Mr. King calling ‘Fred! Fred!’ ... They were both out in deep water and Mr. King had both hands upraised and was making motions as if trying to swim, and at the same time Miss Kate appeared to be holding to Mr. King’s shoulders.”
Norsworthy claimed he was unable to save them or Miss Schenck, who had apparently followed him into deep water.
King’s body was brought back to his home over Mrs. King’s objections until friends counseled her to “think of the children” and allow the funeral to be conducted there, Kearns said. A funeral in a family home was commonplace in that era.
Kearns said her great-grandmother, Lallie Briscoe, sat upstairs with Mrs. King who refused to come down for the funeral service. Kearns’ great-grandfather, Ephraim Briscoe, was present at the funeral downstairs and reported to his family that during the service the preacher said “if ever a man was going to burn in hell, it was Tom King.”
King was buried in East Mount Cemetery in Greenville, and Kate Austin’s body was sent to Orrick, Mo., where she was buried beside her mother. Ida Schenck’s body was sent back to her family in Sherman.