Lillian Knox, once the prime suspect in the staged suicide of her timber tycoon husband, was back in the news on July 15, 1939 following her arrest in Los Angeles on warrants out of Dallas and Shreveport.
The Big D district attorney announced that the notorious “Lady Bountiful,” the nickname bestowed upon Knox by East Texas admirers, would be extradited back to Texas to face seven counts of check forgery. The postal inspector in Shreveport was quick to add that the unlikely fugitive had a date in federal court on charges of mail fraud.
This story began innocently enough at the turn of twentieth century with the arrival in East Texas of Hiram Knox, Sr., who had amassed a $10 million fortune cutting down trees in Wisconsin. The magnate devoted a decade to clearing Polk County of its impressive part of the “piney woods” from the sawmill town he built near Livingston.
Lillian Marshall entered the picture in 1908, when “Colonel” Knox hired her as a private live-nurse for him and his wife. Grace Knox apparently did not benefit from Lillian’s round-the-clock care, as she suddenly up and died the very next year.
Not only did Nurse Lillian keep her job, two years later she married her understanding employer’s son Hiram, Jr. After the death of Colonel Knox from undetermined causes in a Houston hotel room in 1913, the couple inherited the family enterprise and the patriarch’s fat bank account.
At the time of his demise, Hiram, Sr. had been relocating his logging operation to an untouched 25,000-acre tract in Sabine County. Junior and his energetic bride completed the move to a new site outside Hemphill called East Mayfield.
Hiram, Jr. lacked his father’s hard-driving ambition. He was much more interested in hunting and other recreational pursuits of the idle rich than the tedious details of the timber trade. He gladly delegated the day-to-day duties to Lillian, who soon showed she had a head for business and public relations.
Lillian was a hands-on boss at a time when the average workingman could not have imagined taking orders from a woman. In contrast to Hiram, Jr. and his father before him, she got out of the office and in a pair of overalls managed every facet of the business.
Lillian won everybody’s respect including that of the President of the United States. Woodrow Wilson publicly applauded her contribution to the war effort, and a lumberman’s publication saluted her as “one of the most influential women” in the industry.
But it was Lillian’s concern for the men, women and children who lived in East Mayfield, one of the few “company towns” ever seen in Texas, that earned her the nickname “Lady Bountiful.” A 1999 article in the Beaumont Enterprise recounted her charitable good works:
“Lillian built a new hospital” which “she often visited and gave gifts to the patients there, especially new mothers. She built a library, started bank accounts for each newborn infant and endowed a dozen other philanthropies that made employees praise her generosity.”
Hiram, Jr. bet the future of Knox Industries on his belief that the First World War would drag on indefinitely. The armistice that ended the conflict in November 1918 caught him completely by surprise and deeply in debt to the banks, which had loaned him huge sums to buy more timberland. On the brink of default, he sold out to Temple Lumber Company in 1921 for a reported two million dollars.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 22, 1922, the Sabine County sheriff was summoned to the Knox mansion in East Mayfield. He found Hiram, Jr. “sprawled across the bed, a bullet in his head and a 45-caliber pistol in his hand.” Handwritten letters in the dead man’s coat pocket bemoaned his financial fall from grace and health problems.
The way Sheriff George Alford saw it, it was a murder made to look like a suicide. Knox should have had powder burns on his hand and head, and he did not. In addition, the shoe-prints of a man led to and from an open bedroom window.
Sheriff Alford waited until Christmas Day to arrest Lillian Knox for the murder of her husband. She spent ten days in jail before being released on bond. With no hard evidence that she committed the crime and her saintly standing in the community, the grand jury’s decision to no-bill “Lady Bountiful” was a foregone conclusion.
Lillian was in and out of trouble the rest of her long life. In 1937 she along with her four children were questioned in the beating death of the widow of a Dallas oil millionaire. She evidently resorted to writing hot checks whenever she ran short of cash, a bad habit that resulted in a short prison sentence in the 1940s. By all rights, she should have gone to prison a second time in the 1950s, but a sharp lawyer convinced a Chicago jury that she did not steal $53,000 in bonds from a vulnerable old woman.
Lillian Marshall Knox’s last stop was the state hospital south of the “Windy City,” where she succumbed to heart disease in 1966. No one claimed the body, and “Lady Bountiful” was buried at public expense in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Publication date for Bartee’s new book “Unforgettable Texans.” is July 24. Order your autographed copy today by mailing a check for $28.80 to “Bartee Haile,” P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 7739 or order on-line at barteehaile.com.