Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Murder in Woodstock: The Facts Behind The Legend

In the January 2, 1981 issue of The Virginia Beach Beacon, writer Melinda Forbes recounts the story of a murdered man and buried treasure as told by a Woodstock resident. The article evokes all the wonder and speculation one would expect when someone from your own neighborhood is murdered for buried treasure; especially when that buried treasure is never found! This story is made all the more interesting when you consider (a) the story is reported to date back to the 19th century, and (b) it is still being told by neighbors to this very day. I've been pursuing some neighborhood research of my own since moving here; but some details from the newspaper version of the story don't line up with what I have come to learn about the neighborhood. Not wanting to leave loose ends untied, I pursued the case a bit, and have some corrections to the legend.

See the original article here: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3

1) The story is not from the 19th century; it is from the night of December 18, 1930, when James T. Howe, 64, was murdered by Ollie Dawson, 40, and an accomplice in his home on what is now Woodgrove Lane. You might even say the story began on November 29, 1922 when Mr. Howe purchased several acres of land immediately south of Pinehurst Point from John A. Anderson, and built a house. In April of the following year, Mr. Howe purchased an adjoining parcel of land that extended south to the northern edge of Woodstock Cove park. The entire estate is now the Woodstock Cove subdivision.

2) Mr. Howe was from Boston, Massachussetts; not New York. He is descended from a wealthy New Haven, Connecticut family.

3) It is not likely that Mr. Howe had a wife or a daughter. He was described in news articles from the time as "a hunter, trapper, student and semi-recluse" but also a well-educated and wealthy man. A genealogical database search reveals no marriage or descendants. He did not have a will at the time of his death, so his property passed to his nearest relative; his sister, Martha Howe Woods.

4) Mr. Howe probably built only the two room house mentioned in the article; not the larger one for his alleged wife and daughter. A two room house would be sufficient for a single man; and if the wife and daughter are apocryphal, the larger house is probably apocryphal, too. The two room house was expanded by its subsequent owner, Walter Harrison, who purchased the property from Mr. Howe's sister in 1934 and owned the land until 1951. The expanded house is pictured in the Beacon article, but burned down several years after the article was written.

5) The man convicted of the crime, Ollie Dawson (aka Dorson) was executed in Richmond by electric chair on February 13, 1931. It is a bit startling to note how quickly capital punishment was carried out back then, compared to now: less than 60 days from crime to execution.

6) Mr. Dawson confessed to another murder in South Norfolk, but denied shooting Mr. Howe to the very end. He insisted that a partner was the trigger man. He also claimed that he and his partner were enlisted by a white man from Norfolk (Mr. Dawson was black) to murder Howe, and was given heroin to help him along should he have second thoughts about the job.

7) There is support for the claim that Mr. Dawson was found wearing Mr. Howe's hat, but it was not in bed -- it was during the trial. The hat was identified in court by a friend of Howe's, and it contained Howe's partial monogram on the inside. Also in Mr. Dawson's posession at the time of the arrest were Mr. Howe's gun, coat, gloves, and his coin money.

8) Mr. Howe was from Massachussetts, and had family roots in Connecticut, but he never left Kempsville: he is buried at Emmanuel Episcopal Church:

(scroll to the bottom of the web page)

9) None of the newspaper articles from the period mention buried treasure, though Mr. Howe's wealth and personal eccentricity would be consistent with buried treasure. It does make one wonder...


"Mystery of buried treasure in secluded Woodstock" by Melinda Forbes. The Virgnia Beach Beacon, January 2, 1981 pp. 1-3

"Held for death of recluse, blames pal" The Norwalk Hour, December 20, 1930

"Career of crime is revealed by arrest" New Journal and Guide (1916-2003) [Norfolk, Va] December 27, 1930 p. 1

"Dawson's new year may not be so happy at all" New Journal and Guide (1916-2003) [Norfolk, Va] January 3, 1931 p. 1

"Police investigating Dawson's allegations" New Journal and Guide (1916-2003) [Norfolk, Va] February 14, 1931 p. A1

Deed Book 114 page 236, Virginia Beach Circuit Court Building 11/29/1922

Deed Book 115 page 391, Virginia Beach Circuit Court Building 4/28/1923

Deed Book 175 page 25, Virginia Beach Circuit Court Building 4/23/1934


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