Humanitarian or Murderer?
An 85-year-old murder that still hangs unsolved in East Texas.
In 1922, Lillian Marshall Knox ran one of the largest East Texas Lumber companies of the time that she was basically famous for. Mrs. Knox died in 1966 with several tragedies attached to her name such as five tragic deaths, forgeries, confidence schemes, a prison term and a scattered family.
In 1922, the New York Times reported that her husband, Hiram Knox, was found dead in his bed.
Lillian Knox told reporters and investigators that she heard a shot at about 3:30 a.m. Nov. 26, 1922, in the family’s home in Hemphill and when Lillian and her sister rushed into the room, they found Hiram dead. He had a bullet wound in his head and a pistol in his right hand, which was laying across his chest.
Ensuing newspaper reports hinted at a powerful car speeding away from the Knox home shortly after the shooting.
Lillian made it look like a suicide, but after investigation, the authorities found that Mrs. Lillian had been the murderer. Letters were found in Hiram’s pocket that seemed to indicate he was depressed about ill health and financial reversals.
The Sabine County Sheriff found an open window and the footprint of a male. What the sheriff didn’t find was also notable: No powder burns on Hiram’s hands or head. The sheriff suspected the new widow almost immediately.
Ten days after Hiram’s death Judge Pratt determined the manner of death was murder.
Sheriff George Alford charged “Lady Bountiful” — a nickname she earned because of her lavish spending — with the murder of her husband but she got out of it.
District Attorney F.R. Adams told the NYT, “There will be other arrests.” But it doesn’t appear there were.
The Orange Daily Leader quoted County Attorney P.B. Hamilton (or possibly L.B. Hamilton) as saying the car had been traced to San Augustine — 25 miles from the Knox home.
Letters had been found on Hiram’s body, but investigators questioned their authenticity.
Prosecutors also claimed that Hiram and Lillian Knox used the same “stenographic” style of writing, and it was very difficult to distinguish between their correspondence.
Judge S. H. Mantooth of Lufkin, a friend to both the deceased and his wife, was expected to be called as a witness.
However, a grand jury refused to indict her. She then left her company.
Hiram had been one of the wealthiest men in the timber industry.
He inherited an estate worth about $10 million.
The source of that wealth was his grandfather, Col. William Hiram Knox, who earned an estimated $10 million operating sawmills in Wisconsin.
Hiram Knox Sr., inherited the company but eventually retired to Texarkana to supervise his retail lumberyards.
When the patriarch became ill, he hired a young nurse Lillian Marshall to care for him. A year later the nurse married his son.
In 1902, Hiram Sr. bought two large tracts of timberland in Polk and Sabine counties, deciding to buzz back into the sawmill business.
They built a community, also named Knox, near present-day Soda. By 1912, the mill had exhausted its supply of accessible timber and Hiram Sr was preparing to move to Sabine County when he suddenly died.
Hiram Jr and Lillian completed the move, building a new community called East Mayfield, near Hemphill.
Lillian endeared herself to the sawmill families, building a new hospital and library. She presented gifts to all the patients in the hospital, especially the new mothers. She started bank accounts for each newborn infant and endowed about a dozen other philanthropic measures.
When Lillian decided the town needed a railroad to cover the 12 miles between Hemphill and Bronson, her husband told her to “built it yourself!”
So she bossed the construction crew, often wearing overalls.
The Knoxes were lavish spenders. At Christmas she gave presents to all the children in Hemphill and the company’s nearby sawmill town, East Mayfield.
What Hiram didn’t inherit was ambition. He preferred to spend his time hunting. Lillian ran the timber empire, taking on the general manager role.
She built the Bronson & Hemphill Railroad. She frequently brought theatrical troupes to town to entertain employees.
She also managed a retail lumber yard in Mission, Texas.
The Houston Post covered a tribute to Knox on June 10, 1918 in the Temple auditorium in Hemphill. County Judge J.B. Lewis was the keynote speaker. He called her the “greatest individual benefactor Sabine County and its people have ever had.”
While state and federal officials, who’s who of Sabine County and the timber industry attended, her husband stayed home.
At the end of 1918, Hiram Jr. borrowed money to buy more timberlands, believing it would be years before World War I ended. He struggled to continue payments before he sold to Temple Lumber Company in 1921 for nearly $2 million.
When Hiram died, Lillian didn’t seem to have a motive for killing him. She didn’t seem to have extramarital romances and there was no big insurance policy on Hiram.
She was arrested on Christmas Day 1922 after making her way back to Hemphill from a holiday visit to Houston. She stayed behind bars for the next 10 days.
The grand jury no-billed her on all charges related to Hiram’s death.
She sold her remaining assets, packed her bags and disappeared.
Stay tuned for more about Lillian next week.