A Story in Every Grave
Joseph R. McDonald
Died December 25, 1949
Walker County, AL
Early Christmas evening 1949 is one date that I have never forgotten. No matter how hard you may try to forget, you will never forget the first person whom you have seen that has died violently. As the years passed and until I retired from law enforcement, I saw many other people who either lost their life in a car accident or was the victim of a murderous act. I have never forgotten a one, but the first was stamped indelibly in my mind. I recall it to this day.
As a young boy of nine years of age, I was a passenger in a pickup truck driven by my mother’s brother, Horace Roberts, along with my grandfather, George Roberts. On this Christmas evening, just after dark, we were en-route to a “wagon mine” that my uncle was operating to feed the mule. The mine was about 2 ½ miles from home just past the Burnwell Bible Church of God and Brasfield Cemetery.
As we rounded a curve to the left on this narrow, one lane, dirt road, we could see a man slumped over near the edge of the road; propped up against a small pine tree. A little brown and white spotted dog was there as if it were guarding something. He was. He was guarding the body of Joe McDonald.
On this happiest of all days in the year, Mr. McDonald lay dead. His death was due to a shotgun blast to his side. The following is a copy of the Mountain Eagle Newspaper on December 29, 1949, copied as it appeared.
22 Year-Old Held
In Father’s Death
Burnwell Man Charged
With Murder In Shooting
On Christmas Afternoon
Christmas Day ended in death for a 65-year-old Burnwell man, father of 15 children. His 22-year-old son is being held in Walker County jail under a murder charge.
The dead man is Joe McDonald. His son, Johnnie is accused is his shooting, and a neighbor Henry Thrasher, 40, was being held early this week for investigation.
Sheriff G. B. Baggett said Tuesday that both Johnnie and Thrasher admitted Monday that they were present when McDonald was shot. The three men had gone hunting together when the shooting occurred.
The Sheriff said Johnnie told him on questioning early Monday morning that he left Thrasher and his father in the woods Sunday afternoon with his (Johnnie’s) gun and his father’s. McDonald had started out with an automatic rifle and his son with a 16 gauge single barreled shotgun. Thrasher had carried no gun.
Thrasher had told the sheriff during separate questioning that he had left Johnnie and his father alone in the woods. Later Monday morning during a session with both Johnnie and Thrasher together, the sheriff said they told him the following story.
Joe McDonald was advising his son to be careful with his gun. There was some argument about whether he was being careless.
The father took hold of the gun. Johnnie jerked back and the gun went off shooting McDonald in left lower rib.
Father of 15 children, 11 of whom live at home, McDonald had four children by a previous wife. Johnnie is McDonald’s son by his first wife.
Sheriff Baggett said McDonald’s unidentified body was discovered by passerby Sunday afternoon when they saw as shoe in an old mine road. The body was found in the woods close by.
Johnnie and Thrasher were roused from their beds and arrested around midnight by the sheriff. Sheriff Baggett said he woke Johnnie up about midnight turned him over to deputies outside, then told the McDonald family of the father’s death. They had not been notified previously, he said. Thrasher was arrested about half hour later. End of Mountain Eagle Article.
As I read the news article, I realized that Uncle Horace, my grandfather, and I were the three passersby the Sheriff was referring to in the report. We were first on the scene and had found the body of Joe McDonald. This gruesome find was before the days of cell phones so we had to return to my Uncle’s store to notify the Sheriff. I was not allowed to return to the crime scene; however, another uncle, Willard Birmingham, did accompany Horace on the return trip. The events of this Christmas Day is something I have never forgotten.
This tragedy was something we would remember and talk about in the family until this day. Others in the area obviously never knew what happened on that Christmas evening in this remote area of Walker County unless someone told them; or if they knew more than they wanted to know and/or tell about this death. Funny what your mind can recall!
I spoke with an old friend, Clyde Nix, who still lives in the Burnwell area and he recalled going to the funeral of Joe McDonald. Clyde confirmed that Mr. McDonald was buried in Brasfield Cemetery at the Burnwell Bible Church of God. Had Clyde’s mother, Mrs. Herschel Nix, been alive the day he and I talked, she could have told us the exact spot of his burial. As Clyde and I walked and searched through the lower part of the cemetery, we located the grave. Many years after Mr. McDonald was killed, a small monument was place at his grave.
A few years after the homicide, the family moved to Arkansas and rarely came back. However, one daughter has returned to visit the grave.