intriguing family mystery spanning more than 135 years is told by
three tombstones lying behind a rusting iron fence in a small East
Each of the tombstones provides cryptic inscriptions that, when
linked together in time, offer glimpses of three tragedies that
stalked the family of Robert and Sarah Smith in 1869 and 1872.
On January 21, 1869, the Smiths’ twenty-three-year-old son, Robert
Emmett, was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery near Coldspring
in San Jacinto
County, His time-weathered tombstone tells a tale of a probable
murder: “In memory of my beloved son, Robert E. Smith, born December
24, 1846. Assassinated in cold blood...”
Smith’s body, pierced by gunshots, was found lying by the front
gate of his family’s plantation home near the Trinity River. His
head rested on the removed saddle of his prize horse, Black Prince.
On June 3, less than five months after young Robert’s death, his
father died, leading the remaining family members to erect a monument
with a poignant inscription beginning with four words: “He never
smiled again,” adding that Smith died “of grief and broken spirits.”
Not far from her father’s grave, seventeen-year-old Edith Smith
was buried on May 18, 1872--some three years after the untimely
deaths of her brother and father. Her inscription, penned by a grieving
mother, is perhaps the most intriguing of the three tombstones:
“Erected in memory of my darling child, Edith...died a victim to
an experiment of surgery by Dr. Warren Stone Sr., of New Orleans...”
Robert Smith’s murder, if it was such, was never solved. Because
the body was carefully placed at the family’s gate, with the head
resting on the saddle, the death may have been an accident by an
At the same time, there are few clues to the tragic death of Edith
Edith’s mother carried any explanation to her grave, which also
lies in Laurel Hill Cemetery. Sarah Carson Smith died at Shepherd,
on February 8, 1891.
in 1812 at Barnwell District, South Carolina, Robert Smith and his
cousin, John Stephen Smith, were among many Southerners attracted
by the prospect of free or cheap land in the new Republic of Texas
in the 1840s.
Robert soon acquired about 3,000 acres in the James Rankin Survey
on the west side of Trinity River in 1845 at a sheriff’s sale on
the steps of the Polk
County courthouse at Livingston.
During the Civil War, Robert Emmett, his brother John William (Billam),
and five of his cousins--Quishenbury William Smith, Robert Eason
Smith, James Otis Smith, John William (Big Hoss) Smith, and Edwin
Eason Smith--succumbed to the lure of “fighting the Yankees.”
All of the young Smith men returned from the war except John William
(Big Hoss), who died at the Battle of Chickamauga.
But by 1869--four months after his return from the war--Robert Smith
was lying in an East Texas
grave, his murder never solved.
Bowman March 20, 2006 Column, updated
August 19, 2012
More Bob Bowman's
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers