By Lynn J. Richardson
After years of fascination with a 1909 murder case involving a Jonesborough resident, Anne Mason, special projects coordinator for the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, is using her unique talent of playwriting to bring the story to life when the Heritage Alliance hosts its first-ever murder mystery event.
The story of suspicion, murder and conspiracy will come to life next month when the Heritage Alliance presents “Legs in a Barrel Murder Mystery Show” at the historic Eureka Hotel in downtown Jonesborough.
Hosting a murder mystery will be a first in the beautiful restored venue, and innkeepers Katelyn and Blake Yarborough are thrilled.
“I am ridiculously excited,” Katelyn Yarborough said. “We are long overdue for this. We have been interested in having a murder mystery here for a long time, but we didn’t have the time or energy to do it, so when Anne mentioned it and had a firm idea and wanted to host it here, we jumped on it.”
Not only did Katelyn “jump on it,” she has also jumped in, playing the role of Detective Hart. “I am excited to be in a leadership role as a female in the time period of the story, and I will try my best to do justice to the character,” she said.
“I guess it’s the perfect role for me,” she joked. “After all, I know my way around.”
Deborah Montanti, director of the Heritage Alliance, praised the Yarboroughs for their willingness to host the show at the Eureka.
“They’re really creative, entrepreneurial folks, always looking for ways to interact with the town,” she said. “This is one of the most wonderful ways to work with them. This beautiful building is exemplary of historic preservation; it is the epitome of hospitality. It’s everything that Jonesborough is.”
Mason also says she is excited to see how the play she has written unfolds during the event.
“It’s my first murder mystery I’ve ever written,” Mason said. “It has been an adventure, figuring out how to move people in and out of the grounds, and make sure everyone gets to see all of the clues and meet with the characters. The logistics of that have been interesting.”
Legs in a Barrel is based on a strange murder of a Jonesborough man, whose body was pulled from the French Broad River in Newport, TN, and returned to his family. Suspicion fell on his one of his employees, who came to town for the funeral and oddly, stayed with the dead man’s family. The next morning, the suspect turned up missing and was later found head-first, legs up, in a rain barrel, drowned. The case was never really solved, but was closed and ruled a murder/suicide.
But is that really what happened? That is what guests will have to decide.
“I’ve known about the images from the murder and had a rough outline of the story in my mind as far back as 2008, when I started as a grad assistant for the Heritage Alliance, Mason said. “There is a pretty good description on the back of each photograph.”
But with a busy work schedule, Mason put it on the back burner. Still, she couldn’t get the story out of her head and she continued to revisit the case periodically by studying the Heritage Alliance’s archives.
Now, years later and after months of work, Mason’s play will ask: Was this murder conveniently closed? Was it really a suicide?
“I will always question that,” Mason said. “If we had the technology we have today, they could have figured it out, but they weren’t doing that in 1909.”
Montanti praised Mason for her dedication to historical accuracy throughout the play. “When we started dramatizing, I felt comforted that Anne is a historian and is approaching it that way, as opposed as a dramatist,” she said. “I wouldn’t let just anybody do this with the Heritage Alliance’s name on it. It’s got to be Anne.”
One of Mason’s best resources is a September 1909 Newport Plain Talk article which provides extensive details of the murder and the ensuing investigation. Those details, woven into the story, will provide clues to guide murder mystery guests to draw their own conclusions.
“The audience has the opportunity to be as invested as they want,” Mason said. “This is a low pressure murder mystery. People who really want to grill the characters can grill them; others can just stand back and enjoy. This isn’t one of those murder mysteries in a box; the audience will be working with the detective to figure it all out.”
Mason describes the cast of four actors as a very talented group with extensive experience who have all worked with the Heritage Alliance in the past in some capacity. The characters will include Detective Hart, Mrs. Smith, the wife of the murdered man and two other suspects — Constable Payne and John Custer — who were held and interrogated at the time of the crime. The names have been altered in order to protect the innocent, and the potentially guilty, Mason said.
To add to the fun, she is encouraging people to dress in early 1900s clothing — think Downton Abbey — but emphasized that is not necessary. “If our guests want to come in period appropriate garb, that would be great, if they prefer, casual comfortable clothing is just fine,” Mason said. “Come prepared to have fun and wear comfortable shoes. We will be walking all around the hotel and grounds.”
The 90-minute show will be presented three times, on Friday, August 25 at 7:30 p.m. and again on Saturday, August 26, at 5 and 7:30 p.m. Hors d’oeuvres, desserts and beverages will be served, and catered by the Eureka Hotel. The event is a fundraiser for the Heritage Alliance in support of its educational programs and museums, and only 40 seats are available per showing.
Tickets are $43, and are available by contacting the Historic Jonesborough Visitor’s Center, 423-753-1010, online at townofjonesborough.thundertix.com/events, or you may call the Heritage Alliance at 423-753-9580.
Guests will check in at the Chester Inn State Historic Site and Museum on Main Street where they will be escorted across the street to the Eureka Hotel.