“Concerning The Fiery Trial” – The State of North Carolina vs. Lucius Bunyan Compton

The Buncombe County Courthouse

(AOHP Note: This posting combines a series of four articles which appeared in The Asheville Times from October 20-23, 1943.)

Asheville, N.C.—A Buncombe County jury on Thursday afternoon cleared the Reverend Lucius Bunyan Compton, former head of Eliada Orphanage, of charges growing out of an investigation into alleged misconduct toward young girls in the institution.

The jury returned a verdict of not guilty in the first of four cases, which had originally charged assault with intent to commit rape. After the not guilty verdict had been returned, James S. Howell, solicitor, announced he would take a nol. pros. with leave in the other three cases. Counsel for the defense asked for a directed verdict of not guilty, and Solicitor Howell said he would not oppose such a verdict if Judge Alley directed that such a verdict be entered.

Judge Alley then directed the clerk to make an entry of not guilty in the three remaining cases. Judge Alley had sustained a motion earlier in the trial to dismiss the felony count in the bill, which had charged assault with intent to commit rape. He held the State had not presented sufficient evidence to sustain such a charge, but declined to dismiss the entire case, holding that the lesser assault count should be submitted to the jury.

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Dad Compton on an outing with a few of his daughters. (Photo ca. 1930’s)

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 The Trial

The trial, which grew out of indictments returned by a Buncombe County grand jury last June, got underway shortly before noon on October 20, 1943.

The defense counsel, composed of J.G. Merrimon and George Ward, declined to consent to the motion of Solicitor Howell, that all four cases be combined for trial. The trial of the first case involving an alleged assault on a 13 year-old girl in the summer of 1942 was started. The girl, now 14, is living with her grandmother in Raleigh, and was brought here by the state with her grandmother for the trial.

The three other prosecuting witnesses were in the courtroom as the trial opened.

Mr. Compton was seated with his attorneys and a number of prominent citizens who testified as to his good character. The courtroom was virtually full.

Posing with some of his children in the early years

The prosecuting witness in the first case, the 14 year-old girl brought here from Raleigh by the state, took the stand with obvious timidity, and during the preliminary questioning by Solicitor Howell spoke in a voice pitched so low that her words carried only a short distance.

Judge Alley momentarily stopped the questioning and told the girl that no one was going to hurt her, and asked her to sit up straight and talk out so the people in the back of the courtroom could hear her.

The shyness with which she told how the defendant put his arms around her on three occasions, and how he attempted on another occasion to induce her to enter a vacant cottage with him, gradually disappeared. She gained more confidence after Judge Alley’s statement, and she spoke out more clearly.

She said that on the first occasion she managed to jerk away from him, and in response to questions testified that she could not recall whether anything was said. She stated the defendant asked her to enter the cabin or cottage on the pretense of looking for a leak in the roof. The girl testified that she refused to go with him.

“You were in the habit of kissing Mr. Compton from time to time when he left for or returned from trips, weren’t you?” Mr. Merrimon opened his cross-examination.

“Yes…all the girls did.”

 Like his own children

Two of Compton’s daughters

“He treated all of you like you were his children and you all looked on Mr. and Mrs. Compton as a father and a mother, didn’t you?”

“No sir, I didn’t say that.”

“Your grandmother told you when she came to visit you last summer she had had this dream, didn’t she?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And that is the first time you mentioned these thing to her, isn’t it?”

“Yes…but I had told my matron…and she told my grandmother before I heard about the dream.”

At a break here, caused by objections from the solicitor, the girl was allowed to explain.

“After I told my grandmother, she tried to find Mr. Compton, but we didn’t know where he was…she could not find him, and had to leave…but she wrote him a letter about it…and I had told the matron before my grandmother came to see me.”

 The Grandmother testifies

The grandmother of the little girl was the next witness called by the state. She testified that two members of the sheriff’s department came to her home in Raleigh, identified themselves, and told her of the alleged misconduct on the part of Mr. Compton toward some of the girls in his institution.

She testified that she related to them the information which the matron at the institution had given her, as well as the information which her granddaughter had imparted when she questioned her.

Daughter Clara hops on Dad’s running board.

Asked why the granddaughter did not tell about the incidents which are alleged to have occurred in the early summer of 1942 until several months had passed, the grandmother replied: “She was ashamed to talk about it.”

On cross examination, Mr. Merrimon, made much of the dream in which the girl’s grandmother admitted that she had mentioned in the letter to Mr. Compton.

The witness insisted that she had told him that she had been given the information first during her visit to the orphanage and that the dream came later. Repeated attempts by Mr. Merrimon to construe the remarks of the witness to mean that she told the girl of the dream and that the girl’s information came after she was told about the dream appear to have confused the witness in the least. She stoutly maintained that the matron had mentioned the child’s report to her and that in consequence of this she questioned the child herself and learned of the alleged improper misconduct.

She stated in response to questions from defense counsel that she had attempted to see Mr. Compton before leaving the following morning after she had heard the charges but that her attempts were not successful. She testified that the people who were to take her back to Raleigh came early next morning and that she had to leave or miss her ride. She said that as soon as she arrived in Raleigh she wrote to Mr. Compton asking him about what had been reported to her.

 Left child at Orphanage

In response to further questioning, she said that after receiving assurance from the matron who had first reported the difficulty to her that the child would be watched carefully, she left her there until April so that she might finish out her school year.

Compton in London (Photo ca. 1912)

“She assured me that she would not be allowed to go to one of the cottages alone and that she would not come into contact with Mr. Compton in any way if I would let her complete her school work.”

The next witness was Deputy Sheriff Woodrow Dillingham, who told of going with Deputy Sheriff P.S. Bagwell to Raleigh during the investigation that was made into a multiplicity of reports concerning incidents at the orphanage.

He testified that the prosecuting witness told the two officers, in the presence of her grandmother, the details of the alleged improper conduct on the part of Mr. Compton. He testified that this was the same story that she had just told on the stand.

When the state rested, Mr. Merrimon made a motion to dismiss the charge of assault with intent to commit rape. This the court promptly did, Judge Alley saying the state had not presented the necessary evidence to substantiate that type of charge. Solicitor Howell stated to the court that he did not himself think that the more serious charge had been substantiated, asserting that he was trying to get at the truth and wanted the facts to come out.

Mr. Merrimon then attempted to argue that this struck out the whole case since the lesser charges of assault were embodied in the other.

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Compton enjoys a light-hearted moment with his girls in front of The Main Administration Building

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Judge disagrees

Judge Alley immediately disagreed. Mr. Merrimon read authorities to the effect that to constitute an assault there must be an injury.

“When this child testified that the defendant put his hands on her breasts three different times, that certainly does constitute an injury. I am not going to dismiss that case. However, I do not mean to imply guilt. I am merely stating that if it is found to be true, it constitutes an injury that would be an assault,” Judge Alley said.

The first witness for the defense was Charles A. Webb, President of the Asheville Citizen-Times Company, who testified that he knew Mr. Compton, that he knew his general character, and that it was excellent. Mr. Webb attempted to say that he did not know any man in the community who had done more, when he was stopped by the court, upholding the objection of Solicitor Howell.

Dorothy with her orphanage sisters.

On cross-examination, Solicitor Howell asked the witness if he knew that the defendant “went to Reno, got an illegal divorce, then married again?”

This brought a quick exchange between the witness and the solicitor with Mr. Webb finally asserting that he did not know it.

Other character witnesses included Ottis Green, Thomas B. Black of the Wachovia Bank and Trust Company, M.R. Jones, member of the County Board of Education, D.L. Holland, Asheville barber, Dr. P.B. Orr, physician for the Eliada Orphanage for more then 15 years, and several others.

In questioning Mr. Jones, Solicitor Howell asked what the witness meant by replying that the defendant’s character “was good up until the time this happened.”

“I mean that until this came out, I had never heard a whisper against him.”

“Do you mean that you have heard things since this came up?” Solicitor Howell asked.

“Yes.”

“What have you heard?”

“Well, I heard about all these cases…” Here, an objection was raised to the reference of other cases since only one was being tried.

“What else did you hear?”

“Well, I heard of one other case where charges similar to the testimony in this case were made and a girl taken out of the institution as a result.”

Compton takes stand

The Eliada school house in the earliest days

Taking the witness stand after the defense had put on a number of prominent citizens of the community as character witnesses, Mr. Compton sketched in some detail the story of his life, and the growth of Eliada Orphanage.

“I am a native of Haywood County,” the defendant testified, “and was ordained as a minister in 1897. For three years I engaged in rescue work in Cincinnati and then came back to the Appalachian mountains as an evangelist.”

“Shortly thereafter I started a little mission on Buxton Street, and later established a home for unfortunate girls on Atkinson Street. This home is still in operation and has cared for more then 2,000 of these girls during the years it has been open.”

“After a time, when compulsory education had been instituted, I closed the mission school I was operating and started Eliada Orphanage, an institution to take care of the children that nobody else wanted. That was, and still is its purpose, to take care of nobody’s babies, although in recent years we have deviated somewhat from that policy. We have cared for about 500 of these nobody’s babies since the institution was founded. We have a capacity of 100, but usually we have about 75.”

In response to suggestions from his attorneys, Mr. Compton added that the institution preferred to take the children as infants and bring them up.

“We promise them an education and look after them until they get through high school or college, if they desire to go that far,” he testified.

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The view from Eliada, looking east to Sunset and Craggy Mountains (Photo ca. 1940’s)

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Financed by Offerings

“During the years that the institution has been in operation it has been financed by free will offerings. I have never asked for one penny of money—it has always been given freely. We do not receive funds from the State of North Carolina or the City of Asheville. I have never solicited money in the community for the institution.”

In response to more questions, Mr. Compton testified that when his staff at the institution is complete he spends about one third of his time in evangelistic work. He testified that this work has carried him into every state in the union, Canada, and throughout Europe.

“It is from this evangelistic work that the funds arise which support the two institutions I have described.”

Daughter Connie said she had a terrible head cold when this classic portrait was taken in 1944.

He testified that the institution has four main buildings: an administration building, a dining room and a kitchen, a small girls’ building and a boys’ dormitory. He said that the property, which originally started with 4 acres, now has approximately 400 acres included in it’s boundaries, and that the institution operates a dairy farm, milking 56 cows. Part of the milk is given to the children, and the remainder is sold commercially.

Getting down to the matter of the relations with his children, the defendant testified that the children called him “Daddy,” and said that whenever he returned from an absence of as little as a week they frequently surrounded his car before he could get out, clamoring to caress and kiss him.

“I guess I am a little abnormal in my affections towards these children,” Mr. Compton testified. “There is not a one of them I have not held on my knee and kissed many times. I have never in all my life had any thought or desire to harm any one of these children.”

In response to suggestions from his counsel, Mr. Compton testified that in his knowledge he was never alone with one of the girls in the institution. He asserted that they always came and went in pairs to the “cottage” and other points on the grounds.

“When was the first knowledge you had of this trouble?”

“My first knowledge came last February when I received a letter from Mrs. —–, the grandmother.”

“She wrote to me that she had had a dream in which she thought I had molested her granddaughter. She said that she was going to ruin me. The letter was a great shock to me. It broke my heart.”

Daughter Emma-Jean

Mr. Compton added that he wrote a letter in reply to the grandmother of the child. This letter, which had been identified by the child’s grandmother while she was on the stand as a state’s witness but not introduced, was later introduced but not read to the jury. While Mr. Compton was on the stand he was asked by defense counsel to identify the letter and read it, which he did.

In response to careful questioning by defense attorney George Ward, Mr. Compton stated that he had obtained a divorce after he and his first wife had been separated and had not lived together as man and wife for a period of twelve years. He denied specifically that the divorce was obtained without the knowledge of his first wife.

Asked if the divorce arose from any conduct on his part of an improper nature, the defendant stated, “My first wife was not normal from childhood, and no sane man could live with her.” He added that he continued to provide for her and that she had “received an allowance regularly.”

Judge makes comment

Judge Alley, after the verdict was announced, said from the bench that the defendant had been cleared of the charges by the verdict of the jury. He announced that in his opinion, the verdict was right and proper in light of the evidence that was presented.

“There should be no criticism of anyone in connection with the handling of the case,” he said. “I want to say right here that I think Sheriff Lawrence Brown has the most efficient Sheriff’s Department in the state. I find in presiding here and elsewhere in the state that the investigations by his department are most thorough and that the cases they present are better prepared then anywhere I have been.”

Dad with two of his favorites, Genevieve and Louise

“I want to say also that there should be no criticism of the young girl who brought the charges that were tried in this case. She felt that she had the need of the protection of the courts, and it was necessary for her to be heard and to have the matter cleared up.”

“There is no reflection of any kind on her or on the officers who made the investigation. It was the kind of thing that should have been investigated, and I commend the officers for their interest and zeal in making the investigation.”

“I want to say also that I think the solicitor should be commended for the way he presented the case. It was something that had to be handled carefully and thoroughly.”

“I was deeply impressed by the way the leading citizens of the community came to the defense of the defendant in this case, to testify as to his character and works.”

“I say there should be no lingering criticism because as the trial progressed counsel for both sides may have gone a little too far in presenting their contentions. That was natural, but it must now be forgotten. The defendant is cleared, and like a blanket of snow falls the mantle of innocence about his shoulders.”

After the directed verdict of not guilty in the three remaining cases had been ordered, Mr. Compton arose from his chair where he had been sitting with counsel and a group of friends and went over and shook hands with members of the jury, thanking them briefly for the verdict they had just returned. J.G. Merrimon of the defense counsel also walked over and expressed his thanks to the jury.

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A COMPLETE VINDICATION–

J.G. Merrimon, Esq. wrote the following letter to Lucius Bunyan Compton after the trial:

My dear Mr. Compton:

There were four cases, and although there was only a trial of one, it resulted in a trial of all and verdicts of Not Guilty were entered in every case, cleaning up the charges entirely. This resulted in an acquittal of everything charged, and as stated, it was a complete vindication.

I have heard universal approval of the result. A great many people have spoken to me about it and think the charges should never have been made and there was no ground or warrant for causing you to undergo the terrible accusations made, which affected not only the Institution which you have managed so well for so many years, but affected your personal character, if the charges had been sustained at all. I don’t think I have ever had a case which appealed to me so much, and in which I took such a deep and personal interest, or in which I did more real work and concerning which I felt more anxiety because of the powers that were back of the prosecution.

I am enclosing you my check for the unspent portion of the deposit you left with me for costs.

Yours very sincerely,

J. G Merrimon

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Compton, who had resigned as head of the orphanage in June 1943 after being indicted on the assault charges, was reinstated as President and GM of Eliada on November 3, 1943. Afterwards, he wrote the following in his newsletter, “The New Testament Christian” –

“For more then five months the Eliada Home and I have passed through the sufferings of hell on earth—one that I could have never dreamed would come to Eliada or to me. It was meant by one stroke to make the final knock-out blow. It came as suddenly as a cyclone across the plains, with an attempt to sweep clean all that I have for so long boasted has been accomplished in answer to prayer and faith.

“However, I was completely vindicated of all charges brought against me. Once more the devil was defeated, his promoters were confounded, and a spirit of gladness and rejoicing prevailed.”

“The curtain of silence will be drawn with this issue, as we have only prayer and pity for those who were responsible for this ordeal.”

–Lucius Bunyan Compton

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One Response to “Concerning The Fiery Trial” – The State of North Carolina vs. Lucius Bunyan Compton

  1. Robin Richardson Gilbert says:

    Unfortunately for those in child care these kinds of issues still come up. Of course there are times when the accusations are true, but the greatest percentage are truly loving people. This must be especially true for those in the kind of “24 hour-a-day” child care that Mr. Compton established. He created a loving home for the unwanted or homeless children of the area, apparently fulfilling a real need. To have his intentions and his role as their “father” brought in question must have been very heart rending and difficult for all involved.

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