The earthly remains of Iola M. Haley Newell are buried in Somerset City Cemetery, Somerset, Kentucky, within the casket seen above. It was almost certainly white, with a crackled paint finish and colored velvet covering the pallbearers′ handles. The rest of the gently sunlit parlor held rich photographic detail. The fireplace was surrounded by colorful Victorian art nouveau tiles. On the wall, above the harp-shaped floral tribute, a paper or cardboard image of a blooming plant proclaimed, “The Year of Flowers.” Reflected in the mirror, along with two female mourners, were more images also possibly culled from “The Year of Flowers.” Behind the black-clad ladies was the staircase to the home’s upper floor.
It is a wistfully beautiful image: A bright-colored room, burgeoning with flowers in recognition of a beloved daughter, sister, friend, and bride of little more than a year, dead before age 30. The most likely causes of Iola’s demise should have been pregnancy complications or childbirth. However, there is no record of a child born alive or dead—and if the latter, we would expect to see the stillborn infant in the casket, beside its mother.
It is also clear from the photo that Iola was not the victim of a wasting disease, rather of something that cut her down in otherwise acceptable health. Her husband, Dr. John B. Newell, survived Iola narrowly, dying a year-and-a-half later. Newell worked in a field of medicine—dentistry—whose practitioners could be easily exposed to Tuberculosis and other contagious diseases. Another possible cause for one, or both, of the couple’s deaths was typhoid. An epidemic occurred in Pulaski County in 1920, and since the disease can be waterborne, contaminated waterways may have existed in the area in the decade before, when the couple was yet alive.
I have, however, recently learned that none of my logical speculations were the cause of Iola’s passing. The reality was not logical, not acceptable. It was, frankly, shocking.
Kentucky native Iola Haley, born 14 September, 1872, was the eldest daughter of John Perry Haley (1847-1931) and his wife Elizabeth Jane (1850-1941), who married 25 March, 1868, in Somerset County. Her paternal grandfather was H. W. Haley, a lawyer in Pulaski County (b. 1820).
Iola had an older brother, Thomas Walker (March 1870-23 Sept., 1926) and a younger sister named Elizabeth Pearl (b. 14 Jan., 1878), called “Pearly,” who may have been the writer of the inscription on the reverse of the photo, although this is problematic for internal reasons. Another brother, Jack R., was born in 1886.
The 1880 census shows the Haley family living in the town of Somerset, with John Haley working as a store clerk. He would eventually rise to become a prominent merchant. On the census, Iola was enumerated as “Ollie,” aged 8.
In 1898, the entire Haley family, including Iola, left Somerset for a new life on a farm in Bozeman, Montana. At the time of the departure, however, there almost certainly existed deep affection between Iola and her future husband, for whom she would return to Kentucky in mid-1900. John was born 4 September, 1873, in Somerset. The two probably had known each other for many years, as their families moved in the same social circles.
John’s father was Henry Clay Newell (6 June, 1832-6 Nov., 1912) and his mother was Florence V. Beattie (9 Nov., 1835-21 Nov., 1912), daughter of John Beattie (3 Dec., 1786–1 March, 1861) and Sarah Edminston (30 July 1790–23 Dec., 1868). John’s family had been in Somerset for the entirety of the 19th Century and at least the latter half of the 18th. The 1850 Census recorded Henry Clay and his numerous siblings—including a brother named John B., after whom his son would be named—living on a farm in Somerset with his parents, John Montgomery (1790-1871) and Margaret Beatty (1799-1851) Newell. Whether Henry Clay fought in the Civil War is unclear, but on 6 April, 1866, he became postmaster for Stiggalls Ferry, Pulaski County. Three years later, 7 December, 1869, he married Florence Beattie. The 1870 census showed the couple working a farm near the rest of Henry’s family. A decade later, they were still there, with young son John and a daughter, Sallie (1870-1926).
The 1890 census was destroyed by fire, so our next glimpse of the Newell family was during 1900, when Henry Clay was enumerated on the Somerset census, living on the east side of Crab Orchard Street, as a 67-year-old “capitalist,” whilst John Newell was enumerated as a 26-year-old dentist. The census was taken too early in that year to include Iola, although arrangements may have been in the making then for John and Iola’s September wedding.
In my searches, I found neither evidence of the Newell’s marital happiness nor unhappiness. Should Newell or Haley relatives who possess deeper insight discover this article, I welcome communication via the contact page. This stated, and extrapolating from the reported facts of 31 October, 1901, it is clear the marriage was in crisis.
On Halloween, at the Newell family home in Crab Orchard Street, Iola rose early, perhaps at dawn, to fix her husband’s morning meal. When the food was ready, she climbed the stairs to the bedroom “where her husband slept and called him to breakfast,” reported the Nashville Tennessean. Iola “then turned, and picking up a pistol from the dresser, fired a bullet into her brain.” Iola died bout one hour later, without regaining consciousness.
It would be repeated by newspapers in multiple states that Iola was in unspecified poor health and that something dark drove her mind. “She feared she was going to become insane,” noted the Paducah Sun Democrat. “Fearing she would lose her reason, Mrs. Iola Newell…committed suicide,” reported the Adair County News. “Mrs. Newell had been despondent from ill health for some time,” stated the Danville Advocate.
Details of the event vary between publications and this raises troubling questions about what really happened in that bedroom on Crab Orchard Street. For example, the Louisville Courier-Journal states, “It is not known how the shooting was done, as her husband was the only one in the room and he was asleep. The ball entered the back of the head and ranged downward into the vertebra.”
Is it possible that Iola actually shot herself from behind?My limited research on suicide by gun indicates that if a person can reach that far, shooting oneself in this way is possible—but is it likely? Why cook breakfast, wake your husband—as the Tennessean reported—and then grab a handy, loaded gun to end your life in front of your spouse? (Unless this was, in itself, a statement on their relationship.) Sadly, I must propose the possibility that Iola did not kill herself, but instead was murdered. If correctly reported by the Courier-Journal, the gunshot from behind with a downward trajectory hints at foul play. The Advocate’s coverage seemed to moot the possibility, too, noting that Iola “was shot in the head and almost instantaneously killed in her own room…. The only other person present at the time was her husband [emphasis mine]….”
Did John Newell shoot his wife? Lacking further information on family dynamics or a death certificate—which do not appear to exist for either Iola or John—I can only continue to speculate.
As mentioned at the start of this article, John Newell did not long survive Iola. Unlike hers, however, his death at age 29, 6 April, 1903, apparently went unreported. He was buried beside her in Somerset City Cemetery, in the Newell family plot that would also contain his parents.
Stepping forward nine years past the 1901 death of their daughter-in-law and seven years past the death of their only son, the 1910 census placed Henry and Florence Newell in Catlin, Vermilion County, Illinois, living in retirement beside their daughter Sallie Newell Colyer, her husband John (a bank cashier), and their grandchildren Florence and Varnon. Henry Clay Newell died 6 November, 1912; Florence Newell died only a few weeks later on 21 November, 1912.
Iola’s father farmed in Bozeman for some 33 years, dropping dead at his dining table of cerebral apoplexy in June 1931. Her sister Pearly went on to marry William Douglas Bell. They had a daughter, Jane (1917-2000). Pearly died in Helena, Lewis and Clark County, Montana, 15 June, 1961.
Iola’s brother Thomas married Nellie Wood and had a number of children, including John Perry Haley (1895-1972), the “Perry Haley” mentioned in the photograph inscription. Family history published at Findagrave.com reports, “John Perry Haley received his education and spent his boyhood on the home farm near Bozeman, and Billings, Montana, and at the age of 20, taking charge of the ranch while his parents were in Boise, Idaho.
“In the spring of 1920 he went with his father to British Columbia where they were looking for a stock ranch and that fall Mr. Haley lost his entire capital when a bank near Billings failed. For 3 years Mr. Haley was part owner in the Midnight Frolic Roundup near Billings. Mr. Haley erected a grandstand with racetrack and chutes and operated a summer resort, which was used as a dance hall and skating rink. In 1925 he moved to Klamath County and he and his brothers, Oliver and McClellan, leased their father’s ranch.
“Within 2 years J. Perry Haley rented a farm near Malin and during the ensuing 3 years he added acreage and by 1930 bought his own place. In Columbus, Montana, July 6, 1917, he married Dorothea Haggerty. The were the parents of 4 children born in Montana: Iola Louise born Jan. 4, 1919; Nellie Juanita born June 13, 1920; Maxine Leila born Aug. 11, 1923; and Thomas Walker Haley born Oct 12, 1924.” Ω
2 thoughts on ““Everybody Loved Her”: The Mysterious Death of Iola Haley Newell”
“the gunshot from behind with a downward trajectory hints at foul play” – this would be my guess, too. It’s such a contortionist angle for suicide, unless she was trying to implicate her husband, which clearly didn’t work. If the police had been studying gunshot residue at that time, that would have answered the question about suicide. Interesting photo with a much more interesting story behind it – thanks for showing it and doing all the research.
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What an excellent researcher and writer you are! This post is fascinating and your observations are very astute. This is the first of your blog posts I’ve read. I know I’ll savor the rest. Thank you.
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