Published Friday, March 08, 2013

'A Cold Coming': Untold family murder inspires book

By W. WINSTON SKINNER

winston@newnan.com

“What’s wrong with Grandma?”

Jeff Bishop’s question was followed by a long silence and then the tentative answers that led him on a quest to uncover a dark chapter in his family’s history. Decades later, the story is in print as “A Cold Coming” (Boll Weevil Press, paper, 328 pages, $18.95).

Bishop will be signing copies of his book on Thursday from 3-4:30 p.m. at Scott’s Bookstore. The signing will be the last at Scott’s, which is closing.

“When I was a kid growing up, I never heard anything about anything that’s in this book. It was all kept very quiet,” Bishop said.

That Christmas, an effort was made to bring his paternal grandmother home to see what Santa brought. “She never came to our house. We always visited her,” Bishop said. “In retrospect, I think she had agoraphobia.”

His grandmother made it to the door but clearly was unable emotionally to leave the house. In the car on the way home, Bishop – then a high school freshman or sophomore – asked his question.

After a long pause, he was told the bare outline of a story – how his grandmother’s father had killed his wife and two children and attempted to kill Beryl, Bishop’s grandmother, in 1931.

Bishop visited the Warren P. Sewell Library in Haralson County, the home country of Beryl Latham Bishop’s family. In a March 18, 1931, newspaper he found a story headlined, “School teacher kills family.”

Thomas J. Latham, who had lost his teaching job and returned to the farm, had killed his wife, Lois, and two children with a ballpeen hammer. He had also injured a son, T.J., and Beryl, both of whom survived – though Beryl’s severe injuries placed her life in jeopardy for a time. Another son, Collier, hid in bedclothes and escaped injury.

After the murderous rampage, Thomas Latham fatally shot himself.

By the time Bishop began researching the story, his grandmother had died. “The person I went to was my Uncle T.J.,” he recalled. Bishop and his grandmother’s uncle had not been close prior to that time.

T.J. Latham was a carpenter and preacher who traveled to California where he planted congregations and literally built the church buildings in which he preached. Retired and back in Georgia, he welcomed his young great-nephew.

“It’s almost like he had been waiting to tell someone about it,” Bishop recalled.

Bishop said he “spent hours and hours” talking with his uncle and accumulated more than 40 hours of recordings – “boxes and boxes of tape.”

They talked about much more than the murder. T.J. Latham spoke of “their ways of life on the farm” as well as “about his father and his mother and all the circumstances leading up to the murder.”

Bishop also talked to his grandfather, who had grown up in same area and knew a lot about what had transpired. Slowly, Bishop “began to piece together what had happened,” he said.

Bishop learned that in those Depression-era days, Thomas Latham “didn’t want to” go back to a life of farming, but found himself doing precisely that. “I knew also there was a history of mental illness in my family,” Bishop said. Others in the family had been sent to the state mental hospital in Milledgeville for killing a relative.

Bishop wrote a manuscript telling what he knew, but he had a nagging feeling that there was something he did not know. “Even with the mental illness, it didn’t quite add up,” he said.

Bishop took his first draft to the Sewell Library and then visited the newspaper there, the Haralson Gateway-Beacon. The newspaper agreed to run a story with Bishop asking people to check out the book and “let me know what’s missing – what’s the missing element,” he recalled.

Bishop’s phone began ringing, and people began to fill in integral pieces of the story. “It’ll never make sense, but you can understand the progression of events,” he said. “It’s a fascinating story.”

Bishop, who also recently completed the script for a play based on the John Wallace murder trial, said he felt compelled to write his family’s story. “I’m not Erskine Caldwell. I’m not William Faulkner or anything like that. But if I didn’t tell this story, it wouldn’t be told,” Bishop said.

In addition to the horrific central event, “A Cold Coming” also describes a way of life – farming, living off the land – that disappeared with World War II. Children attended one-room schoolhouses – often barefoot. Mothers took old guano sacks and stitched the fabric into clothing, which would then be passed down to younger children.

There was no television or Internet. Few people had radios, and they were crackly and unpredictable.

“The book’s not just about the murder. It all does lead up to the story,” Bishop said. “The world itself was what was really fascinating to me.”

In addition to telling the story of what happened to his grandmother’s family, the book also gave Bishop a chance to preserve “a snapshot – while we still could – of what life was like in the rural South during the Great Depression.”

Proceeds from sales of the book are going to help Bishop’s cousin, Brittany Hallmark. About the time he finished the book, he learned she had been in “a horrible accident and had lost her left arm.”

The young mother is starting physical therapy and is “going to have a long recovery,” he said.

In addition to Bishop being a Coweta resident and longtime local journalist, there are other Coweta connections in the book. Lt. Abijah Latham, a Confederate soldier who served in the Texas Cavalry, had a farm where Canongate Golf Club is today. He’s buried in a grave near the golfball water tower.

“He was kind of this legendary figure in the family,” Bishop said. Another member of the clan was Thomas A. Latham, who was one of Coweta County’s first attorneys “when Newnan was first being formed.”

Thomas Latham served in the state legislature and later moved to Campbellton.

After the 1931 tragedy, Beryl Latham recuperated in the hospital and then went to live with Paul Jones, her mother’s brother. Jones was like a father to her, and he lived with her in his later years – leaving behind a trunk that had some clues to the story Bishop would later chronicle.

“I wanted to find out what happened,” Bishop said. “As I learned more, it seemed like it was a shame to put it in a file cabinet.”

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