The Death of Viola Ward

Daughter of William S. and Rebecca Ward

Contributed by: Daniel Ward

The daughter of William Samuel and Rebecca Ward was 29-year old Viola who was one of their favorite children, although she was described as somewhat unattractive, with a sunken chest, but with a sweet and lovable personality. She was a schoolteacher at the little red schoolhouse off Highway 97 south of the state line. This was the same one-room school that Nathaniel Davis and Verie Hall attended as children along with Viola’s brothers and sisters. She apparently had a weak heart and was unable to walk the long distance each day from her home to the schoolhouse. Her Uncle Wiley “Babe” Ward loaned her some money to buy a horse and buggy so that she could ride to work and not have to exert herself in her condition. She slowly saved her money until she had enough to repay her uncle every penny she had borrowed. Her plans were to give all of it to him on Christmas Day when he came into Atmore on the train to visit the family during the holidays. On Christmas Eve she went up to the unfinished Pine Barren Church to help decorate their first tree in the newly constructed chapel. For this special occasion she had also bought some pork meat and had it at the house for snacking. Her fiancÚ, a Mr. Hammond, who obviously didn’t find her too unattractive, was coming into town for the holidays so she wanted everything to be just right. She had bought her gifts for everyone and had them wrapped including a gold watch for her 19-year old brother Oscar that he treasured and ultimately carried for the rest of his life.

As everyone was flitting around talking and drinking eggnog at the church with Viola putting some ornaments on the tree, when suddenly without warning she collapsed onto the floor. People rushed to her side thinking that maybe she had become overheated with the excitement and fainted. Knowing her medical condition, her brother Oscar jumped into Viola’s buggy and whipped the horse into a gallop as he headed home to tell his parents. William and Rebecca heard the buggy tearing down the road long before it arrived and knew something was wrong. Oscar skidded to a halt in front of the house and jumped out and told his parents that Viola had fainted. Fearful of the implications, they grabbed their coats to head for the church when Joe Mobley, a relative of the family, galloped up on his horse. William ran out and told him that Oscar had just told them the news of Viola fainting at the church. Joe hung his head and quietly told her father, “No, she’s dead.” Oscar loaded up his mother in the buggy and headed for the church and many of the congregation remembered years later how they could hear Rebecca screaming all the way from her house, almost two miles away. When her Uncle Wiley arrived on the train for the happy holidays, they gave him the bad news of his niece’s demise. The pork she had out for everyone was never eaten because they were all so heart broken they could not bring themselves to eat it. The gold watch she had given Oscar as a present was given to his own son, Cary, as a keepsake and is located in his bank vault drawer today. It still has the dents in it from where the plow handles dug into Oscar’s chest when he was plowing his fields.

When someone died in those days, the family would either build a pine board casket or else go to the nearest general store and pick one that was on display out back. They would take one down and one of the relatives of a similar build would lay down in it to see how it fit. They went into Atmore to one of the stores to pick out Viola’s casket. When they went to pick one out, little did they know that a hen had built her nest in the one they picked. When they pulled it out the hen panicked and flew up suddenly with her wings flapping in a panic, scaring everyone out of their wits.

Shortly after she died, Viola’s father had a vivid dream one night that after a hard rain the dirt on his daughter’s grave had eroded to the point that her casket could be seen. The next day he couldn’t get the dream off of his mind as he was plowing in the fields behind his mule when a neighbor rode by on his horse and buggy. The neighbor stopped and told him how sorry he was about Viola and William told him about his dream and asked him to please check her grave when he passed the cemetery. The neighbor returned after his errand and told him that the dream must have been a premonition, indeed because the grave had in fact eroded and settled around the casket and could be seen just like in his dream. William immediately went to his daughter’s grave and confirmed what the neighbor had said. At the first opportunity, he had a low wall built around the grave and filled in the hole with more dirt. The low border wall can still be seen around her gravesite today. This situation was not uncommon and was called “cracking the casket,” which was a common phrase meaning the body had swelled and busted the lid open allowing dirt to filter down into the casket. This occurred because people were not embalmed in those days and were buried usually the day after they died before the body began to decompose.