Hampton Lighthouse & the Sensational 1931 Trial
Hampton Lighthouse and the Sensational 1931 Trial
The Back River Light, also known as the Grandview Light, was a lighthouse south of the mouth of the Back River on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, several miles north of Fort Monroe near Hampton, Virginia. Plagued by erosion for most of its existence, it was destroyed in 1956 by Hurricane Flossy.
This lighthouse constructed in 1829 by Winslow Lewis of Boston, was a 30-foot (9.1 m) conical masonry tower similar to others further up the bay. A hint of its coming travails was given by the need for a 144-foot (44 m) long footbridge to carry the keeper over the marshy land between the tower and his house. Ten oil lamps and ten parabolic reflectors fourteen inches in diameter, coated with pure silver, were initially installed. When placed in service, the light’s ‘characteristic’ was described as “continuous revolving white with a 90-second interval. As technology improved it later housed a Fresnel lens.
The light was damaged by Confederate raiders in 1862, but was back in service the following year. But the remainder of the century saw a continuing battle against erosion, and riprap was laid around the base of the tower several times between 1868 and 1888. In 1894 a second story was added to the keeper’s house, but this served only until 1914, when the house facing destruction due to beach erosion was demolished, with the light being automated the following year. The Back River Light was discontinued in 1936. Twenty years later the abandoned tower, by then in disrepair and completely surrounded by water due to erosion, collapsed during Hurricane Flossy, leaving only a pile of rubble to mark the spot. But it has a place in history because of what happened there in 1931.
Kane Murder Trial
In 1931 a drowning near the Back River Lighthouse resulted in a sensational murder trial that riveted the nation. The accused, Elisha Kent Kane, III, was a respected professor of Romance languages at the University of Tennessee and the scion of a prominent Pennsylvania family. His wife, Jenny Graham Kane, who was from nearby Newport News, had drowned under suspicious circumstances during a visit to the beach with him. Elisha’s father, Evan O’Neill Kane, M.D. was a medical pioneer who gained acclaim for removing his own appendix and, years later, repairing his own hernia. His grandfather was Major General Thomas L. Kane who had founded Kane, Pennsylvania. His family tree also included Judge John Kintzing Kane, a former Pennsylvania Attorney General and close friend of U.S. President Andrew Jackson, and his namesake, U.S. Navy officer Elisha Kane, an American explorer who famously chronicled two unsuccessful mid-nineteenth century Arctic explorations in search of the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin.
Due to Kane’s family ties and position at the university, his murder trial at the Elizabeth City County Courthouse was covered by newspapers up and down the East Coast. Some even called it the trial of the century. After days of intense testimony, the jury deliberated for three hours and 45 minutes before finding Elisha not guilty. According to published reports, the verdict drew an immediate outburst of applause, but many thought Kane had gotten away with murder.
The Newspaper and Gossip
HAMPTON, Virginia— A woman’s passing and the subsequent 1931 courtroom drama captivated Hampton.
A young married couple goes for a day trip to sun and swim in the shallows off Grandview. Hours later, the husband drives wildly through Hampton — his wife unconscious and unresponsive in the passenger seat.
By the time they reach a hospital, the woman is dead. Then the details start painting a wicked portrait.
She was petrified of the water and only just learning to swim. The husband is a well-known university professor from a prominent Pennsylvania family. His story changes and shifts with each retelling, and then investigators and reporters are handed an amorous letter from another woman.
Soon, the professor is behind bars — facing murder charges — and newspaper scribes from around the country are descending on the Peninsula to chronicle the case.
The death of Jenny Graham Kane and the trial of her husband, Elisha Kent Kane III, is a case that captivated the region in the fall of 1931. Nearly 100 witnesses were called to the trial, which was filled with compelling tales and so many piles of circumstantial evidence, some locals still wonder what really happened on the beach that day.
“It remains the classic Hampton mystery,” said Mike Cobb, curator for the Hampton History Museum. “It’s starting to fade into memory and beyond, but it’s close enough that it still resonates.”
Interviews and discussion would almost inevitably turn to the sensational trial — with many locals wondering whether the husband got away with murder.
“It happened so long ago, why would it stick with so many people?” Davis wondered. “To tell you the truth, I was first going at this as a vigilante.”
But that was before diving into three years of research that took her through the back rooms of libraries, dusty courthouse archives and pages of newspaper clippings. Davis even made the trek to Kane, Pa. — the tiny town founded by one of Elisha’s ancestors at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains.
The eccentric characters and the twists and turns of the story captivated Davis.
The accused was a respected professor of Romance languages at the University of Tennessee, a world traveler who spent hours in his underwear translating Spanish love poetry. His father was a medical pioneer who gained acclaim for removing his own appendix and, years later, repairing his own hernia. The family tree also included a U.S. explorer who famously chronicled an unsuccessful Arctic exploration. “Even the dog,” “He couldn’t be any old dog. He had to be the son of a movies star.”
There was plenty of fodder for the copious news coverage. Newspapers printed the entire mysterious note from the other woman — “Betty” — a letter that the jury would never see. Jenny’s family testified against Elisha, painting him as verbally abusive and aloof.
Family members, friends and neighbors from Pennsylvania and Tennessee told a completely different tale — of a doting husband. Locals testified that Elisha sped along Hampton’s rough roads at breakneck speeds on the way to the hospital, even passing a streetcar on the left.
Doctors said Jenny was prone to fainting spells and had a weak heart. Her family claimed almost no knowledge of the ailment. The coroner did not perform an autopsy because initially, he didn’t suspect foul play, and without a definitive cause of death, defense attorneys suggested that her weak heart could have caused Jenny to succumb to the tide’s pull.
After days of intense testimony, the jury deliberated for three hours and 45 minutes before setting Elisha free — a verdict that drew an immediate outburst of applause, according to published reports.
There are doubts that Elisha held his wife’s head under water, and it was the letters the couple sent each other that swayed her. They wrote lovingly to each other while he taught summer school in Tennessee and she spent the summer with her family in Hilton Village. They used nicknames like “Darling Pet,” “Precious” and “My Own Love Bird.”
Elisha Kent Kane III was head of the Romance language department at the University of Tennessee.
Elisha was charged with the murder of his wife, Jenny G. Kane (1898–1931), by drowning her in Chesapeake Bay. The trial was such a sensation at the time that there were crowds of people outside the courthouse unable to find room inside. Elisha’s father, Evan Kane, was instrumental in obtaining his son’s acquittal by presenting medical evidence at his trial. He established that Jenny had a heart condition that contributed to her drowning. Elisha resigned his position with the university after his trial.
After three hours and 45 minutes mulling the fate of UT Professor Elisha Kent Kane on the charge of premeditated murder in the strange drowning death of his wife, the Hampton, Virginia, jury returned with its verdict: Not Guilty.
Nearly everything Kane had to say after his acquittal found its way into newspapers across the country. He thanked Judge Vernon Spratley, to whom he said “I owe my life or—what I prize more—my freedom.” He called the fall of 1931 “three months of hell.”
That day, Kane announced plans to return to Knoxville and his post as head of the Romance Languages Department at UT. “There have not been any difficulties between me and the authorities of the University of Tennessee,” he declared, a quote that appeared in the New York Times. “I have been on a temporary leave of absence.”
In Knoxville, reporters staked out Kane’s Kingston Pike apartment, waiting for his return. Whether to avoid reporters or memories of Jenny, when Kane arrived he got a room at the Andrew Johnson Hotel on Gay Street. Then Kane walked into the office of Dean James Hoskins on the Hill and resigned. The 61-year-old Hoskins admitted to the Associated Press that Kane’s resignation had “relieved the university of a delicate situation.”
But what exactly was UT’s “delicate situation?” Employing a professor who was officially cleared of murder? Or one whose personal life, his marital troubles and his atheism had become the subject of national gossip?
At his apartment, Kane spoke briefly with those patient reporters. “What’s news to you boys is a 100 percent tragedy for me,” he said. He emptied the old apartment out before Christmas and announced he’d be going to study abroad again, at the University of Madrid.
Kane apparently never taught again. If he ever finished the novel he was working on here, he didn’t publish it. He did finish his landmark translation of a long 14th-century poem called Libro de Buen Amor, or The Book Of Good Love, which he’d worked on at UT. It would be published in a small quantity in 1933. The text, by medieval cleric Juan Ruiz, is a peculiar opus in rhyming iambic septameter, both pious and bawdy, sometimes fringing on the pornographic. On one level, the poem is an uninhibited acceptance of man’s carnal nature. Kane explains in his preface that he preserved every lewd detail “for the greater glory of God and the shivering delight of old ladies of both sexes.”
That year Kane married again: not his intimate correspondent, Betty Dahl, or the spectral UT beauty of Knoxville gossip, but one Gladys Schuler, a nurse who had worked with his father. The two eventually had two children, a son and a daughter. He named his son Thomas Leiper Kane, for his famous grandfather, the Union officer.
For the decade after his indictment for murdering his wife, Kane’s resume in one hard-to-find volume of Encyclopedia of American Biography is perfectly blank. It includes no mention of a murder charge, only that his first wife “died.”
Meanwhile, Jenny Graham Kane’s grave in Hampton was marked with a stone inscribed with Latin verse from Dante: “No greater grief than to remember days of joy when misery is at hand.” For years after her drowning, someone regularly left jonquils and narcisses there.
Former colleagues regretted that the murder charge had ruined Kane’s promising academic and literary career. It did not ruin his military career. Kane got a rare second chance in the form of the biggest war of all time.
By the time of Pearl Harbor, almost exactly 10 years after his acquittal, Major Elisha Kane was back in the army. He served in the South Pacific, and saw combat in some hellish battles, at Guadalcanal, at Luzon, at the Bismarck Archipelago. Promoted to colonel, Kane received several distinctions for conspicuous service, including the Bronze Star.
In 1947, at 53, Kane suffered a paralytic stroke that his family attributed to an illness he contracted in the war; he was crippled for the rest of his life, which he divided between Kane, Pennsylvania, and Largo, Florida.
Col. Elisha Kent Kane III was in St. Petersburg in early 1959, when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, a few weeks before his 65th birthday.
The Kingston Pike apartment where Kane and his wife lived in 1931 is still there, but the view out their old front window has changed. Long after Kane left, developers built a shopping center across the street from it and called it Western Plaza. Kingston Manor still thrives as an apartment building. On a stone crest mounted on the second floor, four cat heads, arranged around a cross, stare out over the courtyard.
Kane aspired to be an important author, but today, the other Elisha Kent Kane, the 19th-century Arctic explorer, is still much better known even at UT than the great nephew who shared his name. UT no longer even has a separate Romance Languages department, but it does have a comprehensive doctoral program, something Kane pushed for, without luck, in 1930. That frustrated initiative is the only reason Kane is mentioned in the official history of UT, To Foster Knowledge.
Few remember the Kane story, but one of his students, who prefers we don’t use her name, knew Kane as a French instructor, and recalls his classes on the second floor of Ayres Hall. Contrary to others’ perceptions of him as a boor, she found him to be the most gallant professor at UT in 1931. “Every time one of his women students came into the room, he would stand up immediately, just as though each woman was a queen.”
“I thought he was kind and fair,” she says. “Of course, we knew he was an extraordinary person.” She says he’d occasionally poke fun at East Tennessee; the grandiose spire on the Sevier County courthouse struck Kane as especially funny. She also remembers him listing the three things he loved, in order: his dog, his car, and his wife. She recalls the sports car Kane drove around campus, equipped with a dog carrier in the rumble seat for the German Shepherd that his in-laws alleged he called “Jesus Christ.”
“I never did know what to believe about his wife’s drowning,” his former student says today. “The gossip was that his wife’s family was very suspicious.” She says her friends had the impression that Kane’s Virginia in-laws, the Grahams, were simple people who resented Kane’s education and social status and jumped to conclusions. “I had an idea that he was really innocent,” she says. “That’s the feeling I had. He said he was innocent, and I really think he was.”
She never saw Kane again but says a relative encountered him in Pennsylvania after the war as an invalid living in a room lined with “garish” pictures.
Another Knoxvillian got to know Kane better after the trial. Lee Ragsdale was only four years old at the time of Kane’s acquittal, but his parents were good friends of the Kanes; Ragsdale’s father, an engineer, gave Kane automotive advice. The couple appeared as character witnesses at the trial.
Ragsdale says Kane visited Knoxville repeatedly after he left. When Ragsdale turned 12 in 1939, Kane gave him a .22 rifle. Ragsdale says he liked Kane; he still calls him “Sash.”
“He was a character,” Ragsdale says. “That’s the only way to describe him. A wild Irishman.”
The last time Ragsdale saw Kane may have been when he visited the former professor in Kane, Pennsylvania, in 1948. He spent the night in Kane Manor, a B&B converted from Kane’s father’s old hospital. He recalls that Kane seemed ill at the time, and that Kane warned that some of the guns in his extravagant collection were loaded.
The Kane story isn’t one professors still talk about over coffee in the foreign-languages department. Some language instructors say they’ve never heard of him. One, French Professor Paul Barrette, recalls that soon after his arrival at UT in the early ’70s, UT was selling, cheaply, several copies of a large, handsomely bound copy of The Book Of Good Love, translated by Kane.
On the fourth floor of UT’s Hodges library are traces of the vigorous young professor who once led the Romance Languages department: a couple of copies of Kane’s translation of The Book Of Good Love, not the original, but a 1968 edition. It opens with a short biographical essay about Kane, which claims that Kane was the first to translate this important Spanish poem into English—but which mentions neither his murder charge nor his 12-year marriage to Jenny Graham Kane.
On the next aisle over is one copy of Kane’s own 1928 book, Gongorism And the Golden Age. Kane’s cartoonish illustrations in the book are indeed bizarre, as the reviews noted: vultures conducting a Christian funeral for a skeleton; a naked woman cuddling with a robed scholar, who’s pinching her thigh; three helmeted surgeons hovering over an elderly patient as one, wearing a mortarboard, is snipping apart the patient’s intestine with a pair of scissors. The illustrations seem to reflect the subject, Gongorism, a literary movement noted for its strange imagery and obscure
Elisha Kane was charged with the murder of his wife, Jenny G. Kane (1898–1931), by drowning her in Chesapeake Bay. The trial was such a sensation at the time that there were crowds of people outside the courthouse unable to find room inside. Elisha’s father, Evan Kane, was instrumental in obtaining his son’s acquittal by presenting medical evidence at his trial. He established that Jenny had a heart condition that contributed to her drowning. Elisha resigned his position with the university after his trial.
Jenny Campbell Graham married Elisha Kent Kane III in 1919 at age 21.They were very happy together. On September 11, 1931, Jenny drowned after having consumed some “needled beer” (spiked near-bear) in the heat at Grand View Beach, now in Hampton, VA. Her husband, who concealed the fact that his wife was drunk on illegal alcohol, was charged with murder on innuendo and gossip, but when it came to trial, it was found that THERE WAS NO EVIDENCE THAT HE HAD DONE ANYTHING TO BRING ABOUT HER DEATH. He was completely exonerated. He remarried, had two children, and was a highly decorated WWII hero.
Jenny Graham Kane was from Newport News, Virginia the Hilton area.
So what do you think happened? Only 2 people knows and they are both dead.