The Icebox Revisited

Houston had one of its most shocking race murders 45 years ago. But exactly whose tragedy was it?

Johnson's appeals, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, had failed; but Smith got stay after stay. He recalls going to bed countless times thinking he'd be dead the next day, but he was never executed. (A torture, he would later say, almost worse than death.) He languished on death row until the 1972 Supreme Court decision that temporarily abolished the death penalty. His sentence commuted to life, he remained in prison until 1980, when he somehow managed to get paroled.

Now, tonight, Robert would be seeing him for the first time. He drove to Smith's house in the Acres Homes section of north Houston. The whole family was there. David Arthur had died of bone cancer several years earlier and Adrian had been executed. No one knew where Charles was. But Roy and Ira Lee both came.

"It was strange," Robert says. "We'd last been together when we were kids. The last time Joe saw me I was 13 years old, an average young kid. But it was different now. We were hard."

Billy and his sister, Elaine, were inseparable.
Photo courtesy of Elaine Flowers
Billy and his sister, Elaine, were inseparable.
Billy's last school picture, taken in 1958 -- the year before he disappeared.
Photo courtesy of Elaine Flowers
Billy's last school picture, taken in 1958 -- the year before he disappeared.

Footsteps. She was conscious, vaguely, of approaching footsteps. Just outside her window maybe. She opened her eyes and looked around. Right: Houston. She was back in Houston. London to New Jersey to Manhattan, and now back in Houston. Morning. She was alone.

The footsteps paused. So they were. (Just outside her window.) A gate creaked. The footsteps and the gate and the creak ended in a crash. Somehow the sound of that gate closing was, without a doubt, the loudest crash she'd heard. Somehow, if she were the kind of person to describe anything as the loudest crash ever, she would have found this an appropriate time to do so, but she wouldn't say something like that, you understand.

And then she got out of bed and realized that 29 years had passed since her son's death.

Doris had, simply, never quite recovered. "There was a numbness," she says now. She had refused to attend the trials, except when required to testify. Her testimony was willfully emotionless; tears would mean defeat. Later, she had brief communions with the murder. In 1964, she sent a letter to the board of pardons, asking that Joe Edward Smith's life be spared; capital punishment, she wrote, is an immoral form of collective revenge. She saved the certified mail stubs. Proof that something, however small, could be done so that her son's murder might not be, as she wrote, "so very meaningless." She never received a reply.

Mostly, though, she retreated. Frank came and went. They had married in October 1959. She pinpoints the beginning of the end, with some precision, as the day she says she stabbed him through the heart with a knitting needle. New Jersey, August 1970: a hot Sunday. They were sitting on the back porch drinking sherry and arguing about Vietnam. Her political discussions with Frank tended to end poorly. He had an extensive vocabulary and a Ph.D. She'd never been to college, was insecure about her own intelligence. During this particular argument, he wouldn't look up from his paper, told her dismissively that she didn't know what she was talking about. She rose angrily, went inside, slammed and locked the door. Frank began knocking. She gave him the finger. She said he punched through the glass and unlocked the door. She ran into another room and saw a pair of No. 1 knitting needles. Lately she'd been knitting clothes for her grandchild. (Who had, at this point, not yet been conceived. Elaine was not even married. But regardless -- she'd been knitting.) She grabbed the needles, about the length of an ice pick, and ran to the stairs.

Frank approached. She swung. The needle in her left hand went through his chest and punctured his aorta. He fell, pulled off his shirt and passed out. She called an ambulance and returned to beg, with some insistence, that he please not die. The ambulance arrived and wheeled him out. Massive internal bleeding. Neighbors came to see what had happened. "Well," Doris told them.

Long story short: He lived, forgave her unconditionally, no charges were brought, and she "felt so damn guilty" that she stayed with him another five years. When she finally left, the anger and sadness became more just flat-out fear. She was scared. Fifty years old and never had lived completely on her own. She'd spend the morning looking forward to lunch, which was after all basically the early afternoon, which was itself very close to the early evening, which would be time for the first glass of wine. Then she'd drink until she passed out. Ten years it went on.

Finally that very real crash. In the end, it was only a gate closing. But somehow that crash became the thing that told her it's time. Why that particular gate or that particular morning or that particular moment, no one could really say. She went to a noon AA meeting and here she is now, 16 years later. The grief still comes, still seems as raw as when it first happened, but she copes differently. Her social life revolves around the church. Unitarian, still. She tried some other things. Zen meditation. Detective stories. Sitting in her apartment among her books and Shakespearean plays and classical LPs, sipping tea, there's a quiet calmness about her. Yet one cannot entirely shake the feeling that true serenity will visit her again only once.

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