The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is a classic story by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s a tale of a mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll and the strange serum that transforms him into the raving sociopath Mr. Hyde. In one strange case, life mimicked art just a few decades later.
Dr. J. V. Jay was one of the most prominent physicians in Buncombe County, North Carolina. His professional reputation was known throughout the Carolina hills in 1903. As a result, he had a considerable practice.
Dr. Jay also hid a dark secret that only his closest family knew. There was a monster beneath that proper bedside manner, a virtual “Mr. Hyde.” The doctor was a drinker and drink brought out a violent rage. No one imagined how far that mania would travel. Dr. Jay devastated his community, and the nation, when he committed the most heinous act imaginable.
Dr. James Vestal Jay was born in 1868, in Rutherford County, North Carolina. His wife, Rebecca Dillingham, was born in Buncombe County, North Carolina. The couple married in 1897. Their first child, Laura, was born in 1898. Their second, William, was born in 1900. Their last child, John, was born in 1902. From all outward appearances, he enjoyed a beautiful and successful family.
No one else knew the kindly doctor had a terrible affinity for the bottle. He was a binge drinker who became mercilessly violent when under the influence. Period documentation reported James was under the influence of whiskey, but that is questionable. There are consumers today who are prone to violence when drunk, but Jay was exceptionally so. It seems more probable the good doctor might’ve had a fondness for straight moonshine.
Moonshine has a shady history that goes far beyond battles with Revenuers or the government. Moonshine was often toxic, and frequently lethal. Particularly before World War II, the moonshine industry was dangerous. During its history into the Twenty-First Century, the liquid has been known to contain a variety of potential toxins. It can include dangerous levels of lead, arsenic, methanol alcohol, embalming fluid, antifreeze, lye, manure, paint thinner, or any of a host of additives or pollutants. Poorly manufactured moonshine has a long and documented history of causing paralysis, blindness, and neurological damage. Ethanol and methanol have both been linked to confusion and impaired cognition. When you pair that risk with existing violent tendencies, it’s difficult to predict any normal outcome.
Binge drinking is usually a short-term habit, where an individual consumes a great amount of alcohol in a short amount of time. It may be as brief as a few hours, or last a few days. Jay began the final binge during the first week of October. Rebecca was accustomed to his habit and accustomed to summoning neighbor and relative, Thomas Dillingham, when violence ensued. She took the usual precautions and waited to ride the episode out, as usual.
This time, his binge didn’t stop. She noticed a difference in his demeanor. He grew even more violent with the passage of time, and still continued to drink. Days became weeks. By the time she realized she needed help, she was trapped.
Jay had threatened to kill his family before when drunk. He’d physically fought with Thomas. The former episodes had all passed far more quickly. Rebecca started to hide the objects around the home that might be used as weapons.
He came home inebriated on October 17. She had just put the children to bed and spent most of the Friday night attempting to calm him down. As soon as she thought it was safe, she lowered her guard, but he attacked again. He physically ran her off the property. She was forced to leave her sleeping children, who were two-, four-, and six-years-old.
She ran to Thomas’s house and stayed the rest of the night with his family. When dawn arrived, she returned to the house and began breakfast for the children. She assumed Jay would be passed out by that point and she would slip the children away while he slept.
To her horror, he was not only awake, he was even angrier. She helped the children dress and fixed their breakfast while he paced and ranted through the house. He claimed he wanted to exterminate his family, but couldn’t find his pistol. Rebecca removed the firearms from the property a week earlier. She never suspected other things lying around the house might be used as a weapon. Jay found an old claw hammer and again pursued his exhausted wife. He used the hammer’s claw as a weapon.
He chased her around the home’s exterior as he tried to hit her skull. He only got her body a couple of times. The children screamed for her from the porch, but she was terrified. She didn’t want him with her babies, anymore than with her. She took off across the field in hopes he would give chase and ignore the children. She just had to reach the grocer down the road. They had a telephone and she could alert the neighbors, and someone could reach the authorities in Asheville.
She had a moment of hesitance and she started back towards the house. The children still called to her from the porch. She decided to gather as many men as she could. She ran to the store and confessed everything to the men there. The whole store emptied as customers and staff ran with her back to their house.
Help arrived too late. The three children lay on the porch’s first step. The eldest two were dead, and the baby was dying. Jay had attacked them all, and in the same grisly way. He had used the hammer’s claw on their skulls. The men gathered the tiny victims and tried to take them in the house. They assumed the doctor had fled. He hadn’t. He was inside gathering wood and paper. He yelled out that the first person who entered the home would die. Rebecca told them she’d hidden his pistol, but he might’ve found it.
The men decided, pistol or not, there were just too many of them and only one doctor. They all broke through the door together. They expected gunfire, but the doctor had lost whatever rage fueled him earlier. The now congenial killer said, “Hello boys, come in. I’m just starting a fire to get warm by.” He dropped match and stood over a pile of burning materials. He tried to immolate himself.
The men tackled him and doused the fire out before it could do any damage. The doctor was burned, but only slightly. He still wore his children’s blood on his clothing, hands and face. The men bound the doctor, hand and foot, to keep him from hurting anyone else or himself. He was carried to the Burleson place to wait for the authorities. Deputies Morgan and Hensley were the first officials there. They oversaw the activity in the house while Jay sobered up in a small cell. Even when the alcohol left his system, he never really returned.
By the time they escorted the doctor to the main jail, a few hundred people had gathered at the Burleson place. Several spectators noticed how strange the doctor behaved. He was compelled to bid the onlookers goodbye when they loaded into the buggy, even though he had just murdered his own children. The authorities took him through the small town of Democrat where another large crowd awaited. Again, Jay bid this audience farewell.
When asked why he committed such a heinous crime, the doctor said that after he saw the first splash of blood, he couldn’t help himself. One of the coldest insights into his thoughts was with authorities. Jay said he was sorry he did it, but that it was done and there was no reason to mourn. He never seemed to acknowledge the fact that he was also going to immolate himself. He said he’d left his wife enough money to ensure she was comfortable for life. It seemed the doctor that everyone knew had simply vanished into thin air.
Perhaps it was the aftereffects of so much alcohol, or a true fit of insanity, but Jay confessed a number of strange things. Right after he was taken away, he told authorities that only weeks earlier, he and his wife discussed how blessed they were to have such happy, healthy children. His confessions had little influence on the case against him. A grand jury found a true bill against Jay on October 27, he was charged with three counts of murder. He was arraigned on October 28. His wife remained in critical condition at the time of the arraignment.
Most residents were unsure if the doctor would even survive until trial. Threats of lynching became commonplace while the legal system proceeded. Many newspapers even printed articles that said Jay was lynched the morning his crimes were discovered.
Jay was called in Superior Court on November 18 and charged with murder, to which he pled guilty. The trial was set to begin a week later. The defense pled insanity. On December 2, Jay was convicted of one count of second-degree murder. His sentence was 30 years of hard labor in the state penitentiary, in Raleigh.
This did not satisfy the public or the newspapers of the era. The majority felt he should’ve been hanged. He was to have a separate trial for each murdered child. Should he survive the first 30-year-sentence, he would be tried again, and would again plead guilty, and be sentenced to another 30-year-sentence. It would continue until a full 90 years had been served.
In March of 1904, the Sheriff of Buncombe County delivered Jay to prison. Strangely enough, Jay repeatedly emphasized that he was of sound mind and recalled killing his children, while his defense attempted to claim insanity in the courtroom. He never mourned his children, or the loss of his wife, even when he sobered up and realized what he’d done. He didn’t exhibit any remorse for his actions while in jail. He did actually protest when his fellow inmates aggravated him by singing, I Ain’t Got No Baby Now.
The authorities stated he was a cheerful inmate up until the point he was shackled for prison. Then, he broke down.
Several era reports also state he murdered his wife, but he did not. As a matter of fact, she survived and eventually put her life back together. In 1910, she filed for divorce from Jay in Buncombe County Superior Court. She lived until 1960. Jay’s brother, unnamed, worked as a deputy clerk for the office of register deeds for years.
Jay made the papers again in 1905, when he announced he wanted to study law. The strange declaration was suspected by many to be an attempt to portray himself as insane. Again, most newspapers implied that Jay didn’t need to study, he needed to be hung. Rumors also suggested he’d gone insane and been institutionalized by 1907, but he hadn’t. He spent the rest of his life in a prison camp that constructed railroads. There was never need for a second trial, Jay didn’t survive the first sentence. He died in prison in 1921.