The Ripley and Sutherland families of Hawkins County, Tennessee, were much like the Capulet and Montague families in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Sadly, the outcome of their struggles was also much the same. This proves the old adage that “parents should choose their battles wisely.”
Miller Ripley, also called Keller in the newspapers, was an average, happy-go-lucky guy of the era. He was born in 1873 to William and Rachel Ripley. He and enlisted in the army at Knoxville, in 1893. The Ripley family was a notable clan of the region. Ripley was closely related to Col. Ripley, Esq., of Knoxville, attorney for the Southern Railway.
Eventually, Ripley discovered the girl of his dreams when he was 25. She was Laura, or “Lurie,” Sutherland. Sutherland was also from a respectable family and, while younger than Ripley, she was already a landowner. The two continued to see one another, although they found themselves amid a firestorm.
The Sutherland and Ripley families did not get along. At all. No reason was established for the bad blood between them. The relationship between Miller and Lurie was thwarted at every turn, but they couldn’t dismiss their feelings for one another.
The two desperate lovers decided they couldn’t live without one another. They eloped on February 2, 1897. They believed the families would then have to accept the union and let them live in peace. Rather than embracing what had been inevitable between them, their families were colder than ever. As a last resort, Ripley took his bride to see if his father might show mercy. It was a vain effort. His father disowned him and turned them out.
They felt it was all over just ten days after their marriage. The couple next went to the home of Lurie’s brother, Henry Sutherland. In a fit of anger, they set fire to his house while he and his family were out. They then seemed to just disappear. The families grew anxious by Valentine’s Day. The last words between them were harsh. The horse they were seen on eventually wandered home, without the young couple, and it was no longer saddled. There was no sign of either the young man or the young lady.
They began to tell neighbors the couple was missing. Word came around the 15th that two bodies had been pulled from the Holston, below Surgoinsville. It was as they feared. The young couple was dead. Authorities estimate they died on February 13, 1897.
Reconstructing the Scene
Authorities reconstructed the scene as best they could. The couple couldn’t overcome the exile from their loved ones, even though they had adored one another. They rode a horse to a church near the Holston. They cut rope from the bell tower and left their outer clothes and saddle inside. They sat the horse free to roam.
Like Romeo and Juliet, they each carried vials of laudanum. They both drank, but the poison didn’t kill them. In a final despondent move, they tied one another together and jumped in the river on February 12.
Lurie authored the letter that Ripley carried in his pocket. Their last request was to be buried together, in the same coffin. The request was granted. Both families were further crushed when medical examiners told them that the young couple was well into their first pregnancy.