|Photo Credit: Historic Cemeteries- Mary Homick © 2011|
What Urban Legends Imply
In 1877, a young lady by the name of Corinne Elliot Lawton tragically died after throwing herself into a river just miles from her home. The story circulated in sewing circles and afternoon tea conversations, claimed that the young lady was so depressed that she could not marry the man that she loved, that she was being forced to marry another man, and between both circumstances she chose to end her life in such a tragic way.
So did this happen, or what? I am trying my best to address this. You see, I was scrolling along on Facebook and I noticed on a lovely page called “Historic Cemeteries”, (which by the way, has awesome photographs of cemeteries!) and I came across an album of photographs from Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. One photograph in particular stood out to me. This lovely headstone to a young lady named Corinne Elliot Lawton.
On the actual headstone it marks her date of death as being January 24, 1877 and her epitaph reads: “Allured to brighter worlds, and led the way.” The statue that appears to be of Corinne’s physical likeness, was brought in from Palermo, Cicily. It had been created by renowned 19th Century artist and sculptor, Benedetto Civiletti at her father, Alexander Lawton’s request.
|Civiletti's design of monument (P-415/11)|
What Other Sites Claim
Many websites state very detailed and over-the-top stories of this young lady being in love with a man who was of a simpler means (lower-class), and that her parents would not approve of their relationship. They also state that an arranged marriage was made by her father, Alexander Robert Lawton. He was a widely known Brigadier General in the Confederate Army, a Lawyer, Politician and Diplomat. I can understand how easy it would be for most people searching for answers, and finding all these websites that claim the same thing, to just assume that their facts are correct and continue to tell the same story again and again. Sadly, this is what happens when facts get mixed up with rumors and suddenly a hundred or so years later it is seemingly impossible to tell fact from fiction. Or is it?
Who Was Corinne Elliott Lawton?
Corinne Elliot Lawton was born September 21, 1846 to her parents Alexander Robert Lawton and Sarah Hillhouse Alexander. She was the oldest daughter of this highly prestigious family in Georgia. From recorded letters and documents in historical record, it shows that her friends and acquaintances thought of her in a very flattering light. One letter from a friend of the family stated that he believed Corinne to have "elegant culture" and "surprising intelligence." In every mention of Corinne, she is spoken of very highly as a "spiritual" young lady, with very good Christian values and having plans for her future.
What Really Happened?
So here we are in 1877, the home of the Lawton’s at 135 Perry Street (which would now be located at 15 West Perry Street). According to Corinne’s mother’s diary, (Sarah Lawton; whose granddaughter donated it to the Georgia Historical Society), there is no mention of an engagement being arranged for Corinne, nor is there mention of planning an event for such a matrimonial union either. In fact, the only thing that is mentioned is that just days before the time of Corinne’s death many in the household were sick, including Corinne.
Historian, Ruth Rawls discovered a most amazing entry in Sarah’s diary and transcribed it on her blog which gives a more detailed look into the thoughts of Corinne’s mother and what was going on at the time. She also goes in depth into locating letters from a friend of the Lawton’s who sent words of sympathy in the passing of Corinne, even going so far as to mention her sickness and that she was a “sweet, noble and Christian girl,” and that Sarah had the hope of seeing her daughter again (thus there was no implication of a suicide.) Click here to read the letter!
In both the diaries and letters, there is never any mention of Corinne being depressed or distraught, and
|Corinne Elliot Lawton (P-415/4)|
Wilson Library- UNC
The statue of Jesus wasn’t even put in the cemetery until after Corinne’s parents had died. Plus, Corinne hadn’t been buried at Bonaventure cemetery originally. First she was interred at the Laurel Grove Cemetery and years later re-interred at Bonaventure. That could explain why her grave was placed outside of the family plot and the direction it is facing. Perhaps they had run out of spaces.
I do not believe for one second that her family shunned her in death, nor do I think that they believed that she was condemned from receiving her chance at everlasting life. No, I do not believe she took her own life, and the words of her mother speak volumes in comparison to the typed opinions of various bloggers with no facts backing their stories up.
Nowhere in any blog did I see any hard core evidence, documents or photographs proving that Corinne was engaged or that she took her own life. If she was in love with a young man who was not accepted by the family, who was he? What was his name? Does anyone have proof of this?
If she was being forced to marry another man whom she didn't love, then who was she ‘allegedly’engaged to? Where are the engagement announcements? For the high caliber of family the Lawton's were, it would have been considered an insult to the community for not announcing ones engagement. From what I have researched, there is no trace of any sort of wedding or engagement announcement for Corinne with the newspapers local to the area.
Also, why is it that Ruth Rawls discovered Corinne’s mother speaking of her other daughter’s engagements and plans in various entries of her diary, yet the diary never mentions of any engagement or marriage plans for Corinne? Is it hard to fathom that by the age of 30, if Corinne hadn’t married yet, that it probably wasn’t a priority to her? At that time period, most women married young. From the notations in her mother’s diary it spoke of Corinne arriving home to Savannah from Augusta, where she had been “making visits.” Is it not unlikely to think that she enjoyed her freedom and traveling? Her photo that is stored at Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library shows that it was taken in Nashville, Tennessee. This gives me the impression she traveled around quite a bit.
|Lawton Girls (I believe girl at top is Corinne)|
(P-415/9) Wilson Library UNC
When I read that Corinne had been ill with the cold and then later seemed to be a little better only with slight fever, I started wondering if maybe she had got a slight bronchitis or pneumonia. The only reason I mention this is because two years ago around late December, I had been ill with a cold. I thought I had recovered, but slowly I grew more tired. I didn’t have a fever and if I did, it was slight. I suffered from a sore throat though, so I decided to see the doctor. They told me, to my surprise, that they wanted me to get a chest X-ray, so I agreed. It turned out that I had “walking pneumonia” and had no idea. Within days though, I took a turn for the worse and nearly died. I was so ill that I had to move in with my mother for weeks. She cared for me and slept by my side, often wondering if I would stop breathing in my sleep. Thankfully, I recovered.
When I read Corinne’s mother’s words, I thought of my own experience and wondered if maybe Corinne’s cold had turned into something far worse, thus the reason her mother stopped writing about Corrine’s illness and referring it to the “days of darkness.” Perhaps Corinne took a turn for the worse, just as I had. When I was ill, I had antibiotics and still I almost died. I can imagine if I had been sick while living during that time period of 1877, I would have been a ‘goner’ for sure.
Again, it is quite possible given the recorded amount of deaths caused by the Yellow Fever in the state just months prior and the fact that Wallace Cummings died shortly thereafter, that both their deaths may have been caused by that very same Yellow Fever epidemic, so we may never know for sure which illness caused her death. But we do know that illness took her life, not suicide.
Corinne's mother, Sarah even wrote in her diary the moment her daughter took her last breath, at 7:40 a.m. on January 24, 1877. Had Corinne drowned herself as the urban legends tell, then how on earth would her mother know the last moment of her daughter’s life? Recorded in a preserved letter from a friend of the Lawton family, Mr. Stuart Robinson mentions having had read the The Savannah Morning News (January 25, 1877) which posted her short obituary, where it states that Corinne had died after a "short illness."
I think that with the tales of “romantic tragedies” or “star crossed lovers” that cannot be, that people become so fascinated with it that it becomes larger than life. The tales and rumors then spread for over 100 years making it hard to decipher between the factual part and the fictional parts. The rumors of a young, beautiful southern bride-to-be who jumps to her death into a raging river, to escape an eminent and miserable marriage proved to be just that, a rumor! There are no historical facts backing these over embellished tales.
|Corinne's monument (P-415/10)|
Wilson Library UNC
Her death was tragic and very sad, because of the fact that she died so young. It was even more tragic due to the fact it was caused by an illness she could not recover from. But, we should take heart in the fact that she died in bed, surrounded by her mother, her father and her loving family, instead of dying all alone in a dark watery grave at the bottom of the river as others have claimed she did. Corinne’s story is one that should be told over and over again, but told correctly. We should honor her memory by stating the true facts and by remembering her for the good person she was. We should also take delight in the fact that she and her immediate loved ones are all together now, resting in peace.
Rest In Peace, Corinne. You are not forgotten!
|Photo Credit: Historic Cemeteries - Mary Homick © 2011|
(Copyright 2013, Dreaming Casually by J'aime Rubio)
To learn more about Corinne Elliot Lawton, please check out Ruth Rawl's blog. She is certainly dedicated to keeping the correct version of Corinne's life and death alive and available to set the record straight once and for all. Thank you Ruth, for your dedication to find the truth. You are a fellow truth seeker!
All historical photos were provided to me by Alexander Robert Lawton Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Digital Southern Historical Collection: Series 6- circa 1860-1889
P-415/4, P-415/9, P-415/10, P-415/11
Thank you to Laura Clark Brown
Coordinator , Digital Southern Historical Collection
Cemetery Photos provided to me by Historic Cemeteries - Mary Homick © 2011
Thank you to Mary Homick @ Historic Cemeteries for allowing me to use her photos of Corinne's grave at Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. To see more of Mary's absolutely amazing photography please check her out on facebook.
Yellow Fever Epidemic (1876) Savannah Georgia- Information -kristinekstevens.com
Sarah Lawton's diary is available at the Georgia Historical Society at: 501 Whitaker St Savannah, GA
The Alexander Lawton Papers, as well as many other documents regarding the Lawton family can also be obtained by Chapel Hill's Wilson Library (University of North Carolina).