Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Only Undertaker Ever Executed in Florida

Avon Elwood North and his wife
The Murder of Betty Albritton
by Robert A. Waters

Betty Albritton, 57, was an old-time Florida Cracker. In 1951, she lived on a ranch near Frostproof. Known for her frugal living, Betty rarely spent money on necessities, much less non-essentials. It wasn’t that she didn’t have adequate finances--her husband had recently died, leaving his widow hundreds of acres, 400 head of cattle, a half-interest in nearby Ft. Meade’s only funeral parlor, and about $35,000 in local banks.

Betty lived with Henry, her developmentally disabled teenage son, and a black hired hand named James Hobbs, whom she treated like a member of her family.

On June 25, her nephew came by for a visit. Delighted to see him, she insisted that he and his family stay for supper. Betty prepared rice, sausage, gravy, and macaroni and cheese. Her nephew later told police that she said she felt “hale and hearty.”

Shortly before her company left, Avon Elwood North drove up. Co-owner of the funeral home, North had a secret past. His first wife had fled his violent outbursts, and his second had been shot dead. The mortician, who admitted pulling the trigger, claimed the shotgun had gone off accidently, and he was never charged with a crime.

North, who lived in Tampa at the time of the shooting, moved to Fort Meade and opened his funeral parlor. A few years later, Betty’s husband invested in the concern.

Rumors swirled about the young mortician. Some local residents claimed that when the funeral parlor encountered slow periods, North had a ready supply of poison available to improve business.

After Betty’s nephew left, North insisted that she, Henry, and James eat some candy he’d brought. He also requested that they ride with him to Ft. Meade. Betty hesitated, but a laughing North said, “Don’t worry, we’re not going juking.” This persuaded her, and the group drove to town, about fifteen miles away. By the time they arrived, Betty complained of severe stomach pain. On the way home to her ranch, she vomited twice. James would later testify that she told him the candy had made her sick.

By the time they arrived back at the ranch, North had to drag Betty up the steps and onto the porch. Betty had no telephone, so Henry and James wanted to fetch neighbors to come and help. At first Betty refused, but as her condition weakened, she agreed.

North, however, told them to drive his Jeep to the funeral home and get the “big car,” an ambulance. With James driving, the two set off down the road, leaving North alone with Betty. By the time James and Henry arrived back at the ranch, it was after midnight.

Betty Albritton lay dead on the front porch.

North sent James back to get his apprentice, William Arnold. North and Arnold transported Betty to the funeral home. Charleston Gazette reporter Ruth Reynolds wrote that Arnold noticed “bruises on [Betty’s] rear left shoulder, the right temple, across the nose, on the chin, on her left hand and on the fleshy part of both sides of her throat. Both the eyes were blackening. There was a cut through the upper lip, on the right cheek, on the lobes of the ears.”

Betty Albritton’s many relatives began arriving at the funeral home. They quickly became suspicious since, as far as they knew, she’d been in good health. Their misgivings, and those of law enforcement, were aroused even more when it became known that Betty had left all her property and money to her partner Elwood North. She’d even appointed him as the guardian of Henry.

North helped Arnold with the embalming. According to the apprentice, his employer seemed obsessed with covering up the bruises on Betty’s face and neck. He wasn’t successful, and her relatives were shocked when they saw her laid out in her casket. Morgan Albritton, her brother-in-law, stated: "What ails her? [She] looks worse than anybody I've ever seen in a funeral home."

Reynolds wrote that “Mrs. Albritton was buried in Mount Eden, an isolated little family cemetery off a clay road six miles from Frostproof, in spite of Morgan's grumbling. Tradition in the locality said that a body should be buried with the head to the west so that when the Savior comes the dead can rise from the grave and face east to greet Him. North had Mrs. Albritton's head to the east and feet to the west because she looked better that way to people who filed past the casket…”

A few days later, Deputy Sheriff Hamp Rogers, District Attorney Walter Woolfolk, and Special Investigator Neil Keen had the body exhumed. Physicians from the State Board of Health in Jacksonville arrived and performed an autopsy. They wrote that Mrs. Albritton's “throat was plainly marked as though someone had throttled her--with a thumb on one side of the throat and three fingers on the other.” The doctors from Jacksonville also discovered “unidentified alkaloids” in Betty’s stomach, which they took to be a mysterious poison.

One month after her death, Deputy Sheriff Rogers arrested Elwood North for the murder of Betty Albritton.

The trial was a sensation, attended by many national newspapers, wire services, and even Time magazine. North pled innocent. His attorneys attempted to convince jurors that Betty hadn’t been strangled at all, but had died of a heart attack. Two high-profile physicians insisted that the bruises on her face and neck might have been caused from thrashing around on the porch as she died. One doctor said Betty likely scratched her own face while in the midst of oxygen deprivation.

The shady funeral director’s defense didn’t work. It took the jury an hour and a half to find North guilty. The trial judge sentenced him to death in the electric chair.

Three years later, after many failed appeals, Avon Elwood North took his last breaths in Old Sparky, perhaps becoming the only mortician ever executed in the state of Florida.

After his execution, North’s wife published a letter he’d left her claiming he was innocent. Residents and relatives who lived in the normally peaceful area around Frostproof and Fort Meade had a difficult time swallowing North’s words. They still remembered the kind woman who liked to cook and herd cattle and who treated her neighbors with love and respect.

5 comments:

Lucy Forest said...

This was my grandmother's sister. I used to have a lot of clippings my mother had kept. I guess this is the 15 minutes of fame for my family, lol.

Unknown said...

I was told by my grandmother that his first wife was my mother.

John Arnold said...

My daddy was William Arnold...When this happened, my family lived on top floor of funeral home. While Elwood North was awaiting trial, he followed my daddy one night for a while and my dad knew he was following him. My daddy stayed behind a car that was in front of them and eventually North veered off. After this happened, my daddy took a job with the railroad and they moved to Lakeland.Before the trial, an attorney and a preacher that were friends of North came to see my daddy in Lakeland and they offered him a bribe to change his story. My daddy put them off and notified the police. When North's friends came back, the police were waiting in another room and heard the conversation. They were convicted of attempted bribery.my daddy was a hero.

RACook said...

I remember my sister Catherine Virginia Smith who was married to Preston Smith of Ft Meade telling me about what happened with Elwood North . I was born January of 1951 my sister was 19 years older than myself and told many storied of the happenings in Fort Meade.

Dolores Rhoden said...

This was my great grandmothers sister

Dolores Rhoden