by Robert A. Waters
On January 12, 1905, the Washington Post reported: “Milton Bunnell, a Confederate veteran, was found dead by the side of the track of the Aberdeen and Ashboro Railroad, near Star, N. C., where a freight train had run over the deceased during the night. One leg and one arm was severed, and the body was cut and bruised in numerous places.”
At first, authorities thought the victim had died after being run over by a train. But a closer examination revealed that Bunnell had been attacked by an ax-wielding “maniac.” The investigation exposed a twisted plot to rob and murder the sixty-three-year-old resident of Asheboro.
A trail of blood showed that the body had been dragged about three hundred yards to a curve in the track where the engineer would be unable to see the corpse before hitting it. Searchers found the blood-stained ax in a nearby pond.
Court documents published in the Asheboro Courier reported that “the killing was done with an axe by splitting [Bunnell’s] head open by a lick from behind and by two other severe wounds with the blade of an axe, one on the jaw and one on the neck near the collarbone. Soon after the killing a northbound train knocked the body off the track, mutilating it. On his person was found $460 sewed up in his clothes, but his purse, which contained four ten dollar bills, two one dollar bills, two ten dollar gold pieces, one five dollar gold piece, and some silver was missing. It was clear that the deceased had been killed and robbed by someone who had taken his purse, not knowing he had any other money on his person...”
Court documents don’t record how Bunnell earned his living after the war, but he must have done well.
In June, 1864, Milton Bunnell joined the First North Carolina Junior Reserves. By then, Union invaders were over-running much of the doomed Confederacy. Made up of teenagers as young as 15, the Reserves fought in several skirmishes before being tested by fire at the Battle of Bentonville. They fought bravely in a losing effort, and surrendered a month later with Gen. Joseph P. Johnston and the Army of Tennessee.
After showing off a ten dollar gold piece to a friend, Charles Smith, 18, became the chief suspect. Charles was the son of Malcolm “Make” Smith, and they lived near the Aberdeen and Asheboro Railroad line.
Lawmen brought Charles in for questioning, and he soon admitted that he had killed Bunnell. According to the suspect, Bunnell had visited Charles’ grandmother, Dorcas Brewer, then left to go visit his sister. While at his grandmother’s home, Charles had seen the victim displaying gold coins and “greenbacks.” He stated that he told his father about it, and they plotted to kill Bunnell for the money.
According to the confession, Make ordered Charles to pick up an ax, and they walked to a nearby bridge that Bunnell would have to pass to get to his sister’s home. As Bunnell walked by, Make told Charles to strike the victim with his ax. After Bunnell fell to the ground, Charles hit him twice more, killing him.
After stealing the purse from Bunnell’s body, the killers dragged him to the railroad track in an attempt to hide their deed. Make then gave Charles a ten-dollar gold piece, and took the rest of the money.
Once Charles confessed, he led lawmen to the place where Make had hidden the loot. Court documents stated that “they went to a small outhouse in which was a large box containing cotton-seed. [Charles] looked about and finally the box was prized open and Bunnell’s purse containing $59.85 was found under the box, one of the gold pieces being gone.”
Charles was tried first, and convicted of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 30 years at hard labor. Make got eighteen years.