Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Corinne Elliot Lawton- What Really Happened To Her?

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)
Wilson Library-UNC

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?

Click here to read my blog that explains Corinne's real love story! 

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?

Corinne Elliot Lawton (P-415/4)
 Wilson Library- UNC

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 certainly no mention of any uprising within the family or suicide. On the contrary, it shows the loving and rather close-knit family the Lawton’s actually were.  This helps disprove another rumor that has been widespread online. Many people go so far as to state that her family thought she was “cursed” for taking her own life. Thus the statue of Jesus in their family plot of the cemetery is facing her back, showing she turned her back on her salvation.

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.  

Lawton Girls
(P-415/9) Wilson Library UNC
Bottom line is that during the weeks leading up to Corrine’s death, she had been ill. Her mother claimed that for 10 days Corinne had been sick with a cold. Other members of the household grew ill, and even notations in the diary mention Sarah's own recollection of suffering sickness the previous Summer, gave mention of a very bad illness.  It seems to me that perhaps the Yellow Fever epidemic that had claimed its toll on many in that area just months prior, hadn’t fully died down. If the weather was continuously raining as she states in her diary, and she mentions the warm temperatures that would make sense about the mosquito theory that Ruth Rawls mentions. The fact that more than one person in the house was ill tells me that something was going around, whether it was Yellow Fever or not, it was obviously bad. Another visitor to the home died only a few weeks after Corinne.

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."

In Conclusion

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
In the end, we should all be happy that this young lady did not take her own life. We should be glad that she was not mistreated by her family, nor was she forced to live an unhappy life with a man she didn’t love. If that was the case, she would have been married off by her family at a younger age. No, certainly her parents loved Corinne so deeply that they never shunned her in life, nor in death and even erected a statue made by one of the most sought after Sicilian sculptor's of the 19th Century which I am sure cost a small fortune, and placed it at her grave to honor her memory. Thus, showing the love and respect they had for their daughter. In fact, genealogy records prove that Corinne’s niece was named after her, showing how much the family adored her.

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

(Original Copyright 9/11/2013, by J'aime Rubio)
Also published in the book, "Stories of the Forgotten: Infamous, Famous & Unremembered," by J'aime Rubio, 2016. 

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

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).

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