Alexander Jeffries (1773-1838); his first wife Frances Jeffries (d. 1824); Mary Elizabeth Jeffries (1837-1844), the seven-year-old daughter of Alexander and his second wife; and the empty grave of his father-in-law Adam Dale (1768-1851), veteran of the War of 1812.
Alexander Jeffries was a cotton planter in antebellum Alabama, the owner of a large estate and dozens of enslaved people to work it. When he died in 1838, he left his land and property to his second wife and their two children, naming his widow -- born Elizabeth Evans Dale -- as the executrix of his estate. Elizabeth is known to history as Mrs. Gibbons Flanagan Jeffries High Brown Routt. By the age of 56, she'd been wed and widowed six times -- a love life that's made her the subject of whispers and rumors of murder since 1838, when Alexander Jeffries died and his son Richard accused his stepmother of poisoning him.
My next project is a biography of this "Black Widow of Hazel Green," whose life illustrates the ways white women gained power and influence in the antebellum South -- and just how easily they could lose it. Whether or not Elizabeth was a killer (and I do have some suspicions about husband #4...), the antebellum South was a brutal and violent place: a society built on the abuse and exploitation of enslaved people. These were Elizabeth and her fellow planters' true victims, and in my book I'll tell some of their stories as well. As for the "Black Widow" herself, for now I'll say not to trust everything you read online. At this point in my research I can prove that many of the historical details presented as "fact" in popular accounts of her life are plainly inaccurate.
What I don't know yet is where she's buried.
Elizabeth Dale's body was not laid to rest in the Jeffries cemetery at Hazel Green, Alabama. By 1856, her reputation had been so thoroughly destroyed in her community that she left the state to live with her son William in Mississippi. William A. D. Jeffries's grave can be found in Memphis, Tennessee, along with his wife and two of their children. His mother, however, isn't among them. Columbia, Tennessee, where Elizabeth's parents were laid to rest, is another promising spot. Elizabeth's mother, Mary Dale, had her husband Adam's body exhumed and moved from Hazel Green to Columbia before she died -- unwilling, according to some accounts, to have him spend eternity in a place where his family was held in contempt. Elizabeth, too, moved her first husband's body to Columbia to be buried near her parents. (That man, Reverend Samuel Gibbons, was not a murder victim: they were married for 18 years before he died of yellow fever.) Yet Elizabeth doesn't seem to be buried there either.
I haven't given up the search, but after visiting the Jeffries cemetery last fall, I suspect her burial site won't be easy to find. The graves of Alexander Jeffries and his family have been vandalized and abandoned, partly because of their association with the alleged murderess Elizabeth Dale. Perhaps there's a holly tree in Tennessee or Mississippi slowly sinking roots through her grave, too.