A Deed, a Divorce, and a Death
Updated: Jan 1
Hometown Murders & Mysteries | December 2021
We hope our friends, neighbors, clients, and casual readers enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday! At our house, we had many things to celebrate this year, and we were incredibly thankful to enjoy a nice meal from the comforts of home. We hope never to forget how much we have to be grateful for.
Time got away from us with the holiday festivities, and unfortunately, we could not find the extra time for a November post. However, for December we decided the intrigue surrounding Mrs. Eliza Daulton Tarter's murder indictment in 1938 was worth adding her case to the top of our list to research and write about. It is a shorter story, but a fascinating one!
So, without further ado, let us get to it!
A Deed, a Divorce, and a Death.
Poison, Passion, or Circumstance?
Eliza and Babe Tarter
Eliza Daulton was born around 1895-1896 and grew up in the Bronston area with her parents, James and Emma Daulton, and at least two younger sisters. Sometime between 1910 and 1918, Eliza married Squire Thomas Tarter. Squire, known better around town as Babe Tarter, grew up in Russell County before marrying Eliza and settling in the western outskirts of Somerset in Pulaski County.
In 1920 Babe and Eliza lived on Mill Springs Road, in the Bourbon community, with two young sons, Ansel and Paul. Unfortunately, another son, James, died from heart disease only eight days after his birth in 1918. Eliza and Babe would have two more sons, Lawrence, born in 1921, and Fred, born in 1924.
By the time the 1930 census rolled around, the Tarter couple and their four living sons made their home on Somerset and Liberty Road (Magisterial District 2) in Pulaski County. Babe worked as a farmer, and Eliza carried out the duties of a housewife and tended to their sons. Outwardly, it appeared that Babe and Eliza had a strong family and marriage. From the regular entries in the West Somerset community news section of the Commonwealth newspaper, the couple seemed to be middle-class socialites who hosted friends and family members at their homes frequently.
Ulysses Simpson Phelps, Attorney at Law
Now that we have met the Tarter family, let's meet the other half of the story.
Ulysses Simpson Phelps, commonly called Simpson by friends and family, was born in 1866 to Willis and Cynthia Phelps and lived in the Mt. Gilead part of Pulaski County. In 1899, Simpson married Pina Minton, who was around ten years younger than Simpson. After marrying, Simpson and Pina lived on Columbia Road in the Saline community just outside of Somerset proper. Simpson worked as an attorney as he and Pina paid the mortgage on what became known as the Phelps Farm. By 1920, Simpson had completely paid off the mortgage and owned the farm outright. Ten years later, the census report shows that Simpson and Pina owned a farm on Oak Hill Road. It could be that new roads were created, and part of Columbia Road became Oak Hill Road, or they sold one farm and purchased another. The farmland consisted of over 400 acres, which could have had many different road accesses; therefore, we believe the Columbia Road and Oak Hill Road farms documented in the 1920 and 1930 census reports are the same.
After more than 30 years of marriage, sadly, Pina died in April of 1932 from cirrhosis of the liver. Pina was only 55 years old, leaving Simpson, now in his 60s, a widower with no children.
Enter the Housekeeper
Sometime between 1932 and 1937, Mrs. Eliza Tarter started working as a housekeeper for Simpson Phelps. We don't know precisely how Simpson came to employ Eliza or how he knew her, but Simpson had a sister named Selecta Phelps Tarter. Therefore, we assume that Simpson's sister married into the Tarter family and that her husband may have been a relative of Eliza's husband, Babe Tarter. Regardless of how it came to pass, Eliza worked in Simpson's home as this story comes to a head.
A deed and a divorce
The Tarter home may not have been as happy as the community news blotter first led us to believe. On November 10, 1937, Eliza was granted a divorce from Babe Tarter in Pulaski County Circuit court. But there is a twist.
In March of 1937, Simpson Phelps wrote a will, leaving all of his property to Eliza, provided he died within a year. Not only did he write out a will, but three months later, Simpson went as far as to deed his property directly to Eliza and record it at the courthouse, basically overriding the will. After the deed was recorded, Eliza was the proper owner of Simpson's house and the Phelps Farm, which consisted of about 401 acres of land.
Not a year later
Six months after the deed was recorded and only one month after Eliza's divorce was final, Simpson Phelps was found deceased in his bed on December 31, 1937. The death certificate, signed by Coroner E.B. Hargis of Science Hill, says a severe form of heart disease caused the death.
Reasonable grounds for an exhumation
Simpson's brother, Felix Phelps, also a Somerset attorney, was not satisfied with the original coroner's determination of heart disease. Admittedly, the timeline doesn't look good for Eliza, making her the primary target of Felix's suspicions.
Not long after the original coroner's report was filed, Felix signed an affidavit stating that he had reasonable ground to believe his brother's death was due to unnatural and illegal causes. Records indicate that County Judge Lawrence S. Hall gave Coroner Griffin an order to exhume Simpson's body and conduct a postmortem examination.
As a side note, it looks like Griffin may have taken over as coroner, in place of Hargis, at the beginning of 1938. We base that on the fact that Hargis signed the original report, but Griffin is in charge of the exhumation.
Simpson's body was examined locally, and portions of the stomach, liver, kidneys, spleen and other organs were sent to a private laboratory in Louisville for analysis. The report from the Louisville lab determined that neither arsenic nor strychnine were found in the specimens. Not content with the findings, Coroner Griffin forwarded seven sections to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in Washington D.C. The findings from the FBI stated that arsenic was found in the sections of the stomach and kidneys, with more in the stomach than in the kidneys. However, the report went on to say,
"Due to the possibility that such containers may have arsenic present as a mineral constituent of the metal, it cannot be stated that all of the arsenic found during the examination was due to the arsenic in the several sections."
In May of 1938, once the report came back from the FBI, a grand jury indicted Eliza Tarter, and a warrant was issued for her arrest for the poison murder of Simpson Phelps. The trial was set for September 28, 1938.
Eliza's trial began as scheduled in Pulaski Circuit Court. During the trial, Felix Phelps was the first to take the stand for the prosecution, using the FBI's report as evidence of her guilt. Later, Eliza gave testimony to the jury in her defense, testifying that Simpson complained of feeling ill while eating supper the night of his death. Eliza denied that she murdered him and testified that she bought the Phelps farm for $3000, which she paid in various amounts in cash before Simpson died. A chemist from the Louisville laboratory told the jury that he examined the organs after the death and found no trace of poison, arguing against the results from the FBI.
At the trial's conclusion, on October 5, 1938, the jury reported that it was hopelessly deadlocked after spending more than a day considering the evidence. As a result, Eliza Tarter was acquitted on the murder charge.
After the divorce, Babe Tarter went on his way and lived as a divorcee, as we found on supporting records until his death in December 1965.
After the acquittal, we found that Eliza was listing herself as a widow on the 1940 census. We didn't find any evidence that she had married between her divorce from Babe and 1940. However, we did see a death record indicating that Eliza passed using the name Mary Elizabeth Phelps. Our first thought was that perhaps she and Simpson had a relationship other than employee and employer, and she considered herself the widow of her employer. Much to the disappointment of our romantic imaginings, we tracked down Eliza's obituary showing that Eliza married a Mr. Elzie Phelps before her death in 1966.
The timeline is undoubtedly tricky, but there are so many unseen factors. Was it coercion or blackmail? Was it love? Was it a legitimate purchase? Did Simpson have a feeling that he was going to die soon? There is no way to know for sure, but the FBI lab evidence wasn't strong enough to conclude that it was, in fact, a poison that caused Simpson's death. In the end, we hope Babe, Eliza, their children, and the Phelps family were able to put this behind them and live out their remaining days scandal-free and content in Pulaski County!
As always, we welcome community feedback and insight. If you have a connection, a correction, or more to add, please leave us a comment or email us at email@example.com. Unfortunately, in most cases, we have to rely on what the newspapers and other written historical resources tell us, but we all know that is only part of the story.