By ZACH HARMUTH
In September of this year, a long unmarked grave in the Mt. Hope Cemetery in Franklin was finally given a headstone.
Sixty-seven years ago on Monday, Rosa Mary Dean was found on the cold morning of Dec. 12, 1949, behind the old Franklin High School gym on West Fowlkes Street with her throat slashed and nearly decapitated.
A virtual stranger, who came to town from Indianapolis looking for a place to stay, Dean’s murder– and the apprehension and trial of her killers— rocked Franklin and brought national attention to the crime.
Her killers, Betty Burges and her son Sherman, were the only people she knew in town. After arriving off the train late on Dec. 11, Dean went looking for a room at the Burges’ boarding house. Penniless and desperate, she threatened blackmail by saying she saw Betty help murder her lover’s wife, five years earlier, when Dean previously spent time in town.
Instead Betty and Sherman beat her and cut her throat, before sneaking out in the early hours, with help from one of their boarders, to dump her body by the incinerator behind the old Franklin High School gym. A pair of students found her the next morning.
The Burges were soon arrested and a sensational trial ensued. Bobby Woodard, the accomplice, talked and testified. Betty became the first-ever woman sentenced to die by the electric chair in Tennessee. She and Sherman later had their death sentences reduced to life in prison.
Dean was buried quietly a week after her death in an unmarked grave, with police as pallbearers and no family present, or even known of, to send her off. In town she was known only, and then just barely, by her killers.
In January 1950, 15,000 Franklinites would swarm to the courthouse on the square to see the mother-son killers sent to justice.
If the crime and trial overshadowed its victim then, the years after almost totally obscured any memory of Dean until Trey Holt, a local author, started leading an effort to honor her tale and her life by giving her grave a proper memorial and marker.
Holt’s effort, and Dean’s story, were the focus of the September episode of the Nashville Public Radio podcast Neighbors.
Jakob Lewis, the podcast’s creator and narrator, said he found something remarkable, interesting and sad in pondering the past and what is forgotten, or not, and whom.
“I thought the way we remember the past and people from it, and who is and isn’t forgotten says something interesting about us,” Lewis said. “The story of Mary tells us about Franklin’s history and people in general.”
It is interesting to note that the Burges were buried in the same cemetery, with markers, while Dean lay in an unmarked grave for two-thirds of a century.
Holt, whose Bottomland was inspired by the Dean murder, managed to raise enough money to put a marker on Dean’s grave in early October.
“I just think her story is part of the fabric of our community,” Holt said. “She was forgotten and down on her luck, and remained so in death. Her killers were members of this close-knit southern community but also represented a kind of underbelly that was also unseen and unheard.”