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HomeFeaturesFrom the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Jesse 'Owen' Gifford

From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Jesse ‘Owen’ Gifford

Jesse ‘Owen’ Gifford in a 1936 Associated Press wire service photo

by Susan Couso

For a while there, Jesse ‘Owen’ Gifford seemed to have it all, but it turns out that he didn’t appreciate what he had.

Gifford was born in Georgia in 1895, and was raised by his mother, Mollie, and his stepfather, Alvin Adkins, in what seemed a happy normal blended family. He grew into a tall striking man with black hair and blue eyes.

As WWI broke out in Europe, Owen was drafted and in May 1918, he left New York City on the ship, Briton, to contribute to the war effort in Europe.

Gifford served as a private in Company A of the 113th Machine Gun Battalion where he was a chauffeur. As the war ended, Owen Gifford returned home with thousands of other young men who had been scarred by war and forced to grow up in a hurry.

Back home in Tennessee, on December 21, 1921, Owen married Garnett Smith, and the two settled down to begin their new life. Garnett was described as “dark haired” and “attractive”, and her mother-in-law said that she was, “one of the sweetest women I have ever met.”

That next October their first son, Charles Henry Gifford was born, and just over two years later son number two, William Owen Gifford arrived.

Owen Gifford found work as a traveling salesman to support his household. Outwardly, they seemed a happy family, but there was some apparent discord in the home. Owen later recalled that his conflicts with his wife caused him much distress.

Then, on August 13,1928, after a night out with friends in nearby Stevenson, Alabama, Jesse Owen Gifford disappeared.

Garnett was forced to move in with her parents and then found a job working in a hosiery factory. When she was ‘laid off’ at her first job, she left her boys in the care of her parents and moved away to Nashville to secure work. Every weekend, she returned to her sons. It was not an easy life.

In April of 1931, a body was found washed up against a pier piling in the Tennessee River at Bridgeport, Alabama. No one claimed the body and it was pretty badly decomposed. It was buried in a pauper’s grave at Mt. Carmel, Alabama.

But authorities got to thinking. Could this be the body of Jesse Owen Gifford? The body was exhumed and examined, but the decomposed nature of the remains left little evidence, and it was returned to the grave.

Widow Garnett Gifford heard news of the body and asked to have it, once again, exhumed to find out if it was the remains of her husband. Unfortunately, there was little to work with.

Gifford’s doctor said that he thought that it could be the missing man, and his dentist testified that the dental work could have been his work. But no one could say for sure.

Again, the poor mass of humanity was returned to the grave.

But again, the distraught widow asked permission to have her husband’s remains exhumed and this time, moved from Alabama to Tennessee for reburial. On April 25, 1931 ‘Jesse Owen Gifford’ was buried with full military honors in the Cumberland View Cemetery, South Pittsburg, Tennessee. In 1932 Garnett applied for a veteran’s marker for his grave.

Authorities were ‘hot on the trail’ of Gifford’s murderer. The last person seen with him was his good friend J. Arthur Woodall, a merchant in Stevenson, Alabama.

In July of 1931, Woodall was charged with Gifford’s murder, in Stevenson, and the community was suddenly abuzz with witnesses to one thing or another. The spectators to this legal event eagerly separated into ‘guilty’ and ‘innocent’ camps.

The doctor who had examined the corpse testified, the railway ticket agent testified, even Woodall’s wallpaper hanger testified. It seemed like the whole town had something to contribute.

Evidence was given and pondered, but in the end, Judge J. M. Money ruled that there was no proof to show that J. Arthur Woodall had anything to do with Gifford’s demise. Woodall had even testified that Gifford told him that he had taken $1800 of his employer’s money and had to leave the area and go out west.

But out west, the bizarre story took another turn as the ‘real’ Jesse Owen Gifford ran into a little trouble. He had been driving a cement truck, working for J. Baker McQueen for a couple of years, and he also worked for Lassen Lumber & Box Company.

He was enjoying life in Susanville. But in 1936, he had an automobile accident, while visiting Reno on the 4th of July, and broke his leg. Unable to work, Gifford applied for his veteran’s compensation money.

Unfortunately, his bereaved widow had applied for the money after his ‘death’, and this messed up Owen’s plans considerably. The ‘jig was up’, the ‘cat was out of the bag’, and Jesse Owen Gifford was no longer ‘deceased’.

Immediately, the newspapers latched on to the story, and Gifford, at first, refused to give details of his last eight years. Eventually, as he began to enjoy his notoriety, he loosened up a bit and claimed that he had lived in many places and had assumed many names. He said that he liked Susanville and would never return to Tennessee.

His ‘widow’, Garnett, when informed of the situation, said that she still loved her husband, but if he came back, he would have a lot of explaining to do.

“I am delighted to learn that Owen is alive, and it would be the happiest event of my life to know that he is still interested in us and wants to come back and pick up life where it was left off,” she said.

Gifford’s mother, Mollie Adkins, was thrilled to hear that her son was alive and well in Susanville but urged him to return to his family. His sons, fourteen-year-old Henry and eleven-year-old William really had very little memory of their father.

Probably the most elated person involved in this story was J. Arthur Woodall, who was finally completely cleared of any suspicion of being involved in Gifford’s murder. He said that he was, “mighty glad to hear” that he is alive.

There’s no evidence to show that Jesse Owen Gifford ever returned to Tennessee, or that he ever saw his sons again. His boys grew up and lived their lives in Tennessee. Owen Gifford settled in the Vallejo area and got a job working on the naval base as a cement worker and plasterer. He also worked as a tile setter on the side.

It isn’t clear when Garnett joined the love of her life out west, but by the 1950 Census she was living in Vallejo with her husband. The boys were grown and on their own in Tennessee.

On December 29, 1954, Jesse Owen Gifford died. His wife, Garnett, was at his side. He is buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery. Garnett then returned to Tennessee and died there in December of 2000.

In the Cumberland View Cemetery in South Pittsburg, Tennessee lies a man who ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ without being missed or identified, but who had been buried with love.

If you are a fan of our weekly history stories you should join the Lassen County Historical Society! It’s a fun way to be a part of our county’s rich history. When you sign up, you’ll receive regular Historical Society newsletters with interesting stories and information. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in area history.

Through your membership you help preserve local history. You can download a membership application by clicking here.

Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso
SusanvilleStuff.com Publisher/Editor
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