After Research by Hopkins County Genealogical Society’s Rhonda Bechhold, Military Honors Will Be Given to Previously Unidentified Man Who Died in 1954 Car Crash

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Military honors will be given on Saturday in Sulphur Springs for a man who died in Sulphur Springs in 1954. John Everett Phinney died in a car crash in Hopkins County in 1954 but went unidentified for 10 years. When Phinney was buried, he was given a headstone that said “Known Only to God”. The man was identified by his brother 10 years later but Hopkins County Genealogical Society member Rhonda Bechhold has worked to give him the military burial and headstone she deserved. The ceremony will begin at 10am on Saturday, June 16th at City Cemetery. Local officials and the Military Coalition will attend and conduct the ceremony. They will then travel to the veterans wall on the square where Clayton McGraw will speak about the wall and how we honor our veterans.  Then the Sons of the American Revolution will perform and shoot black powder guns  Rhonda’s articles from Hopkins County Heritage are pasted below. This is such a great story that I hope you take the time to read.

 

Known Only to God by Rhonda Bechhold(June 2017)

In City Cemetery lays a marker which says exactly that , “Known Only to God”. Here is the story of how that marker came to be and the strides taken to identify the man buried there and notify two of that man’s siblings where their brother’s remains are interred. 

In the late evening hours of August 9, 1954, a young man in his mid 20’s was hitchhiking outside of Dallas. A Good Samaritan by the name of Mack W. Davidson, driving a new 1954 Ford car, picked him up. Mr. Davidson, a few years older than the man he picked up, asked the hitchhiker where he was headed. The hitchhiker said he was going to Texarkana to visit his sisters. Mr. Davidson, who was headed to Arthur City to see his parents, told the hitchhiker he would take him as far as Paris, Texas. Not far into the drive, close to Commerce, Mr. Davidson got sleepy and asked the hitchhiker if he was a good driver. The hitchhiker said he was, so Mr. Davidson turned the driving over to the
hitchhiker so he could sleep. The hitchhiker took the wrong road to Paris and instead was headed to Sulphur Springs. As the hitchhiker was driving, he too fell asleep and crashed into the White Oak Creek bottom bridge, just north of Sulphur Springs, killing himself and critically injuring Mr. Davidson.

 

The car ran into the bridge with such force that it was completely demolished, mowing off four concrete pillars as it plowed into the bridge bannister. Chief of Police Vaughn Deaton described it as the worst wrecked vehicle he had ever seen. Salvage value of the month-old car was limited to two tires and a few other minor parts.

The hitchhiker had no ID on him, dying as an “unknown / unidentified man”. Mr. Davidson never asked the hitchhiker his name nor where he was from. All the authorities had to go on was the hitchhiker’s physical appearance: approximately 25/26 years old, 5′ 7″, 130 lbs., and had a previous break on his left arm above the wrist. He had light brown wavy-curly hair, combed straight back. He was wearing jeans, brown shoes and a yellow nylon shirt; he was hatless. The only things in his pockets were a pack of Kool cigarettes, a lighter, a key, and a dime—no
identification. 

Mr. Davidson survived the wreck and was taken initially to Hopkins County Memorial Hospital where he remained in a coma for several days. Still in critical condition several days after the wreck, Mr. Davidson, a World War II veteran, was transferred to the Veterans Hospital in McKinney. After a long recovery, Mr. Davidson resumed his life in the Dallas area.

 

Day and Day Funeral Home took care of the body and had the hitchhiker’s picture and description put
on the front page of the Sulphur Springs Daily News-Telegram on Thursday, August 12. On Friday, Au-
gust 13, the Daily News-Telegram followed up with an article entitled “Café Owners Say Wreck Victim Worked in Paris”. The article went on to say that after three days of intensive investigations by city and county officers, the identification of the man killed in the car crash on Tuesday, August 10, was Donald Decker, hometown unknown. Identification was made by Decker’s former employer and co-workers in Paris and was confirmed by Bob Ashmore, a Highway Patrolman stationed in Paris.

 

Decker had worked for two weeks as a cook at the Flight-Fifty Café in Paris, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Curt Burgess. Mrs. Burgess had come to Sulphur Springs on Thursday night to view the body and said she was almost sure it was Decker. But she wouldn’t make a positive identification before showing a photo of the dead man to her husband and the waitresses employed at her café. Mr. Burgess and the waitresses identified the photo as that of Decker, last seen at the café on July 28. Some of Mr. Decker’s clothes and other possessions were found in a room he had rented at North Main Courts in Paris. Among the possessions found in his room was a letter bearing a return address of Stella
Decker, Indianapolis, Nebraska. After tracking down Ms. Decker for confirmation of the identification of the body, law enforcement determined that the accident victim was NOT Donald Decker. About that same time, a Sulphur Springs man who viewed the photo was almost positive the photo was that of a recent patient at the Veterans Hospital in McKinney, having just recently been released from that hospital himself. That lead also proved incorrect.

 

Even after more than 2,000 people came to the funeral home and viewed the body, no one could identify the man. Inquiries concerning the victim were received from various parts of Texas and Oklahoma, but in each case, the leads proved fruitless.

Ten days later, on a Friday morning, the unidentified hitchhiker was lowered into a grave at Sulphur Springs City Cemetery. No crowd was present to mourn his passing. Simple graveside rites were conducted by E. H. Hendrix. One spray of flowers adorned the casket, sent by the New Flower Shop of Sulphur Springs. The grave was marked by the city with a concrete marker that read . . . . “Known Only to God, July 1954”. (The death date should have read August 10, 1954). There was still hope that the crash victim would be identified. Local highway patrolmen sent his fingerprints to Austin. If they couldn’t identify the prints in Austin, they would be forwarded to Washington, D. C. It was hoped that his prints would be on record in Washington, as all men who entered military service were finger printed. Millions of men had served in the armed forces in the years preceding the accident.

In late August, Highway Patrolman Joe Pruett was contacted by a café operator in Fort Worth who said he gave a man a free meal in his café a few hours prior to the fatal wreck north of Sulphur Springs. He further reported that
the man he served related that he was on his way to Dallas, Georgia, northwest of Atlanta. The café owner said the
man he fed had a break in his left arm just above the wrist. The break and the physical description mentioned by the café owner matched the description of the dead man. Local officers sent a description of the unknown man to authorities in Dallas, Georgia along with all other pertinent information in their possession requesting the assistance of Georgia officials in trying to establish his identity. That lead was nonproductive, too.

Ten years later in 1964, a Gilmer man, Kenneth Wayne Phinney Sr., who was missing a brother, heard about an unidentified man killed in a car accident outside of Sulphur Springs. He contacted the police in Sulphur Springs and told them that his brother had disappeared about the time of the accident. Day and Day Funeral Home was no longer in business by then.

Justice of the Peace Dewitt Loyd talked to the man from Gilmer and gave him the newspaper picture for him to look at. Mr. Kenneth Phinney knew it was his brother, John Everett Phinney. Mr. Kenneth Phinney and his wife came to Sulphur Springs to return the picture of the accident victim to Judge Loyd who had kept the photo in his office since the time of the accident. Mr. Kenneth Phinney’s three sisters and about 40 cousins in Alabama had examined the picture and were convinced that it was Kenneth’s brother, John, whose nickname was “Son”.

John Everett Phinney was born September 12, 1926 in Marble Falls, Texas. Mr. Kenneth Phinney who operated a Gulf service station in Gilmer, Texas and who several weeks prior had talked with H.O. Day, the funeral director who had handled the body, reported that his brother John had been in the military and he could not understand why his fingerprints had not established his identify. Mr. Kenneth Phinney believed that John had probably been in route from Dallas to visit his sisters who lived in Texarkana. Both of John’s parents had died of tuberculosis about ten years before John died. John had  been the oldest of eight children. When their parents died a year apart in 1944 and 1945, the two oldest Children – John (19 years old) and his sister Sybil (17 years old) were too old to go to the orphanage with the younger siblings. With the three youngest of the siblings having been adopted, three remaining
at the orphanage and the two oldest having to make it on their own, staying in touch with each other was not an everyday activity. Mr. Kenneth Phinney said the siblings had decided that they would leave John’s body in Sulphur Springs. The original marker was never changed to identify the man “Known Only to God” as John Everett Phinney.

About a year ago, during the summer of 2016, a woman walked into the Hopkins County Genealogical Society library and inquired about the “unidentified man” as she was doing some research for a client of hers in North Carolina. When the woman left the library, she said she would keep in touch if she did find out that the person she was looking for was the “unidentified man”. She left without leaving contact information.

In April 2017, the son of the former owner of the News-Telegram called the library to inquire if HCGS ever found the name of the “unidentified man”. After several attempts to locate the woman who had come in about a year ago, I began researching the accident and have been on the trail ever since. Initially, I was totally puzzled as to where to begin my research, but then I happened to look under the letter

“U” in the Inquest Record book we have in the library, for that time, and found that there was an “unknown man” (the official designation for a person in such cases) buried in City Cemetery who was killed in a car accident in August 1954. (I also sadly noted that there was at that time a total of 24 “unknowns” at City Cemetery). I then looked at the “Portal to Texas History” online. The University of North Texas has digitized and uploaded all of the newspapers that HCGS has, until recently, kept in flat files. The newspapers are now searchable online on the Portal of Texas website. As I shared the compelling story of the “Unknown Man” with other volunteers, I quickly had a growing circle of people helping me fill out the story of John Everett Phinney.

From the 1940 census for Gilmer, Upshur County, the volunteers were able to determine who John’s parents and siblings were. With further research, they determined that as of June 2017, only two of John’s siblings were still alive—Dixie Kay (called Kay) and Clyde. The youngest brother, Clyde, was born after the 1940 census so finding his name in other family member’s obituaries was somewhat of a surprise. The volunteers used their collective skills in locating the son of Mr. Kenneth Phinney Sr. (who identified John in 1964) and John’s youngest sister, Kay. Using phone numbers that were found online, I called Kenneth’s son, Kenneth Jr., who was quite surprised to hear from me about the uncle whom he had heard so much about from his father. Kenneth Jr. filled me in on what he knew about John, confirmed the phone number for Kay and also supplied the contact information for Clyde. Kay was very, very pleased to hear from me. I filled in some of the blanks about what happened to John, and Kay shared with me what she knew of “Son”.. Kay was especially happy to finally know her  brother’s name; she was only 6 years old when her parents died and parents and children alike had always called John by his nickname, “Son”. Kay and Clyde were both quite young when their parents died and were then living in different places when John died. Now John’s siblings, nieces and nephews know what happened to John and where he is buried. The Hopkins County Genealogical Society is seeing about having the marker changed to show that this is the final resting place of John Everett Phinney.

I discovered that a revised death certificate was never filed with the state of Texas. I have completed the form to have a revised death certificate issued and have forwarded it to Kay to sign. Once the revised death certificate is filed with the state, the VA can talk to me about John’s military service. Right now the VA has John still listed as alive and his records are therefore confidential. We are all hopeful that once his military record is verified, a military marker will be issued for him. A Find A Grave Memorial #180132532 has been created for John linking his memorial to those of his parents and siblings.

Kay now has a complete story to share with her daughters. She related to me her daughters just pored over all of the documents that I had sent her.

The marker which reads: “Known Only to God July 1954” could now read:

John Everett Phinney

Known to God, his Family and the Citizens of Hopkins County

September 12, 1926 — August 10, 1954

 

The story is updated by Rhonda Bechold in the following article from September 2017:

Since the June 2017 Hopkins County Heritage was published, my research has continued to give John Everett Phinney his identity and, ultimately, the military marker he deserves.

 

The June 2017 story ended as I was waiting for a family member to sign the “Application to Amend Certificate of Death”. During the last three months, I have learned that in this case, amending a death certificate is not an easy task. It has been an obstacle course! But, I have learned a lot and have gotten to know more about John Everett Phinney.

After preparing the application and getting the signature of John’s sister Kay, the application was sent to the Texas Vital Statistics Unit of the Texas Department of State Health Services in Austin, Texas. When I called to make sure it was received, Vital Statistics told me that due to a backlog, there was an 8-9 month processing delay for an amended death certificate, unless it was expedited.  The very helpful Vital Statistics Unit employee told me how to expedite the process and said she would keep the application on her desk until the expedited form and fee caught up to it. After submitting the ‘expedited’ form and fee, I once again called the Texas Vital Statistics Unit and was told they were having to send it all back to me because the only information known about the unidentified man that was on the original death certificate was race, sex and date of death. With no other identifying information to tie ‘John Everett Phinney’ to the original death certificate, a court order was required to get the death certificate amended. While I waited for everything to be mailed back, I contacted Justice of the Peace, B. J. Teer, in Sulphur Springs, Texas and shared the results of all of the research I had done, including the communications with John’s siblings and the newspaper articles stating that ten years after John’s death, John’s brother Kenneth identified him to Justice of the Peace Dewitt Lloyd. After reviewing all the information I provided, he referred me to Hopkins County Judge Robert Newsom, to get the needed court order.

Judge Newsome read all of the supporting documentation I provided and was very helpful, along with Hopkins County Clerk Debbie Shirley, in expediting a court order that I have sent to the Texas Vital Statistics Unit. I am now waiting, once again, for the amended death certificate! Once I receive it and confirm that the information has been recorded by the Veterans Administration, the V. A. will release John’s military record. (The V. A. still has John listed as ‘living’ because they have never been officially notified via a death certificate to the contrary. Thus, his military records are sealed.)

John’s siblings, nieces and nephews all mentioned John’s service in the Army but did not know any details. After seeing the notations made on the 1945 Buckner Orphans Home Application for Admission form about John’s location and pending financial stipend for his brothers, it confirmed to me that he was in the Army. The amended death certificate will allow me to obtain John’s Social Security number to give to the military. At that point, his military record will be the avenue to a military marker.

In researching John, I contacted Buckner Orphans Home in Dallas, identified by John’s sister Kay to where her brothers Kenneth and Thomas lived after their parents’ death. After having one of Kenneth’s relatives request the records Buckner had on the Phinneys, I reviewed these records and determined that upon their mother’s death in 1945, three of the eight Phinney children were on their own, including John who was stationed at Camp Wolters, outside of Mineral Wells; two of the Phinney boys went to Buckner Orphans Home; and, three of the children went home with the sheriff. The Sheriff’s plan was to place an ad in the area newspapers to find good homes for these three children. While I have only been able to uncover two ads in the areas newspapers, I have been told that all three were adopted by loving families.

Except for the two who went to Buckner, the other six children went to different towns, making communication between them more difficult in 1945 than it would be today. According to the family, John spent time traveling to check on his scattered siblings. He would stay a few days and then move on. On the ride leading to his 1954 tragic death, John told the man who picked him up on the highway that he was on the way to Texarkana. We know now that Texarkana was where two of his sisters lived.

Noted on the Buckner documents was “plans are underway for the children to be made an allotment by their oldest brother, John Everett Phinney, who is in the army”. During the six years that John’s brother Kenneth was living at Buckner, he ran away several times. The last time he ran away, he went to his uncle’s house in Daingerfield. His uncle then requested, and was granted, guardianship of Kenneth.

It has been so rewarding to visit (phone calls and emails) with the siblings, nieces and nephews of John Everett Phinney. Because John’s parents and siblings referred to him by his nickname ‘Son’, his nieces and nephews now refer to their deceased uncle as ‘Uncle Son’. One of the stories shared with me came from John’s brothers Kenneth’s daughter: “My dad and Uncle Son were practicing their aim with their slingshot and broke their father’s booze thinking it was water in a jar.” Kenneth also told his children that they had a hard life when they were little. Kenneth loved his brothers and sisters so much that he honored them by naming all of his children after his own siblings. Kenneth also shared with his children the experience of realizing that his brother John was ‘missing’ and the time when they ‘found him in Sulphur Springs’. When Kenneth identified his brother John in Sulphur Springs is when he realized that John died on his (Kenneth’s) eighteenth birthday.

In talking to John’s two surviving siblings, Kay and Clyde, the youngest of the eight children, they both knew that Kay’s adoptive parents wanted to adopt both Kay and Clyde but another woman had already spoken for Clyde. As it turned out, Clyde was adopted by a married woman who had not told her ‘traveling for work’ husband what her plans were. While on the road, her husband called to check on his wife; she said she was fine and had “adopted us a son today!” (I would certainly call that a surprise!). Kay and Clyde both shared that they had great loving (adopted) parents who gave each of them a good life.

Through all my research, I have been able to track all of the Phinney children. I was able to link on findagrave.com the Phinney parents to their deceased children, and in so doing link up the siblings to each other. Surviving siblings, nieces and nephews now know where deceased family members are buried. I have been able to track down some of the obituaries which have enriched what the surviving siblings, nieces and nephews have known about their roots.

I could not have put this story together without the untiring efforts of Carole Ann Smith, Billy Lucas, Jan Stovall, John Sellers and, Anita and Ronny Glossup.

 

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