Through an Unlocked Door

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Carol Lamar’s home outside of Poseyville, Indiana

AN OLD, TWO-STORY, WHITE CLAPBOARD HOUSE used to sit on a gravel lane just off Indiana State Highway 165, south of the town of Poseyville. On any given summer evening, you could stand outside the house and see the lights from three separate baseball fields. Strains of “Hey batter, hey batter, hey batter” might have wafted over from Robert E. Hunt Little League Field on the edge of town to the north of the house, competing with the churning, cyclical whine of cicadas. Over the corn and soybean fields to the southwest, the lights of North Posey High School burned into the night, illuminating games between junior high, varsity, and American Legion teams. And to the east, the lights of the St. Wendel community diamond would glow in the distance like a real-life Field of Dreams, enclosed on all four sides by phalanxes of corn that part for just one lonely gravel road. The spot where this house stood, at 8100 Indiana 165, was quiet even in daylight, the solitude unnerving for those used to the hum and throb of the city. Years ago freight trains hauling grain and livestock on the Illinois Central line past the edge of town occasionally punctuated the silence with a wail, but the track is abandoned now, and the only sounds come from passing cars or the wind, blowing through the massive maple and cottonwood trees that surrounded the house and lined its driveway.

The house was the home of 79-year old Carol Renee Lamar, former librarian for 45 years at the Poseyville Carnegie Library. She lived there her entire life. It had two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and kitchen on the first level, and one large bedroom upstairs. She lived with her father, Bob, and sister, Hazel, but after they died, she continued to live in the house in much the same way she had her whole life. “Primitive living” is how Betty Espenlaub, her niece, and Betty’s husband, Don, described her lifestyle: no plumbing, no indoor bathroom facilities and very few luxuries. She used an outhouse and drew water from a 30-foot-deep well using a tall iron pump with a long handle, filling a two-gallon bucket and carrying it back inside the house herself.

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The house had a wood-burning potbelly stove in the kitchen for heat and cooking. Carol chopped her own wood. In the winter she arranged her work schedule at the library around this stove. She could get a fire going in the morning that would last long enough during the day to keep the house warm, but she had to get home by five o’clock before it went out. She never wanted a more modern, coal-fired stove or electric or gas heat, as Betty said, “because she was not raised around things like that. She was afraid.” Carol’s bedroom used to be the large one upstairs, but when Hazel died in 1972, she moved downstairs, where she lived mostly in the kitchen and the adjoining room. The house had no modern insulation, so she slept on a couch in the kitchen in the winter to be near the fire. Carol did allow a few modern conveniences into the home though: a telephone, and electricity for a television, small refrigerator and a microwave.

Poseyville is the second largest town in Posey County after the county seat in Mt. Vernon, with roughly 1,100 residents. The town is situated near the northern edge of the county, which forms the southwestern-most corner of Indiana, between the Ohio and Wabash Rivers. Whereas people from Michigan like to point out the relative position of their hometown on the back of their hands because the state is shaped like a left-handed mitten, people from Posey County say that Indiana is shaped like a boot, and they live in the toe. The nearest city is Evansville, Indiana, population roughly 120,000, some 20 miles to the southeast.

The largest employer in the community is the North Posey school district, with much of the rest of the population farming corn, soybeans, and hogs. State Highway 165, called Main Street as it passes through town, bisects the town into its northern and southern halves, flanked by more white clapboard and brick homes with wide front porches, a service station, a Dollar General Store, the local tavern, and Hirsch’s General Store. Main Street, once the town’s only street, ends at St. Francis Catholic Church, before Highway 165 turns north and heads out of town again toward Interstate 64.

The Poseyville Carnegie Library
The Poseyville Carnegie Library

Carol was a fixture in Poseyville, known by all and cherished for her work at the library and as a Sunday school teacher at St. Paul’s Methodist church. Known as “Miss Carol,” she was always formally dressed in a broad-brimmed ladies’ hat and white gloves, prim and proper. She married briefly when she was 25, but quickly ended the marriage when her husband insisted on moving away from her family home. She never drove, and either walked the mile and a half from her house to work at the library or got a ride. She spoke only the most proper English, addressing people as “Dear Heart,” mixing in colloquial exclamations like, “Land’s sake!” She was the kind of unique and archaic character that can only exist in small towns like Poseyville, for if you had seen her in a big city, you’d wonder if you had stumbled into the set of a period movie, and run into one of the extras.

This simple, old-fashioned way of life seems almost unreal, an illusory romantic existence that is more myth than reality. A life like Carol’s is possible in few places these days, and accepted and understood in even fewer. People expect you to want all the available modern amenities like indoor plumbing, gas heat, or air conditioning, but Poseyville granted Miss Carol those eccentricities because that’s who she was, and who she had always been. The town is a relic in that way, still fixed somewhere in a nostalgic ideal that can include its past while it begrudgingly moves into the future. Unfortunately, and inevitably, this transition also meant an introduction to the more grim realities of the modern world that Poseyville had previously avoided. Miss Carol’s old house is gone now, torn down, its remains burned and cleared away after what happened there on one of those warm summer evenings, with the rhythmic, soothing sounds of this small, Midwestern town in the air.

HERBERT CLARK WENT TO THE GARVIN STREET AUCTION on Evansville’s west side the afternoon of May 5, 2004, to ask a woman he had been chasing if she would meet him later that evening. She rebuffed him, and threatened to call the police. He left.

He must have been angry, frustrated that he couldn’t convince the woman to go out that night. He went to a liquor store and bought some vodka. He got in his truck and started drinking, then made his way north toward Poseyville. As he approached the town, he spotted the old white house sitting off the road by itself, secluded amidst the stand of cottonwood trees, and thought maybe he could break in and steal something to sell.

The gravel drive to Carol Lamar’s home
The gravel drive to Carol Lamar’s home

The gravel drive to Carol Lamar’s home. He turned the truck up the gravel drive, parked in front of the house, and let himself in through an unlocked door. Once inside, he probably didn’t see much to steal besides a few knickknacks and some furniture. He moved from room to room, starting with the living room, to the two bedrooms on the ground level, to the kitchen and dining room, pulling open dresser drawers, opening closets, and turning over furniture, looking for anything of value. He emptied the cupboards and broke dishes on the floor. So far, all he found was a little TV, a microwave in the kitchen, and some antiques. He started stacking the few things he thought were worthwhile by the door, when he heard a noise. Someone was coming inside. He heard a woman say, “What are you doing here?” Before he saw who it was, he panicked and grabbed the long-handled axe that was leaning against the wall by the back door. He saw Miss Carol coming through the doorway, then turned and hit her with the axe, striking her repeatedly in the head with both the sharp and flat sides of the blade until he saw she was dead. Clark started to move the body, but thought twice and exited the house quickly, leaving the axe in the living room and her body by the rear door.

He stumbled out to his truck, his head still reeling from the liquor and what had just happened. He put the truck in gear and tried to drive away, but drove off into the cornfield and got stuck. He kept trying to free the truck, shifting back and forth, in and out of reverse to gain traction, but the soil was too muddy. Before long, the farmer who worked the fields around Miss Carol’s house showed up to see what was going on, after someone had called to tell him about the stranded truck. Clark was visibly drunk and had blood spattered on his shoes and clothes, so, suspecting something terrible had happened, the farmer refused to let him get back in the truck and called the town marshal. After the police arrived, they found Carol’s body inside, and Clark was arrested for murder. Soon, the shock waves started to sweep through the town of Poseyville.

My old house in Poseyville
My old house in Poseyville

I GREW UP IN POSEYVILLE, on the northern end of Cale Street. I lived there until I went to college at Indiana University in 1995, then moved on to Chicago after graduation. For a child growing up in Poseyville, the whole town was a playground. There was no “bad” section of town, no wrong side of the tracks. I spent most of the time playing basketball in the driveway, or baseball and football in an empty lot across the street from my house, often out of sight of my parents. I rode my bike everywhere, from one end of town to the other, sometimes passing long, sweltering summer days by counting the miles as I made laps around our half of the town. The thought of something bad happening never occurred to me. The only things my friends and I worried about were loose dogs, like my neighbor’s Irish setter who chased me on my bike once and bit my leg.

My memories of Poseyville always revolve around moving through the fresh air, experiencing the world sensually, as opposed to the indoor, more mental world I now inhabit in the city. That my fondest memories of the town involve being outside speaks to the sense of security that the town engenders, the sense of safety, real or imagined, that makes everyone there feel comfortable. Home was just as much outside the brick walls of my parents’ house, in their yard, on my bike on the streets, or at the school playground, as it was inside them. Parents weren’t troubled at the thought of their children roaming the town because the worst that could befall them was perhaps a wrecked bike and a scraped knee or the usual childhood mischief, all things either innocuous or self-induced, not the doings of a criminal or predator.

Nobody locks doors in Poseyville, or at least nobody used to. My mother brags about being able to leave her paycheck on the passenger seat of her unlocked car in the parking lot of North Elementary School, where she teaches third grade. I don’t think she actually does this, but I haven’t pushed her to confess. It’s one of her favorite claims about Poseyville, the kind of thing you catch yourself saying to exaggerate the smallness of the town, like how I tell people it doesn’t have a McDonald’s or a stoplight.

During the summer in Poseyville, you might come home and find a brown paper grocery bag full of zucchini and tomatoes from someone’s garden sitting on your doorstep, even when you really didn’t want them. We thought nothing of leaving the house to run errands “uptown,” with both doors of a garage full of tools, sports equipment, and drying laundry left wide open. Most of the time, the door into the house from the garage would have been unlocked too, with a key stashed inside a cabinet on the wall next to it. On evenings when we left for long periods of time, say, to go to a high school basketball game or drive the 20 miles into Evansville for dinner and a movie, we did shut the garage doors. Yet even then a key that triggered the garage door opener was stashed inside a fake rock in our front landscaping. Of course, our neighbors knew about this rock too, which made the whole notion of security ridiculous.

That safe, welcoming outdoor world stands in stark contrast to the loud, intense, and congested streets of Chicago. Poseyville, as I remember it through a child’s eyes, has become something I can box up and stash in the back of a closet, to be pulled out and reminisced over occasionally as I live my new, different life in a new, different place. I like to think of the town a certain way. It may be replicated in varying forms in other towns and suburbs across the country, but if I could bottle up one point in time to capture the essence of my childhood in Poseyville, Indiana, it would be a July afternoon, with bright sun and that legendary Midwestern humidity, the sound of lawnmowers and cicadas in the air, riding my Huffy bike with a sweaty St. Louis Cardinals cap on my head. As Richard Lingeman writes in his history Small Town America, “On such green summer afternoons under an overarching blue dome of sky one could well believe that one’s town and one’s country were good places, that life itself was good, that the same slow rhythmic heartbeat of the days would continue down through the years.”

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POSEYVILLE WAS A WONDERFUL PLACE TO GROW UP. I can say that now after being away for so long. Had you asked me at the time I lived there though, I would have told you it was the most miserable place in the world. Like generations of kids across the country who yearned to escape small towns, I never planned to stay there any longer than necessary. I was infatuated with the big city life I read about and saw on TV. Once I could drive, I spent as much time as I could in Evansville, often making two trips a day on weekends. When many of my friends matriculated to the University of Southern Indiana, a commuter school on the west side of Evansville that they could attend while still living at home with their parents, I had to go off to a Big Ten school. And after college, I considered moving only to a big city, turning down a more interesting job offer in Indianapolis because I wanted to live in Chicago.

The residents of the town love living there, and couldn’t imagine themselves anywhere else. People live their entire lives within Posey County, perhaps venturing away to somewhere like Bloomington, Muncie, or West Lafayette for college, but always responding to the magnetic pull of home. My parents weren’t really “from” Poseyville though; they were naturalized citizens. They moved there from the Indianapolis area in 1972, when my father took the job as assistant principal of North Posey High School. He eventually became the high school principal, then district superintendent, and my mother teaches third grade. Even after all this direct involvement with the school and the community, my mother still claims she feels like an outsider.

I think she may be reading a little too much into things. Living in Poseyville for that long will leave its stamp, but she resisted becoming an insider on purpose. She’s had one foot out the door for a long time, planning to move away as soon as she and my father retire, ironically, closer to their hometowns near Indianapolis. But even as a child, I too felt like my connection to the town was different than my friends’, if only for practical reasons. They all had large extended families living nearby. Visiting their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and slew of cousins was just a matter of driving up the street, or to one of the neighboring towns like Wadesville, New Harmony, Cynthiana, or St. Wendel. For me, visiting family meant making a three-hour trek north to Indianapolis. This scattering of the family created a sense of not belonging entirely in one place or the other, and though I lived in the same house on Cale Street until I went away to college, I grew up with a sense that home could exist elsewhere as easily as it did in Poseyville, like it did for my parents.

Not that I would have stayed there even if I had deeper roots. I needed to strike out and reinvent myself, move away from the identity that had attached itself to me in Poseyville and become at least part of the person I had imagined I could be in the city. Since my father was that most visible of authority figures in a small town, the high school principal, I’d always grown up known as “the principal’s kid.” He certainly didn’t insist that people treat me differently. In fact, he was rather insistent that they didn’t. But the other kids at school automatically associated my father’s job with their idea of who I was and how I would behave.

This matter of identity, the sense of playing a character in the town’s screenplay, created other annoyances for me. Since everyone knew who I was, everyone also knew exactly where I had been and what I had been doing. One night when I was a senior in high school, on the way home from my girlfriend’s house, I was pulled over for speeding on Highway 165 right about where Miss Carol’s house stood. When the deputy recognized me, he called my parents instead of writing me a ticket.

Yet for the longest time, people from home still operated under the assumption that I would want to return someday. Three years after I graduated from college, I visited Poseyville to attend a party for one of my friends who was getting married. I ran into an old high school teacher who said, “So you still like Chicago?” as if he’d been expecting me to get tired of it and eventually come back to Poseyville. To people like him, everything I ever needed was in Posey County, so there would be no reason to stay in a place like Chicago any longer than it took to sow my wild oats. But for me, getting away was more than just a matter of seeking excitement and opportunity. I wanted to get away from what I perceived as the insularity, the small-mindedness, and the simplicity of the town, to shake that identity and search for bigger and better things.

Main Street, Poseyville
Main Street, Poseyville

NEWS OF MISS CAROL’S DEATH jolted something inside me though, but not because I mourned her personally. I only knew her through visiting the library as a child. But the murder made me realize the strong connection I still have to Poseyville and the rest of southern Indiana, despite all my reasons for wanting to leave.

After it happened, I couldn’t stop thinking about the crime and the way it must’ve happened. I tried picturing Miss Carol’s lonely old house and the landscape around it, even though I’d never set foot out there. When my in-laws asked about how my parents were doing, I told them about the murder as if it had something to do with my own family, like a death in Poseyville felt the same as if some distant cousin or uncle had died. I told my friends from college, the same ones who teased me about the tiny town I came from and its funny name. I couldn’t decide if it was just water cooler talk, passing it along like any other bizarre tidbit I might’ve found on the internet, or if I was showing it off like some macabre badge of honor by saying, “See, my old town has real crime too.” In a way, I was trying to dirty up the image of my hometown to match my new life in the “real world” of Chicago.

Over the next several months, I started to dig deeper into the details of the case. I asked my parents to send me copies of all the local newspaper articles about the story. I visited the Posey County Sheriff’s office in Mt. Vernon for copies of the police reports, and pestered the workers at the county clerk’s office for hundreds of pages of court documents and transcripts. But most importantly, I traveled back to Poseyville to look at the town anew. I usually brought my young son and our dog with me, giving my wife a break back in Chicago while I spent long weekends at my parents’ house. My father helped me arrange interviews with Carol’s family and friends so I could learn more about her life, but mostly I just spent time there and thought about what the town meant to me. I hoped that writing about Miss Carol’s death would be a way for me to reconcile my ambivalence toward Poseyville, and my split allegiances between big city living and small town America. I hoped that by bringing both sets of sensibilities to bear, I could make sense of what, at its core, was neither a small town nor a big city story. It encompassed both of them, with me standing somewhere between the two.

THE TOWN, OF COURSE, WAS STUNNED by the news of the murder. Miss Carol was the archetypical innocent victim. Clark had no connection to her. He didn’t know her, didn’t know her family. He was a drifter, a career criminal who had dropped out of high school and spent his adult life in and out of jail for petty theft and drunk driving incidents. He approached the lonely house to enrich himself, but left behind his soul, what was left of it at least, in a pool of blood. Carol’s remaining family and the rest of the town of Poseyville could cling to the hope that her murderer would face his day in court, but this was of little comfort to anyone who drives by that spot on Highway 165, looks over to where her house stood, and remembers what took place on that spot.

The sense of security in town changed after Miss Carol’s murder. Poseyville wasn’t like the Holcomb, Kansas of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood after the Clutter family murders, where the residents lived in fear for months until the killers were captured. Herbert Clark was apprehended just an hour after he killed her. But he had let himself in through one of those unlocked doors, an outsider availing himself of the community’s faith in the goodness of others, and he desecrated the town’s sanctity. The town faced the new reality that not every footstep outside would be that of a friendly neighbor.

THE EXTENT OF WHAT HERBERT CLARK DID that day doesn’t end with the killing of a beloved member of the community. He was an outsider, an agent of change, who forced his own ugly existence upon a town that had been a haven from such violence. He began a chapter of the town’s history that the people of Poseyville wish had never been written, and one that many of them hope will never be opened again. After more than 13 years away, I’ve become an outsider too, and I feared that by coming back and asking questions about what happened to Miss Carol, I’d be seen as a predator as well. By asking people to remember that day, I’d be forcing them to recall that chapter of the town’s story they’d hoped to forget.

I suppose the guilt I felt when I first started asking those questions was natural, an exploitative feeling of prying into someone’s personal life that all but the sleaziest journalists must feel in their hearts every time they set down a tape recorder in front of a grieving subject. This guilt was amplified for me because of my personal connections to what had happened. I may not have known some of those people very well when I was growing up there, but they certainly knew who I was, where I used to live, and who my parents were. Breaking the ice by making those initial phone calls to arrange interviews was harder than dialing up complete strangers because I felt as if I had a certain reputation to uphold, and by proxy, that of my parents. I went to great pains to explain my purpose and myself more than I probably needed to. I’m a product of that small town culture, where the distances between folks may be short, but their memories are long. Sometimes the slightest transgression by one person can forever change the way he is viewed in the collective court of opinion. The last thing I wanted to do was create ill will in the community. More importantly, I didn’t want to subject my parents to grudges when I returned to Chicago, leaving them behind to face the aftermath of something I had said or done.

This speculative dread about how people might react met with equal trepidation on my part about why I was so drawn to this story. I tried to convince myself that I wanted the story I wrote to honor Miss Carol, that I wanted to rekindle a love for the place where I grew up and reconnect with the people there, but I feared I was merely fascinated by the macabre details of the murder. This disgust was only confirmed as I pored over police reports and read newspaper stories about the awful scene, or explained what I was writing to my friends in Chicago. I became disturbingly fascinated with the details of the crime. I found myself treating it like any other Law & Order episode, and then I chastised myself for not remembering that the victim wasn’t an actor or a faceless, unfortunate soul from the news. This was someone I actually knew, however fleetingly, someone universally loved and respected by everyone who met her. Is this what makes me take an interest in my hometown again, an ax murder? Had my childhood fascination with the grit and the grime of the city manifested itself in a perverse attraction to a gruesome killing?

St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Poseyville
St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Poseyville

I NEVER SUFFERED THIS GUILT MORE INTENSELY than when a group of Miss Carol’s family and friends gathered at my request in the fellowship hall of St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Poseyville one evening to talk about her life. I asked my father to come with me, not so much for his input as to help bridge the gap between me and the people I knew only by name. We drove the three blocks to the church in his new Chrysler Sebring convertible. It was still warm that evening, and he insisted on keeping the top down. We arrived at the church a few minutes early and parked in the gravel lot outside, where I insisted that he at least put the top up and roll up the windows, if not lock the doors. Maybe it was the mood of the evening, knowing what we were going to be discussing, but I acted like one murder two years earlier meant that the town was now crawling with vandals and car thieves. Again, I was stuck between Poseyville and Chicago. Of course no one was going to bother his car if he left the top down. No passersby would think twice about it either, unless it started raining that night, in which case, knowing exactly whose car it was, they would have found my dad to tell him.

Rev. Don Cline, who had become minister at the church just before Miss Carol died, arrived to unlock the doors. We brought refreshments, hoping they would entice a few more people to come out after the dinner hour. The three of us started arranging the tables and chairs into a U-shape, and I laid out my notebook and voice recorder at the center. The room was roughly the size of an elementary school classroom, with wood paneling, drop ceiling, and tile floor. One side opened into a kitchen where members of the church could prepare meals. The other side featured a small stage with a few music stands and a guitar amplifier, where children from Sunday school could rehearse pageants and the church musicians could practice. The walls were adorned with small paintings of Jesus, separated by a few windows.

Once a dozen people showed up, we decided to start. I began by asking about Carol’s life, how they knew her and what they remembered most about her. A few of them had been in her adult Sunday school class. Others had simply been her friends. People chimed in quickly, often interrupting each other to complete an anecdote. Heads nodded all around as people described her old fashioned lifestyle and moral certitude. Many stories were followed by laughter as they described her quirky ways or a scolding one of them had gotten for missing a day of Sunday school. They were eager to talk, glad that someone was taking an interest in Miss Carol’s life. I felt relieved.

After 30 minutes or so of reminiscing, I decided to ask a more difficult question. How did you find out about her death? Gayle Blunier, a former Sunday school student and my high school typing teacher, sighed and said, “It was like when John F. Kennedy was killed, I can see exactly where I was.” She received a phone call, as many did that night. There was shock of course, but also fear. Some admitted that they started locking their doors for the first time. Gayle’s husband Larry said he actually bought shells for an old shotgun he owned. “I think it brought home the fact that little old Poseyville is not immune to the evils that are in the world, and what goes on in the big city can happen in a small rural community,” he said. After he said this though, Gayle mocked him about the shotgun, saying he wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway. He admitted the idea was silly, but the shock of that night made people act paranoid, if only for a little while.

Rev. Cline, who counseled many members of the church after the killing, said, “People were mad at God. I don’t know how else to explain it.” On Mother’s Day, the following Sunday, he gave a sermon to the church about how bad things can happen to good people. “I’ll never forget, I had people come up to the altar and say, ‘How can I pray for somebody that I want to kill right now?’” I asked him how he answered that, and he said, “I didn’t. You first had to have people admit their anger, and then you start working through that, but you couldn’t take the anger away from them because they had a definite right to be angry.” When I asked how he helped people reconcile this anger at God with their beliefs, he said, “From a God standpoint I said, ‘God didn’t want this to happen either,’ but we’re not puppets and bad things do happen to good people. But people didn’t want to hear that at that point, and that took weeks.”

This anger culminated in a desire for justice, and knowing that Carol’s killer had been apprehended immediately afterwards wasn’t enough comfort at that point. Larry Blunier said, “You see Western movies, how it used to be in the West when something would happen and a vigilante group would get together? I mean there was that feeling of vigilantism right here, without question.” The people of Poseyville wanted answers, and if they couldn’t get them from their God at that time, then they needed them from the police and county prosecutor charged with making a case against Herbert Clark.

Herbert Clark with Posey County Sheriff’s deputies, shortly after his arrest
Herbert Clark with Posey County Sheriff’s deputies, shortly after his arrest

FORTUNATELY FOR THE TOWN, there was little suspense. Damned by the drunken carelessness that prevented him from getting even a few yards away from the crime scene, Herbert Clark’s fate was sealed by the physical evidence against him. Indiana State Police investigators found his DNA on the ax handle. His clothes were covered in Carol’s blood, and his cover story—that he got lost on his way to Poseyville, looking to buy a lawnmower for his father—simply didn’t make sense.

The only real question was whether or not Clark would receive the death penalty, but fearing a sensational trial and the long, drawn out appeals process that follows any capital sentence, Carol’s family and the prosecutor decided to ask for a life sentence without parole. Clark eventually plead guilty to murder and was sentenced to 75 years in prison. Indiana inmates typically serve half of their sentences after receiving credit for good behavior in prison, which meant Clark could potentially be eligible for release in 2043, when he would be 83 years old. Given the rough life he had led, for all intents and purposes, he was going to jail for the rest of his life.

A lot of people I spoke to described Herbert Clark as evil. The night I interviewed the group at the church, one of Carol’s friends said she had gone to one of his court appearances so she “could see what evil looked like.” A state trooper told me Clark was one of the most remorseless killers he’d encountered in his 25 years on the force. After he was sentenced, Clark gave a disturbing interview with a television reporter in which he managed to stand up and put his hand on her shoulder, leaving her to wonder if he was going to try choking her.

But scary as he was, Herbert Clark was also a drunk who couldn’t hold down a job, a serial burglar and a bumbler who hacked an old woman to death with an ax because she caught him robbing her house, then drove his truck into a cornfield. When I first heard about this murder, I thought of him as some kind of vicious predator who preyed on an innocent old woman because he thought he could get away with it. Like everyone else, I would still call him evil, but evil isn’t the exclusive domain of criminal masterminds. Sometimes evil is just pathetic.

EACH FALL, POSEYVILLE HOLDS its annual Autumnfest and parade. The year Miss Carol was killed, it was held in late September, just as Herbert Clark was contemplating his plea bargain. The festival’s theme for the year was “volunteers.” Members of St. Paul’s church dedicated their float for the parade to Miss Carol. It was built to look like the Carnegie library, with bookcases and a wagon filled with children’s books. In the center was a desk like the one she sat at for 45 years, decorated with a bouquet of roses, a picture of her, a Bible, and her ever-present hat and gloves.

The parade is identical to the thousands of others held across the country to mark the coming of fall. The marching band churns out a staid fight song. The cheerleaders preen. The politicians glad-hand their constituents. Fire trucks, tractors, and floats drive by with volunteers pelting the streets with candy, as children scamper alongside and squabble over it like it was the last batch of Tootsie Rolls in the world. That year, Rev. Cline walked alongside the church’s float. He heard one little boy complain, “Hey, there’s no candy from that one,” and his mother cuffed him on the back of the head, saying, “That’s about Miss Carol, be quiet.” Cline said he was taken aback by the crowd’s reaction, as they stood and applauded. “There was this atmosphere that I don’t think we expected when we made the float,” he said. “You could just see in people’s faces on both sides how much she meant to every one of them.”

I’M NOT SURE WHAT I EXPECTED TO FIND in Poseyville when I started talking to people about Miss Carol’s murder, over two years after it happened. I had this notion that the town was forever changed, that Herbert Clark had done more than kill a cherished member of the community. I assumed he had altered its way of life. I pictured a town looking over its shoulder, jumping at shadows, where the trust that made Miss Carol and my parents feel comfortable leaving their doors unlocked vanished like the town’s once promising past. Thinking I had found my own In Cold Blood, I set out to document this new Poseyville.

I now know this was just paternalistic arrogance. Me, the sophisticated city dweller, coming back to wag my finger at those naive small-town folks and teach them a lesson about harsh, modern life. But I was the one who felt naive in the end. The town didn’t change fundamentally after Carol’s murder. Her death was tragic and utterly unexpected, but once the initial shock wore off and the murderer was sent to prison, the people of Poseyville realized it was a lightning bolt out of the blue, the sad, one in a million result of two people being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Before I went back to Poseyville to learn about this story, I liked telling my Chicago friends, “Things like that just don’t happen there,” as a way of underscoring the impact of the crime. But saying that implies that ax murders do happen elsewhere with great frequency. Where, in my rough and tough Chicago? Truth be told, if there ever is going to be a murder like that, the isolated country home of a defenseless old woman ranks near the top of the list of likely crime scenes. The people in Poseyville understand this, but rightly choose not to live in fear of it happening again in their lifetimes. The trust they have in their neighbors and their community–the reason they choose to live there–is stronger than one random, shocking act of violence by an outsider. Irrational fear of the stranger is left for those sophisticated city dwellers like me.

I suppose I thought that I had lost the Poseyville I wanted to remember, the town that Lingeman described in Small Town America as, “The Home from which we escaped yet whose map is etched forever in our memories … The town as repose and sanctuary and the town as the home to which you can’t go again.” But I hadn’t lost that. Poseyville is still there, basically in the same shape and form as when I left, and I suspect it will stay that way for a long time. Maybe I can’t go home to Poseyville again, but my problem was, after having moved off to college, then through multiple apartments and houses in Chicago, it took me a while to figure out what home is for me now.

It’s a problem faced by young people for as long as young people have been moving away to big cities, exacerbated now by the lack of career stability created by today’s global and rather mercenary economy. The chances of me keeping the same job, much less the same career, for over 30 years like my parents have are slim to none. If and when my parents do retire and move away from Poseyville, I won’t have much reason to go back there either. So home has to become something else, something less about place or occupation, and more about the company we keep.

For the longest time after I moved out of my parents’ house, when I wrote myself a reminder to call them, I’d write, “Call home.” Only recently, since I’ve gotten married and had children, forming my own family in a new place, did I start to write, “Call Mom & Dad.” My home isn’t in Poseyville anymore. It’s where my new family is, in Chicago or anywhere else our lives take us.

Mt. Pleasant Cemetery
Mt. Pleasant Cemetery

MISS CAROL IS BURIED at the Mt. Pleasant cemetery, in the country about two miles southeast of Poseyville on Cleveland Road. It was built in 1933, on the former site of three churches, all traces of which are paved over now with a small gravel parking lot. A single old church bell marks the entrance to the lot, standing atop a brick pedestal bearing a plaque with the dates of each old church: 1830, 1850, 1878. The cemetery sits on one of the highest points in the area, atop a small bluff that juts up from the road, strengthened by a concrete retaining wall, then slopes gently down a hill as it moves away from the road back to a small stand of oak and maple trees. It is separated from the parking lot by a wrought iron fence with a brick column at the end facing the road, and two more forming its gate.

During a visit with my parents, I drove out there with my father to see Carol’s grave. As we walked past the brick columns and down the line of headstones to find her plot, I read the names, both familiar town names and ones long forgotten: Wiggins, Fairchild, Daughtery, McReynolds, Boyle, Craig, Wade, Marquis, Cale. Many of them were grouped together by family, husband and wife, children and grandchildren side by side. Over in the southwest corner, facing the road, I saw the name Carol Renee Lamar. She is buried next to her sister Hazel, sharing the same headstone. To their left are their parents, Bob and Ora, then two small markers for their infant sisters, Sarah Mae and Marcella Ruth. Next to them is an older stone column marking the grave of Ora’s sister Ina, then a more modern stone bearing the names of Carol’s grandparents, George and Cornelia Murphy.

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On a clear day, you can stand next to Miss Carol’s grave and look west across the corn and soybean fields to where her old home used to stand, about two miles away as the crow flies. The house is gone now, bulldozed after her death. The remains were burned, with many family documents, photographs, and keepsakes inside. The massive cottonwoods that shaded the home were cut down and used as kindling to burn away the memory of what happened there. All that’s left of the old house is a patch of gravel and a pile of charred debris. If you know what you’re looking for, you can find a few clues as to what once stood there: some scattered bricks, a few scraps of dirty green and rust-colored carpet, the painted white metal lid of an ice chest, a downed telephone pole.

A few months after the house was destroyed, Carol’s family sold the land too, the first time it had changed hands since her ancestors settled the Indiana territory. Some people in town who knew its history decried the loss of the legacy, but what use was it really? The family home had moved a few miles east across the fields, under the shade of a towering shortleaf pine. Miss Carol was back with her family in the quiet countryside, where she always wanted to be.

A portion of this piece originally appeared in the South Loop Review, Volume 12, Fall 2010. This version is an adaptation of my master’s thesis for the Northwestern University Masters in Creative Writing program, which won the Distinguished Thesis Award.

5 Comments

  1. I had been acquainted with Carol since the 40s. and been a friend for many years. I was a regular patron of the library especially since moving just across the field in 1995. Tw0 days before her death we had talked about me coming over and doing an interview for some material that I wantedto give to the library. She was more than happy to do it. I had planned to call her, I had my tape recorder ready, my note book, and my camera ready to go. I have been haunted by the events wondering what would have happened if I had been there—my car would have been there-the place wouldn’t have looked so deserted,Carol didn’t have a car, not even a dog to bark. I do know one thing I would have put up a fight and he would have had to kill the two of us.

  2. C.A. La Mar

    Thanks for writing this Matt. It’s the one topic I can’t write about.

    From the words of Hamlet,

    “…oh, cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.”

    Chris

  3. Anonymous

    Time has blurred the horrific details of Carol’s death but memories will remain.
    Chance led the villian to the door of a beloved and unique person in the community.
    Fate made her a legend in the annals of Poseyville’s history.
    Thank you for recording her story. It is a benediction to her memory.
    Chance gave me the favor to read it. I’ll pass it on.
    ginny andry

  4. Tonya Rutledge

    Wow! What a powerful and fitting tribute, not only to Miss Carol, but to Poseyville as well. Thank you for sharing this story. You and your family are, and have always been, part of this great Poseyville family we all love so much. You might be a “big city” guy now but I fondly remember you riding your huffy by our house on Cale, wearing that Cardinals cap. GO CARDINALS!!
    Tonya Rutledge

  5. I had know Carol since I was married (55 years ago) and a good friend of her neice and her husband, Betty and Don. My husband knew Carol even more years than I did as he grew up in this wonderful small town USA. Your story was very moving and I started to write to you when I read it this summer when it was sent to me by a good friend, who lived close to Carol when she was very young. Somehow I failed to write a note back then, but must say your article was outstanding. What a shame this has to happen to people, but thank you for making it such an interesting read, although so sad for her and her family. Uplifting to hear the good things about Poseyville.

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