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Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in our March 2002 issue.
It was just a few hours after midnight, on the cold morning of November 3, 1935, when Daisy Root parked her sedan on the side street and quickly walked across the yard to her house on Kimball Road, carrying a flashlight and a .22 caliber pistol. She stepped inside the front door, walked to the front bedroom, and switched on the light, where she found her slumbering husband, Brenton.
“Wake up, darling,” she demanded. “Look at me.”
Brenton opened his eyes and started to sit up in bed. Daisy raised the pistol, aimed it at his chest, and fired three shots, cocking the gun each time. Then she walked into the kitchen, picked up the telephone, and told the operator, “I’ve shot my husband.”
When the ambulance crew arrived they found Daisy sitting calmly in the living room. They quickly put the dying young man into the back of the ambulance, and asked Daisy to ride with them to Methodist Hospital. She sighed, “Is that really necessary?” but got in anyway. Brenton, just 32 years old, died on the way to the hospital.
Newspapers called the killing of Brenton Snow Root, the only son of the former archdeacon of the Episcopal Church of West Tennessee, “one of Memphis’ most sensational murders.” For days, page-one headlines spotlighted the exciting and ultimately tragic lives of Brenton, Daisy, and Lucille Underwood, the “red-haired cigarette girl” who had started it all.
Brenton, better known by his friends as Brit, was born in Connecticut, Daisy in Alabama. Different paths eventually brought them to Memphis, where Brenton became a contract manager for W.T. Rawleigh, wholesale food and drug distributors, and Daisy got a job Downtown as a clerk at Goldsmith’s. They met, dated, and married in 1927, and soon had a son, George.
But the marriage, almost from the beginning, was a rocky one, and Brenton continued “to trot into fresh pastures,” as The Commercial Appeal so quaintly phrased it, even as he and Daisy raised their son and built a nice home at the corner of Kimball and Echles, which was outside the city limits in the 1930s. Among the many young women who caught Brit’s eye was 19-year-old Lucille Underwood, who lived with her deaf-mute parents in a little cottage across the street from Humes High School. Lucille, a Warner Theater beauty contest winner and, according to one account, “a titian-haired allure,” made a living selling cigarettes in the Sky Room of Downtown’s Hotel DeVoy (later the King Cotton).
“These young people were stricken by a disease — as deadly as typhoid fever or pneumonia. Brenton is dead from the disease. Daisy is down with it, though alive. Bullets, bottles, bright lights, and wild parties were the germs that attacked these people.” — The Rev. James Walker, East End Christian Church
Several times during 1934 and 1935, Brenton separated from his wife, living in the Kimball Road house alone while Daisy stayed with friends on James Road, in Raleigh. During this time, he kept a diary recording his dates with other women, identified only by their initials, with some notations complaining, “Daisy wouldn’t let me out.” He typed long letters to Lucille, who allegedly tried to avoid him after finding out he was married, and one of them was reproduced later in the Memphis Press-Scimitar: “It will be a long time before I fully recover from the regret of having been cheated out of you from circumstances that were in a large measure beyond my control,” he wrote (apparently alluding to the fact that he was married). And, a few paragraphs later, “We’ve both lost. You were wrong when you said that men mess a girl up! It isn’t the men, it’s love that messes things up.”
He ended his last letter to Lucille with a rather prophetic statement: “P.S. Another letter for your collections. If for no other reason, better keep this to show some other hopeful someday as a warning.”
On the night of November 2, 1935, Brenton called his wife and convinced her that he was through with other women and wanted a reconciliation. He invited Daisy to a dinner and dance, accompanied by two other couples, at a hotel Downtown. When he picked her up that evening, they would all go, he decided, to the DeVoy. Lucille, he well knew, would be working there that evening. (“A reckless move,” The Commercial Appeal would observe later.)
Daisy and Brenton enjoyed two dances together in the Sky Room, enjoying the music of Russell Combs’ jazz orchestra. That’s when Daisy spotted Lucille, stormed over to her, and hauled her back to their table.
“Brett, there’s your cigarette girl,” she told her husband. “Who don’t you buy a pack of cigarettes?” Brenton obliged, smiling at Lucille and telling her, “Okay, sweetheart, give me a pack of cigarettes.”
Daisy stared at him, pulled back her right arm, and slapped him across the face. Brenton rubbed his jaw, turned to Lucille, and said again, “All right, honey, give me that pack of cigarettes.”
While the other couples stared in disbelief, Daisy slugged Brenton again. He glared at her and smirked, “You can keep me from buying a pack of cigarettes from her, but you can’t keep me from loving her.”
Daisy ran out of the room and dashed into the restroom down the hall. One of her friends tried to calm her down, and eventually carried her — according to some reports, kicking and cursing — out of the hotel. It’s not clear what, if anything, was said between Brenton and Lucille, but the party immediately broke up, and everyone drove home.
Daisy’s friends took her back to their house on James, where the young wife fumed about what had happened. She later told reporters, “I looked down in the crib at our sleeping boy and I got so wild at the cigarette girl that I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Around two in the morning, she grabbed her pistol — the one Brenton had taught her to shoot, once bragging to friends, “My wife is the best shot in the whole state” — borrowed the keys to her friends’ sedan, and drove to the darkened house on Kimball.
Daisy was indicted for first-degree murder for “feloniously, willfully, deliberately, maliciously, premeditatively, and of malice aforethought killing and murdering Brenton Root.” She was released on $7,500 bond before her trial in January. On the rainy afternoon of November 6th, accompanied by sheriff’s deputies, she was allowed to attend her husband’s funeral services in Memorial Park Cemetery. Reporters observed that the “self-made widow,” as they called her, “sobbed convulsively” beside her husband’s coffin. Because of his U.S. Army service — Brenton had been a sergeant in the 115th Field Artillery — he was buried with full military honors, including a squad of cadets firing a salute and a bugler playing “Taps.”
Dr. James Walker of East End Christian Church delivered the eulogy. “These young people were stricken by a disease — as deadly as typhoid fever or pneumonia,” he told more than 200 mourners. “Brenton is dead from the disease. Daisy is down with it, though alive. Bullets, bottles, bright lights, and wild parties were the germs that attacked these people.”
After the funeral service, Brenton’s father, the Reverend Benjamin Franklin Root, then the rector of St. Simon’s Episcopal Church in Chicago, told reporters that Daisy “is my girl, my baby. I have always loved her and do now. She just had a brainstorm and I understand perfectly.” Back home in Chicago, he delivered a sermon at his own church that forgave his daughter-in-law, declaring, “How can a Christian do otherwise? It is as natural as the sunrise, or the smile of a little child.” Memphis newspapers observed that the minister was even “assisting in her defense.”
Typical of the odd twists and turns that marked this case, the father later denied making such a statement, and in fact, announced, rather cryptically, “The defendant has many excuses. I was led to believe them. Since that time, the truth has come to my attention. Now I know the truth. My son was murdered.” The Reverend revealed that he had “come into possession of facts which had caused him to change his position.” That evidence was never revealed, but during the trial Brenton’s mother testified for the prosecution, not for the defense.
(Defense attorneys later implied that the elder Root turned against Daisy when she deeded the Kimball house to her attorneys, not her father-in-law, to help pay her legal expenses.)
The case of the State v. Daisy Root began on January 24, 1936, in the Shelby County Courthouse. Judge Phil Wallace’s courtroom was jammed, and at one point a “near riot” ensued when the police had to turn away more than 200 spectators, most of them “fur-coated women.”
The battle plans of the attorneys were made clear at the beginning. Attorney General W. Tyler McLain, serving as prosecutor, planned to portray Daisy as “a remorseless, jealously maddened slayer.” He made it clear that he intended to use Daisy as an example to others.
“You don’t think it is open season for a woman shooting husbands and getting away it,” he asked the jurors, “just because they are women, do you?”
On the other hand, defense attorney A.B. Galloway intended to show that Daisy “had reason to fear great bodily harm at the hands of her husband, as he frequently beat her and on one occasion beat her so cruelly during a pregnancy that the child was never born.”
Brenton’s boss at W.T. Rawleigh testified that the young man’s “reputation for peace and quietude was bad” and one time the employee challenged his supervisor to a duel. Acquaintances revealed that Brenton, on more than one occasion, had said he was tired of his wife, and one friend testified, “He made the remark that one of these days he was going to get tired and kill her.” A neighbor testified that Brenton “always carried a gun” and would stick a pistol down the back of his pants. “He would twirl it around his finger. He sure loved a gun.”
Throughout the days of testimony, the newspapers concentrated on every detail, every reaction, of Daisy Root. “Her hands, rather large and with filed nails, betrayed no nervousness. Her face, with its irregular but attractive features, was unusually reposed,” observed one Commercial Appeal reporter. “Mrs. Root is 30 years old and looks older,” said the Press-Scimitar. “Once she bleached her dark brown hair because her husband preferred blondes.”
On the fourth day, Daisy finally took the stand. “Throughout the examination, her voice seemed fraught with grief and emotion, but her eyes remained dry,” reported one newspaper. “She talked in a very low tone and her eyes continually were fastened on the jury.”
Defense attorney Galloway focused on Brenton’s alleged indiscretions, and asked Daisy to tell about them. “Did he try to conceal his affairs from you?” he asked her.
“No, sir,” she responded. “He bragged about them. I begged him over and over not to tell me about it. … Brenton had told me that he had gone with 60 girls ever since he got an Auburn speedster.”
Galloway asked for details. “One night he [Brenton] came home and said he had found a girl who looked as well as I did; he told me how perfectly she was shaped,” Daisy testified, her lips trembling. “Then he started out again. I grabbed hold of him, begged him not to go, and he knocked me in the face, and mother had to pull him off me.”
She admitted that her husband didn’t want to be married: “Brit didn’t even want to take me to town with him and bring the baby. He would say that he didn’t want people to think that he was an old family man.”
Daisy maintained her composure during all this, for the most part, but finally burst out, “You people here have made me sit up and say things that I would rather die than have to tell!”
Prosecutor McLain listened to all this, and further testimony from Daisy, with a look of disdain. During his cross-examination, he abruptly turned to the jury and said, “It is the theory of the state that she [Daisy] has never loved this man.”
“Oh,” cried Daisy. “You can’t say that, you can’t say that!”
But you killed him, McLain insisted.
I didn’t intend to, Daisy cried. “All the world knows that I didn’t — that I loved him. I just wanted him to convince me that he was honest about the things he said [about Lucille]. … I loved Brit better than life itself.”
Daisy insisted that she had heard that Brenton had visited Lucille before the party that night at the DeVoy and wanted to know if that was true.
“I wanted Brit to tell me that the girl [Lucille] had told me a lie,” she sobbed, “and that he had not been to see her after he had told me and promised me he was through.” She only took the gun along to the house on Kimball, she insisted, “because I was afraid to drive out there without it.”
McLain hammered away at Daisy, forcing her to reveal that she had “intimate relations” with Brenton before their marriage, had supposedly had an affair herself with a young fellow in Birmingham, and at one point had attempted suicide by drinking turpentine.
Daisy maintained her composure during all this, for the most part, but finally burst out, “You people here have made me sit up and say things that I would rather die than have to tell!” The newspaper noted, “Her distress, undoubtedly, was genuine.”
Then the testimony turned to the mysterious second gun. The maid at the Root house on Kimball revealed that Brenton kept a .45 automatic on the floor by his bed. When sheriff’s deputies searched the house the morning of the murder, they found that pistol on a counter in the kitchen. The death weapon used by Daisy, the .22 pistol, was discovered in the bedroom.
Daisy’s attorneys proposed that Brenton was reaching for this pistol when she walked into his bedroom, and her shooting was in self-defense. Daisy admitted she couldn’t remember “all these little details” but thought she had afterwards carried the other gun into the kitchen herself.
Prosecutor McLain jumped on this admission, implying that Daisy had indeed carried it into the other room herself — not after the shooting, as Galloway had suggested, but before, so Brenton would have no way to defend himself.
On the witness stand, Daisy claimed she couldn’t remember shooting her husband (“I realized I was standing there with my gun in my hand”) or leaving the .22 in the bedroom afterwards, but did remember carrying the .45 away.
“How can you remember what you did with the .45 and can’t remember what you did with the .22?” thundered McLain.
“Because .45s kill people," she responded.
McLain walked over to the exhibit table, picked up the .22, and turned to Daisy. “This one kills too, doesn’t it?”
She looked down at the floor and didn’t respond.
Lucille Underwood, the infamous “cigarette girl,” was not called to testify, both sides no doubt thinking she would not help their case. But outside the courthouse, she had plenty to say.
“She didn’t love Brit,” she told the Press-Scimitar. “She wanted to live in town so she could have a gay time. That’s why she she killed him — so she could get rid of him. Imagine her trying to blame me!” she continued. “There were lots of other women in Brit’s life. She would have killed him some time or other. She just used me as an excuse.”
The seven-day trial drew to a close on the evening of January 30th. The assistant district attorney, Sam Campbell, addressed the jury, demanding that Daisy Root be convicted “as a jealous, maddened assassin.” Yes, her husband “might have been a woman chaser from way back, the worst that ever lived — but he had a right to live. … but he wasn’t given a dog’s chance.”
After speaking more than an hour, Campbell concluded, “It is your duty to convict this woman, not only because you know she is guilty, but because any other woman in this courtroom who might have the idea of knocking off her husband will say, ‘I had better not, look what happened to Mrs. Root.’”
Then it was Galloway’s turn, referring to “this son of an archdeacon as an arch-demon” and, as The Commercial Appeal reported, “scorching the character of Brenton Root with sweeping thrusts” and “painting the deceased in colors that contrasted sharply with the snow that fell outside the courtroom windows. “ He ended by suggesting that the actions of Daisy, “a bird with a broken wing, fluttering and helpless,” on the morning of November 3rd were the result of great emotional strain.
“She was shocked, stunned,” he said. “The springs of human emotion were frozen in her frail little form. She was like a frozen icicle because her spirit had been broken, and what she had gone through was enough to break a thousand more robust spirits.”
The Press-Scimitar didn’t entirely share the prosecutor’s pleasure at the outcome: “If you had met Brenton and Daisy Root before this blow-up, you wouldn’t have suspected that the life of these nice-looking people was rotten underneath.”
Still, Daisy didn’t really have a chance — not in this courtroom. Women weren’t allowed to serve on juries in Shelby County until 1951, so an all-male jury retired at 10 p.m. to consider her fate. They filed back into the courtroom the following afternoon with the verdict: guilty of second-degree murder. Judge Wallace sentenced her to 10 years at hard labor in the state penitentiary in Nashville. When she received the sentence, Daisy “left the courtroom without a word. She did not cry, but she was trembling, her deep-set eyes staring at the floor,” noted a reporter.
“That the verdict was not popular with the women who had haunted the courtroom since the trial began a week ago was not debated,” observed The Commercial Appeal. But it certainly pleased the prosecutors. “It shows that citizens are tired of women shooting their husbands and then using feminine charms to appeal to men on the jury,” said McLain.
The Press-Scimitar didn’t entirely share his pleasure at the outcome. “If you had met Brenton and Daisy Root before this blow-up, you wouldn’t have suspected that the life of these nice-looking people was rotten underneath,” it proclaimed in an editorial when the trial had ended. “The Root case was an outgrowth of a system of values by which it is considered ‘smart’ and ‘modern’ to end the week with a big drunk on Saturday night, rather than start it with church-going on Sunday morning.”
As for the “other woman,” Lucille Underwood grudgingly admitted she felt sorry for Daisy. What’s more, she told reporters, “I’m going to forget about all the cigarette stuff and start life all over again.” She married a childhood sweetheart and moved to Dearborn, Michigan.
Daisy remained free on bond for several months, living with her parents at their home on Elzey while her attorney appealed the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Galloway drew attention, in particular, to one of the jurors, who had recently gone through a difficult divorce and admitted to his fellow jurors that his wife had tried to kill him. In its December 1937 session, however, the Supreme Court ruled that “that there is no reversible error on the record, and the judgment of the court should be affirmed.” At the same time, the judges acknowledged, “while the son of an Episcopal clergyman and no doubt properly reared, young Root was lecherous in the extreme.” The court reduced the charges to voluntary manslaughter, cutting Daisy’s sentence to two years
She served just 14 months. On the day after Christmas in 1937, Governor Browning, perhaps influenced by more than a thousand letters urging clemency, gave Daisy a full pardon. That didn’t set well with the man who prosecuted her.
“Pardons like this can’t help law enforcement,” griped W. Tyler McLain. “If ever a woman lived who was guilty of second-degree murder, it is Daisy Root.”
Daisy returned home to her parents, who had been raising little George while his mother was in prison. A few days after her release, she told reporters, “All my plans for the future center around my son. Although I’m ‘dated up’ 365 nights a year, there will be no more nightlife for me, for I’m exclusively dating little George.”
She mentioned she hoped she might join the PTA and start going to church, but knew rejoining society would be difficult.
“I’m afraid I can’t yet,” she said. “I can’t bear for people to look at me and murmur, ‘That woman.’ Perhaps they will forget soon and help me to forget so I, too, can live a normal, average life.”
Perhaps Daisy got her wish. She became a waitress at the Skillet restaurant, across Union from The Peabody, and city directories showed that she moved to a house on Oliver, then two years later to another residence on Felix. After 1945, however, there is no more mention of her, either in the phone books or the newspapers. How — and where — she and her son spent the rest of their days is unknown.
Sources: Memphis Press-Scimitar, The Commercial Appeal, the Special Collections Department of the University of Memphis Libraries, and court records obtained from the Shelby County Archives and the Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk’s office.
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