It might be hard to imagine a book that reads, both thematically and in some cases stylistically, like a marriage of Leo Tolstoy and Michael Connelly. But Kip Gayden’s Miscarriage of Justice, whose central character is a married woman who strays, begins just 22 years after Anna Karenina was published and chronicles a brutal true crime the likes of which Connelly’s fictional detective Harry Bosch might find familiar.
In retelling an actual murder that happened during the suffrage movement, Gayden, a Davidson County Circuit Court judge, needed little embellishment. His inspiration for the book started with yellowed Banner and Tennessean news clippings about a 1913 Gallatin killing, the devastating fallout of an illicit affair between a doctor’s wife and her scheming, even diabolical paramour. The prolific news stories from the time, written with the kind of descriptive flourishes that now elude dailies, read almost like miniature book chapters, and some in fact are reprinted as a supplementary storytelling device in Gayden’s book.
“A friend of mine ran across the story at the state archives and handed me a couple of clips one day. He knew I wanted to write something. The more I read, the more I got into it,” says Gayden, who spent five years on the project. “I quit playing tennis, I quit playing golf,” he says, explaining how he was able to hear litigation by day and write a book in his spare time.
It’s easy to see why he was so taken with what he characterizes as this “hobby.” Had the sensational story of Walter Dotson and his wife Anna happened today, it’d be the stuff of 48 Hours, incessant cable news coverage and, no doubt, a book.
In 1896, strapping Walter Dotson and beautiful Anna Dennis fell in love in Red Boiling Springs, Tenn., where he, a Vanderbilt medical student, was a volunteer counselor at a Christian camp and she was a smart, independent 16-year-old camper. (By the way, the names in the book are real, which authors can do without legal liability when mining the history of people long gone.)
“In music classes, she stated a desire to learn the violin,” writes Gayden, whose style is surprisingly effortless and, fittingly, almost Victorian. “Before long, she was staying after the rest of the group had left. Walter demonstrated the position of the instrument and coached her on fingering and bowing technique. As he touched her wrist or nudged her fingers toward a better position on the strings, it was as if fire flowed into him from her soft skin…. By the middle of the second week, Walter had to admit to himself that he was thoroughly besotted.”
The two enjoyed a passionate, if chaste, courtship and were married the next year. After stints in Chicago, New York and Vienna in pursuit of Walter’s specialized studies in ear, nose and throat medicine, the couple settled in Smithville to be near their extended families, then finally in Gallatin, where Walter could better use his medical specialty.
By 1909, the couple had two children, and Walter’s activities—his busy practice, his membership in the Masons and in all manner of community clubs—kept him away from home. He ignored Anna, who was starved for the slightest acknowledgement. Even Anna’s slinkiest, most risqué French nightgown failed to rouse Walter from his increasingly inattentive and asexual state.
Then married Charlie Cobb came to town, hanging his razor strap in Person’s Barbershop, where he cut Walter’s hair.
He began carefully conspiring to get closer to Anna. Bored and sexually frustrated, Anna played along with this dangerous dance, flirting with him in the street, even savoring and exchanging private notes in the margins of the Argosy magazines she lent him.
In one issue, next to a poem entitled “Hearts Aflame,” Charlie wrote to Anna, “This poet has captured me entirely, dear Anna.” A bit farther down the page, he alluded to his wife: “Daisy, of course, would never understand why.”
Then one night when Anna went to fetch water from the backyard well one night, the clandestine suitor was waiting in the dark, and she responded to his advances. For the next year, they met often for passionate trysts. She would light a candle in her window to beckon her lover, but when a neighbor began noticing this pattern (a flickering light meant Charlie’s imminent arrival at the back door), the town began talking. Anna was publicly chastised at her ladies’ tea, and even her brother ratted her out to Walter, who, when she confessed to him, became hysterical and threatened to kill.
“She looked up just in time to see Walter grabbing the pistol out of the drawer of his lamp table and pointing it at her head,” Gayden writes. “She screamed and grabbed at the gun, knocking the barrel upward just as Walter pulled the trigger. The pistol roared and Anna screamed again, then sprang up and fled downstairs.”
The eventual result of the affair made headlines, caused a court circus and shocked a community—but not so much that anybody still talks about the crime of passion today.
Gayden notes that Jade Maberry, a Gallatin lawyer and an acquaintance of his, is Walter’s great grand niece. “She kind of didn’t know about it, which sort of underlines that it fell through the cracks of history.”
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