Banjo or Mandolin?

Years after someone dies under tragic circumstances, the stories become more and more interesting, sometimes blurring the line between truth and legend. Such is the story of the death of Merrill Cox Fry. Even with newspaper articles, court testimony, and family legend, controversy remains concerning what happened one fateful, hot, July night in 1940.

Since there were numerous Merrill Fry’s in Moore County during this time frame, a little family genealogy will help place the relatives of  this Merrill Cox Fry.  Also known as Locker Fry, Merrill was born 1854, and was living near Thomas’s Crossroads at the time of his death. His father was Lockhart Fry, born 1818, also a prolific name, who spelled his surname without an “e”. His mother was Margaret Elizabeth Frye, with an ”e”. As was quite common back then, Lockhart and Margaret were second cousins.

In 1878, the Carthaginian Newspaper announced Merrill’s marriage to Lucinda Williams. Following his wife’s death in 1935 from malaria, Merrill began suffering from the effects of old age and increased senility. For the next few years he shared a two-room house with his son, Epps, his wife, and their three children.

On July 14, 1940, at 2:45 a.m. Merrill Cox Fry was pronounced dead at Pinehurst Hospital at the age of 87 from a “cerebral concussion, fracture of face, and shock due to fist fight”. Front page headline from The Pilot Newspaper July 19, 1940, declared: EPPS FRY HELD IN BRUTAL DEATH OF FATHER.

Epps Fry news

Merrill’s son, Epps, was arrested and ordered held without bond in the death of his 87-year-old father who had been brutally beaten in the face. According to trial evidence, the two men had not been on friendly terms for several years, and while Epps Fry and his family occupied one end of the building and the father the other, they had little to do with each other. Saturday night, according to the testimony, the elder Fry awakened about 8:30 and went to the door of his son’s room to inquire why so much noise was being made and the trouble started from that.

Epps Fry was charged with first-degree murder, but entered a plea of not guilty. At his trial he testified that his father slashed him first, he pushed his father, and that the aged man fell against a trunk. The sheriff said it was the bloodiest place he had ever seen. The trial attracted a lot of interest in and around Moore County in 1940, but it took barely an hour for the jury to convict Fry of second-degree murder of his father. “Thirty years in prison at hard labor, this being the maximum sentence for the offense,” Judge Felix E. Alley declared, going on to say it was “one of the most brutal I ever heard of”.

Well, there you have it – or do you? After discussing this story with a couple of Merrill’s grandchildren (my aunt and uncle), they first had to tell me how musically talented all the Frys were, how they could pick any stringed instrument they picked up, and what quality instruments they played. After laying all this groundwork, they finally got to the family legends of that night’s events. One version was that a neighbor boy calling at the home had been asked by Epps to play his harp which agitated the elder Fry. Both seemed to agree that Epps was making music late that night and his (senile) Daddy kept hollering for him to stop. When he wouldn’t stop, the two men got into it and Epps hit his Daddy in the head with a banjo. I thought I finally had the real story!  They both agreed that Epps likely did hit his daddy with a musical instrument. But when my aunt, with a down-east brogue, said it was a banjo, and my uncle snapped back in his Boston accent that it was a mandolin, I thought there was going to be another headline in The Pilot – BROTHER AND SISTER FIGHT ERUPTS OVER BANJO AND MANDOLIN.  When the accents finally stopped flying, the musical instrument mystery had still not been settled, but I did have a few more details to add to add to the legend.

The Pilot newspaper wrote of the elder Fry: “he had the reputation of being a peaceable citizen and a favorite with members of the family connection” – and that’s the legend we all need to leave.

Submitted by Ann Bruce

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