New book details century-old mystery of Currituck boy's disappearance
By Kesha Williams
Thursday, November 15, 2018
One September day in 1905, 8-year-old Kenneth Beasley walked out of his Poplar Branch schoolhouse for recess. When recess ended, Kenneth’s schoolmates returned to class but he didn’t.
When Kenneth didn’t turn up, searchers looked for him, scouring the woods and swamp near the school. No trace of him was ever found, however — not then, not ever.
The mysterious disappearance of Kenneth Beasley in 1905 and the subsequent trial in Elizabeth City two years later of the person accused in his disappearance are the subjects of Charles Oldham’s new book, “The Senator’s Son: The Shocking Disappearance, the Celebrated Trial, and the Mystery that Remains a Century Later.”
In the book, Oldham, a Charlotte attorney, explores both fact and rumor that have swirled around Kenneth Beasley’s disappearance over the past 113 years. He’ll discuss the findings of his research on the case at a free lecture at Museum of the Albemarle’s Gaither Auditorium on Saturday at 1 p.m.
The book is titled “The Senator’s Son” because Kenneth Beasley was in fact the son of a North Carolina state senator, Samuel Beasley, who represented Currituck County in the Legislature at the time.
Kenneth Beasley’s disappearance naturally generated a lot of fear and concern at the time. If a senator’s son could disappear, people wondered what unknown danger lurked in Currituck’s woods for other residents.
“Cases like this were unusual in those days,” Oldham said in a recent interview. “Prior to Kenneth Beasley's disappearance in 1905, there had been only two documented ransom kidnappings of children in the U.S. Surely, there had been lots of other kidnappings and disappearances, but only two in which it was confirmed that a kidnapper demanded money for return of a child.”
Prior to Kenneth Beasley’s disappearance, Oldham noted, one child kidnapping involving a ransom request was reported in Philadelphia in 1874 and a second was reported in Omaha, Nebraska in 1900. Oldham points out, however, that there never was any proof a ransom was demanded — or collected — in Kenneth Beasley’s disappearance.
A child’s disappearance cried out for a culprit, and people eventually found one.
Oldham’s book points out there were rumors circulating at the time that Samuel Beasley’s rival, Joshua Harrison, was angry with the senator for attempting to pass a law preventing the sale of wine. Harrison was widely rumored to be a bootlegger in Currituck County. Passage of the law obviously would have negatively affected Harrison’s livelihood.
Two years following Kenneth Beasley’s disappearance, Harrison appeared in a Pasquotank County courtroom charged with kidnapping. Oldham reports a curious cast of spectators and reporters filled the open seats of the courthouse all week to hear arguments on both sides of the case.
While there was a verdict in the case, Oldham says the mystery of what actually happened continues to this day.
“More than 100 years have passed but the mystery has been lingering,” Oldham said. “Kenneth was never found.”
Oldham said he pored through a lot of newspapers, historical accounts and other materials to try and unlock the mystery.
“I cannot say I solved it, but I have my best theory of what probably happened,” he said.
Oldham’s book covers not just what might have happened to Kenneth Beasley and Harrison’s subsequent trial but also the political climate in North Carolina at the time.
“It is a painful story in many ways, deeply rooted in the politics of the early 1900s,” Oldham said. “It was a tumultuous time in North Carolina politically. Some things we don’t like to remember because it was such a nasty time. That was the time of the white supremacy campaign of 1890s that lingered in the 1900s. There was also the matter of how liquor sales in the state would be managed.”
Oldham said new scholarship about North Carolina politics in the 1890s and early 1900s “helped me put the story together.”
“It is only in the past 20 years or so that historians have focused honestly on the 1890s and early 1900s, and written about how nasty it was,” he said.
Lori Meads, museum educator at Museum of the Albemarle, said the museum routinely welcomes authors whose subject matter relates to the region’s history.
“The subject matter for this topic was interesting and we hope participants will come out Saturday to hear the author,” Meads said. “We represent 13 counties in northeastern North Carolina. We look for topics related to the history of those counties or topics that relate to a current or recent exhibit.”
Meads said copies of “The Senator’s Son” will be available for purchase at the museum gift shop. Attendees of Oldham’s lecture may also bring their copies of the book purchased elsewhere for him to sign.