Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Torrid letter-writer died alone

A portion of one of several love letters discovered during the renovation of a building on West Davie Street, where Kathryn Volpe’s boyfriend has a martial arts gym. Volpe is publishing them one at a time on her blog for Sweetpea Bakery in Raleigh, hoping someone will recognize the century-old romance.
A portion of one of several love letters discovered during the renovation of a building on West Davie Street, where Kathryn Volpe’s boyfriend has a martial arts gym. Volpe is publishing them one at a time on her blog for Sweetpea Bakery in Raleigh, hoping someone will recognize the century-old romance. KATHRYN VOLPE

This terrible truth has haunted valentines since Aphrodite stepped off the scallop shell: sizzling passions flame out fastest; giddy romance loses steam.

For those of you who read last week’s column about the scorching 1916 love letters rescued from the walls of a downtown Raleigh building, I’m sorry to report this bleak news.

J. Edwin, the moonstruck lover who pined for his Annie in magniloquent prose, died alone in a Sanford motel.

It’s not an entirely depressing story. They did get married. They did live together for a time. But for reasons the Internet can’t explain, the pair spent the majority of their lives apart, separated by a state line.

“Oh, the irony of fate!” J. Edwin justly noted.

Thanks for this glum ending are due to the sleuths who dug through city directories from the 1920s, looked up draft cards, death certificates and cemetery records, much of it available on ancestry.com.

Two in particular – Jenny Harper in Raleigh and Laura Smith from La Plata, Md., which is about 5 miles from my hometown – located the bulk of this stuff.

Both are self-described genealogy geeks who swooned over J. Edwin’s letters, which Kathryn Volpe of Sweet Pea Bakery decided to publish after her boyfriend found them while renovating his martial arts gym on West Davie Street. One letter at a time, she treated readers to gems such as this:

You make me so mad with love,” read one page, dated August 1916, “ not the love that will sit near you and listen to your rich voice – but the love that must be appeased by your own lovely self – that demands you surrender your precious composure and stately poise, yes, requires you to yield up your own precious being to the impassioned arms and lips of him who bears this love for you.”

Here’s what the cold, impersonal record shows.

Around the time John Edwin Walker was writing these tortured love letters, he was living in the YMCA in Charlottesville, Va., working as a cashier and bookkeeper for something called The Michie Company. He was 25, about a year younger than Anne Goodyear, daughter of a Virginia merchant who sold saddles and harnesses, who was away at a undisclosed cabin.

They married in June of 1918, about which time J. Edwin managed the Strand Theater in Charlottesville. By the 1920s they had moved to Raleigh, where J. Edwin worked as vice president and general manager of the Nash Motor Co., which stood where Artspace stands now.

For a time, they lived in the Sir Walter Hotel, then a glamorous downtown hostelry, now apartments for senior citizens. But by 1930, they had vanished, gone from Raleigh as far as our sleuths can tell.

Annie resurfaced in 1945, where she had a job as dormitory director at St. Anne’s Schools in Charlottesville. Records show her there again in 1960, still at St. Anne’s with no mention of J. Edwin. The next mention of him comes at his death in 1971, where he’d been manager at a bank in Sanford. He was 75 and had been living at the Carolina Hotel there.

His death certificate shows the word “widower” in the marital status box, crossed out and corrected with “married” to Annie Goodyear, the Walker left off her name.

Laura Smith scored the big scoop. She found a 90-year-old man in Sanford, still living, who knew J. Edwin well. He told her that the old banker was well thought of around town, but nobody knew he had a wife until Annie came to arrange his burial at Sanford’s Buffalo Cemetery.

She outlived him by 19 years, dying at 94, to be buried in Charlottesville.

Even with all this information, which J. Edwin and Annie would likely be mortified to see me publish, we know so little. Why did they split? Annie’s father died at the beginning of the Great Depression. Perhaps that made her homesick, or maybe her family wanted her back. Perhaps J. Edwin, for all his flowery prose, turned out to be a cold fish. May he haunt me for suggesting it.

But why, for all the world, are J. Edwin’s letters turning up on Davie Street in Raleigh, sealed away? Did she give them back? Did J. Ed hide them there, too painful to read?

I invite more sleuths to tell us.

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