Episode 78 The Poet Murderess of Mississippi

In November 1930, Pearl Drew sent a letter to Mississippi Governor Bilbo. She included a poem which revealed she had murdered a man her father was convicted of killing.

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Down in a lonely graveyard
Where flowers bloom and fade
There lies my darling sleeping
In a cold and silent grav
e

Pearl Gunter was 14 years old when she married 23 year old Marlin Drew in 1919.

They welcomed their first child, Thomas, within less than nine months of marriage, leading folks to suspect the couple had felt pressured to marry when Pearl fell pregnant.

Pearl was grief stricken when baby Thomas died, just weeks before his 1st birthday.

15 year old Pearl felt trapped. She had lost the baby she loved and was married to a violent drunk.

It’s believed Marlin Drew’s battle with alcohol started after the First World War. Marlin had served his country and came home a changed man. He used alcohol to help numb his mind when he was haunted by nightmares of what he had seen on the battlefield. When Marlin drank, he turned violent and would rarely remember what happened in between the drinking and the blacking out.

But Pearl remembered every moment. Marlin Drew took his rage out on her, beating her so badly that Pearl feared he would kill her.


By 1921, Pearl Drew gave birth to daughter Dorothy, and the following year, Pearl and Marlin welcomed their son Marlin Junior.

Seven years later, in 1929, Pearl and Marlin were forced to move in with Pearl’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Granville Gunter, in Ashland, Mississippi. Pearl was pregnant again and Marlin, who had worked as a railroad section hand for years, was out of a job. He was fired due to his drinking and anger issues that had erupted into fights with co-workers and his.

Once Marlin was out of work, his drinking got worse. Marlin and Pearl would often fight about Marlin’s drinking and they accused one another of cheating. Marlin did not hide that he enjoyed the company of other women but he suspected his wife was quietly sneaking around with another man. Pearl was faithful to Marlin but his controlling ways and paranoia had him convinced that the child Pearl was expecting in 1929 was not his.

Pearl Drew with baby born days after her husband was murdered

Pearl’s parents stood by her, often intervening when Marlin got violent with her. And they continued to intervene until Marlin Drews last day on earth.

On July 29, 1929, Marlin Drew was shot in the heart as he lay sleeping in his bed with his daughter Dorothy beside him. A pistol was found laying near his body.

Authorities quickly ruled Marlin Drew had gotten drunk, was out of his mind and accidentally shot himself.

The day after Marlin Drew died, Pearl and Marlin’s oldest child, Dorothy, was sent north to Tennessee to stay with family until things calmed down in Ashland. While there, the child mentioned to family that she was sleeping in her father’s room the night he was shot. She said she saw her grandfather, Pop Gunter, shoot her dad.

Police arrested 63 year old Thomas Gunter and he was quickly indicted for the murder of Marlin Drew, with no physical evidence. Gunter’s trial began in Benton County Mississippi on August 16 1929 with Mr. Gunter pleading his innocence. His defense claimed Thomas had a drinking problem and was out cold in another room in the house when Marlin Drew was shot and killed.

The key witnesses against Mr Gunter at trial, was his daughter Pearl and 7 year old granddaughter, Dorothy. The little girl’s testimony was clear and she was a confident witness who recounted details of the night her father had been shot and killed. When Pearl took the stand she corroborated her daughter’s testimony.

The most powerful witness for the defense was Bettie Gunter, Thomas’s wife and Pearl’s mother. Bettie’s testimony shocked the courtroom because she said she saw her daughter Pearl shoot and kill Marlin. Bettie confirmed Thomas Gunter had a drinking problem and swore under oath that he was in another part of their home, passed out from his drinking, when she heard the shot fired and rushed into the room to see Pearl holding a gun the night Marlin Drew was murdered.

The testimony from Pearl and her child Dorothy carried more weight with the jury who returned a guilty verdict.

Thomas Gunter was sentenced to five years hard labor in mississippi state prison.


Pearl Drew had given birth to her fourth child within days of her husband’s murder. She was weak and emotionally overwhelmed as she worked to care for her children on her own. Her husband was dead and her father was in prison for murder.

Pearl made the difficult decision to take her children to stay with family in Tennessee. Months later, in November 1929, the case of the murder of Marlin Drew was turned upside down when Pearl Drew wrote a letter to then Mississippi Governor Theodore Bilbo.

She included a poem, in which she poured out her heart and spoke of her husband’s final words, saying she took his gun, pressed it against his chest and pulled the trigger.

Her poem speaks to the moment she shot Marlin, and perhaps, the words Pearl wished she had heard from Marlin as he lay dying…

The time has come, my darling,
When you and I must part,
The bullet of that forty-five
Has surely plunged my heart.

But kiss our little children,
And tell them I am gone,
Don’t let them follow my footsteps
For I have led them wrong.’

And Pearl speaks of her shame and regret over her father’s imprisonment, writing:

To prison went my father
All innocent of this crime;
I could not long endure this,
My father doing time.

Pearl Drew’s complete letter and that poem of confession was printed in newspapers nationwide, and that confession led to sympathy for a woman who had been mistreated by her husband.

Governor Bilbo was outraged over the embarrassment of the case making national news and ordered the judge who had presided over Thomas Gunter’s trial, to meet with Pearl Drew to consider her letter and whether her confession was real.

Judge Thomas Pegram heard Pearl Drew’s full statement in the presence of the district attorney, county attorney and local sheriff. Pearl brought her daughter Dorothy along so the child could confess she had lied on the stand because her mom told her to.

Pearl confessed that she and Marlin had argued the night he died. He had once again accused her of being unfaithful and said the child she was expecting wasn’t his. Their argument turned heated and Pearl shot and killed Marlin because she said she was tired of being mistreated and beaten down.

Pearl was arrested in December 1929. As she awaited a grand jury hearing, Governor Bilbo granted her father a three month suspension of sentence.

Three young attorneys who were serving in the Mississippi House of Representatives offered their services as her defense team, pro bono.

The public sympathized with Pearl’s situation and here children who were caught in the middle of this impossible situation between Pearl and her parents. That December, Pearl’s jail cell was filled with Christmas cards, letters of support and gifts for her children.

On February 13, 1930, Pearl Drew was indicted for murder and perjury and released on her own recognisance. She was allowed to return to her children until the judge ruled on her case.

Pearl Drew agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter, telling the judge that her father had served three months in prison for her crime and she was ready to do the time and pay for what she had done. On february 20th, the judge shocked the court when he ruled Pearl would be given a suspended sentence and set free from jail. The judge told her to leave Mississippi behind and go home to her family in Tennessee.

Mississippi Governor Thomas Bilbo Photo: Library of Congress

Everyone in Benton County assumed Mr. Gunter would get his pardon after Pearl confessed and the judge made his final ruling. Which is why the next move on the part of Mississippi Governor Bilbo sent shockwaves through the community.

On the very day Pearl’s sentence was suspended and she was released from jail, Governor Bilbo announced he would not pardon Thomas Gunter.

He ordered Gunter to return to prison within three days, when his 90 day suspension would expire. Bilbo said Gunter must serve the remainder of his five years for the murder of Marlin Drew.

Governor Bilbo’s order shocked folks in Mississippi and newspapers ran headlines calling foul, asking why Bilbo would defend one husband who was dead and had beaten his wife, but would not defend another woman’s aged husband who was innocent of murder.

Governor Bilbo made a public statement about his decision saying:

Somebody ought to be in the penitentiary all the time for the murder of a sleeping man. If Judge Pegram does not believe Mrs. Drew is guilty enough to serve her term, then the man convicted of the murder will have to serve his term. Husbands ought to have some protection.”

Mr. Gunter was now 64 years old. An innocent man who had spent three months at a hard labor prison in the state of Mississippi. His time in prison had already taken quite a toll on his health and had aged him beyond his years. The idea of returning to prison caused him great distress and he was certain it would kill him.

On February 24th, 1930, newspapers featured headlines about a new twist in the case of the “Poet Murderess of Mississippi”.

Pearl Drew’s’ father , Thomas Gunter, was missing. And so was Pearl.

Hear the rest of the story in the new episode!

Sources

Poet from Miss confesses to murder in poems. The Evening Journal. 10 Jan 1930

Confessed Her Fatal Love Vengeance. The Ogden Standard Examiner.19 Jan 1930

Woman Writes Governor She Slew Husband. The Greenwood Commonwealth. 14 Nov 1929

Mrs. Pearl Drew is Bound Over to Grand Jury. The Greenwood Commonwealth. 16 Nov 1929

Pardon Sought for T.G. Gunter. The Greenwood Commonwealth. 19 Nov 1929

Gunter at Home-Will Aid Daughter. Clarion-Ledger. 22 Nov 1929

Young Solons Ask to Defend Mrs. Pearl Drew. The Greenwood Commonwealth. 11 Feb 1930

Mrs. Pearl Drew Pleads Guilty to Killing Husband. Winona Times. 21 Feb 1930

Mrs. Pearl Drew Is Free: Father Returns to Pen. The Greenwood Commonwealth. 20 Feb 1930

Bilbo Will Not Extend Further Clemency to Ashland Prisoner. Clarion-Ledger. 23 Feb 1930

Gunter Fails to Make Appearance at State Prison; Daughter Who Confessed to Killing of Husband Is Also Missing. Natchez Democrat. 25 Feb 1930

Richard H. Underwood & Carol J. Paris, Crimesong: Some Murder Ballads and Poems Revisited, 12 J. S. Legal Hist. 5 (2004).

Music

Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Panthernburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use

Additional Music

Ever Mindful by Kevin MacLeod; Woods by Dan Henig and Tense by Purple Planet Music https://www.purple-planet.com/ Licensed under Creative Commons.



Categories: history, mississippi, mysteries, podcastrecommendations, podcasts, podcasts with southern accents, southern podcasts, southernmysteries, true crime, truecrime

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