WHAT REMAINS OF ROSA

Marcia Smith
6 min readJan 3, 2023

Carbolic acid A very poisonous chemical substance made from tar and also found in some plants and essential oils…used to make plastics, nylon, epoxy, medicines, and to kill germs. Also called phenol. [Source: National Cancer Institute]

In the 1860’s, British physician Joseph Lister, known as the “father of modern surgery,” pioneered the practice of sterile surgery by promoting the use of carbolic acid to treat surgical instruments, as well as patients’ skin, sutures and bandages. His work led to the reduction of post-operative infections; subsequently, carbolic acid gained popularity as a disinfectant to curb the spread of cholera, typhoid fever and tuberculosis.

By the close of the 19th century, however, it became evident that carbolic acid — whether inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin — damaged the tissue on surgeons’ hands and led to accidental poisonings. Physicians and public-health officers abandoned what had once been considered a salubrious product, and in the early years of the 20th century emerged a new consumer of carbolic acid — the suicidal.

In 1904, the practice became popular enough to inspire an article in The St. Paul (Minn.) Globe headlined: Carbolic Acid the Favorite Poison of the Despondent Ones.

Rosa Hudgins Waldrop, 30, of Dallas woke on a 70-degree Sunday morning in August 1916 and prepared for the day by handwriting a note she tucked into her purse. Nestled with it was a small vial. Sometime that afternoon — on a day that reached 94 degrees — she made her way to San Jacinto School on Ross Avenue.

There’s no indication she was a teacher there. Perhaps the school grounds were close to home…and it was a public place, where her actions would draw attention, where someone would open her purse and find the note inside. As it happened, what she did and what she wrote would make headlines in three of the states’ largest cities — Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.

After three decades of life, Rosa finally would rate a mention in the newspaper.

In 1860, Rosa’s paternal grandfather, William E. Hudgins, was supporting wife Rebecca and their seven children as a farmer in Fayette County, Georgia. He joined the Confederate Army and, in 1863, was imprisoned in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he died at age 37. Rebecca died seven years later, leaving five sons — the oldest in his teens — on a farm in Pike County, Alabama.

One of the younger sons was James “Bud” Marion Hudgins, who ultimately made his way to Texas, and in 1884, married Eliza “Liza” Jane Carter. Her father, Wylie Graham Carter, also a farmer and Confederate Army veteran, had moved his wife, Bettie, and children from Mississippi to Smith County, Texas, in 1869. They later resettled in Van Zandt County, where they relied on a pension awarded Confederate soldiers in “indigent circumstances.”

Wylie and Bettie Carter, photo courtesy of Monica Foggin

Bud and Liza Jane seemingly had more success as farmers than did their parents. The 1900 census shows they owned their property in Van Zandt County, kept a boarder, and sent the three oldest children to school. That included Rosa who, at 12, had five years of education. She was the second oldest of six girls and three boys.

After Bud retired from farming, he and Liza moved west to Loraine, a cotton and cattle shipping point in Mitchell County. In 1930, when he was 72 years old, he reported his occupation as “lodging housekeeper” in a rooming house. He died at 74. Liza lived another 30 years; she died at 93 in San Antonio, the home of one of her younger daughters. Bud and Liza were buried in Loraine Cemetery.

Photo courtesy of Findagrave.com

The nine Hudgins siblings remained in Texas all their lives. The oldest, Argie, likely lured her parents to Loraine, where she made her home from 1920 until her death in 1964. Others found work in (or followed husbands to) Grand Saline, Kerrville, Mineola, San Antonio, Pittsburg, Sweetwater, and Garland.

And then, there was Rosa. Between 1911 and 1916, she made her home in Dallas, but it’s not clear where she lived nor how she supported herself. The man who provided the surname Walford is a mystery. Of the Hudgins siblings, she is the one least present in documents, records, or online family histories.

In fact, researchers routinely confuse Rosa, a farmer’s daughter with an almost nonexistent public profile, with two other women with similar names who lived in Dallas at about the same time: Lizzie Rose Walford, who in 1909 earned a nursing degree from the University of Texas, and Rosa Hudgins, who graduated from Richardson High School in 1908.

The confusion is understandable. The farmer’s daughter is, of course, the one whose presence at San Jacinto School on the afternoon of August 27, 1916, brought her statewide notoriety. What happened took all of 15 minutes, but because so little else about her is known, that is her legacy.

What we do know is that she was born in Pittsburg, Texas, in March 1888; her parents were Bud and Liza; she had eight brothers and sisters. Marriage records show a Rosa Hudgins married C. G. Morgan in Van Zandt County in February 1905. And, a Rosa Hudgins married F. M. Arnold in Van Zandt County in November 1907. The use of initials on a marriage document generated in a rural community more than 100 years ago reveals little about these individuals.

Did Rosa also marry a man named Walford? Although no marriage document has come to light, that surname is attached to her given name of Hudgins in the news stories, death certificate, and obituary that detail the final moments of her life, the end that brought her attention that otherwise appears lacking.

Rosa Hudgins Walford walked onto the grounds of San Jacinto School at about 3:30 on the afternoon of August 27, 1916, and within 15 minutes, was dead. Witnesses say she fell to the ground, an empty vial close by. Neighborhood residents rushed to provide aid. An ambulance transported her to Emergency Hospital, then operating in the basement of City Hall. She died at 3:45 p.m. Cause of death: “carbolic acid poisoning — suicidal,” according to the death certificate.

And that note she tucked into her purse earlier in the day? It read: Call my father, J.M. Hudgins of RFD Pittsburg, Texas.

It was her brother, William Hudgins of Pittsburg, who responded. He served as the informant on the death certificate, although he didn’t know the day or month of her birth and was two years off the year. He reported that she was married and a housewife. Perhaps he was rattled by his sister’s death: He also couldn’t provide his father’s birth place or his mother’s maiden name.

And sadly, the best he could do was send her remains to Loudermilk funeral home to prepare her for burial in a pauper’s grave adjacent to the historic Oakland Cemetery in southern Dallas. A brief obituary appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

Aug. 30, 1916, Dallas Morning News

There is so much unknown about Rosa’s life — her relationships with family, her physical and mental health, her place in the world — but that she was unhappy is clear. She committed suicide at the age of 30. That she did it so publicly suggests a need to be recognized.

Did her family shun her because of the way she died? Or, was there already something that separated her from them?

Nothing speaks to Rosa’s marginalization more than the disparity between her final resting place and those of her family members. You can find tombstones and grave markers for the Hudgins family all over the state of Texas. Not only are her parents in Loraine Cemetery, but so are two siblings. Others rest in Mills Cemetery (Garland), in Macedonia Cemetery (Pittsburg), in Woodside Cemetery (Grand Saline), and in Seaside Memorial Park (Corpus Christi). These are available for viewing on Findagrave.com.

By contrast, the Findagrave.com site for the Rosa Hudgins whose story I’ve written here is a hodgepodge of information and images that belongs to three women with similar names. I have contacted the memorial’s manager and contributors to request changes.

--

--

Marcia Smith

The former newspaper reporter and English teacher is the author of the book, The Woman in the Well and Other Ancestories.