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Daisy Root's Trial
One of my favorite Tennessee killers is Daisy Alexander Root. She rid Memphis of cruel husband Brenton Root around 1:20 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 3, 1935.
Who were these two? Daisy Alexander was born on April 16, 1905, in Decatur, Ala. Soon the family moved to Pontotoc, Miss. The parents separated when Daisy was 11; after divorce her mother married R. L. Roberts. Upon completing high school Daisy moved to Memphis and worked at Goldsmith's, a department store.
Brenton ("Brit") Snow Root was born in Connecticut in 1903. The family moved to Memphis, where his father served as archdeacon of the Episcopal Church. Although Brit graduated from law school, he never practiced law. Instead he worked at a wholesale food and drug distribution business, W. T. Rawleigh Company. He also served in the National Guard. A brief marriage had ended in divorce.
Brit and Daisy met and dated. They married on July 24, 1928. The marriage was rocky from the start, and the two lived apart more frequently than together.
One problem was that Brit was physically cruel. Although a small man (5'4" and 118 pounds), he was muscular. Many witnessed his public beatings of Daisy, and she suffered many more in private. One assault even resulted in a miscarriage. The couple did have one child, son George, born in 1932.
Another problem was that Brit was mentally cruel. A womanizer, he bragged to wife Daisy about his extramarital trysts. He kept a list of his conquests, a diary of his attempted conquests, and a photograph album of both. First in the latter collection was a photo of Lucille Underwood.
Lucille was only 18. She lived with her deaf mute parents on Saffarans Avenue and worked three jobs. She was a waitress, a part-time employee at picture shows, and a "cigaret girl" at the Sky Room atop the DeVoy Hotel. Lucille briefly dated Brit but spurned his advances once she learned he was married. Brit kept on trying. And he taunted Daisy about Lucille.
On Saturday, Nov. 2, 1935, Brit called Daisy with a reconciliation proposal. He promised to cease adultery. To celebrate he suggested inviting three couples to accompany them to the Sky Room. Daisy had been staying with Mr. and Mrs. George Sammons on James Road; they could babysit young George for the evening.
Things went well for a few dances. Then Daisy spied Lucille. She escorted her to the table where Brit and friends were seated:
"Brit, there's your cigaret girl. Why don't you buy a pack of cigarets?
"Okay. Sweetheart, give me a pack of cigarets. [Daisy slaps him.]
"All right. Honey, give me that pack of cigarets. [Daisy slaps him again.]"
The party broke up. Back at the Sammons house, Daisy asked to borrow their car. She took her seven shot .22 caliber pistol and drove to the marital home at the corner of Kimball Avenue and Echles Street, where Brit continued to reside. Shortly after 1 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 3, she entered.
Daisy turned on the lights and shook her slumbering husband. "Are you awake, darling? Look at me." Then she shot thrice; a bullet in the right chest was fatal. Brit was dead on arrival at Methodist Hospital.
Daisy was arrested and jailed. She confessed to Deputy George Becker. Under guard she attended the Wednesday funeral at Memorial Park Cemetery.
The trial of Daisy Alexander Root commenced on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 1936. Presiding was Judge Phil H. Wallace. Prosecuting were W. Tyler McLain and Sam D. Campbell. Defending were A.B. Galloway and son Jim Galloway.
Although the transcript is apparently lost to history, the Commercial Appeal reported much of the testimony verbatim. Daisy took the stand to justify her theory of self-defense. Candidly, she made a poor witness. At one point she exclaimed: "You people have made me sit up here and say things I would rather die than have to tell!"
Closing arguments began midday on Wednesday, Jan. 29. One by District Attorney McLain is worth sharing. Attempting to minimize Brit's womanizing as an excuse for his murder, the prosecutor argued to a jury of 12 married men: "I don't say this applies to any member of this jury, but if there was an order that went out in Memphis tonight that every married man who had cheated on his wife would be hanged in the morning, 98 percent of all husbands would be in Arkansas before dawn."
Jury deliberations started at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 30, 1936. After an opening prayer, juror John L. Mapp burst out crying and told the group that he had a difficult first wife and had to leave her "for his own protection." Obviously he should have been honest on voir dire and never served, but his outburst was not a viable ground for new trial then or now.
The verdict was announced at 2 p.m. that day: "We the jury find the defendant guilty of murder in the second degree as charged in the indictment and fix her punishment at imprisonment in the penitentiary for not more than 10 years."
The appeal in Daisy Root v. State was argued at the December 1936 Term in Nashville. Chief Justice Grafton Green filed an opinion on Saturday, Jan. 16, 1937, upholding the conviction and sentence. Although I have been unable to locate a copy of the unpublished opinion, I have found this language quoted in the Press-Scimitar: "She had suffered many indignities and brutal treatment at the hands of her husband, and her provocation had been such that the Court would have been better satisfied with a conviction for manslaughter." The court minutes state: "It is recommended by the Court to the Governor that he commute this sentence to one for voluntary manslaughter." That offense carried two years of confinement.
Daisy reported to the penitentiary on Feb. 17, 1937. Governor Gordon Browning commuted the sentence in April, and on Christmas Eve 1937 he pardoned Daisy. She reunited with son George, who had been in his maternal grandmother's custody. She worked as a waitress at the Skillet near the Peabody Hotel until around 1945.
My law school classmate Paul Simpson of Selmer discovered Daisy's life after Memphis. She married Marion Nowicki and lived at Bethel Springs in McNairy County. She died on Dec. 29, 1998, at age 93, and is buried at Forest Hill Cemetery East in Bartlett. She occasionally told her new family that Brit deserved killing. I agree with Daisy Alexander Root Nowicki. R.I.P. and UT College of Law.
DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, Tennessee Judicial Conference, and UT College of Law.