Dramatic history provides snapshot of community at Heritage Lecture

Norman Carlson | provided image
“THE SCENE OF A HORRIBLE DOUBLE TRAGEDY,” blares the caption headline of this December 1894 news sketch in all-capitals bold type. It continues: “The [Shearman] home near Jamestown, N.Y., where Mrs. [Shearman] and daughter, Mrs. Davis, were foully murdered last week.” The double murder is the subject of historian Norman Carlson’s 3:30 p.m. Heritage Lecture today in the Hall of Christ.

Local historian Norman Carlson said an incident like this serves as a snapshot. Carlson was referring to the first unsolved murder in Chautauqua County, which he will speak about at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ.

Carlson’s presentation, “The Shearman-Davis Murders: First Unsolved Murder in Chautauqua County,” is part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series.

Carlson grew up in the town of Busti, N.Y., on the farm that has been in his family since 1905. He received his master’s in entomology at Purdue University. But he also studies history, and Jon Schmitz, Chautauqua Institution historian and archivist, called Carlson one of the best local historians.

The Shearman-Davis murders have a little bit of everything for the casual observer, Carlson said.

“They have all the aspects of a great story,” he said. “A little supernatural, a little drug activity, a little science fiction.”

There is even a hysterical prostitute who tries to commit suicide.

But the central story concerns Laura Ann White Shearman and her daughter, Cynthia Ann Shearman Davis, who were both killed in Busti in December 1894. Coincidentally, the murders occurred when almost all their family members and neighbors were at a funeral — other family members had just been killed in a railroad accident.

“The newspapers and publicity didn’t hold back on the way to speculation,” Carlson said. “If you were not at that funeral and lived anywhere near [the women], you were a suspect.”

The general public can find entertainment value in speculating about gruesome events. Carlson said he doesn’t take pleasure in this entertainment value, but he’s “ready to approach [the case] objectively, fascinated and intrigued by the ironies, the unlikelihood of things happening.”

“An incident like this serves like a flash bulb, providing a snapshot of a community,” Carlson said. “Vastly more records are preserved at that instant.”

These records provide an opportunity to study not only the incident of the murder, but also everything else about that time and place.

After working in Michigan, Carlson returned to Chautauqua in 1970 and served as Busti’s historian during the 1980s. It was during this time that he learned about the unsolved double murder, one of numerous historical snapshots that continue to command his attention. He currently works at the Fenton History Center in Jamestown, N.Y.