Not Even A Drop

My grandfather, Paul Jones Stith, was 50 years old when he went to his bedroom, alone, and shot himself in the heart. He was born before the Civil War, on Jan. 25, 1856, and died shortly before noon on a Saturday, April 14, 1906.

Paul was a “mining expert,”  according to The Birmingham Age-Herald, which published a front-page story that afternoon explaining why he killed himself.  The newspaper said he was despondent over his inability to obtain a right of way for mines owned by Stith Coal and Iron Co., of which he was president, to a railroad siding he had to have to ship coal.

Paul Jones Stith
Paul Jones Stith, 1856-1906

Without that right of way, all of his work over the past year and the money he had spent developing the mines was down the drain. So he bailed out and shot himself with a .38-caliber revolver, leaving a pregnant wife and six children. The oldest was 17.

Still, my father, who was 10 years old at the time, revered him.

Dad told me that Paul Jones Stith was an alcoholic, the fall-down-drunk-in-the-gutter kind.  On the nights he didn’t come home his wife, Annie Belle Stein Stith, would send men out looking for him, asking them to check the jail, the hospital – and the gutters of nearby streets.

Then, one fine day, Paul stopped drinking. Just like that, according to Dad. Paul made up his mind, told Annie Belle he had decided not to drink any more, and then he didn’t, according to my father.

Dad said after his father quit drinking he went on a U.S. government-sponsored expedition to Alaska to assess minerals there. Paul Jones Stith, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, was an engineer.

Dad said one of the men on that expedition told him it was bitterly cold most of the time and, at night, the men would gather around a fire in one of their cabins and drink. Dad said he was told that his father would take shot glass of whiskey, hold it under his nose, and smell it. And then put it down without drinking a drop.

I heard my father tell that story several times. It was the only time I ever saw him tear up.

Coming Friday: Storm At Sea