It Happened in Brice: The 1911 Tabor Murder-Suicide

 Above: Brice postcard of the Tabor murder scene; young John Tabor; young Edith Tabor; Edith Tabor’s death certificate; a marker of John Tabor in Payne Cemetery; the picture of the Tabor house as it appeared in the Gratiot County Herald. Someone marked the room where the Tabors met their end.

Could it have been termed a crime of passion? A jealous husband, married to a younger wife, pulls out a large jackknife and viciously slashes her in the back. After she dies, the husband then grabs a bottle of carbolic acid, drinks some of it, and then lays down next to his dead wife. Soon, he, too, is dead.

The small community of Brice, located seventeen miles southwest of Ithaca in North Shade Township,  became the location of one of the most bizarre murder stories in early twentieth century Gratiot County. Almost 111 years ago,  on March 24, 1911, Gratiot County was shocked by the death of a married couple near a crossroads of a farming community that had a store, blacksmith shop, and township hall,  all within one mile of each other.

In the wake of the murder, many in Gratiot County wondered what led to John and Edith Tabor’s deaths, which made an orphan of a young, deaf girl.

The story began with the marriage of John and Edith (Straub) Tabor in 1895. For John Tabor, age 34, it was his second marriage, and Edith, from Hubbardston, was only 15 years old. Edith listed her age as 16 on the marriage record. What drew the two together, and why would a young girl marry a much older man? One story is that Edith, born in Gratiot County, lost her mother at a young age. John Tabor later was considered a man of some substance who eventually owned property in Florida and an estate worth $4,000, a fair sum of money over a century ago.

 After a few years of marriage, the Tabors adopted their daughter, Gladys (also called Minnie in newspaper accounts), after Gladys’ mother died in childbirth. It turned out that Gladys was deaf due to contracting a childhood disease and now required special attention. Edith Tabor determined that her daughter would get help, even if it meant traveling to faraway places.

Along the way, John Tabor, known as a lazy man who labored at odd jobs,  became known in the community for his temper, intense jealousy, and the belief that his young wife was seeing other men. People in the Brice community knew John Tabor his behavior, and they knew Edith for her good and upstanding character. The couple frequently fought and Edith did much of the work at home while John sat around the house.

At one point, John and Edith Tabor took Gladys to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1910 for help and treatment for her hearing loss. During the visit, John Tabor took off for Florida and got talked into buying twenty acres of land. Since the Tabors had previously leased their property in Brice to other people, they had to find a place to live when John Tabor returned from Florida. It was Thursday, March 23, 1911, and it was late winter in Gratiot County.

With no home of their own available, the Tabors ended up renting a small tenant house on the property of Valois Todd. The house was a small, drab place that had a downstairs bedroom that only measured seven by nine feet wide. When the Tabors first arrived, they quickly dumped their belongings inside and then left to tend to a sick neighbor named A.J. Thompson.

The Tabor family spent that Thursday night with their neighbors, and John and Edith quarreled so fiercely that young Gladys believed that her father would eventually kill her mother. The fighting was nothing new, as Tabor’s jealousy existed throughout the marriage.

Early on Friday morning, John and Edith returned home, and John was seen outside the house walking on the lawn as Edith unpacked their belongings. It was sometime before 8:00 A.M. when John Tabor’s fury exploded.

It is unknown what set John Tabor off that morning. Possibly he suspected that his wife had a new romantic interest, or he resented his wife’s attention for their sick neighbor the night before. Perhaps Edith’s continued concern about their adopted daughter drove a wedge between them and caused a breaking point in the marriage. That morning, it ended when John Tabor found a large jackknife and plunged it into Edith’s left side, resulting in a gash that ran along Edith’s back, causing a three to four-inch wound, breaking two ribs and severing her artery. After being attacked from behind, Edith Tabor fell to the floor and died almost instantaneously.

John Tabor stood over his wife’s body, then he went and found a bottle of carbolic acid from inside a medical bag. He opened the bottle, drank a few ounces of the poison, and dropped to the floor. John then crawled to Edith and put his head on her breast. Possibly he listened for her heartbeat, or he tried one last time to demonstrate some affection or guilt for his dead wife. 

Shortly after the attack, young Gladys Tabor came home, entered the house, and found her two adopted parents on the floor in the small bedroom. Still alive and groggy, John Tabor raised his head and looked up at his daughter. Shocked by what she found, Gladys fled the house, screaming for help. However, by the time the neighbors arrived, both Tabors were dead.

The next day, a coroner’s jury was held in Middleton and confirmed the doctor’s analysis that a murder-suicide had taken place in Brice.

 The Brice community and many in Gratiot County wanted to understand what resulted in the two deaths. However, all that people could do was guess as Tabor left no note. The closest explanation that John Tabor provided was that the night before murdering his wife, he lamented to a friend in Middleton about his wife’s supposed unfaithfulness. Edith Tabor was supposedly going behind his back to see other men, and Tabor said aloud that it would soon lead to her demise, possibly that very night.

The burials of the two Tabors represented how different sides reacted to the murder-suicide. Edith Tabor was taken back to Hubbardston, where she was buried in West Side Cemetery. John Tabor was buried with other Tabor family members in Payne Cemetery, south of Middleton.

Young thirteen-year-old Gladys Tabor was left an orphan. One story says that she had a child at a young age, attended the Flint School for the Deaf, and later died near Lapeer, Michigan, in November 1984.

What was the legacy of the Tabor murder-suicide? It calls to mind that women in early twentieth century Gratiot County frequently had few options in leaving a bad marriage. To leave a marriage back then, a woman needed help, either from family or friends. Edith Tabor may have felt that she had neither option, and she decided to endure the marriage for the sake of her daughter. The background of the murder also makes one realize the effects and challenges of the issue of adoption. Edith lost her mother, as had Gladys. Marrying an older man, who was old enough to be Edith’s father and who had money and property, offered a young wife and orphan a haven and stability in rural Gratiot County. In the end, each of these factors led to a tragic ending for Edith and Gladys Tabor.  Soon, the Tabor house became

an image on postcards about Brice. When Gratiot County historian Willard Tucker put together a history of the county in 1913, he included a page about the Tabor incident. Tucker commented that: “North Shade Township has been peculiarly free from serious crimes, nothing approaching this in seriousness ever having been enacted within its borders; and it is earnestly hoped that the time may be far distant when another of like nature occurs.”

For many, the Tabor murder-suicide remained a horrific event in southwest Gratiot County with no clear explanations for two deaths in 1911.

Copyright 2022 James M Goodspeed

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