John Shearer: Long-Forgotten 1927 Local Kidnapping Recalled With Virginia Jo Gilman’s Passing

Friday, May 6, 2022 - by John Shearer

On Thursday I was reading the newspaper obituary for Virginia Jo Frazier Gilman, who died Monday, May 2, when this paragraph in it caught my eyes:

 

Virginia Jo Frazier is quite a name in some circles in the Chattanooga area, particularly to residents over the age of 80.

Virginia Jo was a media sensation because she was kidnapped and held for four days in 1927. Returned unharmed, she was the subject of many newspaper articles during that time.”

 

The obituary, which even included a photograph taken of the then 2-year-old after she was returned home safely, seemed a generous way of sharing a dark memory by the family. It also indicated that the incident was apparently a permanent link to this woman who lived to tell about it for an amazing 95 years.

 

It also made me curious to learn more about this event I had never previously heard of, so I went down to the Chattanooga Public Library to look up some old newspaper articles on it on microfilm. 

 

The incident took place over several days in late March 1927. The trying event apparently began during the early morning of Thursday March 24, 1927, when an intruder or intruders came into the Frazier family home at 701 Greenwood Ave. in Highland Park and left with the young Virginia Josephine.

 

Her parents, Chattanooga City Commissioner Fred B. and Virginia B. Frazier, were away on a trip to Tampa, Fl., But at the home on Greenwood Avenue were her 5-year-old brother, French Frazier; her maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Philo D. Benham; and a 17-year-old nurse-like helper, Ms. Johnnie Peale. Ms. Peale, who was a student at Central High off Dodds Avenue, was helping young Virginia Jo try to get over the winter-long whooping cough.

 

While an opened door to the nursery was noticed, not until the family maid arrived that morning did those in the house realize young Virginia Josephine was missing.

 

This created quite an alarm in the city, and suddenly much of the police force went to work on the case, issuing an all-points bulletin. But unfortunately, no sign of the young child was found for the first couple of days.

 

Her parents had hurriedly returned home from Tampa on a train, and much of the city began looking for the child. Searchers included friends of the Fraziers and local Boy Scouts and schoolchildren. 

 

But no clues could be found as reporters from the Associated Press and the Atlanta newspapers also descended on the city.

 

“No other case in the history of the city has created so much interest,” said one headline in the Chattanooga Times, which would devote a whole page to the story for several days, although not on the front page.

 

And then on Saturday, a couple of days after she had been taken, the Frazier family received a little hope. A ransom letter arrived that seemed to be authentic, and Commissioner Frazier said the family would respect the demands and allow the abductor or abductors to flee after the baby was successfully delivered back to them safely.

 

On Sunday, a black youth had apparently delivered a ransom package with some of Virginia Josephine’s hair and clothing to a Western Union office on Broad Street, and the Western Union official took it to the police headquarters. 

 

In what was a semi-sophisticated operation, Commissioner Frazier – who was also a successful lawyer and his family also had a home on Lookout Mountain – was to deliver $3,333 in the special package to a black man holding a broom in an alley by McCallie and Central avenues.

 

Commissioner Frazier apparently was still trying to get some money from his brother, Jim Frazier, the sheriff in Rhea County, so he distraughtly told the person he met in the alley to give him a little more time. Commissioner Frazier did come back a little while later with the money.

 

Then, a short while later, the doorbell rang at the home of the First Presbyterian Church pastor, the Rev. Joseph G. Venable, at 921 Vine St. in Fort Wood. Rev. Venable and his wife had just been home for a little while after Sunday night church activities, and when the doorbell was answered, there was little Virginia Josephine Frazier.

 

Rev. Venable called Commissioner Frazier, and the family happily rushed over to be reunited with young Virginia Josephine. A doctor said she had been doped up in some way by the abductors, perhaps to keep her quiet, but was otherwise fine, the news reports said.

 

The next day many well-wishers came by to see the Fraziers, and young Virginia Jo happily posed for a photograph or two. Her mother was reportedly still too full of emotion and rested out of sight.

 

Young Virginia Jo mentioned hearing trains, so authorities thought she had been kept somewhere near Warner Park and the nearby railroad tracks during her abduction.

 

About a day after her return, the police announced the apprehension of three white people in connection with the case – nanny nurse Ms. Peale, and a romantically linked couple – former Rhea County police official Frank Baskett and Mrs. Anna Thomison. He had previously been tried in connection with the killing of his brother-in-law but had been acquitted with the help of Commissioner Frazier’s legal counsel, while she had been acquitted in connection with the killing of a former spouse.

 

Authorities said Commissioner Frazier had later helped Mr. Baskett get on the Chattanooga police force, but when he tried a second time after being dismissed and Commissioner Frazier did not try to help him get reinstated, Mr. Baskett turned bitter toward the commissioner.

 

Mr. Baskett lived in the East Lake area with his wife, who was not Ms. Thomison, while Ms. Thomison lived in the Lindsay Apartments off Forest Avenue in North Chattanooga.

 

After the arrest of Baskett and the gathering of an excited crowd outside police headquarters, he was rushed to Knoxville for safekeeping. 

 

Efforts to find details on how their cases played out could not be secured during a quick search, but two younger black men allegedly involved in the kidnapping, including in dealing with Commissioner Frazier, were also arrested about a week later. They were Lewis and Arthur Willis. Lewis Willis was sentenced to 25 years in prison that June.

 

Commissioner Frazier would live until 1963, when he died at the age of 83. The former Rhea County school official and attorney later was involved in forming a savings and loan association.

 

His wife, also named Virginia and a native of St. Louis, went on to become a Girl Scout supporter and worshiped at First-Centenary United Methodist Church before her death in 1971. 

 

Virginia Josephine Frazier, meanwhile, went on to enjoy a very rich and productive life, unlike some of those very young children who were also kidnapped without as happy an ending during that unusual and somewhat bizarre time in American history.

 

Her obituary said she went to Girls Preparatory School, graduating in 1942, and at the end of World War II was helping in the war effort in Florida by signing in returning servicemen, some of whom were former prisoners of war. She could relate with them as someone who had also been held in captivity, although it was likely at an age when it left only a minimal scar on her.

 

She had married Henry Bouton Gilman Jr. from the Gilman paint and varnish family, and she went on to serve others by teaching Bible in the schools.

 

Many might say God had quite a plan for her when he helped spare her life during those long-ago days of 1927. And it would be a plan that would last for nearly a century.

 

And the home where she was abducted long ago is apparently still standing just above Holtzclaw Avenue and the National Cemetery, while the Fort Wood home where she was safely dropped off remains little changed as well.

 

* * *

 

Jcshearer2@comcast.net


Chickamauga Chapter Members Celebrate Opening Of National DAR Continental Congress

THP Announces 4th Of July Traffic Enforcement Strategy

THP Graduates 22 State Troopers From Lateral Law Enforcement


National Society Daughters of the American Revolution’s Chickamauga Chapter members gathered Wednesday evening, June 29 at the Heritage Landing Clubhouse for a watch party and dinner celebrating ... (click for more)

“The Tennessee Highway Patrol is committed to ensuring safety on our roadways this Fourth of July weekend,” said Colonel Matt Perry. “Troopers will be working diligently to curb distracted driving, ... (click for more)

Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Jeff Long and Tennessee Highway Patrol Colonel Matt Perry announce the newest graduating class of 22 new Tennessee State Troopers. ... (click for more)



Happenings

Chickamauga Chapter Members Celebrate Opening Of National DAR Continental Congress

National Society Daughters of the American Revolution’s Chickamauga Chapter members gathered Wednesday evening, June 29 at the Heritage Landing Clubhouse for a watch party and dinner celebrating the opening of DAR’s 131st National Continental Congress meeting in Washington, D.C. Four Chapter members are in Washington for the week-long Congress. "Over the past three years, ... (click for more)

THP Announces 4th Of July Traffic Enforcement Strategy

“The Tennessee Highway Patrol is committed to ensuring safety on our roadways this Fourth of July weekend,” said Colonel Matt Perry. “Troopers will be working diligently to curb distracted driving, enforce speed limits, make sure everyone is buckled up, and stop impaired drivers. I want everyone to have a fun weekend of celebration and to be safe about it. Please do your part by ... (click for more)

Breaking News

EPA Awarding Brownfield Grant At Site Of Planned Lookouts Stadium

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe on Wednesday is set to present the city of Chattanooga with Brownfield program cleanup and assessment grants at the site of a planned new $79.5 million stadium to be used by the Lookouts. The press conference will be at the U.S. Pipe/Wheland site. The grant is "to help spur economic revitalization ... (click for more)

$79.5 Million Stadium Touted As Catalyst For Major Project At Long-Blighted Wheland/U.S. Pipe Site; Lookouts To Pay $1 Million Annually To Lease "Community" Stadium

More than 100 acres of the long-neglected U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry sites "will begin transforming into a world-class live-work-play district that will generate more than $40 million for schools," Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly announced at a press conference at the site on Thursday. Flanked by nationally renowned master developer Jim ... (click for more)

Opinion

New Stadium Does Not Pass The Smell Test - And Response

I can't find any logical reasons that the new Lookout stadium is being placed where it is other than to think it's a combination of favoritism and eliminating an eyesore. All statistics point to an illogical decision coupled with questionable tax breaks/support. Lookouts average attendance in 2018 (all that I could quickly find) was 3,206 per game and ranked 74th among ... (click for more)

School Achievement Tied To Funding?

My career was in the public schools of several states. I never drew the connection to funding for schools and achievement until later. This is what I have found. The states of the deep south are run by Republicans. In all of them, educational achievement is poor. Is there a connection between funding for schools and achievement? The answer to that should be a resounding "yes." ... (click for more)