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.


* * *

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