By Ronni Smith, Collections and Galleria Manager
One of my favorite parts of being the Collections Manager is getting to know the Permanent Collection more intimately. There are so many pieces that hold special stories for the Museum, most of them happy. However, one piece has a darker story. In 1939, before the Museum was established, Paul Whitener was commissioned by former Hickory Mayor Phillip J. Suttlemyre (1937-1938) to paint his 9 year old son Charles. The portrait is a wonderful piece. Young Charles has the look of a sweet boy with a far-reaching and bright future.
Phillip Johnson Suttlemyre, Charles’ father, was a well-respected citizen who not only served the city as mayor, but also owned and operated Hickory’s City Drug Company on Union Square and was at one time president of the North Carolina Pharmaceutical Association. Phillip and his wife Claire had two sons, Phillip J. (Jr.) born in 1920 and Charles Glenn who was born in 1930. Charles attended Oak Ridge School, Lenoir Rhyne College (as part of the class of 1952) and NC State, all of which he dropped out of, and he never held a job. In the 1950’s Charles was known to the high school girls who worked at City Drug as an odd young man who chased them and made strange noises when he frequented the store.
Phillip Sr. passed away unexpectedly on February 29th of 1960. Less than 3 months later, on Friday May 13th the headlines of the Hickory Daily Record read “Mentally Ill Son Charged in Matricide.” Charles G. Suttlemyer was said to have admitted killing his mother by bludgeoning her with a souvenir tomahawk from his recently deceased father’s antique collection over a disagreement about his father’s Bible.
According to the article, the reporting officer at the scene stated that Charles chased his mother, approximately 70 years old at the time, to the downstairs of their rambling white frame house at 526 First Ave. NW in Hickory, where he smashed her over the head three times with the tomahawk. The police stated that Charles then carried his mother to a downstairs bedroom and telephoned family physician Dr. H. E. Barnes who found Mrs. Suttlemyer dead an hour later when he answered the summons.
There was clearly mental instability throughout the family. Charles was living with his mother because he was unable to live on his own, and the older son Phillip had been confined to a mental institution sometime earlier than 1960. Further, according to local historian and HMA supporter, Mr. Albert Keiser, Jr., Claire (nee Sellers) Suttlemyer’s father committed suicide, and the entire Sellers family in fact was known to be mentally unstable to one extent or another. Mr. Keiser also said that Phillip Jr. outlived Charles by 5 years (Charles died in 1994), both living the remainders of their lives in mental institutions (where Charles had been committed after being convicted of his mother’s killing). At the time of Phillip’s death the family estate, valued at over 2 million dollars, was donated to Davidson College. The Suttlemyer family had owned the land north of Catawba County on Highway 321 that is now owned by Merchants Distributors (MDI).
The painting by Paul Whitener of nine-years-old Charles was given to “Mickey” Mildred Coe, long time director and widow of Paul Whitener, sometime after the estate was settled. Mrs. Coe bequeathed the painting along with many other of Paul’s pieces to the Museum upon her death in May of 2008.
All of our collection pieces tell a story, not as intriguing as this portrait, but all fascinating to learn about.