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The Verdict

An epilogue to UT's most celebrated murder case: Part III

by Jack Neely

After three hours and 45 minutes mulling the fate of UT Professor Elisha Kent Kane on the charge of premeditated murder in the strange drowning death of his wife, the Hampton, Virginia, jury returned with its verdict: Not Guilty.

Nearly everything Kane had to say after his acquittal found its way into newspapers across the country. He thanked Judge Vernon Spratley, to whom he said "I owe my life or—what I prize more—my freedom." He called the fall of 1931 "three months of hell."

That day, Kane announced plans to return to Knoxville and his post as head of the Romance Languages Department at UT. "There have not been any difficulties between me and the authorities of the University of Tennessee," he declared, a quote that appeared in the New York Times. "I have been on a temporary leave of absence."

In Knoxville, reporters staked out Kane's Kingston Pike apartment, waiting for his return. Whether to avoid reporters or memories of Jenny, when Kane arrived he got a room at the Andrew Johnson Hotel on Gay Street. Then Kane walked into the office of Dean James Hoskins on the Hill and resigned. The 61-year-old Hoskins admitted to the Associated Press that Kane's resignation had "relieved the university of a delicate situation."

But what exactly was UT's "delicate situation?" Employing a professor who was officially cleared of murder? Or one whose personal life, his marital troubles and his atheism had become the subject of national gossip?

At his apartment, Kane spoke briefly with those patient reporters. "What's news to you boys is a 100 percent tragedy for me," he said. He emptied the old apartment out before Christmas and announced he'd be going to study abroad again, at the University of Madrid.

Kane apparently never taught again. If he ever finished the novel he was working on here, he didn't publish it. He did finish his landmark translation of a long 14th-century poem called Libro de Buen Amor, or The Book Of Good Love, which he'd worked on at UT. It would be published in a small quantity in 1933. The text, by medieval cleric Juan Ruiz, is a peculiar opus in rhyming iambic septameter, both pious and bawdy, sometimes fringing on the pornographic. On one level, the poem is an uninhibited acceptance of man's carnal nature. Kane explains in his preface that he preserved every lewd detail "for the greater glory of God and the shivering delight of old ladies of both sexes."

That year Kane married again: not his intimate correspondent, Betty Dahl, or the spectral UT beauty of Knoxville gossip, but one Gladys Schuler, a nurse who had worked with his father. The two eventually had two children, a son and a daughter. He named his son Thomas Leiper Kane, for his famous grandfather, the Union officer.

For the decade after his indictment for murdering his wife, Kane's resume in one hard-to-find volume of Encyclopedia of American Biography is perfectly blank. It includes no mention of a murder charge, only that his first wife "died."

Meanwhile, Jenny Graham Kane's grave in Hampton was marked with a stone inscribed with Latin verse from Dante: "No greater grief than to remember days of joy when misery is at hand." For years after her drowning, someone regularly left jonquils and narcisses there.

Former colleagues regretted that the murder charge had ruined Kane's promising academic and literary career. It did not ruin his military career. Kane got a rare second chance in the form of the biggest war of all time.

By the time of Pearl Harbor, almost exactly 10 years after his acquittal, Major Elisha Kane was back in the army. He served in the South Pacific, and saw combat in some hellish battles, at Guadalcanal, at Luzon, at the Bismarck Archipelago. Promoted to colonel, Kane received several distinctions for conspicuous service, including the Bronze Star.

In 1947, at 53, Kane suffered a paralytic stroke that his family attributed to an illness he contracted in the war; he was crippled for the rest of his life, which he divided between Kane, Pennsylvania, and Largo, Florida.

Col. Elisha Kent Kane III was in St. Petersburg in early 1959, when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, a few weeks before his 65th birthday.

The Kingston Pike apartment where Kane and his wife lived in 1931 is still there, but the view out their old front window has changed. Long after Kane left, developers built a shopping center across the street from it and called it Western Plaza. Kingston Manor still thrives as an apartment building. On a stone crest mounted on the second floor, four cat heads, arranged around a cross, stare out over the courtyard.

Kane aspired to be an important author, but today, the other Elisha Kent Kane, the 19th-century Arctic explorer, is still much better known even at UT than the great nephew who shared his name. UT no longer even has a separate Romance Languages department, but it does have a comprehensive doctoral program, something Kane pushed for, without luck, in 1930. That frustrated initiative is the only reason Kane is mentioned in the official history of UT, To Foster Knowledge.

Few remember the Kane story, but one of his students, who prefers we don't use her name, knew Kane as a French instructor, and recalls his classes on the second floor of Ayres Hall. Contrary to others' perceptions of him as a boor, she found him to be the most gallant professor at UT in 1931. "Every time one of his women students came into the room, he would stand up immediately, just as though each woman was a queen."

"I thought he was kind and fair," she says. "Of course, we knew he was an extraordinary person." She says he'd occasionally poke fun at East Tennessee; the grandiose spire on the Sevier County courthouse struck Kane as especially funny. She also remembers him listing the three things he loved, in order: his dog, his car, and his wife. She recalls the sports car Kane drove around campus, equipped with a dog carrier in the rumble seat for the German Shepherd that his in-laws alleged he called "Jesus Christ."

"I never did know what to believe about his wife's drowning," his former student says today. "The gossip was that his wife's family was very suspicious." She says her friends had the impression that Kane's Virginia in-laws, the Grahams, were simple people who resented Kane's education and social status and jumped to conclusions. "I had an idea that he was really innocent," she says. "That's the feeling I had. He said he was innocent, and I really think he was."

She never saw Kane again but says a relative encountered him in Pennsylvania after the war as an invalid living in a room lined with "garish" pictures.

Another Knoxvillian got to know Kane better after the trial. Lee Ragsdale was only four years old at the time of Kane's acquittal, but his parents were good friends of the Kanes; Ragsdale's father, an engineer, gave Kane automotive advice. The couple appeared as character witnesses at the trial.

Ragsdale says Kane visited Knoxville repeatedly after he left. When Ragsdale turned 12 in 1939, Kane gave him a .22 rifle. Ragsdale says he liked Kane; he still calls him "Sash."

"He was a character," Ragsdale says. "That's the only way to describe him. A wild Irishman."

The last time Ragsdale saw Kane may have been when he visited the former professor in Kane, Pennsylvania, in 1948. He spent the night in Kane Manor, a B&B converted from Kane's father's old hospital. He recalls that Kane seemed ill at the time, and that Kane warned that some of the guns in his extravagant collection were loaded.

The Kane story isn't one professors still talk about over coffee in the foreign-languages department. Some language instructors say they've never heard of him. One, French Professor Paul Barrette, recalls that soon after his arrival at UT in the early '70s, UT was selling, cheaply, several copies of a large, handsomely bound copy of The Book Of Good Love, translated by Kane.

On the fourth floor of UT's Hodges library are traces of the vigorous young professor who once led the Romance Languages department: a couple of copies of Kane's translation of The Book Of Good Love, not the original, but a 1968 edition. It opens with a short biographical essay about Kane, which claims that Kane was the first to translate this important Spanish poem into English—but which mentions neither his murder charge nor his 12-year marriage to Jenny Graham Kane.

On the next aisle over is one copy of Kane's own 1928 book, Gongorism And the Golden Age. Kane's cartoonish illustrations in the book are indeed bizarre, as the reviews noted: vultures conducting a Christian funeral for a skeleton; a naked woman cuddling with a robed scholar, who's pinching her thigh; three helmeted surgeons hovering over an elderly patient as one, wearing a mortarboard, is snipping apart the patient's intestine with a pair of scissors. The illustrations seem to reflect the subject, Gongorism, a literary movement noted for its strange imagery and obscure allusions.

In the front of Kane's book is a dedication: To Jenny G. Kane.

September 21, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 21
© 2000 Metro Pulse