True Crime

True Crime Wednesday: The Murder of Foy Dixon Cooper

Author David Aaron Moore shared the story of Foy Dixon Cooper in his book Charlotte: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. At around 5 p.m. on Sunday, September 20, 1959, a group of young boys gathered in the Elmwood Cemetery in Charlotte to play and chase squirrels and chipmunks like they often did. Playing in a cemetery could involve quite a bit of creative role playing for energetic children, so when one boy, Dale Jackson, dared Ronnie McCauley to enter a nearby crypt so he could meet Dracula, the youngster didn’t back down. McCauley stuck his hand and then his head into the opening of the crypt, screaming, “Hey, there’s a real dead woman in here!” The boys reached into the hole, poking the body with a stick, and when the figure didn’t move, they ran for help.

By the time the police arrived, a crowd of onlookers had already gathered at the cemetery. They had to break the entrance of the mausoleum in order to remove the victim’s bloodied and battered body. The woman was transported to a local funeral home, where a man named Frederick Cooper arrived and identified her as 78-year-old Foy Belle Dixon Cooper, his mother. Foy was a widow who was in the habit of walking from her home in the Third Ward to Elmwood Cemetery, where her mother Annie Dixon, had been buried since 1945. Foy would take along the small dog who was her loyal companion and pack a lunch that she would eat on the shady grounds of the cemetery.

But in recent years, both Elmwood Cemetery and the nearby Pinewood Cemetery, which was reserved for the city’s Black residents, had become a haven for members of the homeless population and the site of criminal activity. Foy paid no mind to the transient people often hanging out on the grounds or sleeping on the benches. But on the day she died, her son Frederick had been unable to reach her by phone the entire day, which he found unsettling. When he heard reports of a body being found in Elmwood Cemetery, he had a sinking feeling it was his mother, Foy Cooper.

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At the time, news reports called Foy’s murder the most vicious of the decade. As police began their investigation, they learned the following things:

A neighbor reported Foy and her dog had left her home at around 1 p.m. She stopped at a nearby store to drop off a carton of empty soda bottles and likely entered the cemetery around 1:30 p.m. Witnesses in the cemetery reported hearing the single yelp of a dog a little after 2 p.m. A boy witnessed a man crouched in the overgrowth behind a bench Foy liked to sit on around the same time.

At Foy’s autopsy, the county coroner was quoted as saying Foy died from “internal injuries caused by external violence.” The external violence included a head injury and strangulation, as there was heavy bleeding found in her throat tissue. He also believed she had been raped. During their investigation, police found a pair of old trousers and a shirt covered in blood and paint hanging on a hedge a few blocks from the crime scene. They believed the items may have belonged to the killer. Foy’s purse, which was wrapped in newspaper, was found behind a hedge a short distance away from the mausoleum where she was found. Her hairnet and a short length of rope were also in the area. For anyone wondering what happened to Foy’s dog, that’s also a mystery. The lifeless body of the dog was found lying on top of Annie Dixon’s grave, a pattern of sticks arranged around the body. An external examination could not determine a cause of death, and police theorized the dog had died of fright.

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As to what happened to Foy, police believe she was grabbed near her mother’s grave, dragged across a fence, sexually assaulted, and then carried back 100 yards down a hill to the mausoleum, where the perpetrator hid her body.  

The day after Foy’s murder, police began identifying suspects. When they heard a 32-year-old man named Elmer Davis Jr. had been arrested in Belmont, Charlotte officers brought him in for questioning. The man had been serving 15-20 years for assault on a female, robbery, and attempted rape when he escaped from a work camp.

When arrested, Davis was carrying identification papers for a man named Bishop Buren Hayes. Hayes claimed his wallet and shoes had been stolen while he was drinking off a bender on a bench in, you guessed it, Elmwood Cemetery. The items were stolen on September 20, the same day Foy Cooper was murdered. The crime Davis had been doing prison time for was attacking an elderly woman near a creek.

Davis was a Black man who had not grown up under the best of circumstances. His mother had murdered his father when he was just a small child and the uneducated young man had begun engaging in criminal activity when he was a teenager, serving his first prison sentence at the young age of 15. After Foy Cooper’s murder, he was held in the City Jail in Charlotte for sixteen days and given small meals like sandwiches and peanuts. There are conflicting reports of what happened during that time. Davis, who couldn’t read, would later claim he was told if he signed a piece of paper, he could get out of jail and go take a bath. Police said he had confessed to the crime, which they dictated on the piece of paper. The case went to trial, and in 1959, Davis was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the state’s gas chamber. From prison, Davis would appeal his case three different times, in 1962, 1964 and 1966, before the decision was reversed and he was allowed to walk free. He spent the following years in and out of prison for petty crimes such as larceny and breaking and entering. While the decision in Foy Cooper’s murder trial was reversed, police firmly believed Davis was the one responsible for her death.

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You can find this story and other unresolved murder cases from North Carolina in Episode 28 of Missing in the Carolinas.

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