Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Death of Virginia Travis-Robert Johnson’s Wife

Of all the events in Robert Johnson’s short life the one that might have had the most impact may have been the death of his young wife, Virginia. Robert and Virginia Travis were married in Penton, Mississippi, on February 17, 1929. They lied on their marriage record, Robert claiming he was 21 and Virginia stating she was 18, when he was really 17 and she was only 14. Johnson had already been a performer before getting married, but apparently, he loved his young wife enough to put his music playing on hold and try family life and farming, an occupation from which he had always run. 

The young couple moved to a farm in Bolivar County, Mississippi, where Johnson’s older step-sister Bessie and her husband, Granville Hines, were living. There the couple lived for over a year until a pregnant Virginia decided to leave Robert and the farm to have her baby in her family’s care in Penton. Virginia died in childbirth at two a.m. on Thursday April 10, 1930, without Robert at her side. G. M. Shaw of Robinsonville listed her cause of death as “acute nephritis [child birth], eclamsia [ sic ].” She and her baby were buried shortly thereafter in Dark Corner Cemetery. 

The Death Certificate of Virginia (Travers) Johnson
Courtesy of Chatmon family researcher Ed Payne
Johnson scholars have noted that although Virginia died on April 10, the April 11, 1930, census for Beat 3, Bolivar County, Mississippi, listed Virginia as still living with Robert. Whoever provided the census taker with that information did not know that Virginia had died the day before. There is reason to believe the information was not provided by Robert Johnson, but rather by a neighbor or his step-sister Bessie (one did not have to be present for an enumerator to account to list data). With Virginia gone to Penton, Robert may have taken the opportunity to do some guitar playing, working his way up Highway 1 to what he expected would be his wife and newborn child. This speculation is given additional fuel by the stories claiming that when Robert arrived at Penton with guitar in hand, Virginia’s family and the community blamed him for her death because he had been out “playing the devil’s music.” 

He may have taken their claims to heart. Whatever the case, after Virginia’s death Robert Johnson embarked on a life of travel, womanizing, drinking, and music. 

But exactly where was Virginia when she died, and where was she buried? 
Just where is Dark Corner Cemetery? 

Attempts to find any record of Jesse or Mattie Travis, Virginia’s father and mother as listed on her death certificate, have thus far come up empty. So did Virginia go to her parents’ home to have her baby, or did she head to some other location? Another 1930 census record, this one from Monday, April 7, provides the answer: Virginia was staying on a cotton plantation in Penton with her grandmother, Lula Thomas, along with five of Thomas’ other grandchildren. Her parents may not even have been with her when she died. The April 7 census record is the last formal acknowledgment of Virginia while she was still living. No one knew that she and her unborn child would be dead in less than 72 hours. And Robert Johnson had not yet arrived in Penton. One has little success if one tries to find any historical records of Dark Corner Cemetery in Mississippi, but the director of the Tunica Museum located an undertaker in Tunica who recalled that Dark Corner Cemetery was the previous name of the small cemetery just behind the current Rising Sun Missionary Baptist Church on Green River Road, off Old Highway 61 in Penton, just over the Tunica/DeSoto County line. Although her grave marker, if one ever existed, is either gone or overgrown, here rests Virginia Johnson, Robert’s wife, and their only child.

The Rising Sun MB Church is listed as another name in local cemetery records as well as on the below map.  It was apparently called "Dalkhorn Church" by someone at some point, and the grave of Virginia Travis is actually sitting unmarked in Dalkhorn Cemetery.