Meet Mattie Maddox Howard

Meet Mattie Maddox Howard

Mattie Maddox was my great-grandmother and in many very real ways a mystery woman. Mattie was the mother of James Lester Howard and for years he had her portrait propped against the wall in his walk up attic. As a child, I frequenly visited Grandaddy’s attic. It was always lots of fun to see the Christmas decorations stored away or the knick knacks Grandmother put away for another day. But always, I studied the portrait of Mattie and wondered about her. Perhaps I thought if I stared long enough, she would tell me her secrets….

Mattie didn’t tell me her secrets in that attic, but oral history and photos, along with historical records revealed much about her. She was born in Chatham County, NC 22 Mar 1881. Her mother was Martha Jane Lett (1851-1935) and her father James Tarlton Maddox (1844-1892). She lived on a 275 acre farm known as The Maddox Farm located on the banks of the Cape Fear River. She had two sisters– Cornelia and Viola (who died as a young child) and 7 brothers–Calvin, Thomas, James Arthur, Bertis, Clenon, Jonah, and Curley. She lost her father at a young age and according to her son Lester Howard, she worked very hard helping her mother on the family farm. She was also close to her sister Cornelia (known as Cornie) and many pictures show Mattie and Cornie together. I guess with 7 brothers, they had to stick together! Lester Howard remembered the family was religious and faithfully attended Moore Union Christian Church along with other Maddox and Lett relatives.

Mattie married Connie Maise Howard on 8 Mar 1914 in Lee County, NC. They had four children: Lester, Walter, Jewel and Clayton. Mattie died at the age of 46 on 30 Jul 1927. My grandfather was 12 years old. Why Mattie died is a bit of a mystery. Oral history, along with children’s journal entries offer vague facts. We do know that she was in the hospital in the Sanford area prior to being transferred to what is now Rex Hospital in Raleigh, NC. When her children were brought to see her before her move to Raleigh, she did not even recognize them. What a sad, confusing time for my grandfather and his siblings. Oral history tells us that Mattie died from “brain surgery”. As a child I also heard that it was sinus surgery. No one knows for sure, however about a week before her death, she was moved to the state hospital (what is now known as Dix Hospital) where she died in the early morning hours of July 30th.

As I go over the stories several things stand out to me. First, in 1927 brain surgery would have been in its infancy and was not done often. According to her death certificate, no surgery proceeded her death. Her cause of death is listed as exhaustion with psychosis of unknown origin. During an interview, Otis Kelly (her nephew) has no recollection of “Aunt Matt” having had surgery. He does remember that she could not be left alone just prior to her hospitalization in Sanford. Others in the family remember Big Grandaddy (Connie Howard) as saying she probably had some kind of cancer. Putting all this together it is likely that Mattie had some type of brain tumor or cancer which certainly would account for any mental status changes. Whether she had surgery or not ever be known for certain. Unfortunately, the end result is the same–a young husband lost a wife and four young children lost a mother.

To end on a much lighter note, Mattie is well remembered as a good cook and a wonderful seamstress. Her daughter Jewel proudly reported to me that Mattie made all her own clothes. Otis Kelly remembers her as “a good woman!” Mattie was known to be the first to show up to care for sick family members and doing the cooking, cleaning and whatever was necessary. Mattie was also known to have a beautiful alto singing voice. It was recently discovered that there are many alto choir members in our family!

Enjoy Mattie’s story. I’m sure there is more “out there” to discover about her. I’ll keep you posted.

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