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The old Wake Forest College Medical School always needed bodies for dissection–and none came with a story more sad or strange than this one.
“I Know They Done Wrong, But They Were Mine,” Writes Mother of Birdsong Boys, Killed Last Fall In Gun Battle Near Sanford; Bodies Sent to Kentucky for Burial
It began in the early morning hours of August 14, 1929, when Kentucky brothers Levi and Owen Birdsong pulled into a filling station just south of Sanford to steal a tank of gas. When station owner Gaither Edwards caught them, a gunfight broke out. All three men were killed. Levi died in the road, Edwards inside the station, and Owen halfway through a back window.
Gaither Edwards, only 23-years-old, was defending not only his property but his pregnant wife. She and her baby survived. Edwards became an instant folk hero. Hundreds thronged his funeral.
Not so, the Birdsong brothers. The local undertaker held the bodies of 34-year-old Levi and 30-year-old Owen while awaiting word from next-of-kin. According to the Wake Forest College newspaper, the Old Gold and Black, the remains were put on display:
“Though the dramatic occurrence brought ten thousand people to gaze in awe upon the faces and the mute lips which preached a silent sermon on the text, ‘The wages of sin is death,’ none of those who loved them were there.”
When nobody claimed them after ten days, the undertaker shipped the brothers to Wake Forest College where medical students in the anatomy department could use their bodies for autopsy and dissection.
But in an interesting twist, the college morgue had a surplus of bodies in late 1929.
The Birdsong brothers stayed on their slabs through Halloween, Christmas, and New Year’s. For five months they remained, untouched, until a letter arrived at the college business office.
Described in the Old Gold and Black as almost illegible, in a cheap white envelope, the message was reproduced as follows:
This is the mother of the Birdsong boys. I hear you still have the bodies of my boys. have you and could it be possible for us to get them? Now do they still look natcheral if so please tell me or hav you disfigured them in any way? We just werent able to hav them brought home. Dear Sirs I Sure would like to hav my Boys brought home if we could. me an their father are both old and not able to work mutch an havent any home but I cant hardly stand the thought of turning them over to the medicle college. I have worried all those five months. Please let me know at once what about they. They are my boys. I know they done wrong but they were mine. I loved them. Sir they are my bone and flesh. Will you let me know if you are holding their bodys untouched. Yours cincerely, their Sad mother.
It was a heartbreaking appeal, and college administrators were deeply moved. They convened a series of conferences and meetings. They sent written communications and telegrams. Messages flashed across the wires. They quickly decided.
Wake Forest College would bear the cost of sending the Birdsong boys home.
And that’s how the story ends.
As the corpses of the two brothers were loaded onto the train at the Wake Forest depot, an anonymous student reporter summarized their tragic adventure in this single perfect sentence from the Old Gold and Black:
And so, with winding sheets about them, in cheap but decent coffins, all that is mortal of the fiery youths of impetuous career left North Carolina for their old Kentucky home.