Saturday, February 16, 2019

Irvington Tragedy--1953

Not all was right in the formerly fashionable home at 5316 East Washington Street. Dr. Harold Bailey Cox and his third wife, Halene (sometimes spelled Helene) Wilson Cox, had been living in the stuccoed Mission-Revival American Four Square since their marriage in 1937. The couple welcomed Nedra Lucretia Cox into their lives in 1940. The home was perfect for Dr. Cox's family medical practice as patients could meet him downstairs while the family lived upstairs.

By 1953, Dr. Cox was seeing few patients as he was ailing. The sixty-eight-year-old physician was also dealing with another kind of sickness, the mental illness of his forty-year-old wife. Neighbors had noticed that the family had become quite reclusive. Few people ever went to the house and delivery men were asked to place parcels on the front porch. Then, on March 18, 1953, while working in his garage, Dr. Cox suffered a fatal heart attack. Halene Wilson Cox who seldom left her home, found her husband in the garage and dragged his body to the front porch. She then phoned a friend who was a physician, to check on Dr. Cox, but it was too late. While authorities found the scenario odd, no one was charged as he had clearly died of natural causes.

For the next eight months, conditions deteriorated in the Cox household.  Fourteen-year-old Nedra, who was supposed to be attending Arsenal Technical High School, failed to enroll. She remained inside the house although friends did say that over the summer of 1953 she showed up at Ellenberger Park. Few ever saw the mother-daughter team outside again. Over the years, Mrs. Cox had become a hoarder and her home was filled with refuse, boxes, and disorder. No one was ever allowed to come in. Worried about their daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Hal Wilson of 569 Middle Drive Woodruff Place, stopped by on Sunday, November 1, 1953, but Mrs. Cox refused to allow them into the home. Nedra  spoke to her grandparents through a peep hole in the front door.

At 1:05AM the next day, Harold Hunt, of Greenfield, Indiana was driving eastbound on Washington Street when he noticed flames shooting out of a downstairs living room window at 5316 East Washington Street. He then saw Mrs. Cox screaming from a second floor bedroom window. Mr. Hunt phoned the fire department and Irvington firemen rushed to the scene.  While the first floor was engulfed in flames, the second floor was filled with smoke. Fireman, Errol Evans, climbed up a ladder and found Mrs. Cox slumped over the headboard of a bed. He managed to get her down with help from three other firemen named Arthur Lynn, William Gearns, and John Thompson. Then, the fireman found Nedra Cox on a bed and they brought her down as well.

Both women were carried next door and wrapped in blankets and given oxygen; however, it became apparent that both had been shot. Detectives rushed to the scene and found a house in chaos. As the last of the embers burned, detectives in the house noticed trash and even a decaying cat corpse inside the wrecked residence. Dr. Bailey had been a gun enthusiast and had given his daughter a .22 caliber pistol as a present before his death. Nedra apparently used the gun to shoot both her mother and herself.  Mrs. Cox had been shot in the chest and had been burned on her back although strangely her clothes were not burned. She must have changed before the firemen arrived.

Detectives had a hard time sorting through the strange story. Mrs. Cox was coherent and managed to tell investigators that Nedra had accidentally shot her and then killed herself. The next day the story was captured in lurid headlines in newspapers all over the state. Both the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News seemed obsessed with Nedra's appearance and behavior. They called her "exotic" and "sultry." Reporters noted that she had worn bikinis in the summer and had grown immensely long fingernails. They seemed to have overlooked the major plot that a fourteen-year-old girl was trapped in a home with a mother who was clearly mentally ill. In the end, the county coroner ruled that Nedra had indeed shot her mother and then killed herself, but why did Mrs. Cox have burn marks on her back when the fire was on the first floor and she was on the second floor? Did she try to escape but then realized that she could not get out? Some aspects of this story will never be known.

Mrs. Cox eventually moved in with her parents in Woodruff Place. Sadly, she killed herself on July 8, 1954. The Cox home was torn down shortly after the fire and in 2019, the site serves as a parking lot for a medical facility.

Dr. Harold B. and Halene Cox along with their daughter, Nedra, resided at 5316 East Washington Street. Fourteen-year-old Nedra shot her mother and then herself. It is not known which of the women set the fire on the first floor. If you look closely, you can see Dr. Bailey's physician sign hanging on the front porch. He died eight months before the fire. (Image courtesy of Patrick Pearsey)

A fireman combs through a messy second-story bedroom. The house at 5316 East Washington Street was in complete disarray when the department arrived on the scene. Mrs. Cox appears to have been a hoarder and suffered from mental illness. (Image courtesy of Patrick Pearsey)

Nedra Lucretia Cox was fourteen years when she fired a shot at her mother and then took her own life. Local newspapers focused on her attire and looks. (Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, November 3, 1953)
A special thanks to Patrick Pearsey, who chronicles the history of the Indianapolis Police Department, for the images and links to the stories about the Cox tragedy. 

Sources: "Girl Set Fire to House, Shot to 'Escape?'" Columbus Republic, November 3, 1953, 1; "Exotic Irvington Girl Shot Mom, Committee Suicide, Police Theorize," Indianapolis Star, November 3, 1953, 1;  "Tests Hint Slain Girl Shot Recluse Mother," Indianapolis Star, November 4, 1953, 13; "Widow of Doctor Takes Own Life," Terre Haute Tribune, July 8, 1954, 2. "Dr. Harold B. Cox Found Dead in Garage at Home," Indianapolis Star, March 20, 1953, 9; "Dr Cox Wins Shoot with Perfect Score," Indianapolis Star, June 9, 1940, 38.