Whenever I take MARTA from the airport, just before the train dips underground in College Park, I crane my neck to see the high, wooden house that my great-grandfather built for his family. In fact, he built most of the beautiful old homes in College Park that have stood for more than a century.
His name was D.G. Bettis; people called him Duke. He was a contractor and banker who served one term as mayor of College Park. He filled the enormous house with children. He had six girls and two boys. He is buried with many of them at the College Park Cemetery, and I have visited their graves.
My interest in the old home has deepened since I uncovered a dark family secret that was hidden from my sister and me by the dishonesty of our mother. Throughout her life, my mother told me that Duke died from an accidental shooting. He had a gun beneath his pillow, she said, and it discharged accidentally. That was her story, and she stuck with it until she died in 2004.
About a year ago, I had an urge to Google Duke’s name and found a 100-year-old newspaper article detailing his death. Turns out it was no accident.
Duke had gone spectacularly insane and shot himself three times in the chest on February 11, 1911. One bullet passed through him and wounded his wife, Belle. His fifteen-year-old daughter Nora, who would become my grandmother, cradled his body as his life ebbed away in a room filled with screams and the smoke from his gun. He was forty-six years old.
The headline on page four of the Atlanta Constitution the next day read: “Mind Unbalanced, Bettis a Suicide . . . Former College Park Mayor Kills Himself. Brooding over ill health, the acts of a wayward son and other troubles, well-known citizen leaves a family of eight.”
In the six months leading up to his death, Duke lost an infant son and his own bid for reelection. His seventeen-year-old son Roney ran away to sea, sending a letter from New York saying he was shipping out as a deckhand on a freighter.
Duke reportedly declared, “This is enough to drive any man crazy.” When he visited his office the day before his death, “his strange actions caused comment among his business associates,” according to the article. At a construction site the next morning, “his abstracted gaze was particularly noted by the workmen.” When Duke got home, he “acted so queerly that his wife’s suspicions were at once aroused.” Belle followed him upstairs. He had a pistol, and she tried to take it from him. “Don’t be afraid,” he told her. “I’m not going to kill myself. They are after me, and I’m just going to protect myself.” Belle was able to partially undress him and get him to lie down in their bed. Then he suddenly whipped out the revolver and shot himself in the chest. The bullet passed through him and struck Belle in the abdomen. Duke fired two more shots.