Who was Lillian Smith?

Lillian Smith b&w head shot

Lillian Smith 1909-1958

By her son, J.J. Smith

Lillian Smith was a vivacious, fun-loving, devoted mother of five children and grandmother of two who was shot to death by her abusive, alcoholic, ex-husband in a horrific murder-suicide, Aug. 12, 1958, in Denver CO. He was also my father. She was just 49 years old.

This tragic event concluded several years of physical, verbal and emotional abuse inflicted by him upon our family, including my four older brothers and sisters. Although he was diagnosed as mentally ill, he was likely suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) as a result of serious wounds suffered while serving as a U.S. Army tank commander in World War II. In 1958 PTSD was not understood as it is today.

Friendly to everyone, “Lil” worked as a bank teller, was active in church and spent most of her time with her children and their families. She enjoyed music and dancing, plus loved anything to do with horses. From the time she was a little girl, she loved to ride fast horses. She frequently took me to horse races, horse shows, rodeos and horseback riding.

She was also very brave.

After enduring several years of abuse by my father, she found the courage and strength to flee with me from Los Angeles to Miami to get a divorce – even though very few wives back then ever left their husbands because of domestic abuse. There weren’t any women’s shelters. They were just expected to put up with it. But she wouldn’t.

It wasn’t long before my father caught up with us in Florida, and began stalking and threatening her. Without any victim assistance programs available, she and I fled back again across the country to Denver, where she found refuge living with one of her two daughters from her first marriage, and near the other (my half-sisters).

After once again finding us, and after two more years of stalking and horrible threats, he finally broke into our apartment in the middle of the night, shot and killed my mom – as she tried to escape out the front door – and then turned the gun on himself.

I tried to wrestle the gun away from him before the shooting but, because I was only 10 years old, I was no match for his strength. During the shooting, I was not harmed physically, but I did experience terrible emotional damage which it took me many years and professional counseling to finally overcome.

Hundreds of people attended her funeral after her shocking murder became front page news in both Denver newspapers (see newspaper reports below). Back then, family violence-related murders were a rarity, and no one wanted to talk about the problem. Unfortunately, they still don’t.

Lillian Smith was just an everyday, average person trying to make her way through life. What I remember best was how loved and secure she made me feel, despite the constant terror she must have been feeling.

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