Research into Christmount cemetery reveals tale of arson and intimidation in 1899 Black Mountain

Anne Chesky Smith, Special to Black Mountain NewsPublished 9:05 a.m. ET July 17, 2019

Nestled in a thicket of rhododendron perched above the former estate of Rafael and Francesca Guastavino – aptly named after the rambling shrub – are three field stones marking the graves of only a few of the people believed to have been laid to rest on this wooded hillside prior to the turn of the 20th century.

The small graveyard, bisected by one of Christmount Christian Assembly’s hiking loops, would probably have been lost to time, if not for family memory and a couple of dedicated Christmount staff members.

Helen Johnson, the assembly’s former associate director, and Melba Banks, the former executive director, often heard stories from locals about a cemetery up on the mountain and various relatives who were buried there. But it wasn’t until the late 1970s or early 1980s that the small cemetery was rediscovered.

“We were crawling under rhododendrons up the side of the mountain until we finally found the stones,” Johnson said. Soon after they placed a signed commemorating the people they had been told were buried there.

Nothing more was known about the cemetery’s occupants until we began digging through the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center’s archives and piecing together stories of a few occupants.

One of the most compelling stories centered around the tragic death of “A Mr. Faggetts.”

David “Dave” H. Knupp – who, incidentally, was buried at Tabernacle United Methodist Church in 1928 despite being listed on the memorial sign – and his wife, Susan Evans Knupp, lived on Lakey Gap Road near the Guastavinos. In July 1899, the childless couple were in their early 40s and had recently taken in a five-year-old orphan, Lola Florence Ownbey, from up the mountain in Broad River.

Like many residents, to make ends meet, the Knupps farmed and also rented the attic room in their one-and-a-half story log home to a boarder. Their boarder, Mr. E. Fogette, was a 74-year-old widower, originally from Manchester, England, who had come to Asheville from South Carolina a decade prior to work with well-known Asheville architect, Allen L. Melton. Eventually, an unemployed Fogette moved in with the Knupps, who only charged $1.00 a week for room and board.

Every week Fogette’s daughter, Thomasin, sent a single dollar bill along with a note to her father in the mail from her apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Dave tried to convince Fogette to go to the poor house, but Fogette, who was “partially crippled by ulcers on his legs,” according to an article in the July 26, 1899 issue of the Asheville Citizen, did not want to go. Still, Fogette was “treated…as well as if he had been one of the family.”

The small house was crowded at times. Dave’s sister, Sarah Elizabeth, and her children came to live with the Knupps after she left her husband, Thomas Hicks Stepp.

Thomas remembered, “I came up here [to the Knupps] and forbade Mrs. Knupp from feeding my children. I thought my wife should be at home, as that was the place for her.” Sarah and her children soon returned home.

At the same time, the Knupps had been receiving threatening notes and letters, even finding one stuffed along with several matches in the keyhole of their barn door with the inscription, “Get out, Dave; we’ll burn you up.”

Dave began to keep watch, trying to find the people responsible for leaving the notes. And, for about a year and a half, no more notes appeared.

But, early in the morning on Tuesday, July 25, 1899, Susan was awoken by a roaring noise. Thinking it was a train, she tried to return to slumber only to be startled awake again minutes later by a “flash of flames through the room.”

She woke her husband and grabbed little Florence from her nearby bedroom. As they left the house, they heard Mr. Fogette calling for help. Dave ran towards Fogette’s voice and found him halfway out the attic window.

While yelling for him to jump, Dave attempted to climb to him, but the flames were too much. Fogette fell back through the window and into the fire.

The county coroner and sheriff arrived at the ruins of the house in the early afternoon. After sifting through the rubble, they uncovered Mr. Fogette’s smoking remains, which – presumably – were later buried in the cemetery above the Guastavino estate with Mr. E. Fogettes being listed on the cemetery marker eighty years later as “A Mr. Faggetts.”

Upon interviewing Susan, who said, “I have reasons to believe that the house was set on fire,” the sheriff summoned a jury to determine if a crime had occurred in Fogette’s death.

During the interview, Susan stated her case.

“[The house] had been fired three times before, and the barn had been fired once. I don’t think it caught without being fired. The last fire I had in the back room was at 6 o’clock on Monday evening,” she said. 

She also told them about threatening notes.

By the end of the hearing, the jury determined that the Knupps were not responsible for Fogette’s death, but that the house fire was intentionally set by “parties unknown,” who remain unknown to this day.

When the coroner arrived at Black Mountain station to take the train back to Asheville, he was handed a note addressed to Mr. Fogette. It contained a $1 bill and a postage stamp.

It was signed, “With best of love, your affectionate daughter, Thomasin.”

The young orphan, Florence, who survived the fire that night, would go on to become Mrs. Guastavino’s maid around 1905.

Fifty years later, Florence (whose husband William Elbert Plemmons, became the caretaker of the Franklin Terry Estate, IntheOaks) would provide one of the best written accounts of the reclusive Francesca Guastavino and the elaborate interior of the Guastavino’s “Spanish Castle,” but that’s another story.