Poisoned With Love

Behind a mask of Hill Country gentility lurks a gothic tale of homicide, manners, and Riopan Plus.

There was something inexplicably sinister and foreboding about the old Norton mansion, but nobody thought of it as a tableau for murder. It sat on the crown of a hill just east of Llano, sheltered by a fence and dense clusters of elm, cedar, and post oak, looking down on the town like the ghost of a Jonah ship. Hardly anyone alive knew its secrets, its failed visions, its unanswered love. Old-timers told of parties there in the thirties and even as late as the sixties, but no one could recall a wedding or a birth or any of the other events that celebrate life’s continuity.

For more than a century the mansion had housed the damned and the dying. Its original owner, F. R. Malone, was an investor who came from Louisiana after the Civil War to make his fortune in the iron boom. The mansion was his dream, but it also became his epitaph: Malone apparently went bust before he could move in. After that it was owned by a group of doctors who turned it into a tuberculosis sanatorium and attempted to maximize their profits by forcing their patients to live—and frequently die—in neat rows of tents on the mansion grounds. The doctors went broke in 1911, and four years later another mining magnate, Tom W. Norton, bought the property, burned the death tents, and scrubbed down and renovated the mansion as a home for his wife and five daughters. For a time the mansion on the hill became the vortex of social life in Llano, the site of endless teas and galas. But none of the daughters ever married or had children. When the last of the Nortons died in February 1988, the mansion once again fell dark and silent, its secrets intact.

The last surviving daughters, Cordelia and Catherine, had shared the old house and fading glory of the Norton name for the last quarter of a century. They lived alone on their seventy-acre estate, seldom entertaining or receiving visitors. In the small town below, the mansion became a source of curiosity and gossip; a generation had died and another had grown up since the house was part of Llano’s social fabric. “All the time I was growing up,” recalled Llano County district attorney Sam Oatman, whose family helped found the town in the 1850’s, “I wondered what was going on up there. There were stories about wild parties and other things, but it was just speculation.”

Speculation was that the Norton sisters were lesbians. Cordelia courted the bull-dyke image: a butch haircut, men’s clothes, no makeup except for fingernail polish, and a tongue as caustic and salty as a drill sergeant’s. “She liked to come on tough,” said Jim Myers, who had worked for Cordelia for 23 years. Texas Ranger John Waldrip remembered that Cordelia was “rough as a cob,” and Llano County sheriff Gail Ligon, a distant relative of the Nortons, recalled that “she’d give you a cussing at the drop of a hat.” Even Cordelia’s business ventures had a masculine cast—she raised cattle and owned a beer distributorship. “She wanted to be known as one of the guys,” said Jimmy Walker, who had been Cordelia’s banker. Nobody knew (or at least nobody was willing to talk) about Cordelia’s early life, but she had been an officer in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II and, according to one story, had studied medicine in New York until a broken love affair caused her to

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...