A dead body found on a bare highway nearly a century ago has opened a new literary chapter for Ohio Northern University multimedia journalism professor Ian Punnett, who has unraveled a murder mystery in the new book “A Black Night for the Bluegrass Belle,” released on Nov. 1.
The death in 1936 of Kentucky native Verna Garr Taylor made headlines across the country. It was originally thought to be an apparent suicide by her fiancé, who was the main suspect in the case, but it remains an unsolved murder mystery.
That’s until Punnett got hold of the story. And, like any good reporter, he looked under every clue to unravel what precisely happened that November night when Taylor died.
Making the mission a personal one was the fact that Punnett is Taylor’s distant cousin. Several twists and turns revolve around the family’s role in the murder/ suicide.
“There has never been a definitive book that has told the story from the family’s perspective,” Punnett said. “There has never been anything except something that echoed [suspect Henry] Denhardt’s faint, desperate defense that somehow Verna—a beautiful, honorable person and businesswoman—was suicidal and wanted to kill herself at any second, which was complete nonsense.”
Punnett spent years investigating details about Taylor’s case and interviewing people for insight on his beloved family member.
It was my goal to clear her of this stain,” he said. “Neither [Tay- lor nor Denhardt] are alive to tell the story of what really happened on that lonesome highway.”
Taylor was known as “the most beautiful woman in three coun- ties,” Punnett said. She operated a successful laundry and dry clean- ing business in her community. “She was a catch.”
She met Henry Denhardt in 1936 and it was a whirlwind relationship, by all accounts, with Denhardt presenting Taylor with a $20,000 engagement ring.
“But she didn’t want to marry him,” Punnett said.
Taylor planned to inform Denhardt of her decision on November 6, 1936 – the date of her death.
During his 1937 murder trial, Denhardt claimed that Taylor was upset over the decision to end the relationship. He thought her family was forcing her to end the engagement. He claimed that Taylor turned his own gun on herself because she was so upset with her life.
An autopsy of Taylor’s death revealed that she had been sexually assaulted, adding another wrinkle to the case.
“I think he knew that as soon as she got back to town, and she told her brothers she had been assaulted by [Denhardt] on the night she was going to break up with him, that he was a dead man,” said Punnett.
Instead, Denhardt’s best option may have been to fake Taylor’s suicide and make up the entire story about how she was upset over her family’s disapproval of their relationship.
The 1937 trial ended with a split jury, with seven of the 12 jurors favoring Denhardt’s side of the story.
In his extensive research of all court and case documents, Punnett contradicted the theory proposed by Denhardt’s legal team that Taylor had committed suicide. The writer believes “all of the evidence one needs to see Denhardt’s true guilt is right there in those files.”
A second murder trial, hoping to prove Denhardt guilty, was foiled when he was killed by Taylor’s brothers on the night before the trial started—becoming Kentucky’s last Code of Honor killing, with siblings willing to be executed to save a family member’s honor.
One brother, Roy Garr, was acquitted by a jury after an hour- long deliberation.
The author refers to the brothers as “the cool heroes in this story.” He named his oldest son Garr after his beloved cousin.
Punnett dedicates his new book to Taylor, saying, “She deserved a better life. At least we could give her justice in death.”