Murder Mystery

If you were to stack every box contained in the Duke Medical Center Archives, it would equal the height of approximately 54 Duke Chapels! While we work hard to arrange and describe the over 11,000 linear feet of materials in our collection, it is both impossible and inadvisable for us to read or catalog every individual piece of paper. As foolish as it is to think that an archivist could possibly know all of the stories held within these collections, it is often tempting to believe that the institutional knowledge accumulated through time in the archives creates an omniscient historian or at least something pretty close. Recently I was reminded that I certainly do not know everything and more importantly that archival research can be a thrilling treasure hunt.  

In preparation for our annual Halloween event, I pulled out my spreadsheet of past items pulled, started making checklists, and spoke with our interns about soliciting their help. It was the fourth year of the event, so I was not trying to reinvent wheel. I figured we would try to add some new items that we had come across in the past year, but mostly rely on our dependable list of known items and be done quickly. Our list includes different medical illustrations or photographs, fallout shelter pamphlets, materials from the 65th General Hospital unit, and of course our death masks. Deaths masks are our go-to show-and-tell item in the Medical Center Archives. Whenever a visitor steps in our stacks, we instinctively reach for one of our six masks. They are casts made of a person's head after death. Death masks have been made for a variety of reasons throughout human history, including the later creation of portraits or busts[i], the presumed purpose for the creation of our masks. When I mentioned our Death Mask Collection to Kahlee, Archives intern, I was not prepared for her offhand remark about the mask of “that doctor who was murdered”. I immediately asked her to repeat herself, and Kahlee referred me to one key line from our online finding aid that I had skipped. Sure enough it read “Robert R. Jones Jr. (1902-1941) original member of the Department of Surgery who was murdered by a patient” [ii] with no additional information given. Interest peaked. Immediately we both wanted to know the rest of the story.

None of our internal documentation about the desk mask collection had any hints, and a search within our collections for Robert Jones at the folder level returned no results. While dismayed and worried about searching for perhaps the most common name possible, we were confident that there would be at least one reference to this shocking event. I was finally able to locate several references to Robert R. Jones Jr. using the North Carolina Collection’s “North Carolina People, Places, and Things” search.  After a quick email to Wilson Library, our UNC colleagues sent us scan of the News and Observer article shown below. Click on the image to enlarge and read the article.

News & Observer article

The story told in the newspaper article is quite grisly. Dr. Jones was shot 6 times by an angry patient who believed that he had been mistreated. It was reported that “Dr. Jones had attempted to correct the effects of a circumcision operation performed by another doctor” apparently with unsatisfactory results. The shooting took place in the hall on the first floor of Duke Hospital near the front entrance where several other doctors witnessed. Despite the immediate treatment that Dr. Jones received from his fellow doctors, he only lived a few more minutes.

His tragic death however is just one small detail in the life of Robert Randolph Jones. An article in the North Carolina Medical Journal says that “his sympathetic heart, his jovial disposition and his untiring effort to help anyone who cared to lay his problems before him endeared him to all who knew him.” Dr. Clarence E. Gardner described him as “one of the country’s finest young surgeons.” You can click on the thumbnails below to read this article in its entirety.

Southern Medicine, p.357 Southern Medicine, p. 358

Since researching Dr. Jones for our Halloween event, I have continually come across references to him in our collections. It is not that as though he wasn’t there and now he is, but rather I am now aware and looking. I am certain that I have seen or read references to Dr. Jones before, but I simply glanced over them without much thought. One stray sentence about a murder has led me to additional research about plastic surgery. Increased connections and new inquiries are just two reasons why doing research in archives is valuable. Good research always leads to more research. New questions emerge. You quite often find things for which you were not looking. It is also best when it is collaborative; my research started from a conversation with another person. Additionally, without the help from UNC, I might not have been able to locate the key News & Observer article on Jones’ death. Research takes time, but it is certainly time well spent.

Please contact the Archives at or (919) 383-2653 to learn more about our collections or for assistance with your own research questions.


[i] Guide to the Death Masks Collection, Circa 1941-1972,

[ii] Ibid