Mary Jane “Polly” King Justice

by Bruce Whitaker

Mary Jane “Polly” King was born near Edneyville in Buncombe (now Henderson) County on November 13, 1819. She was the daughter of Hiram King (December 25, 1794–August 3, 1891) and his first wife Nancy Jones (December 10, 1797–February 21, 1856). Hiram King was a well-educated man for his day. He appears to have been a man of more wealth than most in the area.

Hiram and Nancy had 14 children, with Mary Jane being the first or second. Though Hiram could read and write, he never taught Mary Jane to do either. She grew up a typical mountain girl on the frontier.
She married at 16 in 1835 to John Hiram Justice (born 1816). His nickname was “Peace Maker” because he seldom lost his temper, tried to get along with everyone, and tried to get others to get along and settle their differences. Compared to today, 16 may seem very young to get married, but in 1835 the average life expectancy was around 42. People felt they had to get married and have children early in order to see them reach adulthood. Polly was said to be a “medium-sized woman with stern, piercing eyes and she was blunt, determined and had no time for frivolities.” She feared no man or beast.

Her first-born child, a boy, was delivered without a doctor. She was worried because the umbilical cord of the boy refused to heal. The family said she had a dream one night in which God appeared and told her to go into the forest and search for certain herbs. She was to dig up the roots of these plants and to take the bark off certain trees. She was to brew these roots and bark and concoct a medicine to apply to the running sore that was rotting away her son’s navel. A few days later, the sore, which had been growing worse daily, had completely healed.

She began to feel that God had called her to help heal the physical and mental suffering of her neighbors and people of the area. So, she devoted all her spare time acquiring knowledge about herbs and making medicine. She could not read, but her husband could. They would sit by the fire at night, and he would read medical books to her. There were no drugstores and little medicine. Doctors were rare.

She rode many horses over the years, but her favorite was a large black stallion. No one could saddle and bridle that horse except for Polly and her husband. In April 1865, General Stoneman, a leader of General Sherman’s cavalry, came through Henderson County, stealing all the best horses for Sherman’s soldiers. He came to the Justice home and saw the black stallion. None of his soldiers could put a bridle on the horse. One of Stoneman’s men put a gun to John Justice’s head and told him to put a bridle on the horse or he would kill him. John Justice reluctantly put a bridle on the horse and led it out to the soldiers. Rumor has it that during the first battle in which it took part, the horse dumped the soldier and escaped.

John was 85 when he died on February 21, 1901. “Dr. Polly” was 83 when she died on January 12, 1904. Both are buried in the King Cemetery with her parents.

See photos of Dr. Polly and her husband at

Bruce Whitaker documents Fairview area genealogy. To get in touch with him, contact the Crier at [email protected] or 828-771-6983 (call/text).

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