Gravemarker memorializes heroic act of Sarah Flonnie Holliman a century later

Great-granddaughter Diana Holliman Ross affixes the Carnegie Hero gravemarker on S. Flonnie Holliman’s head stone, more than 100 years after Holliman saved a 5-year-old boy from drowning in a well. (Editor’s note: Carnegie Hero Fund records and Holliman family records confirm that Holliman’s first name is spelled Sarah, with an “h.” Ross did not know why Holliman’s headstone was missing the “h” from her first name.)

The family of S. Flonnie Holliman recently honored the Carnegie hero by affixing a grave marker to her headstone, more than 50 years after her death and more than 100 years after her heroic deed.

In 1914, Holliman’s failing eyesight and lack of swimming ability didn’t stop her from jumping into a deep, water-filled well to rescue 5-year-old Thomas J. Caudle.

Quoting Andrew Carnegie, great-granddaughter Diana Holliman Ross said she was proud to provide tangible recognition of Holliman’s heroism by marking her headstone with the Hero Fund’s symbol.

“As Mr. Carnegie said many years ago, ‘Bravery seldom happens, but when a person risks his or her own life to save another, it should always be acknowledged,” she said at an April 29, 2018, ceremony where family members unveiled the grave marker on Holliman’s headstone.

A 1915 photo of Carnegie Hero Sarah Flonnie Holliman, middle of back row, and her family. This photo was taken a year after Holliman’s heroic rescue act in which she saved a 5-year old boy from drowning in a well.

According to the Commission’s records on the case, on Oct. 21, 1914, Thomas was playing near the well with Holliman’s 5-year-old son Shelton. The top of the well was partially covered by wooden planks while work was being done on it. Thomas fell into the well, and Shelton ran to tell Holliman.

Holliman, 39, then the mother of five children, went to the well and saw Thomas’s hat on top of the water. She jumped into the well fully clothed and found Thomas below the surface of the 8-foot-deep water.

The 5’2” Holliman summoned the strength to grasp Thomas and then pushed off the earthen bottom of the 10-foot-deep well. She held to the rocky sides of the well and lifted Thomas high enough so that he could reach a plank, enabling him to hoist himself out.

Holliman’s husband, Hiram, who had been seriously injured the day before the rescue after falling down an elevator shaft, went to the well and was able to assist his wife from it, despite his condition. Neither Holliman nor Thomas were injured that day.

Two years later, Holliman’s received the Carnegie Medal and $1,000, which
she used to buy her family a house in Marshville, N.C.

Nearly 23 years after the rescue, while Holliman was visiting her son in Charlotte, N.C., Thomas, now nearly 30 years old, visited her. They reminisced about her heroic act.

According to news accounts of the visit, Thomas remembered asking Holliman to jump back into the well to retrieve his hat, frightened that he would get into trouble if he returned home without it.

Holliman lost her sight completely around the age of 64 and died at
age 91, still able to crochet and write letters, recounted her family. Holliman had been widowed for nearly 30 years by then and was survived by six children.

Ross, of Anderson, Ind., organized the unveiling ceremony after the bronze grave marker was placed on Holliman’s grave in Forest Lawn Cemetery West in Charlotte.

Attending the ceremony were three generations of Holliman’s family. Jackson Moon, great-great-great-grandson, had the honor of unveiling the marker. A great-nephew of Thomas’ was invited to the event but was unable to attend.

“As we unveil this symbol of heroism placed on her marker, we are forever reminded of the heritage left to us by Flonnie’s act of giving herself for another with no thought to her own safety,” Ross said at the ceremony. “Our family is very grateful to have this symbol of our great-grandmother’s heroic effort. What a historic legacy for those who came before and for future generations.”

In addition, once believed to be lost, Holliman’s Carnegie Medal was discovered to be in possession of great-great grandson Brian Holliman. At a large family reunion last fall its possession was traced through three generations.

The medal is in its original box and still in good condition, said Ross.

— Susan M. Rizza, case investigator

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