The Johnny Cash Christmas Story: From Robbery to Redemption

johnny-cash

It was the week of Christmas, 1981, 7:30 in the evening, and Johnny Cash and his family had just sat down for dinner. Right as the family bowed their head for grace, three armed men burst through the dining room door, brandishing weapons.

“What do you want?” said Johnny Cash, coming to his feet.

“Everything, or the boy dies,” one of the masked intruders replied, holding a gun to the head of an 11-year old boy named Doug Caldwell—a friend of Johnny’s 11-year old-son John Carter Cash.

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Johnny Cash’s lake home in Hendersonville, TN just outside of Nashville was the legendary country performer’s most famous abode, but for years he kept a second residence in Jamaica. Known as Cinnamon Hill, it was an old plantation property near Montego Bay with a house that was originally built in 1747. It was one of the few remaining homes on the island paradise that had survived the slave revolt in 1831. Cash had purchased the property from a friend, businessman John Rollins in the mid 70’s. It was also once owned by 19th Century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning of “How do I love thee. Let me count the ways” fame. Cash and his family were known to spend much of their downtime for many years on the island.

Cinnamon Hill had been a sugar plantation for over 100 years, at one time housing thousands of slaves in crude shacks that would work the fields in indentured servitude. “All that remains of those people now, the metal hinges from their doors and nails from their walls, lies hidden in the undergrowth on the hillsides or in the soil just below the manicured sod of the golf course that loops around my house,” Cash recalled in his Autobiography. “I doubt that the vacationers playing those beautiful links have any idea, any concept, of the kind of life that once teemed where they walk…”

Cinnamon Hill

Cinnamon Hill

Cinnamon Hill is also rumored to be haunted by the “White Witch of Rose Hall” (Rose Hall is the proper name for the Cinnamon Hill estate), but Johnny Cash said they lived with the ghosts of the property peacefully, and the White Witch of Rose Hall even inspired him to write the song “Ballad of Annee Palmer.” But peaceful coexistence wasn’t the case for a few native Jamaicans who decided to invade Cinnamon Hill right before Christmas in 1981 and steal everything they could from the famous American country star.

Armed with a pistol, a knife, and a hatchet, the three men ordered everyone in the house to lie face down on the floor, “They held the gun to every head,” recalled Johnny Cash’s brother-in-law Chuck Hussey. “They took each person that was there, one at a time, and went from room to room looking for valuables. They pushed and shoved and had the gun constantly exposed, asking all the time, ‘Do you want to die, mon? Keep your head down, mon.'”

As the siege continued, Johnny Cash slowly began to devise a plan with his brother-in-law to take a chair and rush the robber with the hatchet if the opportunity presented itself. But it never did. Eventually the robbers locked everyone from the house in a cellar, including Johnny, June Carter, their son John Carter, his friend Doug Caldwell, Johnny’s sister Reba Hancock, her husband Chuck Hussey, and the housekeeper of the estate, Edith Montague, who had been reciting the grace when the robbers busted through the dining room door.

Then the robbers loaded all the valuables into June Carter’s Land Rover, and drove off. Luckily, nobody was injured in the incident. Reba Hancock later said she was happy the opportunity to rush the intruders never came. “Had we resisted, I think they would have killed us all.”

Johnny Cash with Orphans in Jamaica

Johnny Cash with Orphans in Jamaica

The three assailants made off with an estimated $35,000 – $50,000 in cash and jewelry, as well as 175 pairs of shoes meant to be donated to an orphanage by the Cash’s for Christmas. The entire episode lasted a harrowing four hours. Eventually other workers from Cinnamon Hill took the Cash’s other Land Rover into Montego Bay to alert authorities.

The investigation later found that the three men were part of a terrorist group whose leader had been killed the week before. Two of them were caught at the Montego Bay airport trying to take a flight to Miami to apparently fence the stolen goods.

The men were arrested, and eventually died while in police custody. Information about the incident and the handling of the suspects was very sketchy at the time, because Jamaican police did not want to make more of a public scene over the robbery than they had to, especially since it involved a famous American. They feared any more information or news on the robbery would only hurt the island’s already fragile tourism industry. By delivering swift justice to the suspects, authorities believed they would stamp out the story sooner.

But Johnny Cash, in one of his many displays of unworldly character, and in the Christmas spirit, wasn’t angry with his captors, he sympathized with them, and even saw some of himself in the intruders. Cash called them “desperate young men” and “junkies” who he could identify with from his own battles with addiction throughout his life.

Cash said of the incident in his Autobiography:

How do I feel about it? What’s my emotional response to the fact (or at least the distinct possibility) that the desperate junkie boys who threatened and traumatized my family and might easily have killed us all (perhaps never intending any such thing) were executed for their act or murdered, or shot down like dogs, have it how you will?

I’m out of answers. My only certainties are that I grieve for desperate young men and the societies that produce and suffer so many of them, and I felt that I knew those boys. We had a kinship, they and I: I knew how they thought, I knew how they needed. They were like me.

Johnny Cash didn’t use the incident to abandon Cinnamon Hill. He stayed for years after, using the residence as a second home, hosting friends and family, including Christmas celebrations, and bonding with the locals. When Johnny Cash died in 2003, Jamaica sent an emissary to represent the island nation at the remembrance. But it wasn’t just because Cash had once been a famous resident of the island, it was because he was a towering man of wisdom they were proud to call their friend.