The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South - Alex Heard (2010)
2. A MAN WASN’T BORN TO LIVE FOREVER
There’s an undated picture of Willie McGee that looks like it was probably taken at the time of his arrest in November 1945. It was shot by a now deceased Laurel man who sometimes photographed accused criminals in hopes of selling images to a newspaper or magazine. His brother, who held on to it, says there’s no record of when it was made. But, notably, McGee is dressed in street clothes: a checked jacket with dark sleeves and pointed collars, and, under the jacket, a light-colored shirt, unbuttoned at the neck. The picture shows a handsome young man with smooth skin, piercing eyes, a strong jaw, and a broad nose. He’s standing in front of a cell door, staring into the camera with a serious but calm expression on his face. If the photo is from 1945, he looks remarkably composed for a man in his position.
McGee would have known what was in store if he fell into the hands of a lynch mob. As a black man accused of raping a white woman in Mississippi in 1945, he would, at the very least, have been killed. At worst, he would have been tortured by an enraged gang of white men who might have taken their time before finishing him off with a knife, gun, or rope. There weren’t nearly as many lynchings in the South in the 1940s as there had been in the period between 1890 and 1930, but they still happened, and they could still be medieval in their intensity.
As McGee may have known, there had been a gruesome double lynching in 1942 near Shubuta, a small town about thirty-five miles northeast of Laurel. There, two fourteen-year-olds named Charles Lang and Ernest Green were taken from jail and killed by a mob for allegedly trying to assault a thirteen-year-old white girl. They were found hanging from a rusty old bridge over the Chickasawhay River, but they’d been mutilated first. Madison S. Jones, an NAACP field operative who filed a report on the incident, wrote that the boys’ “re-productive organs were cut off. Pieces of flesh had been jerked away from their bodies with pliers and one boy had a screwdriver rammed down his throat so that it protruded from his neck.”
In an earlier era, McGee’s chances of living long after a rape charge would have been slim to none. But by the mid-1940s, he had a reasonable shot of surviving to face trial, because local and state law enforcement officials often made serious efforts to keep potential lynching victims out of mob hands. A lot depended on who was governor at the time, and McGee was arrested during the term of a chief executive who cared about law and order: Thomas Bailey.
Still, the prospect of a trial couldn’t have been much comfort. In many cases from that era, the court proceedings were only formalities, with all-white, all-male juries virtually guaranteed to deliver guilty verdicts and death penalties when a black person was accused of raping or killing a white, whether the evidence was strong or weak. Civil rights people in the North had a rueful term for it: “legal lynching.”
A typical legal-lynching episode occurred in early 1934, in the northwest Mississippi town of Hernando, when three black men from Memphis—Isaac Howard, Johnny Jones, and Ernest McGehee—were tried on charges of robbery and the alleged sexual assault of a seventeen-year-old white schoolgirl. Like McGee, they were hurried off to Jackson after their arrest and kept there until it was time for them to appear in court. When they were delivered to Hernando on February 12, 400 National Guard troops were assembled to provide safe escort. “Rifles, sidearms, grenades, gas guns and gas masks were issued to them,” the Associated Press reported, “and they were accompanied by engineers who will be available to build barricades.”
Even with all that firepower—and barbed-wire tangles circling the courthouse—several locals tried to force their way in. One old man sliced his hand on the wire and was asked by a reporter if he’d cut himself accidentally. “Hell, no,” he said. “We want those Negroes.”
Inside, the prisoners were kept in a vault until they emerged just long enough to plead guilty. They were taken back to Jackson in a steel-barred train; one month later, they were returned to Hernando for hanging. (Mississippi’s portable electric chair wasn’t put into use until 1940.) Even then, it was necessary to have a 200-man guard on duty and circulate false stories about their arrival time.
Were these men guilty of anything? They might have been, but it’s hard to know since the judicial process was so corrupted. As they died on the gallows, they issued a stream of statements, prayers, and confessions that sounded like scripted warnings to members of their race. Their last words were widely quoted in Mississippi newspapers, including the Laurel Leader-Call, which, coincidentally, ran a front-page story about the execution on the same day Troy and Willette Hawkins got married. The message was clear: Don’t touch white women, or this, most definitely, will happen to you.
“Tell others of my kind never to attack none who don’t belong to them,” Howard said. “Tell ’em never to do that. I believe in my God—goodbye.”
“I want to warn others of my race,” said Jones. “I wish some of them were here to see how we go. It’s awful.”
Though, technically, these men weren’t lynched, they took a very fast ride to oblivion: only eighty days passed between their arrests and deaths. This brand of speedy retribution is what McGee was looking at, and in early December, when state troopers brought him back to Laurel for his arraignment, he didn’t look calm anymore.
The crime that put McGee in the crosshairs happened sometime after 4 a.m. on November 2. At first, any details about what took place were slow in coming, skimpy, and controlled by the police chief, sheriff, and local prosecutors.
The Leader-Call wrote about the alleged rape the same day it occurred, in a short item headlined “Forcible Entry, Criminal Assault, Reported.” The victim wasn’t named, just described. She was a white woman living with her family on South Magnolia Street, and she’d been taken away to recover at a hospital in “a nearby city.” (The story didn’t say, but it was Hattiesburg.) She was raped by an attacker who threatened her life if she made a sound.
This story and a follow-up said there was a suspect, but it wasn’t Willie McGee. The first man arrested was a thirty-four-year-old laborer named Floyd Nix, who was described as “a former employe [sic] of the woman.” Sheriff Luther Hill and Chief of Police Wayne Valentine had rounded up several black men for questioning and released them that day. With Nix, they felt confident enough that he was their man that they sent him to Jackson for safekeeping. The reports never said what evidence this decision was based on.
On Saturday, November 3, everything changed with the arrest of a man identified in the Leader-Call as “Willie Magee, 30-year-old Laurel negro.” The paper spelled his name wrong but got his age right: McGee was born on November 4, 1915, so he turned thirty the day after he was picked up. He was arrested in Hattiesburg on a larceny charge, stemming from unauthorized use of a truck owned by his employer, the Laurel Wholesale Grocery Company. The report correctly said—though police initially denied—that McGee had confessed to the rape after being taken back to Laurel from Hattiesburg. He didn’t stay in Laurel long. Like Nix, he was taken to Jackson for protection and questioning. During all this time—and for the next thirty days—he was held without benefit of counsel.
One week later came another major development: “Magee” had confessed in writing, to Jones County Attorney Albert Easterling, who took down his statement at the Hinds County jail. In addition, the Leader-Callreported, physical evidence and fingerprints had been gathered and “sent to Washington to the Federal Bureau of Investigation laboratory for analysis.”
There were no further details, but they wouldn’t be long in coming, since the trial, predictably, got fast-tracked. The next circuit-court session in Laurel wasn’t scheduled until February 1946, but the presiding judge, F. Burkitt Collins, didn’t want to wait. He ordered a special session starting on the first Monday in December, with the trial to be held at the circuit-court building in downtown Laurel.
In some ways, Laurel wasn’t a typical Mississippi town—it had a different backstory than many Magnolia State communities, and, in 1945, a very different feel, because it was a highly industrialized place in an agricultural state. The population was 31,000—with whites outnumbering blacks roughly 65 to 35—and there was a booster spirit in the air before and after World War II, with a sense that growth and expanding wealth were the city’s inevitable destiny.
The resources that mattered most were pine trees and oil, not cotton. Laurel was in the heart of south Mississippi’s Piney Woods region, a vast sea of trees that covered all or part of twenty-five counties. The woods were originally inhabited by Choctaws and Chickasaws; by the early 1800s, white settlers originally from South Carolina were coming in to what was then the Mississippi Territory, settling on lands that the Choctaws ceded in treaties with the United States. Jones County was founded in 1826, nine years after Mississippi entered the Union. It was a place of small settlements and subsistence farming, not of the big plantations associated with the Mississippi Delta, the flat, rich-soiled agricultural crescent in the northwest part of the state.
Consequently, Jones was never a major slaveholding county—there were only about 400 slaves there just before the start of the Civil War—and this distinction was, and still is, significant to the area’s lore and self-image. Jones was home to a sizable amount of pro-Union feeling; during the war this gave rise to a guerrilla movement that was later mythologized into something nobler than it really was. The renegades were led by a Confederate deserter named Newton Knight, whose men were elusive because they knew the woods and rivers like no one else. Their motives were a mix of Union loyalty, a desire not to get shot fighting on behalf of plantation owners, and the freebooting spirit of frontier adventurers.
The legend, which isn’t quite true, is that Jones County formally seceded from the Confederacy, reestablishing itself as a Union stronghold called the Free State of Jones. James Street, a novelist from Lumberton, Mississippi, fictionalized the Knight story in a 1942 novel called Tap Roots, which Universal made into a motion picture in 1948.
Tap Roots is an interesting old book, but it’s also a little duller than it could have been, because Street softpedaled the most compelling theme connected to Newton Knight: interracial sex. Knight had children with both his white wife, Serena, and (probably) with an ex-slave named Rachel. Children of Newton and Rachel intermarried, starting a line of “white negroes” who were a fixture of the Piney Woods. One of Rachel’s great-grandsons, Davis Knight, was fated for a starring role in a Jones County courtroom the same year the Tap Roots movie was released. In 1948, after marrying a local white girl named Junie Lee Spradley, Knight was charged with breaking Mississippi’s law against mixed-race marriage.
Laurel wasn’t founded until 1882, when the building of the New Orleans and Northeastern railroad—later acquired by the Southern Railway—created a demand for timber to complete the line. The first mill was opened that year by a man named John Kamper, who later sold out to Midwesterners whose investments changed Laurel from outpost to town: George and Silas Gardiner, and Charles Eastman. In April 1891, they, along with Lauren Eastman, began Jones County operations of the Eastman Gardiner lumber company, a major Jones County employer. The mills were why Willie McGee lived in Laurel to begin with. He was born in the country near Pachuta, but his father relocated to Laurel after World War I. Jasper Sr. turned up in the Laurel city directory in 1922, as a laborer at Eastman Gardiner. In the 1936 directory, he was still with the company. Willie’s brother, Jasper, was listed as a student, and Willie was listed as an unspecified laborer. Their address was “64 3d Red Line.” The red line was an area of red-colored company housing.
By 1939 the first-growth pines had been gone for years, but Laurel was getting more product out of less wood with a boost from science. A special edition of the Leader-Call called Laurel “the Chemurgic City,” explaining that this coined word conveyed the magic that took place when technology, applied to agriculture, yielded products that had never existed before.
Since “chemurgy” is not in the dictionary as yet, Laurel feels she must act the part of Noah Webster:
Pronounce it thus:
Chem-urg’-y: accent on the second syllable. (Kem-urg’-y.)
Meaning: A movement to find industrial uses for products of the soil.
The prime example was the Masonite Corporation, an important Laurel employer—founded in 1926—whose economic might earned an eight-column headline in the Leader-Call supplement: “Chemurgic Development of Masonite Rivals Aladdin’s Story.” The Masonite process was invented by a transplanted West Virginian named William H. Mason. It involved taking scrap wood pieces and using high-pressure steam to reduce them to wood fiber that could be reconstituted into sturdy boards and panels.
Perfecting this involved some hard-knock experimentation. In one early attempt, Mason crammed wood chips into a homemade cannon, plugged it, steam-heated the contents to 800 degrees, and knocked off the plug with a pole, releasing a tremendous explosion of wet, wood-fiber shrapnel. A separate pressing process formed the fibers into a solid mass that was surprisingly strong. As a result, Masonite was good for more than just paneling and insulation. During World War II, many of the army tanks made at the American Car & Foundry plant in Berwick, Pennsylvania, were lined with two thicknesses of Masonite boards.
The various things that made Laurel unusual—the romanticized history, the modern industry, and an early influx of Yankee cash—were a source of local pride, and for many they fed a belief that Jim Crow–era Laurel was an easier place for a black person to exist than was the Delta. “Bi-racial investment and philanthropy displayed by the city’s benefactors stood in stark contrast to the views of most white Mississippians,” David Stanton Key, a Laurel native, wrote in a 2001 master’s thesis on the city. “The…progressive outlook transcended traditional racial divisions and helped create a town of the ‘New South’ in the heart of the Piney Woods.”
This was true only up to a point, because Laurel in 1945 was still rigidly segregated, still ruled by the same sexual taboos and voting-rights suppression as any other Mississippi town. Even so, there were tangible differences, like the existence of the Oak Park Vocational High School, which stood out as one of the best schools in Mississippi in the 1930s through the 1950s, producing prominent graduates like opera singer Leontyne Price and Olympic long jumper Ralph Boston. To Cleveland Payne, who attended the school and wrote a history about it called The Oak Park Story, everything good about Laurel was embodied there.
“An affluent class of northern whites had become part of the fabric of community life and influenced greatly the character of the town by setting the tone for cultural values and aesthetic appreciation,” he wrote. “Too, a black middle class had emerged.” In 1928, with donations of land, money, and buildings from wealthy local philanthropists, Oak Park was opened as a school that gave eager, motivated black students a chance to aim high in both vocational and academic course work.
Boston, a 1957 graduate of Oak Park, shares Payne’s strong feelings about the school. “Oak Park was the lifeblood of everything,” he told me in a phone interview. “Everything that was African-American in Laurel revolved around it.” But he wasn’t so sure about Laurel’s exceptionalism. The main Oak Park building burned down in ‘57, and, in his opinion, “It was not spontaneous combustion. We were pretty sure that somebody set it afire.
“For quite a while,” he added, “I understand that Laurel was known as ‘liberal Laurel.’…But if you understand Laurel, you understand that Sam Bowers was from there. How liberal could you be if you have a man like that living there and who had a following there?”
Bowers, who wasn’t born in Laurel, was around during the tail end of the McGee case, but he made his mark at a later time: He was Mississippi’s most powerful Klan leader in the 1960s and the architect of the Philadelphia murders. Even so, Boston’s point applies just as well to the McGee era. It was true: Laurel was a different sort of town, the existence of Oak Park proved that. But when the McGee trial got going, New South Laurel suddenly became a very Old South place.
On December 3, when McGee was brought back to Jones County for his arraignment and plea, he was under protective armed guard, requested by the sheriff, Luther Hill, and provided by Governor Bailey. During his monthlong stint in Hinds County, nothing was published about what he said and did—or what was said and done to him. It must have been a stark experience, because McGee came home a transformed man, scared out of his wits and unable, or unwilling, to speak, even to his lawyers. From the time of his first trial until the end of his third—more than two years later—he would not utter a single intelligible word in public, and he gave every indication of having lost his mind.
“The negro arrived shortly after 3 o’clock under guard of approximately fifty state troopers,” the Leader-Call reported. “He was dressed in clothing similar to that worn by the guardsmen, including a helmet, and was chained. The officers had to drag him from the car and the prisoner was evidently either crazy or putting on a good act, say witnesses. He was shaking all over and jibbering, unable to answer intelligently the questions of the court.”
The guard detail arrived in three army trucks, “a reconnaissance car,” and a heavily armed jeep. The troopers were equipped with bayoneted rifles, machine guns, and tear gas. Outside the courthouse, men were arrayed at the entrances and on the lawn. Inside the big courtroom, which was kept breezy with help from windows and balconies on the south and north sides, deputies searched spectators for firearms before letting them in. The first three rows of benches were cleared to create a buffer between the people and the prisoner.
McGee’s lawyers were court-appointed locals, M. W. Boyd and Harry Koch, who didn’t want anything to do with the case and who weren’t experienced criminal defenders. The presiding judge was F. Burkitt Collins, a member of a pioneering Jones County family who had served as a combat infantryman in France during World War I. Collins started practicing law in 1915 in Ellisville—along with Laurel, the second of Jones County’s two county seats—and he was elected to the circuit-court bench for the first time in 1940. He was middle-aged when the McGee case started, a gray-haired, thin-lipped man with sharp features and a reputation for being, as the Leader-Call once put it, “quiet, studious, and unassuming, possessed of that rare quality known as judicial temperament.”
Everybody knew the McGee case was combustible—the Leader-Call labeled it “the strongest charge” of Collins’s career—and that first morning, speaking to prospective jurymen, the judge gave a speech that was intended not just for the townspeople in the room, but for anybody outside who might be harboring creatively violent ideas.
“The great war is over and our country is saved,” he said. “It is a country of law, governed by law, a law under which all are considered equal. We need bow to none. The only majesty we recognize is ‘His Majesty, the Law.’”
Soon enough, he got to the point: The trial and punishment were the exclusive business of him, the lawyers, and the jury. Spectators and other interested parties were not to interfere. “We are called today to see that the law is properly administered, to see that those who have transgressed are brought to justice,” he said. “We cannot do this by taking the law into our own hands, and running over the law. We must follow the law in every particular. We must do this, whether it suits us or not….”
Calling any case “the strongest charge” of Collins’s career was saying something, since he had been involved in two of the most famous courtroom spectacles in Laurel history. He served as a defense attorney in the first of them, the sensational 1935 trial of a local woman named Ouida Keeton, a thirty-three-year-old who was accused of murdering her mother, Daisy Keeton—killing her inside the home they shared and then chopping her up and dumping the parts in the woods.
Some of the parts, that is. People called it “the legs murder” because the only remains ever found were a pair of hefty female hips and two thighs. The legs turned up on January 21, 1935, wrapped in old sugar sacks. They were spotted by a black tenant farmer named Don Evans Jr., who was out hunting rabbits in the woods of Jasper County, about fourteen miles north of Laurel. Evans was terrified that he’d be blamed—and lynched—but later that day he told a white man what happened, and together they flagged down a motorist who notified the police.
Policeman Wayne Valentine, a central figure in the McGee case, helped solve the mystery and later co-wrote a true-crime article about it called “Unraveling the Ouida Keeton ‘Legs’ Murder.” Step one was identifying the remains; all the medical examiner could say was that the victim was probably over thirty-five, probably weighed around 155 pounds, had given birth, and appeared to be “a woman of refinement.”
The first break came on the 24th, when a farmer north of town reported having seen a “highly excited woman” in a red car coming up his farmhouse lane before turning around. He recalled seeing a “large bundle” in the car. Newspaper coverage brought forth another witness, a wreckerman who’d been called to pull a red Willys-Knight sedan out of the mud on the morning of the 21st. He told police it belonged to Ouida Keeton.
Questioned at home, Ouida said her mother was in New Orleans. Police Chief J. E. Brown arrested her after spotting blood on a fender of the car. Valentine found bloodstains on the floor in front of the hearth, which had been vigorously scrubbed, along with a stained iron poker and cleaving instruments in the kitchen.
Pressed, Ouida offered a preposterous story, saying her mother had been kidnapped while they were driving together in the country. Eventually she confessed, shocking the town by naming an accomplice: W. M. Carter, a prominent sixty-seven-year-old Laurel businessman with whom Ouida was having an out-of-wedlock romance. Ouida said Carter killed Daisy because Daisy objected to their relationship. He ordered her to dispose of the legs while he took care of the upper half.
Carter was brought in and questioned (he denied everything), arrested, and taken to Jackson, because there was concern that even he, a white man, might get lynched thanks to the barbarity of the crime. They were tried separately. Ouida, represented by Collins, pleaded insanity, and she came to court every day in a wheelchair, presenting the image of a swooning invalid who had lost her mind. But the evidence was overwhelming and included an extremely graphic exhibit: the legs themselves, which were displayed to the jury inside a small, gray-painted box with a glass cover.
Before the jury went out, Collins delivered an eloquent speech that pinned the blame on Carter and asked for mercy for the second person whose life he had destroyed: Ouida. Carter, he said, had killed Daisy with a poker and then forced Ouida to be his accomplice. Ouida was like a “mighty oak that stands in the forest, unshakened and unmoved,” while Carter was a malevolent wind that roared in to knock her down. “She saw this dominating mind take this poker and destroy the life of the best friend she ever had,” he said. “Why wouldn’t it destroy her mind?”
The jury didn’t go for it. Ouida was found guilty and sentenced to life at the state prison at Parchman. She was later transferred to the state mental hospital, where she lived out her days. Carter was tried twice but he got off, one reason being that the portion of the body he was responsible for never turned up. Forever after, many people believed he dumped Daisy’s torso in the Gulf of Mexico.
Over time, Ouida Keeton became Laurel’s version of Lizzie Borden: ghastly but quaint. Eudora Welty, a connoisseur of Mississippi murder stories, loved to titillate friends with the bloody details. Even now, the case is still a guilty pleasure in Jones County. If you’re ever in the courthouse, and you ask politely, the women there might show you a tucked-away folder that contains photographs of Daisy’s legs, along with an original copy of Ouida’s mail-order course in butchering.
However, there never was, and never will be, any nostalgia attached to another famous case Collins played a part in, this time as the judge: the October 1942 lynching of a convicted African-American killer named Howard Wash. Collins presided over Wash’s trial and over a subsequent grand jury that refused to indict the men accused of lynching him. The jury’s inaction opened the door to an early attempt by the federal government to step in on a Mississippi lynching case, prosecuting it as a criminal violation of Wash’s right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. At McGee’s first trial, when Collins talked about the perils of “taking the law into our own hands,” it was probably the Wash case, with all its associated headaches, that he had in mind.
Wash was a middle-aged tenant laborer who worked for a white dairy farmer named Clint Welborn. Early in the morning on May 18, 1942, the two had an argument that apparently started because Wash overslept. Welborn yelled at him not to bother getting up—he was fired.
Nobody saw what happened next, but several people heard it from their beds. Wash’s fourteen-year-old son, Howard Jr., testified that he heard the sound of a metal milk bucket slamming into something solid—“four licks,” he recalled. Welborn’s daughter, Patricia, said she heard three blows and a “peculiar gurgling.” Wash went back to his house, changed his shoes, and calmly told his son and fifteen-year-old daughter, Frozine, that they would have to fend for themselves. Their mother was gone—at the trial, it wasn’t made clear why, or where she was. Wash walked off and eluded capture for six weeks. He was arrested seventy miles away in the south Mississippi town of Poplarville.
At the trial, Wash claimed self-defense during brief testimony that was halting, mumbling, and hard to believe. Yes, he said, he’d been late for work, but Welborn went into a rage, cursed him, and raised a shovel to strike him. He used the bucket to block the shovel and he hit Welborn once, by accident. Though Wash claimed he didn’t realize he’d struck Welborn fatally—he lived for two more days—he ran away because he was scared of what the Welborn family would do in revenge.
The prosecution insisted he was lying. A doctor who treated Welborn said his skull was “broken…in many various and sundry directions,” indicating a purposeful beating. Wash was convicted on October 16. In a surprise development, the jurors didn’t give him the death penalty. Instead he was sentenced to life in prison.
For friends and relatives of Clint Welborn, this manslaughter-style sentence wasn’t enough. At around 1 a.m. on the 17th, a group of roughly fifty men showed up at the Laurel jail and demanded to be let in. Luther Holder, a deputy sheriff and jailer, was asleep inside, along with his three children and two other deputies. He phoned the sheriff, J. Press Reddoch, who rushed over and tried to talk the mob into dispersing. They pushed him aside and forced Holder to unlock a heavy door that sealed off the cell areas. Wash was taken away just after 2 a.m.; he was found the next morning hanging from the “Welborn bridge,” which spanned a creek near the dairy farm.
Wash’s lynching was one of three in south Mississippi that month. Around 1:30 a.m. on October 12, the teenagers Lang and Green had been killed near Shubuta, under mysterious circumstances that are still impossible to sort out. There’s no reliable account of the events that got the boys lynched. There was little public investigation at the time, and the newspaper stories that appeared offered conflicting details.
But a story in the Chicago Defender, a prominent African-American newspaper, may have come closest to being accurate. Six months after the incident, the paper published a report by a black journalist named Enoc P. Waters, who traveled to Shubuta to piece together what he could. Lang and Green, he was told by local blacks, were poor, barely literate boys who worked hard doing odd jobs and collecting scrap metal and rubber. On October 6, a Tuesday, they were scavenging under a concrete highway bridge south of town when a girl named “Martin” walked by on her way home from school. The three apparently knew one another and started talking. A passing white driver, apparently a male, saw them and proceeded to tell the girl’s father that she was being pursued by Lang in an inappropriate way.
What happened next is unknowable: Some accounts said Lang and Green freely confessed to attempted rape at their arraignment; some said they were chasing the girl around harmlessly, as any playmates would. The boys were arrested and taken to jail at Quitman, the county seat. The next few days passed uneventfully. But on Monday, after midnight, a mob went in, threw a blanket over the jailer’s head, and took Lang and Green off to their horrifying deaths.
The Wash, Lang, and Green killings were all covered nationally, although more so in African-American papers and the Daily Worker than in mainstream publications like the New York Times. In the black press and on the left, there was intense interest and a call for a coordinated federal response. The Daily Worker reported on the creation of a new National Emergency Committee to Stop Lynching, chaired by left-wing New York congressman Vito Marcantonio, who vowed to keep pressure on until the lynchers were identified and arrested.
There was a reasonable chance of that happening, since Mississippi’s governor at the time, Paul Johnson Sr., promised to do something and seemed to mean it. He publicly criticized the local sheriff for not notifying him about Lang and Green’s arrest—Johnson would have moved them to Hinds County immediately—called the lynchers murderers, and promised to hunt them down. After Wash was killed, Johnson sent a state guard contingent to Laurel to help maintain order while suspects were brought in and questioned. During that period, the scene around the Jones County Courthouse looked remarkably similar to the opening days of the McGee trial.
“The courtyard is bristling with soldiers, who, at the instigation of Judge Burkitt Collins, were sent here by Governor Johnson,” the Leader-Call reported. “Tear gas bombs, hand grenades and riot guns, bristling bayonets, are in readiness to cope with any trouble that may come up.”
The state’s effort produced five firm suspects in the Wash lynching but nothing on Lang and Green. Then, on October 20, it was reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation would help investigate the case, and that Johnson publicly welcomed its input. That was significant in 1942. To invite federal intrusion into a Mississippi criminal case with racial overtones was risky politics, but Johnson followed through. He told his own investigator, John Byrd, to share anything he knew with the FBI.
Bureau field agents from Jackson spent several days asking questions in Jones County, filing a thick report on November 4 that described the Wash lynching in great detail. Mack Lee Lewis, an African-American prisoner who was also in the Laurel jail on October 16, told the FBI that Wash seemed to know what was coming. Earlier in the evening, he said, Wash’s wife had visited him with a three-year-old child in her arms. “[Lewis] said he heard WASH say to her: ‘Well, a man wasn’t born to live forever,’” the report said. “Then he kissed his baby and told it goodbye. WASH lay down on the cot and never got up until they came after him.”
Somehow, every lawman in town failed to anticipate what Wash had easily intuited. “Officials had no indication of mob violence prior to the mob first endeavoring to enter the jail about 1 a.m.,” the report said. Jones County sheriff J. Press Reddoch was at home asleep when he got a call from the jail saying a mob had formed. Reddoch told FBI agents he loaded a rifle with sixteen hollow-point bullets, drove to the jail, stood in front of the crowd, and spent nearly half an hour urging them to disperse. “He appealed from a patriotic viewpoint,” the report said, “from a family viewpoint, and even requested the crowd to get on its knees and pray with him.”
Reportedly, a mob member told Reddoch the discussion could continue if he would put down his rifle. He handed it over to a colleague and was quickly grabbed and dragged out of the way. Later, Reddoch vowed that he would find and arrest all the members of the mob, but as Byrd reported, he soon got bodychecked by powerful men in Laurel. The morning after the lynching, Reddoch had already arrested three men when he was summoned to lunch with a trio of unnamed businessmen at Laurel’s Pinehurst Hotel.
“BYRD later returned to the sheriff’s office and found the sheriff there,” the report said. “…[T]he sheriff seemed to have completely reversed his prior decision to arrest all members of the mob.” As he told Byrd, “The local business men advised me to go slow on this.”
There were no state criminal indictments in the Wash lynching, but federal charges were filed in Jackson in early 1943 against five men, including Luther Holder, the jailer, and two relatives of Welborn’s, Allen Welborn Pryor and Nathaniel T. Shotts. The charges against Shotts and another man were later dropped for lack of evidence.
In April, the three remaining defendants were tried before a twelve-man federal jury in Hattiesburg. The defense, led by a prominent Hattiesburg lawyer named Earle Wingo, stressed the issue of government intrusion, arguing that the FBI’s role represented unwarranted interference with a state-level judicial proceeding. Prior to the verdict, Judge Sidney Mize reminded jurors that the case wasn’t about states’ rights, but about whether the prosecution had presented enough evidence to warrant a conviction. Whatever factors the jurors weighed, the result was a rebuke to the federal government: All three men were acquitted.
McGee’s first trial was held on December 6, a Thursday. The prosecution, led by Albert Easterling and District Attorney Homer Pittman, had had plenty of time to prepare and, in fact, presented a case that offered more substance than later critics cared to admit. But the trial wasn’t remotely fair, since the defense was nullified by handicaps that no judge should have allowed.
It took place in a town full of angry people who wanted to kill the defendant, a man who was so frightened that he apparently couldn’t communicate or function. His lawyers, Boyd and Koch, weren’t given any time to put a case together, so they had no witnesses to speak of, and their cross-examinations were almost nonexistent. Even so, they managed to do a few things right, filing motions related to issues like sanity and venue that would give them (or somebody else) grounds for appeal later on.
Once again, McGee was brought to town under armed guard, dressed in fatigues and wearing a helmet until he was offloaded from a military truck into the courthouse. A newspaper photographer snapped a picture of him inside the courtroom, capturing an expression of pure terror that gripped McGee during the entire trial. “He was trembling, wild-eyed, unsteady on his feet and jibbered continually and inaudibly throughout the day,” the Leader-Callsaid. “He showed no recognition of his mother when she took the stand, and none of her when she prayed over him….”
The first order of business was a sanity hearing, to determine whether McGee was mentally fit to be tried. Boyd told Judge Collins that, while he was no expert on mental health, something was wrong with McGee, because he and Koch had been unable to get him to speak at all.
“It becomes our painful duty to announce that we cannot get one word in the world out of this man,” Boyd said. “I do not state what is the matter with him. I never saw him to know him until Monday morning. If I ever saw him I didn’t know it, I probably have, he has been here all these years, was raised here, but we take him in the room and try to get something out of him and can’t. We get his mother in there and she can’t get a word out of him, and she prays over him…. Of course, he looks more to me like a wild hyena than anything else. I don’t know why, and I’m not saying why. He may be sane and may not be. I’m not a mental specialist.”
During Keeton’s trial, Collins was given time to solicit expert opinion on her mental state. But McGee’s sanity hearing had to happen immediately, using only the witnesses at hand. None were psychiatrists or psychologists, and most had already prejudged McGee as being both sane and guilty. Horace McRae, Laurel’s postmaster, said McGee had worked for him and his brothers for several years, and that he saw McGee in the Hinds County jail during his monthlong incarceration. He agreed with Homer Pittman’s suggestion that his behavior in court was some of kind of “horse play.”
Robert B. Taylor, a captain in the guard unit that transported McGee, had watched him at the jail too. He said McGee responded to orders “just like a mule heading for his stall when you turn him aloose.”
“Do you think he is feigning over there now, or what we call horse play?” Pittman asked.
“He is putting on a pretty good act, sir.”
The Reverend M. L. Davis, a preacher from Jackson who had conducted a worship service with Hinds County prisoners, said McGee seemed to comprehend the words of the hymns they sang. “On…the song of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’—I am a vocalist myself…I noticed the movement of the cords of his throat and the movement of his lips as he hummed and sang part of the song….”
“From your observation there,” Pittman said, “tell the court and jury whether or not he knew what was going on then.”
“Sure, he knew what was going on.”
The only witness to take McGee’s side was his mother, Bessie, who said she’d seen him upset in the past, but not like this. “I never have seen him in that shape before and I been knowing him ever since he been in the world,” she said. “…I know he is easy to get upset, especially if white folks are around him. If you scold him the least bit he goes all over himself, but I never seen him in the shape he’s in now—not like he is now.
“To my notion,” she said, “he been over there in jail and just sat there and stayed worried until he just about done lost his mind. That’s my notion.”
Pittman wasn’t interested in her notions. “Aunty, you say you don’t know yourself?”
“No, sir, I don’t know myself.”
“That’s the truth about it, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir, when a fellow don’t know, he just don’t know.”
McGee was pronounced sane and fit for trial.
Willette Hawkins was put on the stand first, after Judge Collins, honoring her request, cleared the courtroom of spectators and reporters. There was no description in the local newspaper stories about her demeanor, clothing, or physical appearance, but the jury must have been struck by how thin she was. Mrs. Hawkins was five feet eight inches tall, but she weighed only around ninety-two pounds at the time of the rape, a result of chronically poor health that, she said, had nagged her since she’d been married.
She was thirty-two when she testified the first time. She had dark hair and beautiful eyes—big, dark irises under narrow, arching eyebrows. In a photo taken around the time of her high school graduation, she looked happy, pretty, and perfectly relaxed. Three children, a dozen years, and the strain of recent weeks had probably added a few stress lines to her appearance.
Pittman started with basic questions, and Mrs. Hawkins mentioned that she’d resided in Laurel most of her life, not counting “the two years we were in Indiana.” Pittman didn’t ask when those two years were—as far as he knew, there was no need, but, much later, that information would turn out to be important. Instead, he moved straight to her account of the rape. She described the circumstances of that night—the sick baby, Troy’s retreat to a back room—along with the layout of her bedroom at the front of the house, her various actions before falling asleep, and the moment when she woke up and sensed that somebody was in the room with her.
“I heard something crawling along by the bed whispering, and I thought, ‘My goodness, what could this be? Has Troy lost his mind?’ Because no other man had ever been in the house and the doors were locked, I felt sure, and I just never dreamed of such a thing, just imagine. And I smelled whiskey, or I smelled beer or something, and I said, ‘That’s not Troy,’ and I reached out and I said, ‘Oh, Troy, what do you want?’ and I put my hand on a bushy Negro head….”
She went on, saying that she saw the man on his hands and knees but couldn’t see his face. She reached for a bedside lamp but he told her not to bother—he’d broken the electrical line at the back of the house. She asked what he wanted and he told her in the crudest terms.
“Miss, Miss, I come for you,” he said. “I want your pussy and I am going to have it.” When she said “no, no,” he told her to shut up or he would cut her throat.
“I was just scared to death, that’s all, not so much for myself,” she said. “If he had killed me, I never would have felt it, because I was just petrified. But I had that baby, my two-year-old baby girl in the bed with me, and in the next room my two little girls, one eight and one ten…and I didn’t know what he would do to them or what he would do to the baby, and he said ‘shut your mouth’ every time I called Troy. I called him, not loud, because I didn’t want to wake the children up in the next room, and I didn’t know but what he had already killed Troy. And when I called Troy, he said, ‘He’s back there asleep, Miss.’ I said, ‘Why did you come here?” And he said, ‘I came to fuck you.’ Well, then, I thought, ‘Well, if that’s all I can take it.’”
Pittman said, “Mrs. Hawkins, he told you what he came for, and then did he rape you?”
“Yes, and all the time he was there, he was talking, talking, whispering to me, telling me what he wanted to do and what he was going to do, and he did it, he did it all.”
A few questions later, Pittman asked if it were true that she was menstruating that night. “I was,” she said. “It was right about the end of my period. I was not menstruating a great deal, but I had to take that off, and he mentioned that.”
“He mentioned that?”
“He said, ‘You lied to me, why did you lie to me? Why did you tell me that lie?’ And he was laying up there, just as if he was—”
“He finally, though, penetrated your female organs with his male organ? He did that?”
Toward the end, she described a vow the rapist extracted from her once he was through. “He said, ‘Will you promise me—all I want now is one thing. I want you to promise me you will never tell it.’” She agreed, but he emphasized how serious he was, threatening her again.
“If you never tell it, things will be all right,” he said. “[O]therwise, I will cut your head off. I won’t just cut your throat, I will cut your head off.”
She promised and he finally left. Moving silently, she found her way back to Troy’s room, woke him, and said, “Troy, get up, wake up. The worst thing in the world that ever happened has happened to me.”
There were only two other witnesses whose testimony touched on the rape itself: Troy Hawkins and Dr. Grady Cook, a Hattiesburg physician. It would be said in coming years that, suspiciously, Mrs. Hawkins was never examined by a doctor. But unless Dr. Cook was lying on the stand, that was untrue. He owned a small private hospital in Hattiesburg called the South Mississippi Infirmary, which is where Mrs. Hawkins was kept under sedation for a week. On the stand, he sounded credible, reporting what he observed and nothing more. A pelvic exam, he said, had revealed “some minor, slight abrasions of the lining of the vagina.”
“To the layman that would be what we call bruises?” Easterling asked.
“Scratches, you might say. Little pieces of tissue were scratched off of the surface.” Dr. Cook said he made a slide and saw live spermatozoa, but he had no way of knowing where they originated. For all he knew, they could have come from Troy. He stopped short of declaring that Mrs. Hawkins had been raped. “I know that some trauma had occurred in the vagina,” he said. “I don’t know how the trauma occurred nor how the cells got there.”
Troy testified too, describing the moment when Willette woke him up. In this trial, neither of them said much about what they did immediately after Troy came to—that happened in later trials—but he did touch on the mysterious matter of the lights, which weren’t working when he got up. As he explained, a single wire came in from a back-alley utility pole, was fastened to the eave of the house, dropped down, and went through the edge of the siding boards into a switch box.
“Where was the wire broken?” Pittman asked.
“Where it fastened to the wire going to the alley,” Troy said. “It was the little short wire that went down to the house.”
The point was that this wire was something an intruder could break rather than cut, and that a man on an impromptu mission to commit a rape could have simply jimmied it. He wouldn’t have had to think ahead to bring a wire-cutting tool.
That was it in terms of proving that a rape had happened, and the weaknesses in the case were obvious. Mrs. Hawkins hadn’t seen the rapist’s face—all she knew was that he was black and that he smelled like alcohol. Despite the Leader-Call story that said evidence had been shipped to an FBI lab, no forensic evidence was introduced that tied any individual to the crime. There was a confession, but anybody familiar with Mississippi justice had to figure that beatings and coercion came into play.
The remainder of the prosecution’s case consisted of testimony from eleven witnesses, including two African-American friends of McGee. The prosecution used them to lay out a circumstantial case that McGee was drunk that night, had lost money gambling, and appeared to be in the vicinity at the time of the rape.
After Troy Hawkins, the next witness was Harold Elliot, a white manager with the Laurel Wholesale Grocery Company. Elliot said that, as of Thursday, November 1, McGee had been working there for only four days as a delivery driver. He was driving a “1941 ton-and-a-half Ford truck with a stake body” with a sign on the side that said LAUREL WHOLESALE GROCERY. After his rounds on Thursday, McGee didn’t come back in the evening. Elliot said he next saw him at 6:10 a.m. on Friday, in the company parking lot, asleep in the truck cab.
Tal Porter, a black employee of the company, testified that he saw McGee that morning just after 7 a.m., near a bus station.
“I asked him where he was going,” Porter said, “and he said he had to run to the house a minute, and I turned around and said, ‘You haven’t messed up none of the boss’s money have you?’ And he said, “No, I’ll be back in a few minutes.’” He didn’t come back, so Elliot called Wayne Valentine to report the theft of company cash.
Where had McGee been? Two acquaintances, Bill Barnes and George Walker, testified that they’d been with him during a long night of driving, drinking, and gambling. Barnes said that on Thursday afternoon he’d helped McGee do some unloading before they knocked off and bought a half-pint of bootleg whiskey in Laurel. Soon they hit the highway, heading west and driving around in the vicinity of small towns like Hot Coffee, Mt. Olive, Mize, and Collins. They were looking for McGee’s “daddy-in-law,” Joe Payton, and his brother-in-law, Johnny Payton. Barnes said they made two more stops to buy whiskey and a fourth when they returned to Laurel after 11 p.m.
At 11:20 p.m., at a cafe on Pine Street, they ran into George Walker, a Masonite employee who was “eating lunch” after his 3–11 shift. They drove to a house in a black part of Laurel called Queensburg and found a game.
“Did you gamble with Willie that night?” Easterling asked.
“Did he have any money?”
“Yes, sir, he had money. After he got broke he said, ‘George, lend me some money until tonight. I had $15.35 of the company’s money.’” Walker gave him a few bucks and they went to a house in “the K.C.”—the K.C. Bottom, a tough neighborhood near the railroad tracks—where he won some of his cash back. Walker walked home by himself at 3:00. Barnes said McGee dropped him near his house at 3:45. McGee then drove up Masonite Drive and back toward town.
Boyd cross-examined Barnes, asking several inconclusive questions about a woman named Hettie or Hattie Johnson. According to Barnes, her house at 424 East Oak Street was the last place they’d gambled that night.
Nobody saw McGee after that. But two people, both white, said they saw a truck that fit the description of the Laurel Wholesale Grocery vehicle. Rose Marie Imbragulio, a young woman who lived with her parents a block away from the Hawkins home, was up, as usual, by 4:30, getting ready to go to work at her father’s business. On her way out, she said, she “heard a lot of noise before I opened the door, and when I opened the door, I saw the truck….” She didn’t see the person driving it or the company name on the side, only that it had “a built-up body.”
Paul Britton, who worked the night shift at a filling station on Ellisville Boulevard, a main drag parallel to Magnolia Street, said he saw a “Laurel Wholesale Grocery truck, stake body” go by at a few minutes past 5:00. But it was too dark to see the driver.
Much of the case hinged on these two sightings, but the bottom line was that nobody inside or near the Hawkins home was able to positively identify McGee as the man at the scene.
McGee was arrested on Saturday, November 3, at around 2:40 p.m. in downtown Hattiesburg. Based on Elliot’s phone call, Valentine had put out a bulletin that went all over Mississippi and into Louisiana. Hattiesburg policeman Hugh Herring testified that he and a patrolman named E. C. Harris were parked on South Main Street when they saw a man who matched McGee’s description.
They followed him on foot for a few paces and then Harris sneaked up and quietly said, “Willie.” McGee jumped, so they grabbed him and took him in. Both Herring and Hattiesburg police chief M. M. Little testified that McGee looked scared, like a man who had something to hide.
“I told Willie what he was charged with and told him Mr. Valentine would be down after him in a very few minutes,” Little said, “and he swallowed two or three times and said, ‘Boss, they got me wrong,’ and perspiration popped out on him, on his face. And I asked him what he was so hot about and he says, ‘Boss, it’s hot back here,’ so I went back to the office and in a few minutes a trusty, a negro boy, came back and reported that this boy was trying to break out of jail….” McGee, he said, was caught clawing at heavy mesh wire on the window of his cell.
Valentine testified next. He began by describing the scene at the Hawkins home on the morning of the crime. After getting a call at 5:30 a.m., he went to the house and saw signs that someone had gone in through a side window. He said the lights were working by the time he arrived. He didn’t say why he came to suspect McGee, only that he’d pursued “every lead I could get hold of” and “finally, I run into this lead on Willie McGee.” After talking to McGee’s employer and getting a report that he had stolen “a zoot suit” from “a negro house,” he put out his bulletin. He said he’d known McGee for more than fifteen years and had never had trouble with him before.
When the call came from Hattiesburg, Valentine drove down with two other officers, Jack Anderson and Jeff Montgomery. Inside the jail, Valentine ordered McGee to drop his pants so he could look at his underwear. “I examined the shorts he had on, and the shorts had what I call blood,” he said. His belief was that McGee’s genitals were stained with Mrs. Hawkins’s menstrual blood, but he never had the blood matched in a lab.
In Valentine’s account—which would be challenged by the defense in the years ahead—McGee confessed voluntarily when they got back to Laurel. At first, he said, McGee reversed the chronology of his whereabouts, saying he’d gambled in Laurel until 2:30 and then cruised around in the country until 6:00.
“I told Willie that I wanted him to tell me the truth,” Valentine said. “If he was the one that done it, just tell me the truth and we would know then—no one was going to harm him, nobody was going to lay a hand on him, it was our duty to protect him and we were going to protect him. And he said he went into the house.”
The officers drove McGee to Magnolia Street, and he showed them where he’d parked. They drove to the next block, parked in front of the Hawkins home, and McGee pointed to two houses, saying, “It was one of those two.”
In McGee’s written confession, he corroborated the prosecution’s version of his movements. After dropping Barnes, he said, he drove back toward town, drove down Magnolia, and parked “near a stucco house.”
“I got out of the truck, walked back north on South Magnolia Street until I came to a house where I saw a light, and saw a white woman lying on the bed,” his confession said. “I then entered the front door and before I got into the room where the woman was, someone had turned out the lights. I then removed my outer clothes, or coveralls, and then removed my shoes, and got in bed with the woman. I then forcibly assaulted her, or had relations with her, and put on my clothes, [and] got in the truck….
“I don’t remember what I said to the woman, or what she said to me,” he said, “as I was drinking very heavy.”
When you look at the prosecution’s case and McGee’s confession, the dots don’t all connect. It’s a bit unclear from the confession whether McGee stopped and parked because he saw a light or if he parked first and then happened to see a light (and a woman) while walking up the street.
McGee doesn’t mention tampering with the lights, but Troy Hawkins said someone did. However, Valentine said the lights were on when he got there, and at the first trial there was no mention of anybody fixing them. (That would be rectified later, with testimony from a power company repairmen who said he’d performed the job.) Also, Valentine thought the intruder went in through an unlocked window. McGee said he walked through the front door.
And then there was the matter of the “bloody shorts,” which were introduced as evidence during the trial. Just one month after the crime, there was already a problem with this piece of material evidence: The bloodstains were disappearing. Pittman produced the shorts while questioning Valentine.
“I will ask you whether or not you found any blood on them?” he said. Valentine said he had. “Could you point out to the jury now where that blood is, or if there is any there now?”
“It is faded away,” Valentine said, pointing, “but it is right in this part right in here. There was quite a bit more on them than what is on there now, but you can tell by looking at it right there what it is.”
Boyd barely questioned Valentine. He didn’t bother to ask why the underwear hadn’t been sent to a lab.
When their turn came, the defense lawyers called no witnesses and said very little. Before resting his case, Boyd said to McGee, “Willie, do you want to go confer with us a while?” No answer. “Boy, if you have got any sense, you better be using it.”
The jury went out at 5:55 p.m. and came back two and a half minutes later. The verdict: guilty as charged. McGee was sentenced to die by electrocution on January 7, 1946. If that held up, he would be dead only sixty days after his arrest—faster even than the Hernando Three.