The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South - Alex Heard (2010)


As I type this into my computer, 59 years later, my insides begin to quiver as they did that night when I was 8 years old.”

Those words are from an unpublished manuscript called “My Mother’s Voice,” which was written by Sandra Hawkins, the second daughter of Troy and Willette Hawkins and the woman I’d communicated with through Mary Mostert for so many months.

Sandra showed it to me in the fall of 2006, when my wife and I visited her and her husband, Brad, at their home in Louisiana. More than a year had passed since I met her for the first time, in Jackson in the spring of 2005. Since then, we’d kept in contact—writing each other directly, no more go-betweens—while I went ahead with my research. In the summer of 2006, I finished a book proposal, which Sandra and Dorothy were aware of, since I’d fact-checked everything I said about them or their parents. (I did the same with the McGees.) They were cooperating, but with a condition that showed how uncertain they still were about all this: They said I couldn’t use their real names in the proposal. Thus, the three sisters were rechristened Amy, Sarah, and Helen.

In August 2006, I e-mailed Sandra, telling her the project was on and repeating what I’d said before: that it didn’t matter what anybody thought they knew about the case, because I was starting from scratch anyway. If they had a story to tell, they should tell it now, before it was too late. I wasn’t in this to take sides, push a political view, or set them up to be humiliated. I promised to listen with an open mind and honestly relate what they had to say.

This time, she agreed, sending back an e-mail that was brief and informal, with a serious personal note at the end. “My parents were devoted to one another and I have never experienced a more loving couple,” she said. “I would be happy to try to help you bring them to life as real people who were dishonored.”

In spite of the progress, everything still seemed a little touch-and-go. At the end of the Louisiana visit, Sandra gave me a printout of “My Mother’s Voice.” But soon after I got back to New Mexico, she had second thoughts and asked me to mail it to her. I did, and I didn’t pull any cute moves like keeping a photocopy. Then she sent it back, apologizing for being so jumpy.

None of that seemed particularly strange. The three sisters, Ann, Sandra, and Dorothy, made up the only advocacy group in the world that existed to defend the memory of the often demonized Willette Hawkins, and it had been a lonely vigil. Journalists weren’t invited into the discussion because journalists were the problem—to the Hawkins sisters, it was their sloppiness and mendacity, coupled with the misinformation pumped out by the Communist Party and Bella Abzug, that had defamed their mother. For nearly sixty years, right up until the time they decided to talk to me, they’d only spoken about the McGee case among family and with a few close friends.

Of the three sisters, Sandra had been the most active about researching the story, with Dorothy in there too. Ann, they told me, tended to stay in the background—for a long time, I didn’t even ask to speak to her—but she was interested enough to keep an ear open for updates. For most of her adult life, Sandra steered clear of the subject herself. Though it never completely left her mind as she went off to college in 1955, got married, and started a family, she had no desire to muck around in old newspaper clips. Why go through it?

That changed in 2004, when she saw the documentary about Beah Richards. As she and her relatives started trolling the Web, they ran into a stack of information that, to them, was false and libelous. McGee had been proved innocent. Mrs. Hawkins had been unmasked as a liar. The entire city of Laurel had known about the relationship for years, but the truth was covered up.

They’d done research on the case before. Back in the early 1990s, when Sandra and Dorothy were in Jackson doing family genealogy work, they looked at some of the McGee material at the Mississippi State archives. Now Sandra really plunged in, just like Bridgette and Tracey, but with one advantage—since she was closer to Mississippi, it was easier for her to do primary research.

Sandra took trips to Jackson, Laurel, and Hattiesburg, where she wasn’t shy about marching into places and asking for what she wanted. But more often than not she came away frustrated. The case was complicated and confusing, important records were missing, and almost all the participants were dead. The circuit court in Laurel only had scraps, and there was nothing in Hattiesburg. The archives had a complete transcript of the third trial, but it didn’t come close to answering all her questions. The “affair” wasn’t even mentioned in there. At what point did it come up?

In 2004, Sandra decided to write down what she could remember from the morning of November 2, 1945, and in her rendition there was no doubt about one thing: Her mother was a rape victim, period. She was brutalized in her bed by a drunk who crawled through a window and slithered into her room like a snake. Echoing the trial testimony delivered three different times by her parents, Sandra wrote that she and Ann were in the bedroom next to the bedroom where Willette had settled down with the baby. Their father was asleep at the back of the house. Sandra was asleep too, but she recalled waking up to a scene of chaos and terror.

The house was pitch black. My mother was screaming and running…with my father running after her and calling after her, trying to catch up with her.

Shortly, there were policemen scurrying about with flashlights. Sirens droning; patrol lights flashing; men shouting; Mother crying in the distance. Ann and I were gotten up and were taken outside….

What had happened? A man had come into our house and attacked our mother while our baby sister was in bed with her. What did he do? As an eight year old, I couldn’t understand what could have gone on. I later learned he held a knife on her and said he would kill her and the baby if she made a sound. He said he would slit their throats….

Could an eight-year-old remember such things? I think so, and it’s only fair to reverse the question: If they happened, would they be easy to forget? Sandra believes Willie McGee was the man who invaded their home, and that the horrors he brought were real, devastating, and permanent.

“That one night changed many individuals’ lives,” she wrote. “I became the ‘caretaker’ of a baby sister. I took it upon myself to nourish her, play with her, watch over her. When I go to bed at night, 59 years later, I pull the cover up to my chin and have slept like that since 8 years of age. In all those years, I have never slept without the protection and comfort of blankets, even in the summer.

“We were forever marked with fear. Through the years, if I heard an unusual sound at night, I would become paralyzed with fear…. I have slept with a light on all night so shadows wouldn’t frighten me.”

Earlier that day, Sandra had greeted Susan and me at the front door to her home, an airy suburban layout with a circular driveway, stately old trees, a pool, and a large backyard that swept down a grassy bank to a lake.

It was a beautiful place earned through a lifetime of hard work. Sandra met Brad when they were both students at Mississippi Southern in the 1950s. She never graduated. Her college costs became too much of a drain on her parents, so she dropped out after a few semesters, moved to New Orleans to find a job, and later married Brad, who went to dental school at Loyola. In 1960, they moved to the town we were in now—Sandra asked that I not give its name—to set up his practice. Neither had any connection to the area. That was part of the idea.

Inside, we sat around a small living-room table that was covered with papers and folders, reminding me of the setup at Bridgette’s home in Las Vegas. Brad, who’d had health problems recently, stationed himself on a couch nearby, with an ear cocked for what we were saying, speaking up occasionally—like Harold had done—while we talked and compared notes.

Sandra’s pile of paper overlapped with Bridgette’s, but Sandra had more primary documents, including a complete transcript of the third trial and a large stack of papers from the FBI file on the case, labeled WILLIE MCGEE,which was first obtained by a Maryland historian, Dr. Al-Tony Gilmore, back in the 1970s. She had a photocopy of a tiny old black-and-white photograph of the house at 435 South Magnolia, which showed the side window the intruder supposedly crawled through. She also pulled out a hand-drawn map of the interior, to show me who was where.

The house was a simple, white-clapboard structure with a low pitched roof and a chimney on the north side, toward the front. It was longer than wide and had a floor plan that relied on connected rooms instead of a standard hallway. On the front left was the room where Willette and the baby were together that night, their bed tucked into a corner on what would have been the room’s left side as you faced the street. Lined up behind it was the second bedroom, a bathroom and a small square of hall, and a third bedroom. On the right side, front to back, ran the living room, dining room, and kitchen. In the very back, and as wide as the house, was a screened-in porch with a wooden lower half.

The whole thing came to around a thousand square feet and was nothing fancy: a warren of low-ceilinged rooms, simple furniture, and polished pine floors. This part of Magnolia Street was a solidly middle-class wedge between the white and black parts of town. Laurel’s white upper crust lived in the shady streets and avenues north of the courthouse, about a mile away from there.

The floor plan was important relative to something the CRC stressed many times: its claim that Troy Hawkins was sleeping in the “next room” when the rape occurred.

But that isn’t what Troy said in court. He testified that he went to sleep in the back bedroom after helping Willette with the baby. Unless Willette and Troy were both lying—which the defense, during appeals, claimed they were—he wasn’t in the next room, or even close. He was two rooms, three walls, and twenty-five feet away, making it much more believable that he could sleep through the assault.

It upset Sandra that such a basic detail had been distorted. If people wanted to attack her father’s testimony, why didn’t they start with what he’d said?

“What had happened, my dad was working at the post office, and he was on the late shift,” she said. “And he came in very late that night, maybe eleven, and he took a turn trying to get the baby quiet and didn’t succeed. Mother took the baby back and had a bottle. He had heated the bottle for the baby and they were trying to get her, you know, get her happy, and finally she quieted down.”

Sandra said the front shades to Willette’s bedroom window, which faced the street at a northwesterly angle, were raised a few inches that night. As she understood the story, the intruder drove by that morning, heading south, saw a light on, saw a woman, pulled over, and came back to the house on foot. He went around to the back side and broke the electrical line to the house. Then he came around to the side of the home facing northeast, toward the front, and crawled through a window next to the brick chimney’s exterior, which he used as a boost to get himself up and in.

I stared at the picture of the house. Was the window big enough for a man to crawl through? Looked like it. I kept staring, scribbling notes on the diagram until Susan reminded me that it wasn’t mine to write on. Sandra laughed and said it was OK; she had copies.

Granted, I was more obsessed than the average person, but there was something hypnotic about that picture and diagram. They were all that remained from the site of a small-town crime that, improbably, became famous around the world.

Sandra, Susan, and I spent a few minutes going over the floor plan before I turned to more general questions about the love-affair story. If I understood Sandra’s position, she thought the defense invented it as a way to get McGee off, correct?

“I absolutely do,” she said, her Southern accent brisk with conviction. “I think Bella Abzug and her attorneys made up the whole thing.”

That’s exactly what you’d expect a loyal daughter to say, but Sandra brought up points that couldn’t be explained away easily. One was that, for at least part of the time the affair was supposed to be roaring along, the Hawkinses weren’t living in Laurel—a fact that Willette had mentioned in passing the first time she testified. Troy took a wartime job in Evansville, Indiana, starting sometime in 1942, at Servel Industries, a plant that made airplane parts. Sandra hadn’t been able to work out the exact dates, but she felt sure she entered first grade in Evansville in January 1943. Dorothy was born there on February 24, 1944. Sandra’s memory was that the family returned to Laurel in November 1944, when her father went back to his old job with the U.S. Postal Service, where he’d worked until 1941. She and Ann both said the family didn’t have a car for the first year or so they were back. And all three daughters insisted that their mother never learned to drive. Later, two people who were not part of the family told me the same thing.

All of which clashes with how the affair story usually goes. In the written account McGee gave to Dixon Pyles in 1946, he said it started in August 1944. In affidavits given by Rosalee and Willie in 1950 and 1951, Mrs. Hawkins was clearly described as being a driver. She had a car parked nearby when she accosted them both on the streets of Laurel one night. She drove to a gas station once and left McGee a love note. She picked him up at night and drove him to a graveyard.

Did Sandra have the paperwork to back up her Indiana timetable? Some of it, though she’d experienced the usual frustrations of tracking down such things. The Indiana school records didn’t exist anymore, and she hadn’t been able to find out when Troy returned to his post-office job. However, the Laurel records indicated that she’d been in school there during part of the final six-week term in 1944.

The move back to Laurel also tied in with another important issue: Mrs. Hawkins’s sickly physical condition, which was mentioned during the trials.

“We came back to Laurel because she was not really well,” Sandra said. “She was very frail. A few weeks after she’d given birth to my oldest sister, she had an appendectomy, and the appendix ruptured and they didn’t think she would live. And so my aunt took the baby—my Aunt LaVera, who was always there for us. My mother was down for like six weeks—a long time. And she was always very, very frail, very thin, always trying to gain weight. She was about five-eight, and if she weighed 115, that was really good.”

We talked about the emotional fallout from the case. It was terrible all around, Sandra said, though it was a fixed part of Hawkins family history that Willette, ill though she was, had been mentally healthy prior to November 2, 1945. Afterward, it was like a switch had been flipped. She became a semi-reclusive chain-smoker who suffered migraines, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t keep food down, and was sometimes plagued by nightmares that caused her to wake up screaming.

Sandra said her father never stopped loving her mother and never gave up hope that she would recover. He moved the family to a country place west of Laurel in 1952, where Willette tried to pitch in with farmwork that neither of them was much good at.

“He tried to farm, but he didn’t know how to farm,” Sandra said of her dad. “I have to tell you this—everything he did, she did. When they built the house, she hammered as big as he hammered. Even though she was frail, she was thin, she got up there on that roof with him.”

Sandra said her mother always refused to see a psychiatrist, and that the only medical attention she got was counterproductive. “The doctors would give her all these tips on trying to sleep. They gave her sleeping pills. Then they said the thing for you to do is drink beer at night. That might relax you.”

“And they were trying to get her to gain weight,” Brad called from the couch, referring to the beer.

“Then they tried to…uh, they told her to take a drink of bourbon to, you know. Anyway, she became addicted to alcohol.”

I didn’t know if she meant in the immediate aftermath of the assault or over the long haul. “So she was an alcoholic?” I asked.

Sandra didn’t think so. She and her sisters were sure their mother had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, which is very common among victims of rape. If she sometimes drank too much, it was a way of dealing with that.

“And this whole thing ruined her life?” I asked.

“It ruined her life. Not only…everybody’s.”

I was already aware of what sparked Sandra’s interest in the case, but there had to be a deeper drive to keep her going. Brad, along with one of her two sons, had questioned whether it was smart to get into something like this so late in life. Aside from family members, almost nobody knew this aspect of Sandra’s story. In this town, where she lived for forty-six years, she had confided in only two friends.

“Nobody talks about it but family,” she said. “My son just recently…. I told him you were coming, and he said, ‘Are you sure you want to revisit this?’ I think Brad’s probably of the same mind.”

“But it’s like you’ve been revisiting it anyway,” Susan said. “You’ve been compelled to keep revisiting it.”

Sandra nodded and said, “Her voice needs to be heard before I die.”

Of all the characters in the McGee story, nobody has gotten rougher handling from journalists and historians than Mrs. Hawkins, including all those white males—policemen, sheriffs, jailers, prosecutors, jury members, judges, and politicians—who put McGee through the wringer, abusing him physically and mentally and sending him to the electric chair without so much as a blink of regret.

Others have come in for criticism, certainly, but Mrs. Hawkins has endured as the starring rogue. The Daily Worker set the tone, comparing her to Potiphar’s wife and calling McGee “a slave in the kingdom of jimcrow.” In 1951, a day after the execution, the paper published a front-page article that declared, “Willie McGee was murdered because the white woman who had forced an illicit affair upon him for more than four years suddenly shouted ‘rape’ after the whole town discovered the story.” Mrs. Hawkins sued over this passage, but that part of the story was barely covered.

Meanwhile, if you search online and in libraries today, you’ll find the essence of the Daily Worker’s charge amplified all over the place. In one Web biography of Bella Abzug, readers are told that McGee was “ludicrously charged with rape by a white, ‘married’ Southern slut who had him intercoursing her for years. When married Willie finally refused to continue the regularly-scheduled performances, she falsely yelled ‘rape!’” In a 1979 paper titled Rape, Racism, and the White Women’s Movement, a writer named Alison Edwards said that McGee’s accuser, “Wilametta Hawkins,” was “a woman whom people in Laurel, Black and white, all knew had been having an affair with McGee for a long time.”

Similar examples turn up in several nonfiction books. Gerald Horne’s history of the CRC, Communist Front?, treats McGee’s affair allegation as proven and asserts that, during the second trial, “Mrs. Willett Hawkins” made “passes at the district attorney throughout…given the nature of the charges, this should have impeached her credibility irrevocably in a normal trial, but did not here.”

In A Fine Old Conflict, Jessica Mitford’s 1977 memoir, she wrote that McGee was convicted “despite persuasive evidence that his accuser had long been his mistress.” Hazel Rowley’s 2001 biography of novelist Richard Wright, a Mississippi native who took an interest in the case from his expatriate’s home in Paris, served up an inaccurate detail about how Troy Hawkins learned the truth: “[Mrs. Hawkins’s] husband, a traveling salesman, had come back early, and it was then that the white woman accused McGee of rape.” Putting a different spin on the same moment, Phillip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown says that when McGee “finally broke with Mrs. Hawkins in early 1945…Troy Hawkins learned of the affair. After a ferocious spat between husband and wife that spilled out into the street in front of their house, Mrs. Hawkins called the police and said she had been raped by a black man with kinky hair.”

If Mrs. Hawkins did everything people say she did, she deserves the attacks. She was a figure of such ruthless, efficient command-and-control that she somehow accomplished all of the following: started the affair to satisfy her own desires, kept it going against the will of the man she’d targeted, and channeled an entire city’s anger onto him once they were caught. Her husband went along quietly because, presumably, he couldn’t bear the shame of being cuckolded by a black man, so their elaborate fiction was his only way out.

Law enforcement officials went along because…well, that part was harder to figure. If the “whole town” knew the truth, how did Mrs. Hawkins manage to persuade police, prosecutors, and judges to engage in a conspiracy to make her look like the victim instead of the predator? The best explanation I could come up with was a variation on Senator Bilbo’s Take Your Choice theme: White men of the South believed it was literally impossible for a white woman to have sex with a black man by choice. If Laurel officials were that deluded, then perhaps they would have done anything and everything to protect Mrs. Hawkins’s reputation.

Through the years, there’s been only one prominent dissenter about Mrs. Hawkins: Susan Brownmiller, the feminist, rape expert, and author. In a chapter from Against Our Will called “A Question of Race,” Brownmiller focused on lynching and legal lynching cases that involved charges of interracial sex and rape, with a lengthy examination of the McGee case. She interviewed Abzug in person in 1973, pressing her about the question of proof. How did Bella know the affair really happened?

“I placed my own investigators in town,” she told me one afternoon in her office. “The affair…was common knowledge among blacks and whites.” Then why hadn’t she put McGee or his wife on the stand? “No jury was going to believe it. Challenging the word of a white woman just wasn’t done. The strategy was to depend on a lack of concrete evidence. Nobody believed you could win an interracial rape case in a Southern court. You could only win on appeal.”

To Brownmiller, there was reasonable doubt in both directions. “Willametta Hawkins never wavered,” she wrote. “She had been raped, she said, but she could not identify her assailant. For this she was vilified and harassed by leftists who smeared her in print as an oversexed and vengeful white witch.” She noted that McGee never wavered, either, though on this point she made a small factual error. She was under the impression that he “kept his silence to the end” regarding the affair. In fact, he had plenty to say about it, insisting to reporters on his dying day that it had happened.

Brownmiller’s take was worthy of serious consideration, but it got lost in a flurry of controversy caused by her analysis, in the same chapter, of the Emmett Till case, a 1955 lynching that shocked people all across the nation and around the world. Till was a fourteen-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives near the Delta town of Money, Mississippi. Showing off to some other black kids one August day, he allegedly “wolf whistled” at a white female storekeeper named Carolyn Bryant. Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, heard about it, kidnapped Till from his uncle’s home that night, beat him, shot him, and threw him into a muddy river with a seventy-five-pound cotton-gin pulley tied to his neck. Both men were acquitted by an all-white jury, and though they later confessed everything to a journalist, they were never retried.

Brownmiller condemned the killers, but as she pondered Till’s wolf whistle, she also saw a youth who—in a foolish attempt to impress his friends—made a gesture that Bryant might well have seen as threatening.

“We are rightly aghast that a whistle could be cause for murder but we must also accept that Emmett Till and J. W. Millam [sic] shared something in common,” she wrote. “They both understood that the whistle was no small tweet of hubba-hubba….” Rather, “it was a deliberate insult just short of physical assault, a last reminder to Carolyn Bryant that this black boy, Till, had in mind to possess her.”

That’s quite a leap: Till was a kid whose whistle (assuming there was one) should have earned him, at most, harsh words from his uncle. Inevitably, there was a backlash. In her 1981 book, Women, Race & Class, Angela Davis—the famous Black Panther turned professor—said that Brownmiller’s “provocative distortion of such historical cases as the Scottsboro Nine, Willie McGee and Emmett Till are designed to dissipate any sympathy for Black men who are victims of fraudulent rape charges.” The more nuanced part of Brownmiller’s stance—that Mrs. Hawkins’s whiteness wasn’t, by itself, proof that she’d lied about McGee—got lost in the din.

As I studied the McGee case, I started over with basic questions about the affair. If, as Abzug said, it wasn’t brought up during the circuit-court trials, when was it publicly discussed for the first time? And when was it proved?

The books and articles I already had—along with new ones I found, including a legal analysis published in the Journal of Mississippi History by a pre-law student named Craig Zaim—didn’t hold the answer, and I never saw anything that qualified as proof that Mrs. Hawkins was lying. Somewhere, somehow, it simply became accepted that she was, and this got cloned when writer B came along and used writer A as a source. The sources weren’t always quoted accurately either. For example, in a 1992 book called In Spite of Innocence, a study of wrongful executions, Michael L. Radelet, Hugo Adam Bedau, and Constance E. Putnam listed McGee as someone who could be considered officially exonerated. But one of their main sources for that was Carl Rowan, who wasn’t sure McGee was innocent.

The newspaper clips I had were far from complete, but I assumed I would eventually find that the affair story debuted in the Daily Worker. That was correct, but I was surprised to learn that this didn’t happen until very late in the game: in early March 1951, when both the Daily Worker and a Bay Area paper called the People’s Weekly World ran stories about it.

The other interesting thing was that both papers attacked Mrs. Hawkins long before the affair story entered the picture, but from different angles. For several years, the Daily Worker’s charge was that her account of the rape simply sounded like hogwash—they just couldn’t yet say why—and so they assumed she was lying.

In a story published on December 12, 1945, soon after the first trial, McGee was already being described as the “Negro victim” of “a one-day ‘trial’ for ‘rape.’” By early 1946, a National Federation for Constitutional Liberties press release labeled “Two Minute Justice” served up what would become the standard line for casting doubt on Mrs. Hawkins’s testimony.

“Thirteen witnesses, including [McGee]’s alleged victim, appeared against him,” it said. “Their story was that he had entered the woman’s home at night, assaulted her while at her side in the bed was her small child, and in the next room her husband slept. It was not shown why any of the thirteen witnesses made no attempt to stop the assault. It was not shown either why the woman herself did not cry out or her child, and thus awaken her nearby husband.”

That summary raised one nonissue—witnesses like Tal Porter, George Walker, and Paul Britton weren’t in a position to “stop” anything—and introduced two inaccuracies. Troy wasn’t in the next room, and Mrs. Hawkins did explain why she didn’t cry out: The attacker said he would kill her child if she made a sound.

Even so, the language of this release lived on, and the Daily Worker forged it into a boilerplate dismissal of Mrs. Hawkins’s story. “The allegedly ‘raped’ woman, Mrs. Troy Hawkins, was asleep with a child in her bed…when the ‘attack’ was supposed to have occurred,” said a story from May 1950. “Her husband and other children were asleep in the next room. Neither the child in bed with her, nor her husband or other children, woke up during the alleged ‘rape.’”

Whatever doubts Brad had about Sandra’s sleuthing, he was supportive, and he didn’t moan (at least not in front of me) when I suggested that she rendezvous with us in Laurel in a few days, to do some research and an interview. (She’d told me about an important living source, a man named Leroy Jensen who was a teenager living next door on the night of the crime.) Sandra was up for it, which meant Brad would be drafted for a road trip he hadn’t planned on. Before we left, Sandra phoned Dorothy, who said she would take a day off from work and meet us in Laurel.

A couple of days later, Susan and I headed toward Laurel from Jackson, making a side trip en route to the town of Collins, the seat of Covington County, where Eliza Jane Payton was from. Bridgette had told me that Eliza Jane divorced Willie at some point, but she didn’t have details or documents. I guessed that, if the paperwork existed, it would be in Collins—and so it was, filed under “Magee.” The papers said she’d divorced him in 1946, by which time he was in jail. The main cause given was abandonment. McGee had left his family in 1942.

Early that afternoon, we all met up at a sandwich shop in downtown Laurel and headed over to Jensen’s house, with Brad veering off to do something else. Jensen lived in the nicest part of the city, where all the big old houses and mansions were, though his place was a modest bungalow. He met us at the door and ushered us into his living room, where everybody perched on antique furniture and pulled out tape recorders and notebooks. Jensen was seventy-seven, blocky and strong, with a full head of brushy white hair that was as thick as a teenager’s. Apparently, he’d been quite a heartthrob in the 1940s—Sandra and Dorothy made this clear with a giggle or two before we went inside—and he was still an impressive-looking man. Only now he looked like a retired judge.

The Jensens lived in the next house north on Magnolia Street, number 429. They weren’t native Southerners. They were of Scandinavian descent, and they’d made their living in the creamery business in other states before relocating to Mississippi. In 1940, after Jensen’s dad sold off an operation in Texas, he moved his family to Laurel to take over a plant that had failed.

Jensen had a good memory, and he told stories in a way that showed it off, with frequent asides on things like railroad deeds and now-demolished hospitals and bank buildings. “My dad was a butter-maker by trade,” he said. “When we came to Laurel, there was an old creamery here that was built in nineteen…thirty…four or five, somewhere in that area. By the Daniels family. The name of it was Dan-Dee Dairy Products. D-a-n, hyphen, capital D, e-e. They operated three years and went bankrupt.”

Leroy was eleven when the Jensens came to Laurel. By late 1945, at sixteen, his standard routine involved getting up at 3 a.m. to get dressed in time to work for his father before school. That’s why he was up and about on the morning of November 2.

He emphasized that he didn’t see Willie McGee or anybody else who might have been a rapist. But he did see Mrs. Hawkins come screaming out of the house. It would have been hard to miss, he said, because the structures were very close together.

“I was in the back bedroom, my mom and dad was in the middle bedroom,” he said. “And my sister was…was she home? Or was she still in nurse training? She was still in nurse training. My mother had woke me up to go on the milk truck, and, as I was dressing, I heard this god-awful scream, and I looked out the window, and…” He stopped and looked at the Hawkins sisters. “Does this bother y’all?”

“Not one bit,” Sandra said.

“And their mother came running across the yard, naked, to the back door of our house, and I hollered at my mother. She went and let her in, and she was just completely, you know, wrecked. And my mother put her in my bed and covered her. After that, things kind of settled down. My mother got hold of Dr. Beech, who was a doctor at the Masonite Hospital back then. He came to the house and sedated her.

“I left…oh, I guess after an hour. I left and went to work. And then, to finish the story as I knew it, I wasn’t pressing, but my mother told me that they took her on to the hospital for an examination and all. But she was”—he pointed at his forehead—“I mean, it’s burned right here that she was just completely torn up.”

“I’ve never been able to remember,” Sandra said. “Did she have any clothes on? Did she have a top on?”

“Naked,” Leroy said firmly. “She did not. She was naked.”

“I’m not sure I would have seen her. I heard her. But what she looked like, I never have been able to…I never knew—”

“I remember it like it was yesterday. I ran in and told my mother that she was at the back door. I did not know what had happened. I went to the front of the house rather than, you know, than being back there and seeing her.”

“Right,” I said. “And you were the first person to see her in that condition?”

“When she came across the yard, and when my mother went to the back door and got her, and put her in my bed, that’s when I saw her. I saw her come across the yard.”

“And I’m sure you heard her,” Sandra said.

“Oh, gosh, yes. She was screaming.”

That was all he remembered, but it gave me plenty to think about. Either Jensen was sitting there lying or Mrs. Hawkins did come screaming out of the house. I didn’t think he was lying. Whatever took place and whoever did it, something terrible happened to her that night.

“Did you ever hear the story that Mrs. Hawkins was having an affair with Willie McGee?”

That was me two days later, back in Laurel, by myself this time. I was interviewing a nice old lady I’d just met, asking what might be called my default question, since every interview tended to come around to it sooner or later.

“All that was lies,” she said emphatically.

“You don’t think she was having an affair with McGee?”

“No, I don’t.”

“And that’s because…. It didn’t seem like something he would do?”

“I just think it’s a lie. Mister, you don’t know how folks do lie. I don’t think Willie McGee had an affair with her. I don’t think he been over to her house, tell you the truth about it.”

“You think he got framed?”

“Framed because he’s a black. And that was the only black out there that they could frame. At that time, anything could happen.”

The woman was an eighty-eight-year-old African American named Bertha Mae Crowell, and she was telling me about an unusual theory—one that, to her dismay, I had trouble understanding. In my defense, her solution to the McGee mystery was the most complicated one I’d heard so far. First, Mrs. Crowell firmly believed he was innocent. (No surprise there. Though I didn’t talk to everybody in Laurel, I think it’s safe to assume that most local blacks who’ve heard of the case would say the same thing.) But she didn’t buy McGee’s love-affair story; she thought he made it up to try to save his skin. (This was a big surprise. I’d only heard a few people say that, all of them white.)

The big twist was this: She didn’t think there’d been a rape at all. The truth, she said, was that Mrs. Hawkins only thought she’d been raped, because something was wrong with her mind—a mental abnormality that, as Crowell put it, caused her to have “crazy ideas and fits.”

In her reckoning, the real story was a tragic blend of delusion and injustice that started with a bad dream. On the night of the alleged rape, Mrs. Hawkins woke up before dawn from a nightmare, convinced that she’d been ravished in her bed by a black intruder. She screamed and told her husband, who, not knowing any better, called the police. Given the setting and circumstances—1940s Mississippi, a terrified white woman, a black rapist apparently on the loose—the police had to find somebody to blame in a hurry. McGee got tagged when he turned up in Hattiesburg and appeared to be on the run.

Which he was, but Crowell said he was running because he’d lost his employer’s money in a gambling game, not because he’d raped anybody. He was terrified about what his white boss or the police would do to him. “I think because he gambled away that money, and he was on his way off, they just got him,” she said. “That’s my idea.”

It sounded pretty wild, but Crowell wasn’t just some random person with a theory. Assuming she was telling the truth about her own life story—and she seemed every bit as trustworthy as Jensen—she was in a good position to know things about both McGee and Mrs. Hawkins. She said she was inside one of the gambling houses the night before the alleged rape, and that she saw McGee playing poker with a group of men that included her late brother, Elijah Williams. She also said she knew Mrs. Hawkins. Crowell’s mother, Mary Williams, used to work as a maid for Mrs. Hawkins’s sister, LaVera Hooks. As a result, Crowell, who would have been twenty-seven in late 1945, was sometimes at both households during the day, either helping with chores or simply hanging around.

From the sound of things, her memory was good, though I noticed a point or two where she seemed off. Mainly, though, I was struck by the number of things she got right. Without any prompts from me, she correctly remembered one of the places McGee worked (Bethea Grocery), named the street the Hawkinses lived on, knew that Willette had a family nickname (“Billie”), and recalled how many children she had. Initially she got that number wrong, but she corrected herself.

“She was a pretty woman,” she said. “Had two pretty…I think she had about three children. Did she have three?”

“Three girls.”

“Three girls,” she said. “Pretty girls.”

Her memory of Willette’s physical appearance was inaccurate, however. She described her as a “regular-sized lady, a nice-sized lady” with blonde hair. But Willette had dark hair, and she was so thin that you probably wouldn’t forget it. All in all, it was a typically puzzling combination. Crowell was giving me an honest account of what she believed to be the truth—I had no doubt about that. But there was static in the transmission. As usual, it was impossible to know exactly what to think.

One thing was certain: I’d been lucky to run into her. Only minutes earlier, I was a few streets away from Crowell’s house, talking to another black woman, Margaret L. Cooley, who had graduated from Oak Park High School in 1951. Cleveland Payne had given me her name, and I dropped by to ask about life in Laurel in the 1940s and 1950s. She’d heard of McGee, of course, but she didn’t know much beyond the standard plotline, so she tried to think of somebody with more direct experiences. Crowell came to mind, and, in typical Laurel fashion—helpful, informal, immediate—she picked up the phone and called her.

“Bertha Mae?” she said. “This is Margaret. I got a man here who wants to know about Willie McGee.” Pause. “OK.” She turned to me.

“She say to come on.”

I drove to Bertha Mae’s place—a long, narrow house just a few blocks away—knocked on a screen door toward the back, and found her sitting in a big stuffed chair in her living room, amid the usual medicine-bottle clutter of an old person with ailments. She was barefoot and had on a no-frills nightdress; her hair was pulled straight back from a fleshy, friendly, and bright-eyed face.

Crowell was born in 1918—a year when World War I was still going on and nineteen blacks were lynched in Mississippi, including four just up the road in Shubuta—so she’d lived through nearly a century of changes that would have seemed like science fiction to someone back then. She’d been in Laurel most of her life, and during our talk she occasionally detoured into random memories from the past, her needle skipping across the decades without transition.

“Let me tell you something,” she said at one point. “When I was a girl, we had an insurance man…I will never forget it. The Ku Klux Klan used to parade…that was before your time. They used to come down the boulevard with hoods over their head, parading. Mother and I were standing there at a parade one night, and Momma looked down at this man’s foot and saw a shoe. And Momma said, ‘That’s my insurance man!’ Come to our house every week collecting a quarter for insurance, and he was the Ku Klux Klan!”

That was before my time, all right—around 1928, I guessed, since she said it happened when she was ten. The Klan of that era was as above ground as the Rotary Club, so a public march in Laurel wasn’t hard to visualize. But the image of a black mother and child standing on the curb, taking in the show, stopped me.

“You saw Klansmen marching around this town?”

“They had parades down the boulevard,” she said, frowning and peering at me through her goggle-lens eyeglasses. “That’s how Momma knowed the shoes!”

“It was OK for black people to be there watching?”

“Sure, you can stand there watching. They ain’t going to say anything about you watching. It’s a parade.”

Getting back to McGee, I asked her to talk about the house where the gambling took place. She couldn’t remember whose it was, but she recalled being there and seeing McGee and other men, including Elijah Williams, playing poker. She left around 10:00, but Elijah told her later that McGee stayed put all night.

“They gambled till day,” she said firmly.

“And Willie lost money?”

“Lost the company money.”

“So you think once the police caught him, for stealing that money, they said, ‘Let’s go ahead and say he raped her’?”

“Yeah, I’m sure they did. They had to put it on somebody.”

She remembered being in the family car the next day—along with her brother and “another lady,” all en route to Hattiesburg—and seeing McGee on the side of the highway, trying to hitch a ride. They didn’t pick him up. Elijah, not eager to be seen since he’d won some of McGee’s money, ducked down in the seat.

Crowell didn’t testify at any of the trials—nobody asked her to, and if they had, she would have played dumb. In 1945, she could have gotten in serious trouble if she’d tried to go public with her theory about Mrs. Hawkins. Half a century later, it still sounded bizarre. And yet Crowell insisted—repeatedly, impatiently—that what she described was fact.

She said Mrs. Hawkins had a mental problem that showed up during her menstrual period, which took the form of terrifyingly realistic nightmares. “She was crazy when she menstruated,” she said. “When she had that menopause that ladies go through, she was nuts.

“My idea is she must have dreamed that he did that. You know, jump and say somebody done something to her or something had happened? She just had nightmares. You ever heard of a talking nightmare? Well, that’s what she had. When she laid down to take a nap when she got menopause on.” Crowell said she saw this firsthand, during the times she spent around the Hawkins household with her mother.

All through her discussion of this, though, there was a sketchiness that made me wonder if she was conflating events from different time periods. She used menstrual and menopause interchangeably. She mentioned being “in school” when these events happened, but she couldn’t say when it was. She would have been around nineteen by the time Mrs. Hawkins had her first child; so if there was any babysitting going on, Bertha Mae was already out of school.

I squinted at her, concentrating. She squinted back, trying to understand what my problem was.

I asked her to carefully describe what she saw that made her think Mrs. Hawkins had a hysterical reaction when her period occurred.

“Well, she just had it. She just…I think it was something like a spasm. You ever heard of a spasm? She had something like that, like she was crazy or something.”

“Running around, or yelling, or what?”

“Jumping up and…when she sleep, maybe wake up and have one of them spells. But, um, she was a good woman. She’s just…I think she was half nuts to me.”

“You were in the house in the daytime or nighttime?”

“The daytime, when she took a nap. Anytime she go to sleep during menopause. They said that when she sleeped, she dreamed.”

“‘They’ said that?”

“Everybody said she dreamed! I dreams too! But she had nightmares.”

We went around and around, but there wasn’t much more to say, and for Mrs. Hawkins things came down to a split decision. Crowell thought she was innocent of the charge leveled against her for years: that she cornered McGee into an affair and then ratted him out. But to buy into that, you’d also have to accept that Mrs. Hawkins was crazy, and that she and Mr. Hawkins, who must have realized eventually that she’d dreamed it up, decided to stick with their story, even though it meant sending McGee to an unjust death.

So, in Crowell’s reckoning, Mrs. Hawkins was only partially absolved of guilt. During our conversation, she’d said several nice things about her, but that changed sharply toward the end. Crowell told me she believed that both Willette and Troy carried a curse because of McGee’s death, and that the way they died was no accident.

“You know, God don’t like ugly,” she said. “Did you ever notice that? Do you know what happened to Billie Hawkins and her husband?”

I said I did.

“They had a car wreck and got killed,” she said, nodding, as if that settled the point. “See? God don’t like ugly.”

That night, Susan and I paid a visit to Dorothy Hawkins at her home in central Mississippi. Dorothy, unlike Sandra, didn’t seem ready for tape recorders or notebooks, so I sat on my hands and we talked. After a while, she invited us over to her kitchen table to take a look at a family photo album, and I finally got to see a picture of Willette Hawkins.

Along with that, there was one other surprise in store. As I flipped through the album, I came to a yellowing, poorly focused picture of a young black woman sitting outside—on the steps of what looked like a back porch—with two blonde-haired little girls leaning against her. A caption scrawled below the picture identified them as “Ann, Sandra, and Bertha Mae.”