Throughout 1911, Georgia’s Gate City was terrorized by a serial killer whose gruesome murders mirrored those of London’s Jack the Ripper. Only Atlanta’s Ripper claimed nearly three times as many victims—African American servant girls who, week by week, fell prey to the mysterious slasher. Like Jack, he was never found. His killing spree was just one in a century of appalling Atlanta crimes that would make national headlines.
This chilling volume also includes the story of thirteen-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan, whose brutal slaying led to one of the most infamous trials in Georgia history. Journalist Corinna Underwood also explores the facts behind what came to be known as the Atlanta Child Murders and the conviction of perpetrator Wayne Williams; as well as the inexplicable vanishing of newlywed, Mary Shotwell Little. Still being investigated after forty years, the case of the “disappearing bride” haunts Atlanta to this day.
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ATLANTA'S FIRST HOMICIDES
The area of Georgia now familiar as the metropolitan city of Atlanta was once a Native American village called Standing Peachtree, inhabited by the Creek and the Cherokee. Back in 1825, the Creek nation ceded its land to the State of Georgia. The Cherokee continued to live side by side with their white neighbors until 1835, when, under the Treaty of New Echota, the Cherokee agreed to move west and Georgia took control of former Cherokee lands. This act ultimately resulted in the tragic Trail of Tears.
The Georgia General Assembly voted in favor of building the Western and Atlantic Railroad in 1836. A year later, work started on the eastern terminus, and the new settlement developed there was itself named Terminus. Within the next five years, the settlement had grown to thirty residents and six buildings, and the town was renamed Marthasville for ex-governor Wilson Lumpkin's daughter Martha. Georgia Railroad chief engineer J. Edgar Thompson suggested the name Marthasville be replaced by Atlantica-Pacifica in 1845, and the name was shortened to Atlanta and made official the same year.
GEORGIA LYNCH LAW
Lynch law was a form of extrajudicial punishment meted out by vigilante mobs for presumed crimes. Lynching was popular throughout Georgia before and after the Civil War. Prior to the war, lynch mobs usually targeted anyone opposing slavery. After the war, white Georgians used lynching as a means of terrorizing free African American people who were voting. From 1868 to 1871, the Ku Klux Klan was responsible for more than four hundred lynchings involving African American men and women for supposed crimes against white people. Victims were often burned, hanged or sometimes beaten to death. The list of supposed crimes deserving of lynching ranged from raping a white woman to arguing with a white man.
In 1881, the Atlanta Constitution expressed the shame and contempt that many of its readers felt about lynchings by expounding on the inadequacy of the legal system and demanding that lawmakers instigate a long-awaited change. In response, Georgia legislators attempted to suppress lynch law in 1897. Although the majority of representatives were against lynch law, few of them had a constructive strategy for stopping it. The New York Times reported that J.L. Boynton of Calhoun highlighted the complexity of the issue:
Lynching, in my opinion, is the result of combined causes. The practice has more or less prevailed in times of popular excitement, and especially in the new settled reasons before the establishment of the power of civil government. Criminal laws are imperfect, at best, and they are not administered with that vigor necessary to inspire confidence in their sufficiently. In criminal trials "justice" is often sidetracked and technicalities given the right of way. The people who do not understand such practice observe this, and losing faith in the adequacy of the law, take the law into their own hands.
Representative W.S. West of Lowndes firmly expressed his doubt in any resolution:
I do not think that the General Assembly can enact any law that would have any effect upon lynching. Sometimes there are crimes in the state that call for lynching, while at other times there is no excuse for it in the least. It is a difficult question to determine. I can only say stop the crime and you will stop the lynching.
J.W. Law, the only African American representative in the House, suggested a plan to control lynching: "The only solution of the lynching question in Georgia that I can see is the education of the negro. Ignorance causes more crime in Georgia than any other thing. Educate the negro and you will prevent the crime of rape."
In 1893, the legislature passed a law that required law officials to summon a posse to quell mob violence. This meant that any sheriff failing to follow the new instruction could be charged with a misdemeanor and any citizens participating in the mob could be charged with felony or possibly murder. Some legislators, however, saw the shortcomings in the statute, the main one being that local law enforcers were unlikely to go to the extent of prosecuting mob participants.
Lynchings continued to decline in the beginning of the twentieth century, and though the last "confirmed" lynching took place in Marion, Indiana, in 1930, with the hanging of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, Shipp and Smith were certainly not the last victims of this type of mob reaction.
FIRST ATLANTA HOMICIDES
The very first recorded homicide to take place in Atlanta occurred in 1848. Though few details of the incident were recorded, according to historical archives the victim was a man named McWilliams. He was stabbed to death by Bill Terrell, who escaped and was never caught.
Local law enforcement was a little more successful in 1851, when Elijah Bird stabbed Nat Hilburn to death. Bird's father had owed Hilburn money for some time. Impatient for his payback, Hilburn got into a fight with Bird over the matter. The argument became increasingly heated, and Bird stabbed Hilburn in the neck, killing him within minutes. Bird was tried by the Supreme Court, and eventually, in 1853, he was granted a pardon on the condition that he left the state. Bird moved to Louisiana, married and ran a plantation for several years until he met his own untimely end. During a time of minor trouble with the plantation workers, one of Bird's men followed him out to the field one evening and hit him over the head with a cane hoe, splitting his skull and killing him instantly. Bird's killer was never captured.
A HEINOUS CRIME IN FULTON COUNTY
In 1855, a murder occurred in Fulton County that reportedly became renowned as one of the most remarkable crimes in the short history of the area. Samuel Landrum was a farmer from Carroll County who had journeyed from his home to Atlanta to sell his cotton. He had a successful day at the market and sold all he had brought with him for the sum of $600. Satisfied with his day's work, he began his journey back to the farm. What Landrum did not know was that he had been watched all day by a cunning trio of young men. Assuming that he had the money he had made on his person, the three began to stalk the farmer's journey home. Landrum was traveling steadily down the McDonough road in his buggy, not quite a mile from town, when he was suddenly overtaken by Gabriel Jones, Radford J. Crockett and John Cobb Jr.
According to Crockett's later confession, two of the young men climbed up into the buggy and rode along with Landrum for a while before striking him unconscious. The youths dragged the old farmer from the buggy and to the side of the road. They then beat his head to a pulp and robbed him of everything he had on his person. They were, however, disappointed; instead of the $600.00 they had hoped to find, they garnered only $1.50.
After the murder, the three split up, and some time passed before police located Radford Crockett in Alabama, where he made a full confession. Crockett was jailed and assigned the Honorable Charles Murphy as his counsel. When the charges against him were read in court, Crockett astounded the courtroom by admitting his guilt, despite the recommendations of his counsel. Crockett explained that he felt the weight of his crime upon him and did not want to add to it with the sin of lying. The young man believed that the only way he could be pardoned for his terrible deed was to be hanged. His wish was granted and the sentence was carried out in June 1858.
Cobb and Jones were apprehended shortly after. Cobb was tried, convicted and swung from the gallows in 1859. This was to be the last hanging in Atlanta before the war. Jones's fate was less unfortunate. He pleaded guilty at his trial in 1859, knowing that he was to be sentenced to the penitentiary at Milledgeville for the rest of his life. He had not been incarcerated long when Sherman began his destructive march to the sea. Before his army reached Milledgeville, the convicts were released and they enlisted for service. It is recorded that Jones fought with the Northern soldiers and then managed to escape. He was not heard of again.
THE MURDER OF CALVIN WEBB
On December 31, 1858, bailiff Calvin Web arrested William A. Choice on a bail warrant for outstanding debts amounting to ten dollars. At the time, imprisonment for debt was part of Georgia law, but Choice secured bail, and that should have been the end of the matter. However, Choice happened upon Web the following morning, pulled his pistol and fired two shots at the bailiff. The second shot hit Web in the chest and ended the man's life. The murder caused a great deal of public outrage, and Choice barely escaped lynching by the mob.
Choice was tried before a magistrate's court on January 2, 1859. He made a desperate plea that he had committed the crime because he was suffering from insanity brought on by a head injury some nine years earlier. The attempt to secure sympathy failed, and he was sentenced to be hanged. The defender Honorable B.H. Hill, remained convinced of his client's insanity and used his influence to obtain him a pardon. Choice was then committed to an asylum for a short period before being liberated. During the Civil War, he fought with the Confederate army. He died a few years after the war had ended at his home in Rome, Georgia.
THE EXECUTION OF SLAVE TRADER NATHANIEL GORDON
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln made a dramatic move against slavery by approving of the execution of illegal slave trader Nathaniel Gordon. Though Gordon, originally from Portland, Maine, had been trafficking slaves illegally for more than forty years, no one had previously bothered to enforce the law. Gordon's ship Erie was captured by the USS Mohican fifty miles from the port at Sharks Point, West Africa. At the time, he was carrying 897 men, women and child slaves aboard his ship, ranging from age six months to forty years. The conditions on the ship were cramped and insanitary, and many of the passengers were suffering from disease and malnutrition. During the fifteen-day passage, 21 of the captives died; their bodies were tossed overboard.
Once the ship was detained, the slaves were taken to Liberia, and Gordon was sent to New York for trial with his shipmates David Hale and William Warren. Before Judge William Shipman, Gordon's defense claimed that the trader had sold the ship to a Spaniard before the slaves were boarded, and that in fact he was merely a passenger. But the story fell apart when a number of seamen attested that Gordon had offered them a dollar per head for every slave who made it safely to their destination in Cuba. After an original mistrial, Gordon was convicted on November 9, 1861. President Lincoln issued a stay of execution and a new date was set for February 21, 1862.
On the night before his execution, Gordon made a suicide attempt by drinking strychnine. Dr. Simmons, the prison physician, saved him from near death, and Gordon was hanged from the gallows on February 21, 1862. Nathaniel Gordon was the only American slave trader ever to be tried, convicted and executed under the Piracy Law of 1820.
MURDER IN THE CAPITOL
The murder of Colonel Robert A. Alston generated pubic outrage in 1879 when the victim was hunted and shot down in the state capitol among a number of prominent witnesses who made little attempt to prevent the crime. Alston was a politician and lawyer who had moved from Macon to Atlanta during the Civil War. He was elected to the general assembly in 1879, and from then on he devoted himself to improving the abhorrent conditions in Georgia prisons. His focus was the convict lease system, which had been in place since 1868. After the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery as a means of labor became illegal and Georgia landowners were struggling to find a manageable labor force. The convict lease system permitted Georgia landowners to hire convicts from the State Penitentiary in Milledgeville to work on the land. Georgia lawmakers were also in favor of the idea, as it helped to offset the mounting costs of running the prison. Because convict leasing became such a major source of revenue throughout the state, attempts at reform were largely unsuccessful.
It was Colonel Robert A. Alston's battle against the convict leasing system that brought about his untimely demise. The conflict began in 1879, when Senator John B. Gordon gave Alston power of attorney to sell his interest in Penitentiary Company Number Two. The sale adversely affected landowner Edward Cox, who had been subleasing sixty convicts from the company to work on his farm. Outraged by Alston's choice of buyer, Cox tracked him down to a barbershop on March 11, 1879, and demanded that he cancel the sale. On being told that his demands could not be met, Cox flew into a rage and threatened Alston, telling him that he should arm himself.
Later that afternoon, State Treasurer John W. Renfroe returned to his office after dinner to find his office occupied by Alston and three other men, including Peter Michaels. Michaels informed Renfroe that Cox was in the building searching for Alston and that there was going to be trouble. Renfroe and his colleagues tried to calm the situation, but to no avail. According to Renfroe, Cox, who had been searching for Alston, burst into the office brandishing his pistol. Alston raised his hands in the air and began to plead with Cox, who would not be placated. As Alston made his way to the door, Cox followed some way behind him, pistol cocked. Recognizing an opportunity, Alston whipped out his own pistol, and the two men began firing wildly at each other. Cox's third shot hit Alston in the temple, and he died from the wound some hours later. Cox suffered only minor wounds and was tried for murder in Fulton Superior Court on May 7, 1879. His pleas for mercy went unheard, and he was found guilty and sentenced to Dade coal mines for life. He was pardoned in 1882 by Governor Alexander H. Stephens.
The convict leasing system became less popular during the early twentieth century, partly due to the election of Governor Hoke Smith and increasing media attention to the deplorable and inhumane conditions of convict leasing. It was never officially abolished but gradually transformed as plantation labor was replaced by the chain gang.
MORE EXPEDIENT TRIALS
In July 1879, Augustus O. Bacon, Speaker of the House of Representatives, presented a new bill before the house. Bacon's concern was that criminals were encouraged in their lawlessness by the belief that their crimes would go unpunished. Bacon believed that this was due to the frequent continuances of trials, which often led to a delay of between six months and three years before a trial could be heard. Bacon had seen many cases where such postponement often led to the jury acquitting the perpetrator, and he believed that more expedient trials would lead to more just outcomes.CHAPTER 2
The Atlanta Ripper
In 1888, the people of London, England, were shocked and terrified by a series of brutal and horrific murders, the likes of which had never before been seen. The victims were all women, most of whom earned a living as prostitutes. Each victim was killed in the same brutal manner, in which her throat was slashed so severely as to almost sever her head from her body. Most of the victims' bodies had also been mutilated; some had their internal organs removed. The murderer became known as Jack the Ripper. The murders rocked the British nation and made equally shocking news in the United States.
In 1911, a series of murders began in Atlanta that would not only terrify residents but also earn the perpetrator the title of the Atlanta Ripper. It is believed that the infamous Atlanta Ripper murdered and mutilated at least twenty black and mixed-race women, most of whom were young, attractive servant girls. The reign of crime lasted over a period of four years.
The first murder is believed to have taken place on January 22, 1911, on which date Rosa Trice was found killed near Gardner Street, with her head crushed and her throat slashed from ear to ear. Only a few weeks later, on February 19, 1911, an unnamed victim was found in the Grant Park area, killed in the same brutal manner. The murders then peaked in a frantic killing spree in the spring of that year, with a new body turning up every Sunday for several consecutive weeks.
SEGREGATION PROMPTS UNDERREPORTING
The Jim Crow laws, which had been in place since 1865, mandated segregation of blacks and whites in public places. This meant that black and white children could not be educated in the same schools and black and white people could not travel in the same sections of public transport, and even mandated that a black barber could not cut a white person's hair. The racial divide and its ensuing tensions may well account for the noticeable omission of reports of the Ripper's activities in the Atlanta Constitution. The Constitution, like the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Georgian, employed mainly white journalists at the time, and its circulation was predominantly throughout the white communities. It was not until the body of Belle Walker was found on May 29, 1911, that the Constitution mentioned the killings at all, and then the story was reduced to a brief paragraph on the seventh page.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder and Mystery in Atlanta"
Copyright © 2009 Corinna Underwood.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Atlanta's First Homicides,
Copycat Killer: The Atlanta Ripper,
A Case of Doubt: The Murder of Mary Phagan,
Unsolved: The DeFoors Murders,
The Disappearing Bride: Mary Shotwell Little,
Serial Killing: The Atlanta Youth Murders,
Murder for Hire: The Killing of Lita McClinton Sullivan,
Hate Crime: LGBT Murders in Atlanta,
Appendix I. Historical Markers,
Appendix II. Organizations and Contacts,
Appendix III. Further Reading,
About the Author,