1920s

The mysterious deaths of Miles and Annie Pearson.

An anonymous letter arrived at the sheriff’s office on 13 January 1922. Miles Pearson had killed his wife, it said, and fled the scene, leaving her lying the yard. The sheriff and several deputies rushed to the scene to find Annie Pearson‘s body, shot through the heart and mutilated by hungry animals. 

“Pistol shot wound through the heart. Murdered by husband”

The Daily Times reported on 14 January that the Pearsons were sharecroppers who had been on this farm, owned by Lithuanian Jewish brothers-in-law Morris Barker and Morris Popkin, just weeks. Their animals were found tied up and famished. 

… and then Miles Pearson was found in the woods, shot in the back.

Wilson Daily Times, 16 January 1922.

A Black man named Jim McCullen and two white men, prowling about the farm, found Pearson’s body stretched out behind a log with a shotgun nearby. Suddenly, it seems, everyone recalled a man and woman who’d been living with the Pearsons and were nowhere to be found. A week earlier, some said, they had briefly borrowed a horse and buggy from George Barnes, but had not been seen since.

“Pistol shot wound Murdered by unknown parties No Doctor in Attendance”

Were the Pearson murders ever solved?

Confession.

In February 1938, glorified gossip columnist John G. Thomas penned a column about the guilt-soaked confession of William Mercer, who had killed Wade Farmer in the summer of 1921, then fled the state. Mercer had joined a church in his adopted home of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and his conscience preyed on him as he stood in the choir stand.

Wilson Daily Times, 25 February 1938.

The details are difficult to pin down. When the Daily Times article broke the story of William Mercer, alias Green, on 21 February 1938, it quoted B.E. Howard, the sheriff at the time of the murder, who admitted he could barely recall the details of the incident — had the victim had been shot or stabbed? — though he thought it occurred after a “negro dance or frolic.” On the other hand, the 27 February Raleigh News and Observer reported that an argument had broken out at a church gathering, and Farmer “got in the road” of a bullet fired from Mercer’s gun.

Wade Farmer’s death certificate does not shed much light:

Per the document, Wade Farmer of Macclesfield died in Gardners township near Wilbanks in May 1922.  He was 22 years old, married to Minnie Farmer, and farmed for Essex Webb, who could provide no information about his parents. The medical certification section is so faded as to be almost unreadable, except for “198,” which was the code for “homicide by cutting or piercing instrument.” The place and date of burial and undertaker fields are similarly washed out, and the registrar did not sign it until 3 January 1923.

On 5 March 1938, the Daily Times reported that Mercer had pled guilty to Farmer’s murder, and a judge had sentenced the 42 year-old to one and-a-half to three years, saying he had been merciful because Mercer had given himself up voluntarily.

But had he really?

Wilson Times, 7 September 1934.

Just four years before Mercer’s “confession,” around the time he claimed he had gotten religion, the Times reported that he had been indicted for Wade Farmer’s May 1922 murder and was to be extradited from New Jersey. Mercer had been arrested in Bridgeton, New Jersey, forty miles south of Philadelphia.

Why, then, the framing of Mercer’s come-to-Jesus moment as the astonishing re-appearance after 17 years of a man who’d gone underground for a crime barely remembered? 

Well, in part, because the man arrested in New Jersey in 1934 and hauled back to Wilson was not William Mercer. Rather, he was Ben Faison, originally of Faison, North Carolina. Though an informant positively identified the man as Mercer, several others who “looked him over” said he was not. On 21 September, the Daily Times informed its readers that Wilson police nonetheless would hold Faison until they were satisfied of his identity. 

So, while law enforcement had never forgotten Farmer’s murder, Mercer’s apprehension was entirely the result of his own doing. He had made an apparently upstanding life for himself in Pennsylvania and had completely cut ties with Wilson in order to do so. When his mother Fannie Mercer visited him at the Wilson County jail, it was the first time she had seen her son in 17 years.

News and Observer, 27 February 1938.

Sunshine Alley.

As noted in the earlier “Lost Neighborhoods” posts, downtown Wilson was once shot through with narrow alleys packed with the tiny double-shotgun dwellings of African-American tobacco workers. The whole of Sunshine Alley ran one and a half blocks between Tarboro and Mercer Streets, in the shadow of Liggett & Meyers’ tobacco warehouse and within a block of Planter’s Warehouse, Banner, Monk-Adams, Farmers, and Watson Warehouses. The neighborhood survived a 1924 fire, but by the end of 1928 it was gone — obliterated to make way for the massive Smith’s Warehouses A and B. (You can read a whole page about Smith’s in the nomination report for the Wilson Central Business-Tobacco Warehouse Historic District, but you’ll find no mention of Sunshine Alley.)

Here’s Smith’s in the 1940 aerial of Wilson, occupying the entire block bounded by East Jones, South Goldsboro, Hines, and Mercer Streets.

Today there’s nothing in this block but a Family Dollar store. Stand at the mouth of its driveway at Goldsboro Street. Look west:

Then east:

This was Sunshine Alley.

Photos by Lisa Y. Henderson, September 2020.

The obituary of Mary Price.

Wilson Daily Times, 12 December 1928.

Mary Price died 11 December 1928 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, her age was unobtainable; she was a widow; she lived at 519 Church Street, Wilson; and she was born in Duplin County to Clarrissa Whitley. Informant was Thomas O. Davis, Wilson.

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

The obituary of Henry Powell.

Wilson Daily Times, 1 October 1928.

——

In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: brothers James Powell, 24, and Henry Powell, 22, both farm laborers.

In the 1908 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Powell Henry (c) laborer h 136 Manchester; also, Powell James (c) laborer h 136 Manchester

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: James Powell, 33, farm laborer; wife Martha, 28; daughters Mattie B., 4, and Charity, 1; and lodger Henry Powell, 32, farm laborer.

In the 1912 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Powell Henry (c) fireman h East nr Nash

On 6 November 1912, Henry Powell, 34, married Sarah E. Hagans, 25, at the bride’s house in Wilson. Primitive Baptist elder Jonah Williams performed the ceremony in the presence of Dempsey Lassiter, Alus Harris, and Charles Parker.

In the 1920 census of Jackson township, Nash County: on Raleigh and Tarboro Road, farmer Henry Powell, 43; wife Sarah, 35; and children Eva, 16, Hallah, 13, Mildred, 11, John, 8, Maso, 6, Ruth, 5, Annie B., 3, Charlie L., 2, and Millie, 3, months.

Cora Miller Powell died 13 November 1926 in Jackson township, Nash County. Per her death certificate, she was born 5 September 1926 in Nash County to Henry Powell and Sarah Hagans, both of Wilson County; and was buried in Nash County. Henry Powell was informant.

Henry Powell died 29 September 1928 in Jackson township, Nash County. Per his death certificate, he was born November 1877 in Wilson County to Ichabod Powell and Mary Ann Lassiter; was married to Sarah Powell; was a farmer; and was buried in Nash County.

Sarah Powell filed for letters of administration in Nash County Superior Court on 9 October 1928. His estate was estimated at $5500, of which $4500 was land. His heirs were his wife and children Ruth Powell, Geneva Woodard, Mahala Powell, J.H. Powell, Mildred Powell, Maso Powell, Annie Belle Powell, Christine Powell, Charles L. Powell, Irene Powell, Freeman Powell, Junius Powell, and Lorenzo Powell.

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

Emma Jane Farmer fatally injured.

Wilson Daily Times, 11 December 1928.

The Daily Times misnamed the victim of this terrible accident. Emma Jane Barnes Farmer was killed near Holden’s Crossroads while standing behind her father John Barnes‘ automobile holding a lantern. Reddin Walston, a white teenager, was arrested and charged with her death, but freed after a grand jury refused to indict him. He was rearrested in January 1928 after a judge received additional evidence in the case. I have not been able to determine whether Walston was convicted. However, nine years later, Walston’s uncle shot and killed him in a dispute over liquor.

——

Tom Farmer, 43, of Wilson township, married Emma Barnes, 25, of Gardners township, on 24 October 1927. Primitive Baptist minister John R. Barnes performed the ceremony in Gardners township in the presence of Charlie Davis, Florence Battle, and Elijah Barnes

Emma Jane Farmer died 11 December 1928 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 26 years old; was born in Wilson County to John Barnes and Bettie Parker; was married to Thomas Farmer; and was a tenant farmer on Sallie Gray’s farm. Her cause of death was “concussion of brain” six hours after an auto accident.

Two balls in the dead man’s forehead.

Wilson Daily Times, 29 September 1921.

On 30 December 1921, the Wilson Daily Times reported the cases the Superior Court recently heard, including:

It was a curious crime. Jack Anna Ricks Rich had inherited a farm from her husband ten years earlier, and as noted above, Charlie Martin was a long-time tenant. In fact, when Martin registered for the World War I draft in 1918, he listed Jack Ann Rich as both his employer and his nearest relative.

Charlie Martin was listed in the 1900 and 1910 censuses of Cross Roads township, Wilson County, as a single farm laborer boarding in the households of white farmers. He seems to have had no close family. When he died at Rich’s hands, a neighbor struggled to provide adequate information about him. Martin’s birthdate was unknown, and his age was “look to be 45 or 50 years.” His parents were unknown, but his birthplace was thought to be Ohio (though census records listed North Carolina.)

“No Doctor Kill By Pistol Shot”

The obituary of Moses Woodard.

Wilson Daily Times, 24 August 1928.

——

In 1918, Moses Woodard registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 6 November 1873; lived at 615 Darden, Wilson; worked as a laborer for Imperial Tobacco Company, Ltd.; and his nearest relative was wife Mary Woodard.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 615 Darden, carpenter Moses Woodard, 47, and wife Mary, 32.

“Septicemia due to a burn on finger. Arm had to be opened in two places”

Hat tip to J. Robert Boykin III for sharing this clipping.

Pioneer Boys run from Goldsboro to Wilson.

Wilson Daily Times, 20 June 1928.

  • James T. Parker — James Thomas Parker. In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1003 Washington Street, chauffeur George Connie, 41; wife Nona, 36, laundress; and laborers Cora Parker, 38, widowed cook, and her son James T., 15.
  • Jim L. Parker — probably, in the 1930 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Parker James L (c) student h 305 Pender
  • Joe Haskins — Joseph Franklin Haskins. In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 1200 Wainwright, valued at $1700, Coca-Cola Plant laborer Damp Haskins, 24; wife Sudie B., 21; children Damp Jr., 2, and Hellen, 6 months; mother Hester, 72; brother Jospeh , 18; sister Martha Pitt, 52, servant; and nephew Jim R. Haskins, 10.
  • Fletcher Pierce — Fletcher Forest Pierce. In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 905 Vance Street, insurance agent Nazareth Pierce, 54; wife Ada, seamstress; son Fletcher, 17, and daughter Elmira, 25. 
  • Esmond Langley — Esmond Connell Langley. In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 901 Viola Street, grocery store merchant Jarrette J. Langley; wife Mary, 49; and children Ivary, 21 public school teacher, Esmond, 19, grocery store delivery boy, Ruttena, 16, Alcesta, 14, and Eunice, 8.
  • Chas. W. Gilliam — in the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 805 East Nash Street, valued at $8000, physician Matthew S. Gilliam, 45; wife Annie L., 42; and children Charles W., 17, Matthew, 15, Emily, 13, George T., 12, and Herman, 10.
  • Chas. Edwards — probably: Charles Edwards registered for the World War II draft in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1940. Per his registration card, he was born in Wilson, N.C., on 20 July 1912; he lived at 1342 Fulton Street, Brooklyn (updated to 1165 Fulton Street); his contact was sister Scottie Carter, 150 Wyckoff Street, Brooklyn; and he was employed by Etta Webb, 1144-A Fulton Street, Brooklyn.
  • James E. Farmer — James Edward Farmer. In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 706 East Green, plasterer John A. Farmer, 60; wife Nona, 61; sons James E., 17, and Woodie, 22, barber; and daughter-in-law Savana, 22, lodge bookkeeper. [His parents, in fact, were John W. and Edmonia Barnes Farmer.]

Thanks to J. Robert Boykin III for sharing this clipping.

A rowboat capsized, drowning two.

Wilson Daily Times, 21 May 1928.

  • Tom Wilson

In the 1910 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: on Finch Mill Road, farmer Thomas W. Wilson, 42; wife Anna, 33; and children Winnie, 12, Vina, 10, Corina, 8, Hester, 6, Thomas, 4, and Georgianna, 2.

In the 1920 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer Tom Wilson, 56; wife Leanna, 40; and children Sarah, 17, Ester, 15, Thomas, 14, Georgia, 11, Nancy, 9, Gola, 7, and Margie, 3; and sister Nance, 16.

Thomas Wilson Jr. died 20 May 1928 in Wilson township, Wilson County, “drowned, boat capsized.” Per his death certificate, he was 22 years old; single; a farmer; born in Wilson County to Thomas Wilson Sr. of Caswell County and Leanna Briggs of Pearson [Person] County; and buried in Rountree cemetery.

  • Babe Tyson

Leanda Tyson died 20 May 1928 in Wilson township, Wilson County, “drowned, boat capsized.” Per his death certificate, he was 18 years old; single; a farmer; born in Wayne County to Walter Tyson and Olive Parker; and buried in Rountree cemetery. Walter Tyson, Elm City, was informant.

  • Jarvis Lofton

Eddie Jarvis Lofton registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County in 1940. Per his registration card, he was born 1 May 1911 in Wayne County, N.C.; lived at 816 Mercer Street; his contact was mother Tynce Lofton, 902 West Broad Street; and he worked for Loftin Cafe, Tarboro Street, Wilson.

Thanks to J. Robert Boykin III for sharing this clipping.