Violence

Barnes dies after hunting accident.

Twenty-five-year-old Sylvester Barnes Jr. was shot in the stomach in a hunting accident in January 1948. He died in Wilson’s Mercy Hospital.

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In 1942, Sylvester Barnes Jr. registered for the World War II draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 23 October 1923 in Wayne County, N.C.; his contact was Willie Best, Route 3, Box 217, Wilson; and he worked for Sylvester Barnes Sr., Route 3, Box 216, Wilson.

More than 17 years after his death, Sylvester Barnes’ mother Mary Barnes applied for a military headstone for him. Per the application, he had served in the U.S. Navy Reserve from 1943 to 1945 and ranked as a Seaman 1st Class. The stone was to be delivered to Darden Memorial Funeral Home.

The story of a 27 year-old murder.

In August 1912, 17 year-old Nash County boy Lieutenant Hawkins was found stabbed to death on his employer Iredell Williams’ farm near the Wilson County line. His body had lain in a pasture overnight. The Wilmington Morning Star reported that two men, Paul Powell and Oscar Eatmon, were quickly arrested.  

Eatmon was convicted “of having something to do with the killing.” (What?) He served five years in state prison and returned to Wilson. Meanwhile, Paul Powell’s brother Dempsey Powell, also involved in the incident, left the state. When he returned in May 1939 for one of his brothers’ funeral, he was arrested and charged with Hawkins’ murder. 

Wilson Daily Times, 27 May 1939.

A mere five days later, the Nashville Graphic reported that Powell had been acquitted. Eatmon was the star witness. Eatmon, Hawkins, Powell and others had argued on their way home from church. A fight broke out, and Hawkins was slain. Eatmon was taken into custody as a witness, but “at a preliminary hearing talked too much and was arrested in connection with the crime.” Powell  returned to North Carolina about 1933 and saw and talked to Eatmon, but Eatmon had not reported him. When Powell came back in 1939, Eatmon alerted authorities. 

All good until cross examination. Defense attorney I.T. Valentine confronted Eatmon with a sworn statement from the 1912 trial record. Eatmon had testified then that another boy, named Wiggins, had stabbed Hawkins, and Powell had only pulled Wiggins off the victim. After reviewing this bombshell, the judge directed a “not guilty” verdict, and Powell’s ordeal was over. 

——

  • Dempsey Powell — in the 1900 census of Jackson township, Nash County, N.C.: Ichabod Powell, 50, farmer; wife Mary A., 50; children Mary A., 20, Martha, 18, Joseph, 16, Margarett, 14, Geneva, 12, Billie P., 11, Dempsey H., 9, and Paul J., 6; and nephew Henry Lassiter, 28. In the 1910 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County: farmer William T. Powell, 38; wife Mary, 21; brother-in-law Dempsie, 16; and sister-in-law Martha, 6. On 14 February 1912, Dempsey Powell, 19, of Old Fields township, son of Tom and Clarky Powell, married Bessie Hedgpeth, 18, of Oldfields township, daughter of Dock and Clara Hedgpeth, in Wilson County. [Is this the same Dempsey?]
  • Paul Powell — Paul Powell died 21 July 1966 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 30 May 1894 in Nash County to Jabe [Ichabod] Powell and Mary Ann Lancaster [Lassiter]; lived at 1304 Carolina Street; and was never married. 
  • Oscar Eatmon — in the 1910 census of Jackson township, Nash County, Oscar Eatmon is a 16 year-old farm laborer living with his widower father Jarman Eatmon.
  • Lieutenant Hawkins — in the 1910 census of Jackson township, Nash County, Lieutenant Hawkins is a 14 year-old farm laborer living with his parents Bynum and Julia Hawkins.
  • I.T. Valentine — Itimous Thaddeus Valentine, later an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

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.

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”

Boxcar.

News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 8 June 1913.

Joe Saunders was arrested for shooting Charles Coley at a house at 114 Wiggins Street. Wilson Hospital and Tubercular Home (later known as Mercy) did not open until 1914. Other hospitals in town would not admit African-Americans, so Coley was carried to a boxcar to die or recuperate.

 

The ax slaying of Ollie Richardson.

White farmer Walter Butts split open the head of farm worker Ollie Richardson after an argument. The next day, following a preliminary hearing, a justice of the peace dismissed charges against Butts.

A guide to the article: the lighter text in the second half, beginning “A preliminary hearing …,” is the first edition version. The heavier text at the beginning, which details what happened at the hearing, was inserted later.

In a nutshell, deputy sheriffs responding to the scene arrested Butts and William Moore, an African-American material witness, who was later allowed to post bond. (After all, he was not accused of committing any crime.) Butts did not testify at the hearing the next day. Moore  testified that Butts and Richardson argued, and Richardson said he was going to straighten Butts out and advanced on Butts, but Moore did not actually see anything in Richardson’s hands. “Two Negro girls” testified to something similar. Unnamed others testified that they saw a pitchfork under Richardson’s body after he’d been brained. In other words, there was no actual testimony that Richardson had threatened Butts with a pitchfork before Butts smashed him in the skull with an ax. Nonetheless, a justice of the peace declared the incident a justifiable homicide and let Butts go.

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Wilson Daily Times, 2 July 1946.

In the 1920 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: Frank Richardson, 28; wife Mary W., 24; and children Lonie, 7, Ollie, 5, Bettie, 3, and Earlie, 1.

In the 1930 census of Wilson Mills township, Johnston County: Frank Richardson, 40; wife Harriet, 27; and children Lonie, 17, Bettie, 16, Ollie, 14, Early, 13, Beatrice, 10, Earnest L., 11, Vernell, 8, Gertrue, 6, Dump, 5, Tobus W., 5, Odel, 6 months, and Rosevelt, 2.

On 23 September 1935, Ollie F. Richardson, 21, of Cross Roads, son of Frank and Mary Richardson, married Crematha Wiggins, 20, of Wilson, daughter of Littleton Wiggins and Annie Royal, in Wilson in the presence of Oscar Eatman, Frank Richardson and Anna H. Royal.

In 1940, Ollie Frank Richardson registered for the World War II in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born 20 August 1914 in Wilson; his contact was wife Crematha Richardson; and he worked for Otis Nichols, Bailey, Johnston County.

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He was waylaid and shot to death.

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Wilson Daily Times, 10 July 1923.

To compound tragedy, the 8 July 1923 homicide of Jim Guess was a family affair. Accused murderer Gray Reid was married to Mary Hagans, daughter of James and Hannah Hagans. (And Gray’s brother Elijah Reid was married to Mary’s sister Ida.) Jim Hagans was Jim Guess’ first cousin; his father Lawrence Hagans was brother to Margaret Hagans Guess.

  • Jim Hagans

In the 1880 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: Laurence Hagans, 30, wife Mary, 24, and children James, 6, and Elizabeth, 3.

James Hagans, 20, of Gardners, son of Lawrence and Mary Hagans, married Hannah Bynum, 19, of Gardners, daughter of Joe and Hazel Bynum, on 20 November 1895 at Joe Bynum’s in Stantonsburg in the presence of Alber Bardin, Moses Woodard, and Joe Hagans.

In the 1910 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Jim Haggans, 30; wife Hannah, 30; and children Ida, 13, Tom, 12, Mary, 8, James, 6, Alice, 5, Charles, 3, Etta, 2, and twins Jonas and Joe, 3 months.

Elijah Reid, 21, of Gardners township, son of Gray Reid, married Ida Hagans, 18, of Gardners, daughter of James and Hannah Hagans, on 13 January 1915 on the Old Whitehead farm. Witnesses were Robert Hilliard, Lawrence Hagans and J.B. Owens.

In the 1920 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: James Hagans, 45; wife Annie, 40; and children James, 17, M. Allice, 13, Etta, 11, Joe and Jonah, 9, Nelia, 7, Haggar, 6, and Lawrence, 4; and cousin Will Coley, 25.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: James Hagans, 53; wife Nora, 50; sons John, 18, Joe, 18, and Laurence, 16; daughter Etta, 21; grandchildren Elizabeth, 15, Sudie M., 13, Leeoma, 10, David, 5, Bessie M., 3, Lillie M., 1, and Charlie Reid, 4; and daughter Ida Reid, 32.

James Hagans died 27 June 1936 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born in Wilson County to Lawrence Hagans and Mary Gray; was married to Nora Hagans; and was a farmer. Oscar Hagans, 1114 Atlantic Street, was informant.

  • Grey Read — Gray Reid.

In the 1900 census of Otter Creek township, Edgecombe County: farmer Gray Read, 47; wife Lucy, 37; and children Joseph R., 18, Nancy L., 7, Elija, 5, Mart Eva, 4, Jona, 3, and Lucy, 5 months. [Gray Reid Jr. is missing from this household.]

In the 1910 census of Otter Creek township, Edgecombe County: on Tarboro and Wilson Road, Amos Reid, 64; lodger Gray Reid, 57, widower, and his children Gray, 18, Eligh, 15, Margrett, 13, and John, 12.

On 14 February 1915, Gray Reed Jr., 23, of Gardners township, son of Gray Reed and Lucy [last name not given], married Mary Hagans, 18, of Gardners township, daughter of James and Hannah Hagans, in Stantonsburg, Wilson County. Primitive Baptist minister Ruffin Hyman performed the ceremony at John H. Morgan‘s in the presence of Morgan, Hilliard Reed of Wilson, and John Thomas Reed of Stantonsburg.

In 1917, Gray Reid registered for the World War I draft in Wilson County. Per his registration card, he was born July 1891 in Edgecombe County; lived in Elm City; worked on the Wilson and Grantham farm near Wilson; had a wife and one child; and had an injured leg.

In the 1920 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Ruff Reed, 28; wife Mary, 19; and daughters Enice, 3, Hannah, 1, and Runcie, 1 month.

In the 1940 census of Burgaw township, Pender County, North Carolina: at North Carolina State Prison Camp, Gray Reid, 48, inmate #29137, who lived in Macclesfield, Edgecombe County, in 1935. [This was evidently pursuant to crime subsequent to the murder of Jim Guest.]

Gray Reid died 11 March 1950 in Wilson, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was born 22 November 1891 in Edgecombe County to Gray Reid and Lucy Joyner; was a widower; and worked as a laborer. Elijah Reid, 300 South Reid Street, Wilson, was informant.

  • Jim Guess

On 23 April 1922, James Guess, 49, of Gardners township, married Allice Davis, 46, of Gardners township, in Stantonsburg, Wilson County. Ruffin Hyman, Primitive Baptist minister performed the ceremony in the presence of Emma Hyman, George Hagans, and Bennie Guess.

James Guess died 8 July 1923 in Saratoga township, Wilson County, of “Homicide by Gunshot wound. No doctor in attendance. He was waylaid & Shot to death.” Per his death certificate, he was born about 1879 in Edgecombe County to Luke Guess of Edgecombe County and Margarett Hagans of Wilson County; was a farmer for Albert Harrell; and was married. Alice Guess was informant.

“He was waylaid & Shot to death”

Under the influence of conjure dust.

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Wilson Daily Times, 17 October 1911.

  • Adaline Williams — in the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Moore Street, Adaline Williams, 30, house servant, and daughter Bluma, 4.
  • William Arrington — perhaps, in the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: teamster Sam Daniel, 25; wife Pauline, 22; son Harry, 2; boarders Will Arrington, 50, widower day laborer, and son Will Jr., 13; and boarder Mattie Parker, 19.