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.