homicide

The murder of Maggie Wooten Coleman.

Wilson Daily Times, 26 December 1922.

The “ginger cake colored” woman was Maggie Coleman.

“Struck with stick on forehead and a gash under chin by party unknown (murdered). Sudden Death.”

Per a 26 December Daily Times article, “About noon Jim came into this office and said that his wife had not returned from a trip to Wilson on Thursday where she came to buy her Christmas. He was told that a body of a negro woman had been found and went to the undertaking establishment where he identified the body as that of his wife. It is believed that Jim wanted to get rid of her and took her to the woods and killed her, and then pretended he knew nothing about it.”

Maggie Coleman was buried on Christmas Eve, and her husband James Coleman was arrested for her murder.

The Independent (Elizabeth City, N.C.), 29 December 1922.

On 18 January 1923, the Daily Times reported on the inquest over Coleman’s murder. Jim Coleman did not testify on his own behalf. Maggie Coleman had been found about about two miles north of Wilson near the Atlantic Coast Line railroad. She and her husband lived west of the city “up Nash road.”

June Ross testified that two weeks before Maggie’s death, during a visit to Jim’s store, he had witnessed the two arguing. “Jim told her to shut up and reached up after a pistol.” Ross left. Albert Staples testified that he had seen the Colemans in Wilson on Thursday, but did not know if they had come together. Maggie had been at High’s store and Jim at “the old Mose Rountrees Corner.”

An unnamed witness said he had seen Jim chase Maggie with a knife and said “if she said anything about the other woman he would cut her head off.” “They lived bad together witnesses said.”

Dallas Vail testified that he knew nothing about the killing, but “My wife’s mother bought a pair of shoes, and Jim’s wife wanted them and said Jim would pay for them. Saw Jim who said he would pay for shoes if his wife picked cotton smart. I went later after the money, and Jim said he bought several pair of shoes for her and she had run through them. He said she don’t need any shoes. She has a good pair on now, and the best thing for me to do is to get the shoes and give back to you. He gave me back the shoes. That was Saturday morning when the woman was found dead. I asked when she left home. He replied Thursday. I asked him why he had not looked for her. He said he thought she might have gone to see a relative. He said he and Bill Thorne looked for her. She did not return and they did not go hunting. He said he sent his wife to Mr. Sauls in Grab Neck and Mr. Sauls said he let her have $2.00.” 

Wilson Best testified that about December 1, on Warren Street in Wilson, Jim Coleman told him his wife tried to poison him, and he had been staying by himself for three months and had been eating can goods. “He offered me $100.00 to kill her.”

Hattie Vail (the shoe seller) testified that the report “about the woman Henrietta Knight who lived near them and Jim was bad.” 

Paul Barnes testified that he lived up Nash road about a mile from Jim Coleman and knew Coleman’s [mule] team. He said he encountered a mule and wagon headed toward Wilson on Nash road on Friday night between Lamm’s store and Etheridge. A person standing up in the wagon turned his head to the side and Barnes could not see his face, but believed him to be Coleman. The person was wearing a man’s coat and seemed to be a colored person. 

Tom Coleman testified that there had been much trouble over the past two months between Jim and Maggie Coleman over Henrietta Knight. Jim threatened to kill Maggie before she could testify against Knight [presumably in an adultery action.] Tom was at Henrietta’s house one night in December and asked for a Pepsi-Cola. Maggie also asked for one, and Jim cursed at her. Tom paid for the drink. Jim threatened to hit Maggie with the bottle, and Tom stayed his hand. Jim was Tom’s nephew, and Maggie was Tom’s wife’s half-sister. 

Prosecutor Oliver Rand read a statement by Elam Ross, who testified that he was at his father’s house near Barnes crossing and saw a man and woman going north toward Elm City. The woman was wearing a red sweater. “She went down the embankment and the man followed. Both disappeared in the woods.” Ross stated he went to the jail and identified Coleman as the man he had seen going into the woods.

Jim Baker testified that he lived near Coleman about five years. He saw Jim Thursday night on a wagon coming to Wilson about eleven at night, but did not pay attention. He heard on Saturday that Jim’s wife was dead. 

Jim Coleman was tried and convicted of Maggie Coleman’s murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Three years later, Roy Armstrong was arrested and charged with the same crime. Armstrong had been a suspect at the time of Coleman’s murder, but had escaped prosecution by leaving town. According to “the evidence,” Roy Armstrong and Maggie Coleman argued over ten dollars she found, and he killed her with a blow to the head. Armstrong went to Coleman’s husband, who said “I don’t care,” and demanded twenty dollars for his escape. Coleman, though he had always protested his own innocence, apparently did not implicate Armstrong until Armstrong was arrested. 

Wilson Daily Times, 7 November 1925.

Despite this development, little changed. Nearly a year later, Armstrong was still in jail awaiting prosecution, and I have found no record that he was ever tried. 

In February and March 1930, Jim Coleman’s attorneys published a series of notices that he intended to apply for a pardon for his wife’s murder, having served a little more than seven years.

Wilson Daily Times, 6 March 1930.  

The application apparently was turned down. However, Coleman walked free three years later when the governor of North Carolina paroled him for risking his life to prevent a boiler explosion at the prison camp saw mill. (Note the article states Coleman had served 18 years of a 20-year sentence. In fact, he served no more than ten years. 

Charlotte Observer, 18 April 1930.

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  • Maggie Coleman and James Coleman

In the 1900 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County: Benjaman Wooten, 51; wife Clara, 55; and children Elizabeth, 19, Joseph, 15, Maggie, 11, Eddie, 5, and Willie, 11 months.

In the 1900 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County: James Coleman, 15, was a servant in the household of white farmer John F. Flowers, 29.

Jim Coleman, 22, of Taylor township, son of Gray and Harriet Coleman, married Maggie Wootten, 18, of Wilson township, daughter of Ben and Clara Wootten, at Ben Wooten’s in Wilson township. Free Will Baptist minister Daniel Blount performed the ceremony in the presence of Ben Wooten, Eddie Coleman, and Spisey Barnes

In the 1910 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: sawmill laborer James Coleman, 25; wife Maggie, 21; and children Bettie, 3, and Grady, 3 months.

In 1918, Jim Coleman registered for the World War II draft in Wilson. Per his draft registration card, he was born 1 October 1880; lived at Route 3, Wilson; was a farmer [“owns home”]; and his nearest relative was wife Maggie Coleman.

In the 1920 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: Jim Coleman, 35; wife Maggie, 34; and children Grady, 11, Sanders, 7, Claydee and Collie, 6, and Leroy, 2.

Perhaps, in the 1920 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer Tom Wilson, 56; wife Leanna, 50; and children Sarah, 17, Ester, 15, Thomas, 14, Georgia, 11, Nancy, 9, Gola, 7, and Margie, 3; plus sister Nanie, 16.

In the 1920 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: on Finch Mill Road, farmer June Ross, 40; wife Nancy, 38; and children Sylvina, 14, Nancy Ann, 11, Charles Willie, 8, John Ed, 5, and Marse Robert, 1.

  • Dallas and Hattie Vail

On 8 February 1914, Dallas Vails, 34, of Wayne County, son of Ned and Rachel Vails, married Hattie Barnes, 23, of Wayne County, daughter of Perry and Louisa Barnes, at Turner Swamp church. Primitive Baptist minister Jonah Williams performed the ceremony in the presence of Thomas Ayres of Lucama, Geo. Robbin of Spring Hope, and C.H. Hagans of Sharpsburg.

In the 1900 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County: farmer James Joyner, 27; wife Mahalia, 26; and boarders Auston Daws, 28, farm laborer, and Roy Armstrong, 3.

In the 1910 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: on Wilbanks and Elm City Road, farmer Guston Armstrong, 73; wife Pricilla, 66; and grandchildren John C. Geer, 14, Roy Armstrong, 12, Frank Armstrong, 11, and Paulina Armstrong, 5. 

In the 1920 census of Toisnot township, Wilson County: farm laborer Roy Armstrong, 23; wife Mary, 22; children Daisey, 3, and Mary, 2; and boarder Gerin(?) Bullock, 21.

Williams killed in South Wilson.

More articles about the mysterious circumstances under which Joe Gaffney (or Goffney) shot and killed his girlfriend Blanche Williams in September 1921.

The breaking news:

Wilmington Morning Star, 26 September 1921.

The Daily Times‘ edition, published the same day, gave a blow-by-blow of the testimony adduced at the preliminary hearing. Both Gaffney and Williams were married to other people, but were in a relationship. Williams had come to Wilson from Goldsboro to work in domestic service. Gaffney and Williams were at the home of a woman named Joe Lee (or Joe Brodie) when Clifton Johnson brought in a gun. While Gaffney was examining it, he accidentally shot Williams. However, witnesses claimed they overheard Gaffney say, “If you go with that man I will kill you.” When Williams stepped in the house, Gaffney shot her, then threatened everyone else in the house before he fled.

In December 1921, Joe Gaffney was convicted of Williams’ manslaughter. He drew a twelve-month sentence “to be hired out to pay costs.”

Wilson Daily Times, 23 December 1921.

Wilson Daily Times, 30 December 1921.

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  • Joe Gaffney

In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer Lemon Barnes, 51; wife Dollie Ann, 51; children Ida, 26, Lemon Jr., 20, Mattie, 17, Charlie, 15, and Howard, 12; and stepsons Cornelius Neal, 12, Paul Goffney, 17, and Joseph Goffney, 15.

  • Blanche Williams

Blanch Williams died 24 September 1921 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 24 years old; was single; was born in Wayne County to Wash Smith and Laura Williams; and worked as a common laborer. Selina Craig of Goldsboro, N.C., was informant.

Cause of death: “Revolver wound of head (probably accidental)”

Sanders slain by Officer Hartis.

Wilson Daily Times, 2 October 1935.

In his 2005 memoir Son of the Rough South, journalist Karl Fleming painted a dark picture of police officer Philemon Ray Hartis in the late 1940s, a dozen years after he shot Ernest Sanders to death. In a chapter titled “My First Bad Cop,” Fleming introduced Hartis as the detective whose job it was to follow what was happening across the tracks in “n*ggertown” and in other pockets of the town’s demimonde, who ran white madames and black bootleggers as informants, who hoarded the dirty secrets of the white upper class, and who smacked around any black body he deemed deserving.

Earnest Sanders’ death was ruled a justifiable homicide, “shot by policeman.”

Six weeks later, white man charged with murder of Lovett Cameron.

Wilson Daily Times, 16 May 1927.

Lovett Cameron died six weeks after Tom Moore struck him in the head with a glass bottle at Rose Bud crossroads, near the modern-day Bridgestone Firestone plant.

I have not been able to find Cameron’s death certificate or anything further about his murder.

 

 

Murdered while gambling.

An afternoon of gambling ends in the murder of Will Brown, and the frantic flight of the gunman and his friends.

Wilson Daily Times, 13 July 1913.

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  • Frank Tart — in the 1920 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Frank Tart, 30, is listed among laborers at Wilson County jail.
  • Will Brown 
  • Lum King — in the 1920 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Lum King, 35, is listed among laborers at Wilson County jail.
  • Otto King — in the 1910 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: Jim Bass, 19, and lodgers James Allen, 21, and Otto King, 18, all farm laborers.
  • Peter Ward
  • Will Barron

Drapped the wrong one.

Casual violence among young men is not new. Unsurprisingly, historically newspapers have sensationalized such violence when it involved black men, playing into the stereotypes and fear-mongering of the era.

I recognize the viciousness of this propaganda.* I also recognize articles reporting violent crime as invaluable, if distorted, glimpses into the lives of ordinary African-Americans during a period in which they were poorly documented. Beyond the basic facts of the terrible crime reported here, what can we learn?

News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 30 July 1907.

  • “on the Owens place” — This reference to the owner of the farm on which the events took place indicates the protagonists were likely sharecroppers or tenant farmers. The Saratoga Road is today’s U.S. Highway 264-A (formerly N.C. Highway 91.)
  • “a negro dance and barbecue supper was given by Robert Hilliard” — Hilliard, who was Black, hosted a Saturday night party on the farm, perhaps in a barn. He sold barbecue — surely Eastern North Carolina-style, with a vinegar-and-red pepper sauce — and sandwiches to patrons from a stand near the road.
  • “a wheezy fiddle” — the source of music for the dance. (Who was the fiddler? Was he locally renowned? Was there accompaniment? Was fiddling a common skill? I can’t name a single one from this era.)
  • “‘Hilliard is the n*gger I wanted to drap.” — The meaning and usage of this now-extreme pejorative has shifted over time. Here, it is almost, but not quite, neutral. More interesting, to me, is the now-archaic pronunciation “drap” for the  verb “drop.”

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  • Will Scarborough 

On 29 January 1903, Will Scarborough, 21, of Saratoga, son of Ashley and Ellen Scarborough, married Lucy Anderson, 18, of Wilson, daughter of Bob and Winnie Anderson, in Wilson County. Jack Bynum applied for the license.

Will Scarborough died 6 August 1968 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 90 years old; was the son of Ashley Scarborough and Ellen [maiden name unknown]; was a widower; lived in Stantonsburg; and was buried at Saint Delight cemetery, Walstonburg. Informant was James E. Best, Stantonsburg.

  • Robert Hilliard

On 1 November 1900, Robert Hilliard, 20, of Wilson County, son of Jack and Laura Hilliard, married Ailsy Bynum, 19, of Wilson County, daughter of West and Sopha Bynum, in Gardners township, Wilson County.

Robert George Hilliard Sr. died 27 February 1944 at his home at 211 Finch Street, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 66 years old; was born in Wilson County to Jack Hilliard and Laura [maiden name unknown]; was a widower; was engaged in farming; and was buried in Rountree cemetery. Mattie Moore, 211 Finch Street, was informant.

  • Riley Faison  

On 8 May 1902, Riley Faison, 30, of Wilson County, son of Henry and Sophia Faison, married Frances Farmer, 26, of Wilson County, daughter of Tom and Polly Farmer, at “Mr. Frank Barnes Plantation.” A.M.E. Zion elder N.L. Overton performed the ceremony in the presence of Mattie V. Overton, James Smith, and Polly Farmer.

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*See Brent Staples’ opinion piece in the 11 July 2021 New York Times, “How the White Press Wrote Off Black America.”

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

The murder of Cora Lee Carr.

Wilson Daily Times, 22 April 1924.

The victim, in fact, was named Cora Lee Carr. I have not found more about her terrible death.

——

Cora Lee Carr died 21 April 1924 in Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was about 24 years old; was married to Earnest Carr; and was born in Norfolk, Virginia. Willie Williams was informant. Cause of death: “Crushed scull with axe Homicide Instant death.”

Clipping courtesy of J. Robert Boykin III.

Blackwell accidentally shot his wife to death.

Wilson Daily Times, 11 June 1920.

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On 20 August 1904, William Blackwell, 29, of Taylors township, son of Nancy Howard, married Sally Ann Taylor, 18, of Taylor township, daughter of Ellen and Dora Taylor, in Wilson County.

In the 1910 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: on Sharp Road, William Blackwell, 29; wife Sallie A., 20; and son Bennie, 11 months.

In the 1920 census of Taylors township, Wilson County: tenant farmer William Blackwell, 45; wife Sally Ann, 29; and children Bennie, 10, Amos, 7, Jakie, 5, and Nancy, 1.

Sallie Ann Blackwell died 10 June 1920 in Taylors township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was born in 1882 in Wilson County to Dora Locus and was married. Cause of death: “gunshot wound, shot accidentally.”

William Blackwell died 28 January 1928 in Old Fields township, Wilson County, of smallpox. Per his death certificate, he was 50 years old; was born in Wilson County to Nancy Howard; was a farmer; and was married to Carrie Blackwell. Bennie Blackwell was informant.

Exum dies after being struck with brick.

Wilson Daily Times, 6 July 1934.

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In the 1920 census of Nahunta township, Wayne County, N.C.: farmer Jesse Artis, 37; widowed mother Loucinda, 67; sister Ada, 35; brother Claud, 30; and nephew Leslie Exum, 13.

In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Exum Leslie (c) r 310 N Reid

On 11 December 1929, Leslie Exum, 23, of Wilson, son of Will and Ada Exum, married Beulah Artis, 20, of Nahunta township, daughter of W.M. and Etta Artis, in Nahunta township, Wayne County, N.C. A.M.E. Zion minister J.E. Kennedy performed the ceremony in the presence of C.E. Artis of Wilson, V.E. Manly of Mount Olive, and E.G. Boney of Mount Olive. [Leslie Exum and Beulah Artis were cousins. His maternal grandfather Jesse Artis was the brother of her father William M. Artis, making them first cousins once removed. Columbus E. Artis, their great-uncle and uncle, respectively, was a witness to the ceremony.]

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 307 North Reid, hospital orderly Henry A. Best, 38; wife Anney C., 40, laundress; children Thelma, 13, Dubsette, 8, and Reatha, 6; and lodgers Leslie, 23, taxi driver, and Bertha Exam, 20.

Leslie Exum died 4 July 1934 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 27 years old; was born in Wayne County to Willie Exum and Ada Artis; lived at 304 North Reid Street; was married to Beulah Exum; and worked as a taxi driver.