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.”
This story, as breathlessly reported by the Wilson Daily Times, hit all the marks for maximum titillation — a strange “big black” criminal, a shoot-out in Darktown, a triumphant police officer.
Wilson Daily Times, 17 December 1924.
In a nutshell (with facts, or purported ones, augmented by a Wilson Mirror article published the same day): Around midnight, Officers Buck Stallings and Jesse Hamilton were patrolling near the Atlantic Coast Line railroad station when they encountered Pearl Morris, who had just been badly beaten “in a boarding house on East Nash street … formerly known as the Carnation Hotel.” (Though I’ve never seen it called by this name, I am certain this is the Orange Hotel.) The policemen followed Morris to the boarding house; a 25 to 30-year old man standing in the doorway turned and ran inside when he saw them. (Per the Mirror, “The police were informed … of the stranger’s presence in town and also were acquainted with the fact that he was carrying a gun ….”) The officers confronted the man on the second floor balcony, and he allegedly shot Stallings in the hand. Stallings and Hamilton opened fire; the man unloaded, turned and leapt over the railing. When he hit the ground, he did not move. (Per the Mirror, a shot sent him “whirling around and crashed him up against the upper porch railing.”) “A colored physician happened to be in the crowd” — William Mitchner, who lived a few doors down? — and declared the man near death. He was loaded into somebody’s car and rushed to Mercy Hospital, but died en route. (Again, the Mirror casts a more dramatic scene: Stallings, despite his injuries, holding back the crowd with his gun until reinforcements arrived.)
The man’s body was taken to police headquarters. A search of his clothing yielded a name, Thomas Leak, and an address in Durham, N.C. He had been shot four times by two guns, with one shot passing through his heart and killing him. Meanwhile, Officer Stallings basked in adulation at the station house, cracking jokes and recounting his adventure. (The Mirror: “His escape from death was little short of miraculous.”)
Without explaining the discrepancy with the information found in his clothes, the Times named the strange man as Willie Leach. The Mirror added that he had come from Columbia, S.C., or Durham, and his suitcase contained “a strange assortment of articles, razors, four or five fountain pens, carton of cigarettes, screw driver, vanity box and numerous other things.”
Within hours of the shooting, a coroner’s jury held an inquest and found the homicide of Willie Leach justified.
In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Green Street, painter David Morris, 34; wife Lillian, 30; and children Pearl E., 12, Charles, 9, Lillian, 7, and David E., 7 months. [The Morrises appear to have lived on the first block of Green east of the railroad in a block that was otherwise occupied by white families.)
In the 1916 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Morris Pearl (c) dom h 114 N Pettigrew
In the 1925 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Morris Pearl (c) cook h 215 Stantonsburg
Pearl Morris died 16 October 1936 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 28 years old; was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to David Morris of Henderson, N.C., and Lillian Hinson of Boston; and lived at 723 East Nash Street. Mable Phillips, Smith Street, was informant.
Causes of death (or, just as often, manners of death) listed on death certificates in the early twentieth century could be surprisingly detailed or confoundedly vague. Then, as now, most people died of disease, but fatal injuries — accidental and intentional — were distressingly common, as seen below.
Atkinson, Lafayett. Died 19 March 1933, Spring Hill township, Wilson County; was married to Etta Atkinson; was 48 years old; was born in Wilson County to Handy Atkinson and Susan Barnes; and worked as a farmer. “Stabbed in heart — murdered with knife”
Atkinson, Stephen Clyde. Died 9 January 1923, Spring Hill township, Wilson County; single; born 26 March 1899 to S.T. Atkinson and Zillie Barnes; worked as a farmer; buried in Boyetts cemetery. “Embolism (cardiac) — Homicide — Gunshot wound thigh.”
Exum, Leslie. Died 4 July 1934, Wilson; married to Beulah Exum; resided at 304 North Reid; age 27 years, 9 months; taxi driver; born in Wayne County to Willie Exum and Ada Artis; informant, Beulah Exum. “Homicide — Hit over stomach with Brick.”
Fields, Peter. Died 5 May 1923, Cross Roads township, Wilson County; single; about 33 years old; worked as a tenant farmer for W.J. Scott; born Wilson County to Daniel Hodge and Chritchania Allen; buried in Lamm Cemetery. “Murdered by Walter Bethea. Death was instantly.”
Gaston, Fred. Died 17 November 1916, Wilson township, Wilson County; single; 27 years old; farm hand; born in Elm City to William Gaston of Virginia and Marriah Battle of North Carolina; informant, Elmer Gaston. “Injury of the brain, Homicidal — Blow with flue in head.”
Hawkins, Ernest. Died 7 March 1923, Toisnot township, Wilson County; married to SulesterBatts; about 20 years old; worked as a tenant farmer for H.C. Crumpler; born in Nash County to Lola Maryland. “Shot by County Sherrif Stilling whiskey.”
Hinnant, Cleophus. Died 8 December 1923, Cross Roads township, Wilson County; married Gessie Hinnant; born 24 March 1902 in Wilson County to Josiah Hinnant and Victoria Wilder; buried in Hinnant graveyard. “Was murdered. Shot to death by a man named Turner Williamson.”
Johnson, Herbert. Died 20 July 1923, Wilson township, Wilson County; married to Winnie Johnson; age 40; farmer for Petway & Anderson; born in Duplin County to Joseph Johnson and Rania Pearson; buried in Colman cemetery, Wilson. “No Doctor. Shot Gun. Cornes Inquest. Kill by gun shot. — Homicide.”
Perkins, Columbus. Died 2 January 1918, Saratoga township, Wilson County; was married; was 35 to 40 years old; and was a farmer/laborer. “Shot through head by unknown party or parties — Dr. S.H. Crocker held the inquest Stantonsburg — Shot to death by Walter Hopkins.”
Taylor, George. Died 4 May 1918, Wilson, Wilson County; married to Maggie Taylor; aged about 44; carpenter; born Wilson County to Jordan Taylor and Winnie [last name unknown]; buried in Wilson cemetery. “Shot by Police & killed while under arrest.”
In a nutshell (with some augmented facts): policeman Leon M. Cooper arrested George Taylor on suspicion of theft of a chicken from Morris Barker. Taylor asked for leniency. As they walked toward the police station, Taylor “broke and ran,” and Cooper fired several shots in his direction “to scare him.” Taylor was struck and killed. After an inquest, a coroner’s jury exonerated Cooper. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
George Taylor — in the 1880 census of Saulston township, Wayne County: farmer Jordan Taylor, 34; wife Winnfred, 43; and children Diana Taylor, 15, Nellie Langston, 14, and Robert, 12, Eliza, 11, George, 10, Rufus, 8, Mary, 9, and Jordan Taylor, 6. On 9 February 1892, George Taylor, 21, of the Town of Wilson, son of Jordan and Winnie Taylor, married Kate Lane, 20, of the Town of Wilson, daughter of CharityLane. Baptist minister Crocket Best performed the ceremony in the presence of Mary Best, W.A. Rogers, and Vinae Araton(?). In the 1900 census of Wilson, Wilson County: farm laborer George Taylor, 30; wife Catherine, 29; and daughter Nancy, 6, were listed in the household of widow Ellen M. Clark, 40. George and Catherine were servants. On 19 December 1906, George Taylor, 35, of Wilson, son of Jordan and Winnie Taylor, married Maggie Batchelor, 30, of Wilson, daughter of Peter Batchelor. A.M.E. Zion minister N.D. King performed the ceremony at Jordan Taylor’s house in the presence of Leiston Pitt, Henry Stewart, Jordan Taylor and Willie Mitchell. In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: wagon factory laborer George Taylor, 38; wife Marguerett, 32; and daughter Nancy, 16, a private cook. Per his death certificate, George Taylor died 4 May 1918, “shot by police & killed while under arrest.” He was about 44 years old; was born in Wilson County to Jordan Taylor and Winnie (last name unknown); and worked as a carpenter.
Officer Cooper — in the 1920 Wilson city directory: Cooper Leon M police h 410 N Tarboro
Morris Barker — in the 1920 Wilson city directory, Barker was listed as proprietor of a department store at 113-115 South Tarboro. (Lithuania-born Barker lived on Maplewood Avenue and was part of Wilson’s tiny Jewish community.)
Kenan and Tarboro Streets
(A) C. Culpepper & Son, (B) Morris Barker’s 5 & 10-cent store. Kenan Street is just beyond the left edge of this section of the 1913 Sanborn fire insurance map of Wilson.
Mr. Culpepper’s shop — in the 1920 Wilson city directory: Cicero Culpepper & Son is listed as a horseshoer and Wheelwright at 222-224 South Tarboro.
On the afternoon of 24 March 1916, Wilson chief of police John A. Wiggs approached two black men foraging for old bottles in a trash pile near the city cemetery. Before long, one man lay dead in the street.
Newspapers across North Carolina picked up the story immediately, reporting it with varying degrees of detail.
Wilmington Morning Star, 25 March 1916.
Concord Times (Concord, N.C.), 27 March 1916.
Western Sentinel (Winston-Salem, N.C.), 28 March 1916.
After a few days, the Everything, a newspaper published in Greensboro, offered a tentative assessment.
Everything (Greensboro, N.C.), 1 April 1916.
Four months later, Wiggs went to trial. The verdict: Not guilty.
Salisbury Evening Post, 7 September 1916.
Phillip Worth seems to have been a newcomer to Wilson and to have had no one in town who knew him well. His death certificate contains little information (not even that he may have been from Alamance County) beyond his cause of death: “bullet wound in heart from pistol in hands of officer of law.”