February 5, 2010 12:07:00 PM
The unpleasant history of racism in Mississippi through the 1950s has plenty of familiar stories of black people persecuted and white people allowed to persecute because that was just the way things were done back then. All-white juries could be counted upon to come to the conclusion that a white man could not be guilty of a crime against a black one.
There was, however, a case famous in its time in which the courts, and Mississippi in general, knew of the guilt of a white man who had murdered three black children in 1950, horrifying the nation and the state. It resulted in the sort of justice that was far from universal at the time.
The importance of this story was forgotten, even by Stokes McMillan, whose father had played an important role in the way it was reported. McMillan is an engineer who has never before been an author, but his One Night of Madness (Oak Harbor Publishing) represents a superb recounting of the lead up to a crime, the crime itself, and the aftermath.
The episode is worth remembering, but McMillan never would have started on it if it were not for a family scrapbook. At the time of the crime, his father was a photographer for The Star-Herald of Kosciusko, and was on scene when the criminals were captured. The picture he made of the arrest won a best picture award from the National Press Photographers Association. This was important enough that his wife made a scrapbook of that and other photos of the case along with newspaper clippings.
McMillan inherited the scrapbook and might show it to his sons, but it wasn''t until 2001 that he really looked through the scrapbook and saw it anew: "a story of violence, fear, race, love, revenge, politics, and courtroom drama captured me." He thus began visiting the sites involved, looking through newspaper records, and doing interviews, because he thought this was a story other people needed to know.
Much of the story is distressing to read. The main characters are sharecroppers, moonshiners, good-old-boys and low-lifes, but the way McMillan goes into their histories like a good novelist produces a sense of inevitability about the crime and the outcome.
There is a long reach into the past, touching on slave days and leading to Howard Turner, a farmer and logger who lost his first wife to tuberculosis after she bore him a son, Leon. Howard was as poor as the black farmers around him, and had been used to hearing his mother, a former Southern belle, make derogatory remarks about blacks. He went on to take as a lover a black woman who bore him children (with the sorts of nicknames traditionally given to black children, like Bug, Hop and Rat).
The son Leon had trouble accepting that his father was siring black children, and as he grew up he developed an explosive temper; he left the home and got married in 1931. He wasn''t cut out to be a farmer; he was a superb shot and got food that way, but his main vocation was moonshining, with an avocation of womanizing. He depended on other citizens, many of them black, to distribute the liquor for him, and he enjoyed not a little of it himself. He was handsome and could be charming, but everyone around the town of Newport in Attala County knew to be careful around him.
That didn''t help a fellow patron at a dance in nearby Sallis in 1940; Turner showed up with moonshine and a pistol, and committed a senseless attack that almost killed the other man. A sentence of 10 years at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman was interrupted when in 1943 his grandmother walked all the way to Jackson and promised the governor that Turner would behave. Of course, Turner didn''t change, and he was quickly arrested again for moonshining, with his parole revoked.
Newport didn''t see him again until his release in 1948. The next year, he was joined by the brothers Malcolm and Windol Whitt, who came to Newport to be with their relatives, but were literally there because of the toss of a coin -- one wanted to visit family in Huntsville first, but the coin toss went to the one preferring family in Newport. All might have been different had that coin gone the other way.
The brothers met up by chance with Turner, and all got liquored up. Turner led the brothers to the house of a black sharecropper and highway worker, Thomas Harris. Harris had sold moonshine for Turner before, but this time Turner went for drunken malice and an attempt to rape McMillan''s wife. Sheriff Roy Braswell had been alerted that Turner and the brothers were on a tear, and was able to arrest the troublemakers before more serious crimes occurred.
The three miscreants were able to break out of the deteriorating local hoosegow, and lay low while Turner plotted some sort of mistaken idea of revenge. When they returned in drunken vengeance to Harris''s home, Turner shot Harris in the back, and killed three of his children. A huge manhunt followed, allowing McMillan to introduce us to the colorful character Hogjaw Mullen.
Hogjaw is one of the most likeable characters in the book, despite his taking the revolving door in and out of Parchman, sentenced for various crimes including murder. He could not handle being on the outside, but in his time in Parchman, he had become a trustee.
"Hogjaw was in his element," writes McMillan, "As the prison''s chief dog handler, he had authority over dozens of men; he had a pearl-handled revolver in a strap-on holster to wear during manhunts; he had all the food he wanted... Parchman was where he belonged; the one place in the world where he fit in perfectly." It was Hogjaw and his dogs that tracked the three criminals down, an exciting capture that includes the best line of dialogue in the book: "Leon, this is Hogjaw Mullen. You know I''m badder than you. Come on out."
The trial was a sensation, with national press informing the curiosity of all of America about what sort of justice Mississippi might grant to the accused. Realizing that there was national interest, McMillan''s father was responsible for convincing the judge that photography be allowed at the trial, and he was responsible for ensuring proper protocols, such as no use of flash bulbs.
Testimony in the trial included that from Thomas Harris, on a stretcher because of the bullet injury to his back; he was to die three weeks after the trial. In the final argument, the District Attorney had to remind the all-white jury of basics, and it shows perfectly the attitude of the time and place: "The law says the crime is killing a human being and it doesn''t say what color. Oh, yes, they''re just Negroes, but gentlemen, this family was in its home; and no matter how humble, a man has no right to be safe if not in his home."
The jury convicted Turner, who was to die in Parchman eighteen years later. There was considerable approval that he had been found guilty, but many felt he deserved the death penalty.
Among them was William Faulkner, who wrote a letter to a Memphis paper praising the conviction but not the sentence. Faulkner''s letter, reproduced here, became a focus of discussion and debate after the sentencing was all settled. It appears in the last part of the book; it is fitting that Faulkner winds up doing a star turn here in a story filled with characters that would have fit nicely into Yoknapatawpha County.
Stokes McMillan has produced a fine book. He has a good eye for important detail, and peppers his prose with the sort of homey metaphors that spring from his Attala County roots; land in the Mississippi Delta is "flatter than felt on a dance hall pool table," or "the tension was thicker than cold sorghum molasses." Best of all, this is a page turner but more: it is a reminder of a strange past and of one small step toward racial fairness.
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]