Like that Lee Marvin cutthroat, “Glen Valance” was destined to live a brutal life with a violent end.
In the early morning of 16 June 1964, the 21-year-old Valance broke into the home of his former employer, Richard Strang. He had a standing dispute with the Bordertown farmer over wages but his real grudge ran deeper than that. Strang had bemusedly read the sensitive youth’s diary to other farmhands weeks before, resulting in an altercation — and, after Valance drove off with some of his effects, a police report and an arrest.
Valance nursed “bad thoughts” against his tormenter, he muttered to his family. They turned out worse than anyone could have expected: bad enough to justify his adopted alias.
As Strang and his wife dozed in bed, Valance leveled his rifle at the hated ex-boss, and leveled the score. Then he seized the waking Suzanne Strang and raped her there in the bed sodden with the gore of her husband’s warm corpse.
As Valance hightailed it out of Kooroon Station, Suzanne Strang phoned police — and the resulting roadblocks snared the murderer that very day, with the murder weapon right there in the passenger seat … actually riding shotgun. Valance mounted an unsuccessful insanity defense.
In it, a Clavell still affectionate for her big brother points to their savagely abusive mother as the root cause of the adult Paul/Glen’s horrific crime. (Lillian says that her father shielded her from the worst of any domestic violence, but Paul had no father in his life and no such protection.)
I know she burnt his hands on the stove. I know she put his face through a window. Once she held a knife to his throat and said she’d kill him if he ever stole anything from the cupboard again. I believe that (abuse) led very much to his crime.
Valance was hanged in an unused guard tower (the “Hanging Tower”) of Adelaide Gaol. The facility is unused today, but the date November 24, 1964 and the letters GSV still remain printed on the brick wall.
On this date in 2011, China executed a karaoke bar proprietor in Zhejiang province for a rape spree.
Not to be confused with his documentary filmmaker countryman, Chen Weijun “targeted young innocent middle-school girls after seducing them with money and violently threatening them,” said the official report. “He raped 14 Lishui middle-school girls, including nine children, in cars, karaoke bars, hotels and underground parking lots.” (The legal definition of a “child” here is 14 years old, which is why some students were and some were not.)
On this date in 1999, Gary Heidnik was executed in Pennsylvania for a horrific spree that saw him kidnap five African-American women to a makeshift torture dungeon in his Philadelphia basement.
Intelligent but socially maladroit and diagnosed from his youthful U.S. Army service as mentally ill, Heidnik gave a preview of his later notoriety by signing his girlfriend’s sister out of a mental hospital in 1978 and locking her up in his basement to rape. He spent most of his resulting sentence in a mental institution of his own, refusing even to speak for two-plus years after claiming in 1980 that Satan had stopped up his throat.
Afflictions of the infernal and the criminal justice variety somehow failed to impede the growth of Heidnik’s personal sham church and tax dodge, the “United Church of the Ministers of God” from piling up a half-million in assets operating from the mid-1970s until Heidnik’s last arrest in 1987.
Heidnik got out of detention for the 1978 kidnap-rape in 1983. After a short mail-order marriage to a Filipina woman who ditched him in 1986 for beating and raping her, he finally went full Gary Heidnik.
On November 25, 1986, Heidnik authored the first of the abductions that would etch his name in serial killer lore, snatching Josefina Rivera and imprisoning her in the cellar of his house at 3520 North Marshall Street. (Rivera recently published an autobiographical account of her captivity.)
For the next five months, Heidnik’s underdark played host to its owner’s unspeakable depravities. Five women he kept there for various periods, shackled to pipes and subject to the gratifications of his violent sexual predilections. One woman, Sandra Lindsay, died of the maltreatment, leading to Heidnik’s closest accidental brush with the law: the stench of incinerating pieces of her dismembered corpse in his oven attracted the complaints of neighbors. Heidnik coolly shooed away the responding police officers with a story about burning the roast.
His prison’s most distinctive chilling feature was a tomblike hole handy for punishing resistance; a second woman, Deborah Dudley, died when Heidnik flooded and electrocuted this crevasse with her in it.
Considering the diabolically systematic nature of the torture dungeon, it’s actually a lucky job that it didn’t go on much, much longer. Remarkably, Heidnik’s last kidnap victim Agnes Adams was able to talk her way into a spot of temporary leave which she naturally used to summon disbelieving police and arrest Heidnik on March 23, 1987.
Once exposed to public view the Marshall Street monster could scarcely fail to leave a cultural impression. Among other things, Heidnik is one of several serial killers on whom Thomas Harris based the fictional murderer “Buffalo Bill” in his 1988 novel Silence of the Lambs.
On this date in 1646, a black slave named Jan Creoli was executed in Manhattan, part of what was then called New Netherland and is now New York.
Creoli had been caught having carnal knowledge of a ten-year-old boy, another slave named Manuel Congo. Several of his own fellow Africans turned him in to the authorities. When Manuel Congo was brought face-to-face with Creoli, the boy “without being threatened in any way confessed to the deed in the presence of the prisoner.”
The statement that a ten-year-old child who had been raped might “confess to the deed” seems startling to modern eyes, but it is highly significant for understanding Dutch authorities’ actions. As far as New Netherland’s officials were concerned, Manuel Congo was not just a victim but also a participant in the crime of sodomy despite his age and the fact that he had been raped. Dutch officials in New Netherland and in the United Provinces regarded sodomy as one of the worst social crimes possible, every bit as serious as murder.
Confronted with his victim’s testimony, Creoli admitted his guilt and shamefacedly added that he’d also committed sodomy while in the Dutch Caribbean colony of Curacao.
He was accordingly executed: tied to stake, garrotted, and his body burned to ashes. Little Manuel got off lightly: he was only whipped.
It was a more bestial appetite that saw him into the guillotine’s annals: on October 27, he pursuaded an eight-year-old schoolgirl, the daughter of his benefactor publican, to come along with him. Once he had her in the swamps, Carrein attempted to ravish little Cathy Petit. As Cathy struggled, Carrein later explained — he confessed almost immediately — “I saw red. I felt lost in the idea that she would denounce me, so I threw her in the pond.”
Her drowned corpse was discovered the next day.
The growing reluctance of the French state to slice off heads in the 1970s did not express itself in interminable wait times on death row. Carrein was condemned to death on July 12, 1976, during the run-up to Christian Ranucci‘s execution for a similar abduction/child murder.
That conviction was vacated a few months later for a trial irregularity, but the retrial took place in the wake of another high-profile trial: anti-death penalty crusader Robert Badinter had successfully defended a man named Patrick Henry from the guillotine in yet another nationally known child murder case, winning a life sentence instead. There was no small public outcry over this outcome, and Carrein’s prosecutor explicitly called on the jury in his second case to avenge with severity to Carrein the “rape of public conscience” perpetrated by leniency to Henry. (London Times, June 24, 1977)
Pierre Lefrance, speaking for Carrein’s defense, ventured his own appeal to the jurors’ wider sensibilities — in this case, of the growing likelihood that capital punishment was nearing the end of the line in France: “Were the death penalty to be abolished at last in the next year or two, would you wish that Carrein was the last man guillotined in France?”
The invaluable French-language guillotine.cultureforum.net has a forum thread on this case; be sure to note the appearance on page 3 of a poster claiming to be the daughter of Jerome Carrein’s first wife.
Here Dr Lambe, the conjurer lyes,
Against his will untimely dies
The Divell did show himselfe a Glutton
In taking this Lambe before he was mutton
The Divell in Hell will rost him there
Whome the Prentises basted here.
In Hell they wondred when he came
To see among the Goats a Lambe.
Friday the 13th of June in 1628 bore foul luck for John Lambe, an aged astrologer, magician, and folk healer so hated of Londoners that a mob fell on him as he returned from theater this evening and butchered him in the street.
While we hope to justify Lambe’s presence in these pages under our going interest in lynchings, his curious homicide transgresses the boundaries of Executed Today as surely as did Lambe transgress those of Stuart London.
North of 80 at the time of his death — although still vigorous enough at that age to defend himself with a sword — Lambe came to misfortunate public notoriety in the 1620s. These were crisis years when the crown sowed the dragon’s teeth that would in later years devour Charles I. Lambe’s slaughter was a little taste of worse to come.
Sources from the period view Lambe as both a shameless fraud and a vile wizard, with no consistency save between the propositions save for their vitriol. Lambe seems like he got the worst of both perceptions at once: he faced a 1619 complaint to the Royal College of Physicians that he was a “mountebank and impostor.” [sic] Three years after that, he was in the dock for witchcraft
What Lambe did do was beat two charges in as many years that could easily have hanged him: the aforementioned witchcraft case in 1622, and a rape charge in 1624. Evidence in either case was underwhelming, but the charges themselves were incendiary; Lambe’s knack for slithering out of the hangman’s grasp must have suggested for the man on the street a channel to sinister higher powers.
Commoners bestirred themselves about this time against the realm’s own higher powers — the politically ham-fisted new king Charles and his grapples with Parliament to secure sufficient tax revenue for his inept war with France and Spain.
In all this mess, the Duke of Buckingham — royal favorite and possible lover of Charles’s father — was the number two man in the kingdom, and the number one object of hate.
In the mid-1620s, Lambe became conjoined in the public eye with Buckingham — as Buckingham’s demon-summoning henchman, say. Was it the Duke’s pull that spared his familiar the noose? Was it Lambe’s necromancy that captured the king in the thrall of his detested aide?
Did it even matter?
From the distance of centuries the particulars of the supposed affiliation between the two seems difficult to establish,* but it sufficed for Lambe’s death (and Buckingham’s too) that they were analogues for one another, that their respective villainies could be multiplied one atop the other.
Despite all that tinder lying around, we don’t know the exact spark for Lambe’s murder on June 13, 1628. A few months before, Buckingham had fled a humiliating military defeat in France; Parliament and King were at loggerheads that June, forcing the reluctant Charles to accede to a Petition of Right on June 7 that remains to this day a bedrock document of Britons’ liberties.
On the 13th, Lambe was recognized by “the boyes of the towne, and other unruly people” attending a play at the Fortune Playhouse.
As he left it, some began to follow him. Maybe it was just one insult too tartly answered that multiplied these hooligans, or maybe there was a ready rabble that immediately took to his heels. The frightened Lamb picked his way to the city walls menaced all the way by his lynch mob, hired a few soldiers as an ad hoc bodyguard, and by the dark of night tried desperately to find some sort of shelter from the crowd growing in both number and hostility. Under the mob’s threat, a tavern put him out, and a barrister likewise; his guards fled their posts; and someone at last laid his hands on John Lambe. By the time the frenzy had passed, Lambe’s “skull was broken, one of his eyes hung out of his head, and all parties of his body bruised and wounded so much, that no part was left to receive a wound.” Many contemporaries must have understood it as the just punishment that courts could not manage to exact.
Woodcut of the assault on Lambe outside the Windmill Tavern, from the title page of A Briefe Description of the Notorious Life of Iohn Lambe (1628)
The libels now rejoiced openly in Lambe’s summary justice — nobody was ever prosecuted for his murder — and anticipated another one to follow it.
“Who rules the Kingdome? The King. Who rules the King? The Duke. Who rules the Duke? The Devill,” one menacing placard announced. “And that the libellers there professe, Lett the Duke look to it; for they intend shortly to use him worse then they did his Doctor, and if thinges be not shortly reformed, they will work a reformation themselves.”
Their thirst for “reformation” was not long delayed.
Ten weeks after Lambe’s murder, a disaffected army officer named John Felton at last enacted the swelling popular sentiment and assassinated Buckingham.
“The Shepheards struck, The sheepe are fledd,” one unsympathetic doggerel taunted, recalling the dead wizard whose supernatural exertions could no longer protect his wicked patron. “For want of Lambe the Wolfe is dead.”
* So says Alastair Bellany, whose “The Murder of John Lambe: Crowd Violence, Court Scandal and Popular Politics in Early Seventeenth-Century England” in Past and Present, vol. 200, no. 1 is a principal source for this post. (It’s here, but behind academic paywalls.)
On this date in 1994, an uncooperative Charles Rodman Campbell was lashed to a board to keep him upright, and hanged by the neck until dead at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
According to this Seattle Times timeline of his life and crimes, Campbell had been getting in trouble since he was a child, to the extent that by the time he was seventeen his mother had given up on him and never wanted him back home again. His crimes began with burglary and drug use but quickly escalated into violence.
Charles Rodman Campbell is a killer straight out of a nightmare. There should have been some way to keep him locked up forever. But he slipped through the loopholes of our justice system and he was allowed freedom to stalk his unknowing victims. If ever there was a case that pitted innocence against pure evil, it is this one. He was out of his cage, and he was aware of every facet of her life, and yet his potential prey felt only a chill premonition of danger. He was a man consumed with rage and the need for revenge. Because of a neglectful bureaucracy, Campbell was allowed to take not one life — but three.
The sordid story that lead to his execution began on December 11, 1974, when Campbell broke into the rural Clearview, Washington home of Renae Louise Wicklund. He held a knife to the throat of her baby daughter, Shannah, forced Renae to perform oral sex on him, then fled the scene.
It took over a year to arrest him, but Renae identified him as her attacker and in 1976 he was convicted of burglary, sodomy and first-degree assault and sentenced to thirty years in prison.
In an appalling oversight, Campbell was put on work-release for good behavior in 1981. His behavior in the Monroe Reformatory hadn’t been good at all: he’d racked up multiple infractions for drug trafficking and sexual and physical violence against his fellow inmates. A prison psychologist described him as “uncaring of others, conscienceless, malevolently intolerant of the social order which imprisons him, and imminently harmful to all who directly or indirectly capture his attention or interest.”
It wasn’t until much, much too late that the parole board discovered the Monroe Reformatory was not supplying them with full records of prisoners’ infractions. Hundreds of inmates, it turned out, had been released without a complete evaluation of their behavior in custody.
No surprise, Campbell’s behavior on work-release wasn’t good either. He displayed “poor attitude and behavior,” he was caught drinking alcohol, and his ex-wife claimed he slipped away from his job twice to rape her.
But somehow, the authorities neglected to return him to prison.
Renae Wicklund still lived in the Clearview home where she had been attacked in 1974, and she wasn’t notified when Campbell was let out of prison. In January 1982, he was transferred to a work-release residence less than ten miles from Clearview and he began staking out her house, planning his next move.
On April 14, Campbell went to her home and found her there with Shannah (now eight years old) and a neighbor, Barbara Hendrickson, who along with Renae had testified against him at the rape trial.
Campbell killed them all by slashing their throats. Renae got special treatment: she was also beaten, strangled, stripped naked and her genitals mutilated.
He’d finally committed an offense grave enough to revoke his work-release status.
Campbell was arrested almost immediately and, at his trial, had little to say for himself. It can’t have been hard for the jury to choose the death sentence. As a result of the triple homicide, Washington state passed a law requiring that victims of violent crime be informed when their attackers are released from prison.
During his twelve years of appeals, Campbell refused to make the choice and argued that being made to choose meant the state was effectively forcing him to commit suicide. The default method at the time for a prisoner who refused to choose was hanging,* and Campbell further claimed that was cruel and unusual punishment.
His case actually made it up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it declined to hear his appeal.
When his time came, the prison staff had to use pepper spray to persuade him to come out of his cell, strap him to a board and drag him to the scaffold, and even then he made things difficult by turning his head this way and that while they tried to secure the hood and noose. But he couldn’t delay the end for long. The prison guards would later find makeshift weapons in his cell, including a four-inch piece of metal in his cell that had been sharpened into a blade.
As of this writing, Campbell was the last man to be judicially hanged in Washington state (though not the last in the U.S.).
* In 1996, the default method of execution in Washington changed to lethal injection.
On this date in 1922, Colin Campbell Ross was hanged for the rape-murder of a little girl, still on the scaffold vainly protesting his innocence.
I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don’t know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family.
Ninety-odd years later, folks finally believe him.
Ross had a couple of brushes with the law already to his rap sheet when 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke went missing in the vicinity of Ross’s Melbourne dive bar on December 30, 1921.
In a classic instance of police tunnel vision, the proximity of a violent felon to the murdered girl — for Alma’s body was found the next morning in nearby Gun Alley, which bestowed a popular moniker upon the case — soon formed the theory of the crime, the predetermined conclusion into which incoming evidence was read.
(It certainly catalyzed the investigation that the case became a media sensation. Rupert Murdoch’s father through the Melbourne Heraldshamelessly hounded the Crown for each day’s delay, and jacked up the reward purse.)
Witnesses established that Ross had been tending bar all that afternoon; to account for that, it was necessary to posit that Ross had plied his prey with wine for several hours until he could finish her off after his shift.
Once arrested, despite continuing to assert his innocence to all and sundry, Ross proved to suffer from that universal tendency accused men have to senselessly unburden themselves to a random cellmate. The Crown could scarce shirk its public duty by omitting the incriminating evidence merely because it was related by a convicted perjurer. Ross, his accuser claimed, “said he was simply burning to tell someone.”
Still more damningly, a blanket from Ross’s home proved to have some strands of auburn hair glancingly similar to Alma Tirtschke’s — or possibly Ross’s girlfriend.
A Crown analyst from ventured to compare these under a microscope, and would later put it to the court that they looked like Alma’s. This would be the first time hair forensics were deployed in an Australian courtroom.
Was it not possible, asked Ross’s counsel — who genuinely believed his client’s innocence and fought the corner until the very last — that it might be almost literally anyone else’s auburn hair?
“Yes; quite possible, but not probable,” was the reply from the witness. “Because of the general similarity of hair.” Oh.
Tests Morgan was able to arrange with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and then with police both agreed that under modern microscopic examination the hairs in question did not bear even a surface resemblance. With the support of the Victorian Attorney General and the Australian Supreme Court, Ross was granted a posthumous pardon on May 27, 2008 — the first person ever so distinguished in Victoria’s history.
Tirtschke’s own family, too, supported this result: they had long harbored their own doubts about the verdict. “She didn’t say who was the right man but she said the wrong man was hung,”* one descendant said of her grandmother’s recollections.
* Though a lesser horror compared to being railroaded in the first place, Ross’s hanging was also badly botched. An experimental four-strand rope failed to sever his spinal cord, leaving his dangling body to convulse as Ross wheezed his last breaths through a torn windpipe.
On this date in 1875, artilleryman Richard Coates (or “Coote”) was hanged for murder.
He’d been detailed as a schoolteacher for the Purfleetgarrison. One day deep into his cups, he raped a 6-year-old* girl. And then killed her by bashing her head into a privy.
The “Purfleet Murder” got all kinds of copy on the Victorian crime wire, for the crime was very simple and simply horrendous. After he had done with his victim, Coates tucked her broken body under his greatcoat like a shoplifter and smuggled her down to the river to dispose of.
Adding humiliation to the greater sins of the day, he was unable there to get the body up over the palings, so he abandoned it inside the fence. Presumably no veteran hand at homicide, Coates appeared palpably agitated to basically everyone else who saw him that day, and his clothes turned up bloodstained. He was an easy suspect to collar.
Richard Coates, that cruel murderer,
Now is cold within his grave,
None could show him any pity,
None stretch for a hand to save;
His horrid crime was so unmanly,
I’m sure we no excuse could give,
He did disgrace our gallant soldiers,
And he was not fit to live.
Richard Coates, the Purfleet murderer,
On Easter Monday met his doom;
He killed the soldier’s little daughter,
Now he’s dead and in his tomb.
For the murder of poor Alice Bougham
He justly was condemned to die,
For a murder so outrageous,
The country for his death did cry;
You never heard or ever read of
Such treatment to a little child,
Altho’ so innocent and so loving,
Cruelly murdered and defiled.
A full confession of the murder
To the champlain he has made,
He has told the truth to those around him,
For which his poor old mother prayed;
He took his victim to the closet,
Frightful was his conduct there,
He took her life in a cruel manner,
Before his death he did declare.
He tried to throw his victim’s body
Over the pailings in the sea,
The fence was high, he could not do it,
It was ordained it should not be;
Could he have thrown her in the water,
And the tide have carried her away,
The murder of the soldier’s daughter
Would not have been found out to-day.
He might have done well in the army,
In the barracks he was born,
Alas! he has disgraced his father,
Who the uniform has worn;
Heaven help his poor old mother,
She has been a true good soldier’s wife,
She would sooner have seen him shot in action,
Than in such a way to lose his life.
Then let us all now take a warning
By his sad and fearful end,
Don’t give way to unholy passion,
Nor against the laws offend;
Try to be honest and be sober,
I’m sure you’ll find it is the best,
In the world let’s do our duty,
As we hope in heaven to rest.
Upon Easter Monday within Chelmsford gaol,
A murderer, when dying, his crime doth bewail,
Upon the dark scaffold he drew his last breath,
The penalty of murder he paid with his death;
Richard Coates was his name, by Sata beguiled,
He outraged so cruel a dear little child,
And all through the country it has been the cry,
His sentence was just, he deserved to die.
Gone from this life, gone from this world,
By the hands of the hangman to Eternity hurled,
May heaven forgive him, is all we can say,
As we hope for forgiveness on our dying day.
There never was known such a cowardly crime,
That we are relating at this present time;
It is dreadful to think there could be a man,
Who in his senses this murder could plan.
He pleaded “not guilty” almost to the last,
Till he saw all the chance of forgiveness was past;
His poor moter begg’d him the truth to unfold,
And confess to his crime for the sake of his soul.
He took the poor child to the coset, he said,
Innocent and smiling to her death she was led.
He murdered her there at the bottom of the field,
And beneath his great coat her dead body conceal’d,
He went to the edge of the wide rolling sea,
To throw the child in but it was not to be,
Tho’ time after time the villain did try,
He could not reach over the pailings so high.
When he found that his crime he could not conceal,
He left the child’s body ‘neath the grass in the field,
Where the dear little angel soon after was found,
By those who so long had been searching around.
They seized him and ask’d him the crime to explain,
He cried “I’m not guilty” again and again;
They could not believe him in spite of denial,
They sent him to saol to wait for his trial.
As he walked from the cell through the sweet morning air,
At the end of the prison the gallows was there;
‘Twas the last time he’d gaze on that beatiful sky,
As he walked to the spot where he knew he must die.
The hangman was ready, deep sounded the bell,
‘Twas scarcely a moment before the drop fell!
The murderer, Coates, from the world was torn,
His body was there, but his dear life was gone.
May his fate be a warning to both old and young,
May it be an example to everyone,
From the straight path of duty never to stray,
Or we shall regret it on our dying day.
The murderer now is gone from this world,
By his own folly to destruction is hurled,
Then pray let us all to this warning attend,
And may heaven preserve us from his fearful den.
The bombastic Hampden — who denounced “that Satanic device of a round and revolving globe, which sets Scripture, reason, and facts at defiance” and actually wrote Wallace’s wife wishing that her hubbie would have “every bone in his head smashed to a pulp” — would have been right at home with the Coates ballad that vengefully prayed,
While the spotless soul of little Alice,
Is taken to a better land
May perdition light upon the monster,
Who has disgraced the name of man.
* Reports of age differ, but Alice Boughen was definitely a prepubescent youngster well under the age of 10.
** Wallace is the guy whose collegial letters to Darwin mooting Wallace’s own ideas about natural selection led the previously reticent Darwin to rush into publication with On the Origin of Species.
In 1954, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama hired as its pastor a 25-year-old fresh out of Boston University’s doctoral program.
In his memoir, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remembered his entry to civil rights activism in Montgomery. One of his first steps was setting up a Social and Political Action Committee for his church, prominently emphasizing voter registration.
But his next engaged a major death penalty case that haunted Montgomery throughout the 1950s.
After having started the program of the church on its way, I joined the local branch of the NAACP and began to take an active interest in implementing its program in the community itself. Besides raising money through my church, I made several speeches for the NAACP in Montgomery and elsewhere. Less than a year after I joined the branch I was elected to the executive committee. By attending most of the monthly meetings I was brought face to face with some of the racial problems that plagued the community, especially those involving the courts.
Before my arrival in Montgomery, and for several years after, most of the NAACP’s energies and funds were devoted to the defense of Jeremiah Reeves. Reeves, a drummer in a Negro band, had been arrested at the age of sixteen, accused of raping a white woman. One of the authorities had led him to the death chamber, threatening that if he did not confess at once he would burn there later. His confession, extracted under this duress, was later retracted, and for the remaining seven years that his case, and his life, dragged on, he continued to deny not only the charge of rape but the accusation of having had sexual relations at all with his white accuser.
The NAACP hired the lawyers and raised the money for Reeve’s defense. In the local court he was found guilty and condemned to death. The conviction was upheld in a series of appeals through the Alabama courts. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court on two occasions. The first time, the Court reversed the decision and turned it back to thes tate supreme court for rehearing. The second time, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but later dismissed it, thus leaving the Alabama court free to electrocute. After the failure of a final appeal to the governor to commute the sentence, the police officials kept their promise. On March 28, 1958, Reeves was electrocuted.
The Reeves case was typical of the unequal justice of Southern courts. In the years that he sat in jail, several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the grand jury; none was ever brought to trial. For good reason the Negroes of the South had learned to fear and mistrust the white man’s justice.
A Montgomery native, she was a classmate of Reeves at Montgomery’s segregated Booker T. Washington High School.
On March 2, 1955, Colvin boarded a city bus in front of King’s church on her way back from school, and plopped herself down in the middle of it. As the bus meandered on its route, it began to fill up. Montgomery’s segregated-bus rules at the time reserved a few rows up front for whites, and opened the middle rows for blacks … but only until the white rows overflowed, at which point black riders in the midsection were expected to give up their seats.
Colvin refused to do it.
She furiously argued with the police summoned by the bus driver, invoking her constitutional rights.
When they arrested her, she didn’t do nonviolent resistance: she fought back.
“Other kids got home and told Mama what happened,” Colvin remembered. “She already knew how hurt I was about Jeremiah Reeves. She knew this wasn’t a one-day thing. This was a rebellious time that started with Jeremiah … I just couldn’t get over Jeremiah being framed.”
Colvin’s spur-of-the-moment act of civil disobedience predated the more famous refusal of Rosa Parks by nine months. (Colvin’s parents knew Rosa Parks, and Parks was an advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, which Colvin was involved in.)
Montgomery civil rights leaders were already looking for a test case to mount a challenge against Montgomery buses’ racial ridership rules. Colvin was considered for the part, but ultimately Montgomery’s leaders took a pass on the case: she was an angry teenager, very dark-skinned, and from a working-class family; moreover, she soon became pregnant by an older, married man whom Colvin refused to name. Nevertheless, her name, and her act, became well-known in Montgomery and nationwide. The first pamphlets about Parks’s arrest reference Colvin as the well-known precedent.
And Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in the federal suit that forced desegregation in Montgomery.
Claudette Colvin’s refusenik notoriety made it so difficult for her to work in Montgomery that she moved to New York in 1958 — the same year her schoolmate was finally electrocuted for that supposed rape.
Days after Reeves died in Alabama’s electric chair, an Easter rally assembled on the lawn of that state’s capitol building to protest the execution — and gird for the struggles still to come.
We assemble here this afternoon on the steps of this beautiful capitol building in an act of public repentance for our community for committing a tragic and unsavory injustice. A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves’s penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence.
But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront every day in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice.
Let us go away devoid of biterness, and with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. I hope that in recognizing the necessity for struggle and suffering, we will make of it a virtue. If only to save ourselves from bitterness, we need vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society … Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.
-Martin Luther King, ““Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves” (pdf transcription)
* Parks would say that she had been thinking on the occasion of her refusal of that summer’s murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi.