In 1966, while working as secretary to the chairman of the English Department at Mercer University, I found a half-finished manuscript in the back drawer of a filing cabinet. It began with the words of a folksong, "Tom Woolfolk, Tom Woolfolk, what have you done?" the lyrics similar in subject matter to the ones about Tom Dooley, a Civil War soldier who had been executed for the murder of his sweetheart, becoming a popular song in the 1950s--but this one struck closer to home.

Actual newspaper stories written at the time tell a chilling tale which, for that day and age, was sensational. To contemporary readers--with our Mansons, Zodiac, and Student Nurse killers--it may, unfortunately, seem almost commonplace.


In December, 1887, Tom Woolfolk, a resident of Macon, Georgia, was arrested for the murder four months earlier of his father, stepmother, his six half-siblings (ranging from age 20-18 months) and a visiting relative, at his father's cotton plantation. The case gained notoriety not only for the viciousness of the act but the fact that this was the most people killed by one person in the entire history of Georgia crime, before or since. Except for three of the children, who apparently had tried to escape, all the victims were bludgeoned in their sleep and then hacked with an ax. Tom, claiming to have climbed out a window while the murders were being carried out, woke neighbors some time after 4:00 am. Returning to the house, he bathed and threw his bloody clothes down a well, saying when others arrived that the killers had just escaped through the back door. Entering the house, the neighbors found a sight rivaling that of any current slasher horror film--rooms spattered with the victims' blood, tissue, and other gory remains.


Because
Tom Woolfolk was known to be hostile to his stepmother and his father's new family, and his aunt--with whom he lived after his mother died and whom he visited a month before the murders--testified that he had begun acting bizarrely, carrying weapons, speaking incoherently, and regarding everyone with suspicion--he became the prime suspect in the case. He had also recently argued violently with his father. The story goes that he refused to drink water from the well, and later his clothes and the weapon was found at its bottom. Although that and other evidence was all circumstantial--a bloody handprint on his leg, his bloody footprints in the rooms, his showing no emotion or reaction to the deaths, and no explanation of how he managed to escape--it was such very strong evidence that the coroner's jury's verdict was that Tom was the murderer. Public outrage was already so high, however, that even before this statement was released, Tom was arrested and taken to jail to prevent his lynching by his family's neighbors.


18th
century Georgia law prevented a defendant from testifying although he gave an unsworn statement in which he denied the killings. In spite of his aunt's belief that Tom was crazy, no insanity plea was offered, and the prisoner was found guilty. Because the prosecutor's closing arguments were interrupted several times by spectators who yelled, "Hang him, hang him!" the judge overturned the Guilty verdict and ordered a change of venue, moving the second trial six months later from Macon in Bibb County to Perry, in Houston county. The question of whether this put him in the status of Double Jeopardy, could be raised at this point; perhaps that legal loophole hadn't been yet recognized back then. At the new trial, the defense attorney's closing statement took 13 hours, but the jury deliberated 15 minutes before bringing in a second verdict of guilty. A year later, the Georgia supreme Court upheld the verdict


Today, Tom Woolfolk would probably have been diagnosed as having some mental illness, and one wonders why his lawyer didn't use the insanity defense, which might have saved his client though he undoubtedly would have ended up in Milledgeville State Mental Hospital for the rest of his life. Perhaps, in that day and time, death was preferable to such a fate.


In October, 1890, three years after the murders, "Bloody Woolfolk," "the most brutal murderer that ever figured in the annals of our state," the perpetrator of "the bloodiest, blackest chapter in Georgia criminal history" was hanged. Throughout the trial, he maintained his innocence and at the end, refused to change his story. (Years later, another prisoner would confess to the crime but was not believed.) At the discretion of the sentencing judge, his hanging was made a public event, with 10,000 witnesses present, some eating sandwiches as they watched. In what the more vengeance-minded no doubt considered poetic justice, the noose was inexpertly tied and he didn't die of a broken neck but choked for fifteen minutes--ironically the same length of time it took the deliberating jury to find him guilty--before finally expiring. His execution was one of the last public hangings in Georgia.


Only one other murder trial has ever rivaled Tom Woolfolk's and that was Carl Isaacs', who was the ringleader of the men who murdered the six members of the Alday family in Seminole County in 1973. Tom Woolfolk's crime is rarely cited in books on American crime and has now been almost completely forgotten except for a few who have some ties to the story.


One of those persons is myself.


After finding that manuscript, I asked someone I knew about Tom Woolfolk, and she told me a chilling little side story. There was a girl named Ruby Mason, a distant relative of the Woolfolks who had been invited by one of the daughters to spend the night. For one reason or another, she refused. Imagine her horror at learning of the family's deaths, and realizing that--had she accepted the invitation--she would have been killed as had the visiting relative. Perhaps she couldn't believe Tom would do such a thing; perhaps she, like his aunt, believed he was crazy but actually could commit such a crime. Did she want to forgot the whole thing or did she try to go to the trial only to be told women had no place in a courtroom and to go about her chores? Did she rejoice like everyone else when Tom himself died such a gruesome death? Did she feel pity?


All I know is that many, many years later, she told her daughter the story and her daughter told me. It gave me a chill to realize that if Ruby Mason had gone to the Woolfolks' that night, I might not be here--


She was my grandmother.


(The Shadow Chasers: the Woolfolk Tragedy Revisited, by Carolyn DeLoach, 2000, re-examines this crime.)

6 comments

  1. Mary Ricksen // July 26, 2008 at 2:51 PM  

    Oh My God! I am sure that death would probable be preferable to being in a mental institution in those days. They didn't call them snake pits for nothing.
    Toni you are so great with historical snippets and you had me till the climax. Isn't it so strange how one incident like that, played out differently, would have made such an impact on so many lives.

  2. Toni V.S. // July 26, 2008 at 5:17 PM  

    Yes, then you wouldn't be bothered with this weirdo who's suddenly popped up in your life after 32 years! (A little Twilight Zone music here....)

  3. Linda Nightingale // July 26, 2008 at 5:29 PM  

    Toni, I got chills. You have presented the horrible tale with detail rich enough to completely divorce it from being like a newspaper read.

    The chill came in your last dynamic line.

  4. Anonymous // July 26, 2008 at 9:00 PM  

    Toni,
    What a truely riviting story! It ranks up there with Murder in Coweta county. My grand parents actually attended that trial and took picnick lunches to spread on the grounds!
    Glad that your gran decided to skip the invite!

    The Scarlet Pumpernickel

  5. Mary Marvella // July 27, 2008 at 1:25 AM  

    Amazing, girl! Reads like fiction but better.

  6. Melanie Atkins // July 27, 2008 at 10:16 AM  

    Oh, wow! What a fascinating story. Gulp. So tragic. I'm so glad your grandmother didn't go that night!