Today’s guest columnist is Jay Glass.
Within central Jefferson County near Forestdale there is a wooded elevated area, which at only 699 feet above sea level, belies its name of “Cat Mountain.”
It was there on June 16, 1911 that a Black man named John Holland came to his death at the hands of several white men.
This would lead to a series of events which would culminate in the conviction of three of the men for the murder. Their convictions by all white juries would mark the first time in the history of the State of Alabama that white men would suffer the death penalty for the murder of a Black individual.
The origins of this story took place during the approximate period of 1904-1913 in the region stretching from the West Jefferson County coal mines to areas encompassing the current cities of Fultondale and Gardendale.
“Bloody Beat 22” was a pejorative nickname for this area which had become notorious for lawlessness in the early 1900’s. Extensive coal mining activity gave rise to numerous saloons which in turn led to any number of fights and feuds.
A gang led by brothers Arthur and Walter Jones, along with Will Watson would be blamed for most of the murders that beset the community. Over a period of ten years at least 55 documented murders of both Black and white men, to include several prominent citizens, would be attributed to this group of criminals.
Attention began to be drawn to the deteriorating situation and law enforcement agencies attempted to bring these criminal activities to an end. As noted in newspaper accounts, “It was the killing of John Holland and its subsequent developments, which resulted in the arrest of the men who are now on trial, was the beginning of the investigations which have brought to light many of the Lewisburg mysteries.”
Arthur Jones was found guilty of murdering John Holland and was sentenced to be hanged. As noted in The Birmingham Age-Herald, “For the first time in the history of Jefferson County a white man is to hang for the murder of a Negro unless Providence, the Supreme Court, or the governor interferes.”
The next day, his brother, Walter Jones was sentenced to life imprisonment for the same crime. Several days later Will Watson was also found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of Holland.
Following these verdicts it was noted that “Four white men played a shameful part in the death of Holland, but to the credit of the white race those white men were hunted down and brought before the law of justice, where a jury of their peers meted out to them the highest punishment the law provides for their participation in the heinous crime. The juries of Jefferson county have declared in the strongest possible manner that the blood of its humblest citizen cannot be shed with impunity.”
Although Walter Jones had been sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the killing of Holland, he would be convicted and condemned to death for the murder of another individual.
Where capital punishment had been dispensed by the government on a regularly recurring basis when crimes such as murder, robbery and rape had been committed by Black perpetrators against white victims, it was an extraordinary occasion when these roles and consequences were reversed, as occurred at the culmination of the Lewisburg “troubles.” So rare was such a final outcome that the related commentary reported in the major local newspapers bordered on disbelief.
As the executions neared and seemed more certain to actually take place, there was an outpouring of renewed interest by the public and news media. There were reports of public petitions for clemency, to include apparent “second guessing” of the penalty recommended by the same members of the jury who had convicted one of the men and who may have always thought that their decision would be overturned by the appeals court or by clemency provided by the governor.
Two weeks after the public execution of Arthur Jones and Will Watson, Walter Jones would die on the gallows for the murder of L.B. Evans, a mining official, in 1911. The executions of these men was a highly unlikely consequence during a period of severe racial strife in early 20th century Alabama.
However, the end result cannot be simply explained as a change in the application of equal justice, but requires a deeper examination of darker political issues in order to try to explain the presumable hidden reasons for the remarkable outcome.
Although never directly stated or alluded to in newspaper accounts of that time, it is my contention that the long existing state of lawlessness in the Lewisburg area had finally caught the attention of powerful local businessmen and politicians. The disorder had finally reached the point where these men may have perceived that this continuing situation was now “out of control” and was resulting in bad publicity which was detrimental to on-going plans to bring more and larger business and industrial interests into the burgeoning area.
The executions of Walter Jones and Will Watson for the murder of a Black man during this era are more than just curious events and, given the tenor of that time, almost inconceivable. Law enforcement and political figures had been severely and publicly embarrassed by their previous inaction related to the “Bloody Beat 22” debacle.
In light of this, I believe that there is a strong possibility that these officials saw the proven murder of John Holland to provide an opportunity to extract revenge on the Lewisburg gang. The chance to finally break up this criminal group and to execute several of its leading members likely presented too much of an opportunity to pass up.
Such a vehicle for their punishment appears to have been found despite the white supremacy belief system of that time. It also helps to explain the lack of intervention by the Alabama Supreme Court and the Pardons Board as well as the failure of the governor to commute their sentences.
Jay Glass retired as Chief Deputy Coroner following 35 years of service with the Jefferson County Coroner/Medical Examiner Office. He is the author of the recently published book “Life and Death in the Magic City. A Coroner’s Perspective of Jefferson County, Alabama in the Early 20th Century.” The book provides a review of Jefferson County during the turbulent first half of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of the coroners, law enforcement officials and news media during that time along with statistical comparisons to our current community.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. email@example.com.