Harry Wesson and J.B. Brown: Justice in Early Twentieth Century Florida

When white railroad engineer Harry E. Wesson was discovered murdered on the morning of October 17, 1901, in the Palatka railyard, Sheriff R.C. Howell faced a public outcry for swift vengeance. The Palatka News & Advertiser described the murder as “the most revoltingly diabolical crime ever committed in Palatka.” Wesson had been ambushed and shot in the back of the head while walking to his home. His pockets had been emptied and his unused pistol lay beside his body.

Sheriff Howell quickly rounded up several black railroad employees who had been working the night of the murder and placed them in the Putnam County jail as suspects. Later that day, a man came to a gap in the jail’s outer fence and asked one of the prisoners to pass a message on to another prisoner. The message was to “Keep your mouth shut and say nothing.” This conversation was overheard by the jailor, and he and the prisoner both identified the messenger as J.B. Brown, a black railroad brakeman. Sheriff Howell was informed of the development and Brown was arrested.

An investigation revealed that Brown had been fired from the railroad after an altercation with a white conductor and that Wesson had intervened on the conductor’s behalf in the conflict. A porter on another train claimed that Brown had threatened to shoot Wesson, and a railroad employee claimed Brown and his friend J.J. Johnson had discussed getting revenge on Wesson prior to the murder. Finally, two prisoners in the jail, Alonzo Mitchel and Henry Davis, came forward and claimed that Brown had confessed to the murder. With a clear motive established and a jailhouse confession, a grand jury was convened and Brown and Johnson were indicted on a charge of murder in the first degree.

The first page of the trial transcript showing the indictment against J.B. Brown and J.J. Johnson on the charge of murder in the first degree (Full trial transcript available in Series 12, Death Warrants, Box 4, Folder 25, State Archives of Florida).

Brown was tried in the circuit court on November 19, 1901, with Judge William S. Bullock presiding. The prosecuting attorneys constructed a compelling circumstantial case against Brown. They argued that Brown had been completely broke on the day before the murder, but had money to gamble hours after the murder. Multiple witnesses testified to the fight with the conductor and Brown’s anger at Wesson for intervening. Most importantly, Mitchel and Davis testified to Brown’s jailhouse confession, even describing details of the crime that they could not have known.

Brown testified on his own behalf. He claimed that while he did have a fight with the conductor, he bore no ill will for Wesson. He claimed to have won the money gambling the night before the murder and to have slept at a friend’s home until after sunrise. The friend testified in support of Brown’s alibi but admitted under cross-examination that he had been asleep when Brown left in the morning. Brown’s defense attorney, John S. Marshall, tried unsuccessfully to show that Mitchel and Davis had been put in his jail cell to extract a confession in exchange for leniency for themselves. The jury retired to consider the evidence and after a short period of deliberation returned a verdict of guilty with no recommendation for mercy. Judge Bullock had no choice but to sentence Brown to death by hanging.

A photograph of J.B. Brown taken in the Putnam County jail for the Palatka News & Advertiser after his conviction for murder (Image credit: University of Florida Digital Collections, Palatka News & Advertiser, January 16, 1902, page 3. http://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00023798/00005/3j).

Today, a Florida death row inmate can expect to spend over a decade on death row before being executed, but in the decades prior to the introduction of the electric chair in 1924, hangings were often conducted within days or weeks of the sentencing. Preparations for Brown’s execution were made quickly and a specially built gallows was constructed on the steps of the county courthouse. Governor William S. Jennings signed Brown’s death warrant and sent it to Sheriff Howell. Notices of the pending execution were published in newspapers around the state. There was only one problem: the death warrant called for the execution of the wrong man!

The erroneous death warrant with the name of Noah J. Tilghman crossed out and replaced with J.B. Brown’s name (Series 12, Death Warrants, Box 46, Volume 1: 1896-1923, State Archives of Florida).

Who was Noah J. Tilghman? The Palatka News & Advertiser described him as “one of the most respected of Palatka’s elder citizens.” He was the owner of a local shingle manufacturing company and a Methodist Episcopal preacher. He was also identified on the first page of the trial transcript sent to the governor as the foreman of the grand jury that indicted J.B. Brown. Newspapers around the state published articles asking the governor to make an apology for the inexcusable blunder. This unfortunate clerical error ignited a heated feud between Tilghman and Governor Jennings.

Tilghman wrote to the governor to express his willingness to forgive the blunder if he received an apology for the embarrassment he had experienced. He wrote of discovering the error when a close friend had remarked to him: “I see that you are to be hanged in January.” After that time, he had been the butt of constant jokes and received many concerned letters from distant relatives.

The first of many letters sent by Noah J. Tilghman to Governor William S. Jennings (Letters found in Governor Jennings Correspondence 1901-1904, Series 596, Box 9, Folder 3, Florida State Archives).

Jennings, however, would not apologize and even denied that the faulty warrant existed despite multiple witnesses having seen it. This led Tilghman to question the governor’s competence by asking “do you as a high official sign important documents without reading them? [I]f so are you worthy of the office you hold?” In fact, his initial response to Tilghman’s letter was so offensive that Tilghman angrily threatened to publish it in the newspapers. The two exchanged hostile letters over the next months, but Jennings never apologized for his blunder.

Noah J. Tilghman’s letter in response to Governor William S. Jennings’ offensive reply to his first letter (Series 596, Box 9, Folder 3, State Archives of Florida).

Meanwhile, the erroneous death warrant was corrected and plans for J.B. Brown’s execution resumed. However, days before the scheduled execution, Governor Jennings annulled the death warrant to allow Brown’s Florida Supreme Court appeal to be heard, angering many. Reflecting the sentiment in Palatka at the time, the Palatka News & Advertiser stated that “Brown is a worthless negro. Guilty or not the town would be better off rid of him and his ilk.”

Marshall argued to the Supreme Court that the alleged jailhouse confession was fraudulent and without it Brown’s guilt could not be established. In its decision, the Supreme Court wrote that “There is very little testimony to connect the defendant with the crime aside from his extra judicial confession” but upheld the jury’s decision. Brown once again faced the gallows.

Brown’s only hope was for a reprieve from the state board of pardons. Judge Bullock wrote to the governor that he believed there was enough evidence to convict Brown, but that he also had misgivings about the alleged confession. Benjamin P. Calhoun, one of the prosecutors, had no such misgivings. He wrote that “the entire white population, except republicans, are absolutely convinced of the guilt of the accused,” and that “Brown is guilty beyond question, and should suffer the death penalty.” The board of pardons, citing the concerns over the legitimacy of the confession, commuted Brown’s sentence to life in prison on July 22, 1902.

J.B. Brown’s commutation of sentence decree from the state board of pardons (Series 158, Pardon, Commutation, and Remission Decrees, 1869-1909, Volume 2, State Archives of Florida).

While J.B. Brown was spared execution, he still faced life imprisonment in Florida’s notoriously brutal convict-lease prison system. In the early twentieth century, nearly all state prisoners were leased to private companies for hard labor in often deplorable conditions. Prisoners were expected to labor from sunup to sundown mining phosphate or turpentine, clearing swamps, harvesting timber, or building roads. Guards subjected them to brutal punishments including whipping, solitary confinement in sweat boxes, and even torture. Deaths were not uncommon.

Brown appeared destined to spend the rest of his life in prison until J.J. Johnson, who had not been tried for the murder, confessed to the crime on his deathbed and exonerated Brown in early 1913. By then, J.B. Brown had served nearly twelve years at hard labor for a crime he did not commit. This new confession convinced the board of pardons to grant Brown a conditional pardon releasing him from prison effective October 10, 1913. When he was released, he suffered from physical disabilities caused by his years at hard labor, and it wasn’t until 1929 that the “aged, infirm, and destitute” Brown received a pension of $2,492 from the Legislature as compensation for this miscarriage of justice.

J.B. Brown’s story was discovered in Series 500, Prisoner Registers, 1875-1972, an ongoing digitization project at the State Archives of Florida for Florida Memory. Stay tuned for updates regarding the online release of these digitized records. Information was also obtained from the University of Florida Digital Collections holdings of the Palatka News & Advertiser found here. Of particular interest in writing this blog were the issues from January 16, 1902 and February 6, 1902.

Old Sparky’s Rough Start: The Story of Jim Williams

The curious story of Jim Williams begins with an early, botched operation of  “Old Sparky,” Florida’s electric chair, and ends on the lips of a folk singer, with plenty of  misinterpretation, heroics, and history in between.

On April 10, 1926, Jim Williams, a 25 year-old African-American man living in Palatka in Putnam County, Florida, was convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to death by electrocution.  His execution was scheduled for June 1, 1926 the Florida State Prison at Raiford.

Electric chair at the Raiford Prison

Old Sparky at the Florida State Prison in Raiford, FL. c.1936. Photograph by Jack Spottswood.

On the day of the execution, Williams was strapped into what would become known as Old Sparky. As Williams awaited his fate, an argument erupted over who should throw the switch that would end his life. After many minutes and no resolution, prison superintendent James Simeon Blitch contacted Governor John Martin for an answer.

J. S. Blitch, superintendent at Florida State Prison

James Simeon Blitch, superintendent of Florida State Prison at Raiford, FL in 1926. Photograph by Jack Spottswood.

The problem derived from unclear language in the death warrant regarding who was to carry out the execution. The official document, signed by Governor Martin and addressed to both Superintendent Blitch and Putnam County Sheriff R.J. Hancock, gave these instructions:

“You, the said Superintendent of our State Prison, or some deputy by you to be designated, and you, the said sheriff of our said County of Putnam, unless you be prevented by sickness or other disability, shall be present at such execution. Such execution shall be carried out by you and such deputies, electricians and assistants as you may require to be present to assist…”

The warrant clearly required the presence of both men, but it did not specify which would serve as the executioner. Newspapers reported that the sheriff of the county in which the crime was committed was the official obliged to end the life of the condemned. In Williams’ case it would be Putnam County Sheriff R.J. Hancock. However, Hancock added to the confusion by sending two deputies, Walter Minton and L. Shannon in his place, and both men refused to carry out the execution. Superintendent Blitch was also unwilling to throw the switch. Given the uncertainty and confusion, Governor Martin instructed Blitch to return Jim Williams to his cell. Ultimately, despite two additional death warrants, Williams’ sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but his story does not stop there.


Death Warrant of Jim Williams signed by Governor Martin

Death Warrant of Jim Williams signed by Governor Martin

Florida State Prison at Raiford, Florida, 1920s.

Florida State Prison at Raiford, Florida, 1920s.

As officials deliberated over who would serve as executioner, Williams’  sat in the chair terrified. His brush with death had a profound effect, as one would imagine. Attorney General (and later Florida Supreme Court Justice) Fred. H. Davis, said after visiting Raiford in 1927, “They can’t get him to sit in a barber’s chair because it looks a bit like the electric chair. He steadfastly refuses to undergo any tonsorial operations and I shouldn’t be surprised if it would not take the whole prison population to make him do it.”.

According to newspapers, in 1934, Williams jumped from a moving convict truck to save a woman and her child from a mad bull. He was granted a conditional pardon for his heroism and was released December 23, 1934. Although the details of his heroism are uncertain, the pardon issued by Governor Fred Cone is well-documented.

Jim Williams, who was convicted in the Circuit Court of Putnam County, at the Spring term thereog, A D 1926, of the offense of Murder and sentenced therefor to death by Electrocution and which sentence was later commuted to Life Imprisonment by the Board, should now, upon showing made, be granted a conditional pardon. It was, therefore ordered that the said Jim Williams be, and he is hereby granted a conditional pardon, effective December 23rd A D 1934.

Text of the conditional pardon issued by Governor Cone from the minutes of the the Florida Board of Pardons.

After his release, he was never heard from again. Oddities promoter Robert Ripley, creator of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, offered a $500 reward for information about the whereabouts of Jim Williams calling him “the only person ever known to have been strapped in the electric chair and escape execution.”

Florida’s “Black Hat Troubadour”, Will McLean wrote a ballad telling the story of Jim Williams. While the story is that of Williams, McLean names him incorrectly as Abraham Washington, another death row escapee. The first verse refers to Washington’s story, while the rest is that of Williams. Abraham Washington was, as McLean sings, sentenced to death by hanging shortly before a new law requiring the use of the electric chair.  The death warrant was declared void by the Duval County court because it specified that Washington was to hang, not be electrocuted, and hanging had been outlawed.  The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  By that time, Washington’s sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment.

Download MP3

Abraham Washington

Well there was a man named Washington, his first name Abraham
The judge said he would ride the rope into the Promised Land
Before he met his fateful doom, the hanging law was dead
They took him down to Raiford-town to the electric chair instead

They strapped him in the electric chair and so while he was waitin’
The warden and the county sheriff were talkin’ and debatin’
Which one of us must throw the switch and send this man to Hell?
But no decision could be reached; in prison he would dwell
They took him from the electric chair, his sweat had turned to blood
They told him that his life was spared and from his eyes did flood
the salty tears of gratefulness; it happens to all men
Down on his knees he made this vow to never sit again

One day a prison gang did ride by pastures that were green
A mother with her baby strolled so happy and serene
Suddenly a vicious bull did charge this freighted wife
And Abraham, he jumped the fence and saved this woman’s life

A pardon full to Washington, his first name Abraham
Who took a vow to never sit again while on this land
The last account of Washington, the day was cold and wet,
was Abraham, have you kept your vow? And he said “I ain’t sat yet.”