Many of us grew up hearing the chant….Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done she gave her father forty-one……
…but, I’m thinking you’ve never heard this one:
Woolfolk, Woolfolk, see what you’ve done….You’ve murdered your whole family and never fired a gun!
Are you familiar with the story of Tom Woolfolk?
In the late 1800s he was big news not only here in Georgia where he lived, but Tom’s exploits were hot news all across the country. He even made the front page of the New York Times.
Headlines and blurbs regarding Tom Woolfolk included descriptions such as…..the bloodiest , blackest chapter in Georgia criminal history, the most shocking murder ever committed in Georgia, one of the most heinous crimes committed in this or any other state, and the most ferocious and harrowing crime ever recorded in the annals of civilization, and in fact, Tom Woolfolk was dubbed Bloody Woolfolk for the crimes he was accused of committing.
Soon after Tom Woolfolk was born, his mother died. While his father was busy with other pursuits, Tom and his two sisters were sent to live with his maternal aunt, Fannie Moore Crane, on Pulaski Street in Athens, Georgia. Tom lived in his aunt’s home for the first seven years of his life, and naturally he became very close to her.
Once Tom’s father remarried Tom went to live with his father and step-mother at their home right outside of Macon, Georgia. Over the next few years Tom’s father and step-mother added six more children to the family. Tom resented his step-mother and step-siblings seeing them as a stumbling block in order to receive what he thought was his proper inheritance.
Tom’s repeated failures in life more than likely added to his unhappiness. He had tried running a plantation, managing a store, driving a streetcar in Macon, and owning a grocery store. None of the ventures were successful. Tom eventually had to settle with working for his father for the sum of nine dollars a month.
Tom was unlucky in love as well. At the age of 27 Tom married Georgia Bird, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer. The union only lasted three weeks before Georgia Bird returned to her father, and she referred to him as just plain mean.
Tom returned to Athens often to visit with his aunt and following visits in March and June, 1887 his aunt would later remember Tom’s behavior as bizarre stating Tom talked incoherently, seemed suspicious, was constantly pacing the floor and carried a pistol.
On Saturday, August 6, 1887 sometime between 2 and 4 a.m. Tom’s father, step-mother, six step-siblings ranging from the age of 20 to 18 months along with a family friend were murdered.
Around daybreak Tom knocked on the door of Green Locket, a black man who worked for the family. He told Green something awful had happened. “Someone got into the house and killed my family,” he reportedly blurted.
Reportedly Tom tried to get Green to enter the house, but he would not. When a noise was heard from within Tom entered the house alone and after 20-30 minutes returned to advise that everyone was dead. There is some speculation that originally it was Tom’s intention to lure Green into the home, murder him as well, and pin the whole crime on him. Some also speculated that once Tom entered the home he realized that one of his victims was still alive and had put her out of her misery. The murder weapon of choice was an ax.
Once investigators entered the house they found several bloody footprints, and that the floor in the room Tom shared with his step-brothers had been scrubbed with soap and water. Tom admitted to cleaning up a little, and the only tracks ever discovered were all traced back to Tom.
One story from that night advises at one point Tom requested a drink of water. When a cup was brought to him he stared at it for a minute and finally just touched his lips to it before dumping the rest out on the ground. Later it was discovered Tom had changed his clothes and dumped them down the well thus contaminating the water with his blood soaked clothes.
Of course, Tom was under suspicion immediately. He had admitted the bloody footprints were his, there were specks of blood in his ears, there was a bloody handprint on his leg, and his behavior was off. There was absolutely no grief. There was also no evidence of forced entry into the home and there was nothing missing.
The sheriff didn’t even wait for the coroner’s opinion…..he went ahead and took Tom to the jail mainly to keep him safe. A large crowd had formed at the crime scene and they had already decided Tom was guilty.
Tom’s two sisters and his aunt remained supportive of him through the two ensuing trials and believed Tom to be innocent. However, during the trial process Tom seemed rather disinterested, and during his second trial he entertained himself by reading Joel Tyler Headley’s Napoleon and His Marshals.
A defense of insanity was never used, and Tom never too took the stand on his own behalf. State law prevented a criminal defendant from taking the stand at that time, but they could submit a sworn statement to the jury. Tom professed his innocence within his sworn statement.
Even though the case was based solely on circumstantial evidence Tom was found guilty and sentenced to hang. He was automatically given a second trial when courtroom spectators began to chant, “Hang him, hang him….” during the prosecutor’s closing argument, and the judge did little to stop the display.
During the second trial the attorneys gave closing arguments lasting 13 hours. In contrast, the jury took a mere 15 minutes to declare Tom Woolfolk guilty.
Public hangings in Perry, Georgia always took place in the same location during that time in a valley where Big Indian Creek joins Fanny Gresham Branch. Today the Dr. A.C. Hendrick Memorial Bridge spans the valley. Hundreds of people cross the bridge everyday unaware that the site below them was the scene of many grisly hangings. Tom’s hanging was one of the last public executions carried out in the state of Georgia, and was handled on October 29, 1890 with a crowd of about 10,000 in attendance. Many women and children were there and vendors meandered through the crowd selling possum sandwiches.
I can’t even imagine attending a hanging let alone eating a possum sandwich while doing so.
Tom professed his innocence from the platform. Unfortunately for Tom his neck didn’t break immediately. It took him 15 minutes to choke to death
Within the last few years two books have been written regarding Tom Woolfolk by Carolyn Deloach. The first is Shadow Chasers: The Woolfolk Tragedy Revisited and The Woolfolk Tragedy: The Murders, the Trials, the Truth. In the second book Ms. Deloach advises the finding new evidence…..a diary belonging to Simon Cooper. Mr. Cooper was a handyman for the Woolfolk family, and admits his guilt within the pages of his diary. He says, “Tom Woolfolk was mighty slick but I fixed him. I would have killed him with the rest of the damn family, but he was not at home.” A review for one of Ms. Deloach’s books can be seen here
It’s rather sad to think that an innocent man was found guilty, and it’s rather sad to think the cards were stacked against him based on his behavior and the evidence. Did the law enforcement officials even think of another suspect ? Was Mr. Cooper even interviewed?
I would like to think that this case is often trotted out in Georgia law schools as a prime example regarding circumstantial evidence. I would also like to think that today with all of our technology available to the police innocent people are never convicted of crimes, but……I know better.
The picture with this post is the Woolfolk family burial site at Rosehill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia.
North Georgia Journal, Summer, 1994
Web articles by and about Professor Donald E. Wilkes, Jr. here and here.
New Georgia Encyclopedia