Nell Williams was the sole survivor of the fateful excursion. According to her testimony, a young African American male jumped on the driver's side running board, pointed a gun at her, and forced her to drive down a deserted dirt road in the sparsely populated area. For the next four hours, the three young women were assaulted and then shot when they attempted an escape. Although she was shot in the arm, Nell managed to drive the car one-handed to a Mountain Brook residence after the assailant fled the scene.
By the time darkness enveloped the city the evening of the attack, search parties comprised of local and state law officials, tracker dogs, and several hundred citizens combed the woods surrounding the site of the attack, but to no avail. The culprit had eluded them.
By August 15, nearly three dozen African American males across the United States had been arrested in connection with the case. Even African American women were jailed as suspect. When an anonymous confession letter arrived, postmarked from Chicago and addressed to the "High Sheriff," several arrests were made in that city.
The communist newspaper, The Southem Worker, published in Birmingham, referred to the aftermath of the triple shooting as a "reign of terror" that swept through the city. The newspaper accused local authorities of using the attacks as an excuse to terrorize African Americans, communists, and labor organizers. Authorities defended their raids on communist sites, stating that the city's saturation with "red" propaganda precipitated the tragedy. An editorial in the Birmingham News hinted that communist had incited the murderer to action.
Despite the numerous arrests, Nell Williams was unable to positively identify any of the suspects paraded before her. But six weeks after the murder of her sister and close friend, she identified Willie Peterson as their attacker as he walked along a Birmingham street. According to the Birmingham Post, Nell said that she recognized his battered gray hat.
Doubt about Peterson's guilt arose immediately after his arrest and only grew as more was learned about the suspect. He was a World War One veteran and former miner who lost his job after contracting tuberculosis. Peterson proclaimed his innocence, saying he had been under the care of local physicians for his ill health and had been in the process of trying to gain admittance to a government-run hospital when he was arrested. Physicians at Kilby prison, where Peterson was taken after his arrest, confirmed that the accused was in the latter stages of tuberculosis and was an extremely sick man.
Local outrage over Peterson's arrest reached such a pitch that in the first week of October, Nell's family requested a face-to-face meeting with Peterson. Clark Williams, Nell and Augusta's father, told an official that he and his family wanted to get the matter behind them without their daughter having to endure the ordeal of a public trial. The request was granted and Nell, her family, and Jennie Wood's father, Wade, met with Peterson alongside the county sheriff, police chief, members of the solicitor general's staff, and several law enforcement officials in the Jefferson County jail.
As the officials interrogated Peterson, Dent Williams–Nell's brother and an attorney like his father–pulled out a gun and shot the suspect three times before the gun was wrested from him. The only visitors not searched before the interrogation were Nell and her mother.
Peterson recovered from his wounds, and his first words upon regaining consciousness were reportedly "I didn't kill the girl." He was later indicted for murder and his assailant was indicted for attempted murder.
Willie Peterson recovered from his wounds, and his first words upon regaining consciousness were reportedly "I didn't kill the girl." He was later indicted for murder and his assailant was indicted for attempted murder.
The state brought on the equivalent of a hired gun as special prosecutor for the retrial–Roderick Beddow. At the time, Beddow was considered one of the top criminal lawyers in the South. He was also a close personal friend of the victims' families. Judge Harrington P. Heflin, brother of Senator Tom Heflin, presided over the case. This time, the jury found Peterson guilty, and he received the death penalty.
Governor Benjamin Miller's office was inundated with letters from across the state and the nation protesting the verdict. Surprisingly, most of the Alabama writers were white. Even law enforcement officials from Birmingham wrote that they doubted that the right man had been convicted of the heinous crime. "I have worked for the largest Detective Agencies on earth, and no one with enough brains to grease a gimlet would consider this man committed the two murders of the SOCIETY ladies; however, a person hardly dare express himself unless he be Ku-Kluxed," wrote A.T. Maxwell, of Birmingham.
During the Pardon Board hearings in 1934, a deputy sheriff appeared "to clear his conscience," saying that the black witnesses who originally planned to appear as defense witnesses for Peterson were visited by a group of white men that threatened to burn their homes if they testified. Sheriff James Hawkins also appeared, testifying that he was thoroughly convinced of Peterson's innocence. One of the jurors, Lewis Mullinicks, testified that, though he believed Peterson was innocent, other jurors had threatened that if he voted for acquittal, "he would never get home." Still, the Pardon Board recommended that Peterson be executed as planned on March 30.
Early in March 1934, after a two-year legal battle, Governor Miller commuted Peterson's death sentence to life in prison because of "grave doubt as to his guilt." Peterson, whose tuberculosis had been declared "incurable" by prison physicians, received the news of his commuted death sentence in Kilby's hospital ward. He said, "Tell the governor that I appreciate it." Peterson died in Kilby in 1940.
A court acquitted Dent Williams of the jailhouse shooting of Peterson. The Williams/Wood murder case was never reopened.
This feature was previously published in Issue 79, Winter 2006.
Pam Jones is a freelance writer in Birmingham with a particular interest in criminal cases from Alabama's past.