7 “just Desert”

Stanly Has a Lynching: The Murder of Alexander Whitley: A Family Legacy Entangled in a Web of Fiction & Folklore.


 

7

 

“Just Desert”

 

   According to an initial report of the lynching, “This Whitley has never been conspicuous for noble A later article justifying the lynching reflects an escalation in the vilification of Alex:

 

Alex Whitley has a very bad reputation and is considered a dangerous man. It was thought that he was interested in another murder a few years ago in Stanly

 

   Descriptions of Alex’s “bad reputation” and potential dangerousness became more pronounced in subsequent articles until he was vilified as a serial killer. Although he was never tried in a court of law and never found guilty of any murder, one newspaper printed an article with the following inflammatory headline.

 

An Awful Record Of

Whitley, Lynched Murderer Said To Have Been The Murderer Of Five

Lynched Not So Much On Account Of The Tucker Murder As For Former

⁵⁶

 

   This headline is based on the assumption that all of those statements were true, representing a widespread sentiment of animosity within the community. It is clear that Alex was not lynched because he was accused of the murder of D. B. Tucker, but for other murders it was believed he had committed and for which he was not punished. These sensational accusations were taken out of context and manipulated over time to stir up emotions, and they justified a “smug satisfaction at Whitley’s The true story of this lynching is found in the public confession buried deep in the newspaper article:

 

“… knowing his past record of murder, etc., and seeing that the law did not reach him on those cases, were determined that he should pay the penalty of death—his just desert

 

   However, the headline gives no source for these accusations of a previous record of murder, which must be considered in determining their accuracy. Parsing the language in this news article reveals that Judy Burris, while being held in the Albemarle jail, was the source of these “startling statements.”

 

The woman named Burris, who was jailed as an accomplice in the Tucker matter since Whitley was lynched, makes some very startling statements. She was afraid of him, and while he was hiding in Stanly, she was afraid to leave the house of her father. She says that Whitley, while in Arkansas, killed his two children, and also says that he was the murderer of

 

   According to these reports, men in the community determined the guilt of Alex Whitley based on statements by Judy Burris from her jail cell before the lynching. These are horrifying and dramatic allegations, but there is no evidence that they are true.

   Alex was never charged with or tried for the murder of his wife, Mary Cagle Whitley. Nor is there any evidence other than the statements by Judy Burris of the birth, death, or murder of any children by Alex Whitley. Judy’s story and the distribution of her statements by local people enhanced the speculation, rumors, and gossip, and served to validate their “just desert” verdict.

   Judy’s accusation that Alex murdered his brother-in-law, a local man, Phillip “Bud” Cagle, excited and encouraged the men who organized the lynch mob. These allegations convinced folks that Alex had killed Cagle and disposed of his body, much as they now believed he had disposed of Tucker’s body.

   Stories emerged that Alex and D. B. had been drinking and gambling and that Tucker threatened to disclose Alex as the murderer of leading folks to a piece of land where they began to dig in search of Cagle’s body.

 

These murders bring to light the most dastardly crimes in the history of the country. Body of the missing man near Albemarle has never been found but a party is now at work on a hole in a quarry near the scene of the crime. It is thought the body will be

 

   No information is available on how long these men continued to search for Bud Cagle’s body, but no human remains were found.

   The narrative presented Phillip Cagle as a well-respected man of some importance in the community, for whom retribution was being sought. However, Cagle was not actually a distinguished citizen, remembered with great affection; he was a farm laborer who was involved in several petty crimes. Nevertheless, gossip speculated that Alex had gotten rid of Cagle to keep him from testifying in a barn-burning case.

   The truth is that there was never any evidence Bud Cagle was dead. He disappeared without a trace around 1887, five years before the death of Tucker. No one knows what happened to him, but it was not unusual for men to just leave, like a young man described by the Goldsboro Headlight, who left to start over in another place:

 

L. R. Norkett, a prominent farmer of Mecklenburg county, disappeared suddenly about a week ago, leaving his family to “shift” for

 

   The presumption that “if the woman’s story is true was overshadowed by Judy’s electrifying accusations that provided justification for the lynching. There was no need for a trial or for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, fear took over.

 

Of course the law should have had its course, but they were afraid [emphasis added] that he would, if taken to Arkansas, get away and then more murder would have been the

 

   At least one reporter realized the lack of credibility of Judy’s statements, but published only a mild disclaimer.

 

These facts were obtained from hearing people converse who live in the locality of the scenes, and are probably true [emphasis added], but I will not vouch for

 

   On June 16, 1892, eight days after the lynching of Alex Whitley, Judy was returned to Arkansas to answer for the murder of In September she was cleared of her involvement in Tucker’s death when, after a hearing on the matter, “no true bill” was returned against her and her brother-in-law, George L.

   The single surviving piece of evidence presented at that hearing is a statement Judy gave to a reporter when she and her father, J. C. Burroughs, stopped at an Arkansas boarding house on their journey back to Stanly The Herald and the Standard, both local newspapers, published her entire statement. In it Judy provided details of their lives, their relationship with D. B. Tucker, and a mysterious man named Sandy Wilson, who worked for Alex, but she did not indict Alex for the murder of Tucker, Phillip Cagle, Alex’s two children, or his wife.

   In her statement, Judy confirmed the date of her and Alex’s arrival in Arkansas in 1888, and D. B. Tucker’s subsequent arrival in 1891. She described Tucker’s frequent visits to their home: “He was in the habit of visiting Alex Whitley at our which is consistent with Tucker’s letter to his brother detailing his lodging with other former Stanly residents in Elmore, a small town close to Gum Springs. Judy’s statements did not reflect Harrington’s portrayal of Alex as a predator of Tucker, but rather as a hospitable host to a relative: “Tucker and Whitley claimed to be

   According to Judy, Tucker arrived at their home on Thursday, January 21, three days before his death, and on January 23 he and Alex went to Arkadelphia, about five miles from Gum Springs. She described Alex and D. B. as buddies who spent that Saturday in Arkadelphia drinking, and who upon their return were arguing, not fighting. Later that same day, Tucker went to the nearby home of Mr. Marion Anderson. Shortly afterward, Mr. Anderson’s son came and asked Alex to come and get Tucker, which he did. It is unclear what circumstances caused Mr. Anderson to request that Alex come for Tucker, but Judy described their return:

 

Alex went after Tucker and carried a heavy stick. On returning with him, he struck him with a stick just inside or outside the gate—I did not see but heard the blow, and I do not know whether he knocked him down or

 

   Judy provided no explanation for Alex carrying a stick, and how she determined that Alex struck Tucker with the stick without seeing the incident was never questioned. She then described how Sandy Wilson helped bring Tucker into the house and how Alex and Wilson put Tucker in This statement reflects verse 5 in Harrington’s song, although it tells a different story:

 

5. Yes, Aleck watched him close to see that he was not seen.

He raised the fatal weapon and the blood ran down in a stream.

Judy said to Aleck,” Don’t this take the lead.”

They took him in the backroom and laid him on the cotton seed.

 

   In her Arkansas statement, Judy said Tucker suffered a blow to his head between the time he first left Alex’s house and when Alex retrieved him from Marion Anderson’s. The injured Tucker got up again around two o’clock Sunday morning, January 24, and left the house, but Judy gave no indication of where he went. According to her, he died after leaving Alex’s house the second time.

   According to Judy, around daybreak on January 24, Alex went to look for Tucker and when he returned, he was not carrying Tucker’s body, but “he came back after a while and told me Tucker was He did not tell Judy that he had killed Tucker. There is no evidence that Tucker was murdered, but it is a fact that for some unknown reason, his body was dismembered and hidden.

   Judy was unclear about when Sandy Wilson and Alex retrieved the body of Tucker. According to her, Alex wanted to go to the sheriff to report the death, but Wilson said he had “put others and she indicated it was Wilson, not Alex, who dismembered Tucker’s dead body.

   Her description of Alex’s lack of participation in these events provided her with a perfect defense and also mitigated Alex’s participation in the dismemberment of Tucker’s body. She stated that Alex “guarded and recounted that later that night, around midnight, Alex and Sandy took Tucker’s remains to a a half mile away.

   Judy’s descriptions of the travels of Alex and Tucker to and from Arkadelphia, Tucker’s forays to Marion Anderson’s house, and the mention of another undisclosed destination all sound reasonable, except for one fact: the weather. Beginning on January 19, 1892, five days prior to Tucker’s death and two days before he arrived at Alex’s house, a blinding snow storm had raged for 24 hours, the most extensive snowstorm ever experienced in the Snow buried the train tracks, bringing all trains to a halt. Temperatures plunged to 10 degrees and even lower in parts of Arkansas and

   It would have taken Alex and D. B. about an hour and a half to walk from Gum Springs to Arkadelphia in good weather. On the dates in question there would have been deep snow drifts and extremely cold weather, and a heavy stick might have been a useful aid for walking or knocking the snow or ice off boots before entering the house.

   Judy’s statement left a gap from January to June. She did not specify when she and Alex began their trip out of Arkansas but instead gave a travel log of towns they visited by train, during which she contended that Alex threatened her and held her against her will. She also said that she contacted her father, J. C. Burroughs, while traveling with Alex, and asked for money to return to Stanly County, which she apparently received. According to her statement, Alex, who had threatened her and held her against her will, simply left her in Gainesville, Georgia, and she traveled alone to her father’s house, a distance of 248 miles.

 

Arkadelphia

Arkadelphia,

Friday, August 26, 1892

 

Judy Burris’s

 

After Judy Burris had been set free by the court she was permitted by her attorney to make any statement she desired touching the Tucker murder. A Herald man sought an interview with her at Mrs. Mackey’s boarding house, where she and her father were stopping. She consented willingly to an interview and was found not averse to making a full and free statement of facts and circumstances connected to the brutal murder of D. B. Tucker as far as she knew them. Her statement was:

 

My name is Judy Burris. My home is in Stanly County, NC. I am 22 years old. I came out from North Carolina with Alex Whitley, alias Burris, nearly four years ago. We lived in this county two years. Tucker and Whitley claimed to be cousins. Tucker had a wife and four or five children in North Carolina. He came to Arkansas something more than a year ago now. He was in the habit of visiting Alex Whitley at our house previous to the killing, which occurred on Saturday night, January 23d last. Tucker came over on Thursday, January 21, previous to the killing. They both went to Arkadelphia Saturday and came home late. I heard them coming, and heard Tucker say “you don’t confidence what I say to you,” and continued making that remark after they came into the house. They were drinking. After their quarrel Tucker left and went over to Marion Anderson’s. Shortly afterward Mr. Anderson’s boy came over and said he wanted Whitley to come and get his man (or friend, I did not understand which). Alex went after Tucker and carried a heavy stick. On returning with him he struck him with a stick just inside or outside the gate—I did not see but heard the blow, and I do not know whether he knocked him down or not. Sandy Wilson, a man who had been working for Alex about a month or so was there and they two brought Tucker in the house and placed him in a chair. He did not complain of being hurt, but his head and face were bleeding. After a few minutes Sandy and Alex helped Tucker into an adjoining room and put him to bed. I was so nervous I could not sleep that night. About 2 o’clock Sunday morning I heard Tucker get up and go to the water bucket, then go out of doors. Alex said he supposed Tucker had gone to get something to kill him with. About daybreak Alex got up and went out. I don’t know where he went or what he did. He came back after a while and told me Tucker was dead, and taking his pistol, said he would kill me if I made any alarm. He would not let me go out. They put Tucker in a little room and covered him up. Alex spoke of coming to town and giving up to the sheriff, but Sandy said no—said he would put Tucker away—that he had put many a man away safely. About 12 o’clock Sunday Alex took his pistol and guarded me while Sandy went into the little room and cut up the body of Tucker. About 12 o’clock Sunday night they put the remains in sacks and carry them to a creek half mile away and dumped them into the water they said. We left Sandy in Little Rock and I never heard of him afterward. Alex and I went to Memphis, from there to Covington, thence to Detroit, Tenn., where my father sent me money to come home on. Alex Whitley —traveled with me as far as Gainesville, Ga. There he said he thought it best to never let me go home, but I begged till he consented and he told me that if I ever told anything he would hunt me up and kill me. I never saw Whitley after we

 

   The question that will never be answered is whether Alex and Sandy Wilson were covering up Tucker’s murder or Tucker’s death. Judy’s jail-house chatter apparently stirred the simmering pot of pent-up anger, impotence, and fear that flooded Stanly County, and her stories of numerous murders—children who never existed, a wife who died of natural causes, a man who disappeared—were woven into a masterful web that fed those who were already hungry for revenge and mayhem.

   By manipulating and magnifying Judy’s accusations in “Lines Written on the Assassination of D. B. Tucker,” Harrington created the impetus to lynch Alex Whitley and serve him his “just desert” His song saved Judy that night in June, but it struck a match that lit the torches for the lynch mob.

   Little is known of Judy’s activities after her return to Stanly County. She later married Harris Gillman Goldman, took his name, and became known as Irene Goldman. Judy was 85 years old when she died on January 24, 1957, exactly 65 years after Tucker’s death on January 24, 1892.