Too Young To Die—The Execution of George Stinney Jr. (1944)

This is the sad saga of the youngest person ever executed in the United States. It was the inspiration for the 1989 Edgar Award–winning book for Best First Novel, Carolina Skeletons, by David Stout. The book became the basis for the 1992 movie of the same name starring Lou Gossett Jr. and Bruce Dern.

Recently a judge vacated Stinney’s conviction – 70 years too late. For those unfamiliar with the story, here is my version from my 2007 book, South Carolina Killers: Crimes of Passion. 

1944 

Clarendon County, South Carolina can claim to be the home of some notable Americans. Althea Gibson, the first African American woman to play tennis at Wimbledon, Peggy Parish, author of the famous Amelia Bedelia children’s books, and the birthplace to five South Carolina governors. It was also the location of the small town of Alcolu where most of the residents, black and white, worked at the Alderman Lumber Company Mill,  were farmers or both.

In 1944, most people in the tiny mill town were just trying to get by and hoping the few local boys who were serving in the war would make it back home. The most recent American casualty totals for World War II had just recently been released—19,499 killed, 45,545 wounded, 26,339 missing and 26,754 captured. Every day the newspaper was filled with death tolls and descriptions of war horrors, and though no one knew it, the worst was yet to come. The D-Day invasion of Normandy was two and a half months away.

March 24, 1944.

Betty June Binnicker, age eleven, and Mary Emma Thames, age eight, went to pick flowers that afternoon. Betty June asked permission to take a pair of scissors and then told her family, “We’ll be back in about thirty minutes.” The girls rode off together on one bicycle. No one was concerned. The girls often played on this side of town, and several people saw the familiar scene of the two girls riding double. They passed by the Stinney house. Even though the Stinneys were black, both girls knew the Stinney kids. Katherine Stinney and her older brother, George Jr., were in the front yard. “We’re looking for maypops,” Betty June said. “Do you know where they are?”

   Katherine told them no, and the two girls rode off on their bikes.

   When the two girls didn’t return by dark, the Binnicker family was panicked. Soon a town-wide search was launched, with hundreds of volunteers. They searched through the entire night. About 7:30 a.m. the next morning, some men found several small footprints in the soft ground and followed the footprints along a narrow path on the edge of town, where they found the pair of scissors lying in the grass nearby. Following the path with more urgency, the searchers discovered a large ditch filled with muddy water. They could see the outline of a bicycle beneath the murky surface. Scott Lowden jumped into the water, and the bodies of the two girls were dragged out. Both girls had severe head wounds—Mary Emma’s skull was fractured in five different places and the back of Betty June’s skull was smashed.

   Within a few hours, local sheriff’s deputies arrested George Stinney Jr. His youngest sister, Katherine Stinney Robinson, later recalled, “And all I remember is the people coming to our house and taking my brother. And no police officers with hats or anything—these were men in suits or whatever that came. I don’t know how they knew to come to that house and pick up my brother.”

   George was taken to the sheriff’s office, where he was interrogated. In 1944, there were no Miranda rights to be read to the accused. George was locked in a room with several white officers. Neither of George’s parents were allowed to see him. Within an hour, Deputy H.S. Newman announced that Stinney had confessed to the murders. Stinney told police that he wanted to have sex with Betty June, but the only way to get her alone was to get rid of Mary Emma. But Betty June fought him, so he killed her too. Stinney then led the police to the scene, where they found a fourteen-inch-long railroad spike. Deputy Newman wrote a statement on March 26, 1944, and described the events.

 George_Stinney_1944

I was notified that the bodies had been found. I went down to where the bodies were at. I found Mary Emma she was rite [sic] at the edge of the ditch with four or five wounds on her head, on the other side of the ditch the Binnicker girl, were [sic] laying there with 4 or 5 wounds in her head, the bicycle which the little girls had were beside of the little Binnicker girl. By information I received I arrested a boy by the name of George Stinney, he then made a confession and told me where a piece of iron about 15 inches long were, he said he put it in a ditch about 6 feet from the bicycle which was lying in the ditch.

   The town was horrified by the crime and overwhelmed with grief. Both girls’ parents worked at the Alderman Lumber Mill, as did Mr. George Stinney Sr. Within a few hours, the grief among the millworkers had quickly transformed into a seething anger.

March 26, 1944.

About forty angry white men headed for the Clarendon County Jail and demanded mob justice, but sheriff’s deputies were one step ahead of the folks. They had moved Stinney fifty miles away to Columbia.

   B.G. Alderman, owner of Alderman’s Lumber Mill, fired George’s father. The Stinney family lived in such fear for their lives that they moved from town in the middle of the night, abandoning their son to his fate.

   George Stinney Jr. was fourteen years, five months old when he went on trial. The first recorded execution of a juvenile in America was Thomas Graungery, age sixteen, of Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, who was hanged for bestiality. On March 14, 1794, two young slave girls, “Bett, age 12” and “Dean, age 14,” were executed for starting a fire that burned down a portion of Albany, New York. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court passed a ruling that “prohibits the death penalty for juvenile offenders whose crimes were committed before they were 16.” Prior to 1988, there was no age limit for executions.

   Lorraine Binniker Bailey was Betty June’s older sister. She recalled that “everybody knew that he done it—even before they had the trial they knew he done it. But, I don’t think they had too much of a trial.”

   Katherine Stinney Robinson later recalled, “I remember my mother cried so. She cried her little eyes all swollen. I would hear her praying. She said, ‘I just want you to change the minds of men. Because my son didn’t do this.’ But it wasn’t long after that that they just did it. He was gone.”

   The court appointed thirty-year-old Charles Plowden as George’s attorney. Plowden had political aspirations, and the trial was a high-wire act for him. His dilemma was how to provide enough defense so that he could not be accused of incompetence, but not be so passionate that he would anger the local whites who may one day vote for him.

April 24, 1944.

More than 1,500 people crammed into the Clarendon County Courthouse. Jury selection began at 10:00 a.m. and was finished just after noon. The jury contained twelve white men. Due to the nature of the crime and the passion of the community, it certainly would have been in George Stinney’s favor to have a change in venue. But defense attorney Plowden made no motion.

   After a lunch break, the case was heard before Judge Stoll. Plowden did not cross-examine any of the prosecuting witnesses. His defense consisted of claiming that Stinney was too young to be held responsible for the crimes by law. In response, the prosecution presented Stinney’s birth certificate stating that he was born on October 21, 1959, which made him fourteen years and five months old. Under South Carolina law in 1944, an adult was anyone over the age of fourteen.

   The case had begun at 2:30 p.m. and closing arguments were finished by 4:30. The jury retired just before 5:00 p.m. and deliberated for ten minutes. They returned with the verdict “guilty, with no recommendation for mercy.” The case took less than three hours to decide. Judge Stoll sentenced Stinney to die in the electric chair at the Central Correctional Institute in Columbia.

   When asked about an appeal, Defense Attorney Plowden stated that there was nothing to appeal and the Stinney family had no money to pay for a continuance of the case.

   Several local churches, in conjunction with the NAACCP, appealed to Governor Olin D. Johnston to stop the execution. The governor’s office received letters for mercy. Most cited Stinney’s age as the mitigating factor why the execution should be dropped. One message was as direct as could be in 1944 by stating “child execution is only for Hitler.” The Tobacco Worker’s Union, the National Maritime Union and the White and Negro Ministerial Unions of Charleston asked Governor Johnston to commute the sentence to life imprisonment.

   However, there were just as many, if not more, in favor of the execution who encouraged the governor to be strong. One of the more blunt letters to the governor stated, “Sure glad to hear of your decision regarding the nigger Stinney.”

   The governor decided to do nothing. He let the execution proceed.

June 16, 1944.

At 7:30 p.m., George Stinney Jr. was fitted into the electric chair. It had been designed for grown men, not children. He was five feet, one inch tall and weighed ninety pounds. The guards had a hard time strapping him into the seat. The mask over his face did not fit properly. When the switch was thrown, the force of the electricity jerked the too-large mask from his face, and for the final four minutes of his life, the spectators in the gallery had a full view of Stinney’s horrified face as he was executed.

   Stinney’s sister, Katherine Stinney Robinson, was interviewed on the fiftieth anniversary of her brother’s execution and said

He was like my idol, you know. He was very smart in school, very artistic. He could draw all kinds of things. We had a good family. Small house, but there was a lot of love. It took my mother a long time to get over it. And maybe she never got over it.

   The time span of the entire episode, from the girls’ death to Stinney’s execution, was eighty-one days.

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Novel based on the Stinney case.

 

ESSENTIAL TIME TRAVEL NOVELS

Yesterday, over beer and burgers, I got in a discussion with Savannah-based author James Caskey about our favorite time travel stories which prompted me to put together a list of essential novels in the genre.  Any of these would be great beach reading. So, forgo the weekly James Patterson published novel and go with one of these classics instead. Listed in alphabetical order


THE ANUBIS GATES by Tim Powers (1985)

anubis-gates-time-powers-gollanczQuite brilliant. The colonization of Egypt by western European powers is the launch point for power plays and machinations. Steeping together in this time-warp stew are such characters as an unassuming Coleridge scholar, ancient gods, wizards, the Knights Templar, werewolves, and other quasi-mortals, all wrapped in the organizing fabric of Egyptian mythology. The reluctant heroes fight for survival against an evil that lurks beneath the surface of their everyday lives.

BRING THE JUBILEE by Ward Moore (1953) 

jubileeThis is one of the first (and the best) of the alternative history novels that ask: What if the South won the Civil War? Politically complex, astute and endlessly fascinating. The point of divergence occurs when the Confederate States of America wins the Battle of Gettysburg and subsequently declares victory in the “War of Southern Independence” on July 4, 1864 after the surrender of the United States of America. The novel takes place in the impoverished United States in the mid-20th century as war looms between the Confederacy and its rival, the German Union. History takes an unexpected turn when the protagonist Hodge Backmaker, a historian, decides to travel back in time and witness the moment when the South won the war.

A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT by Mark Twain (1889)

connecticut yankeeThis story is both a whimsical fantasy and a social satire chock-full of brilliant Twainisms. Hank Morgan, a 19th century American-a Connecticut Yankee-by a stroke of fate is sent back into time to 6th century England and ends up in Camelot and King Arthur’s Court. Although of average intelligence, he finds himself with knowledge beyond any ofthose in the 6th century and uses it to become the king’s right hand man, and to challenge Merlin as the court magician. Astounded at the way of life in Camelot, Hank does the only thing he can think of to do: change them. In his attempt to civilize medieval Camelot he experiences many challenges and misadventures.

THE DANCERS AT THE END OF TIME by Michael Moorcock (1974 onward)

Dancers_at_the_end_of_timeEnter a decaying far, far future society, a time when anything and everything is possible, where words like ‘conscience’ and ‘morality’ are meaningless, and where heartfelt love blossoms mysteriously between Mrs Amelia Underwood, an unwilling time traveller, and Jherek Carnelian, a bemused denizen of the End of Time. The Dancers at the End of Time is a brilliant homage to the 1890s. The series include the following novels: An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands and The End of All Songs.

GLIMPSES by Lewis Shiner (1993)

glimpsesThe first rock n roll time-travel novel! In the song “American Pie” Don McLean asked the question: “Can music save your mortal soul?” Glimpses answers that question with a resounding “YES!” Ray Chackleford is an unstable, self-employed electronics repairman whose marriage is foundering and whose father has recently died. These unresolved relationships are complicated when Ray travels to the Mexican site of his father’s death and promptly falls in love with a woman even more unstable than he. In the midst of this emotional turmoil, Ray–a rock drummer during his youth in the late Sixties–begins to hear music in his head and manages to transfer to tape legendary unfinished recordings by Jim Morrison, Brian Wilson, and Jimi Hendrix. This music is accompanied by “journeys” into the troubled lives of these rock musicians. Shiner’s appealing main character and his gripping style overcome the less believable aspects of his story. If you love classic rock and roll, this is a must read!

THE GODS THEMSELVES by Issac Asimov (1972)

In the year 2100, mankind on Earth, settlers in a lunar colony and gods themselvesaliens from the para-universe, a strange universe parallel in time to our own, are faced with a race against time to prevent total destruction of the Earth. The invention of the Inter-Universe Electron Pump has threatened the rate of hydrogen fusion in the sun, leading, inevitably, to the possibility of a vast explosion — and the vapourization of the Earth exactly eight minutes later . . . Asimov, is always, accurate and brilliant. The science is plausible.

THE LIGHT OF OTHER DAYS by Arthur C. Clark & Stephen Baxter (2000)

light of other daysTwo titans of hard SF–multiple award-winning British authors Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama) and Baxter (The Time Ships)–team up for a story of grand scientific and philosophical scope. Ruthless Hiram Patterson, the self-styled “Bill Gates of the twenty-first century,” brings about a communication revolution by using quantum wormholes to link distant points around Earth. Not content with his monopoly on the telecommunications industry, Patterson convinces his estranged son, David, a brilliant young physicist, to work for him. While humanity absorbs the depressing news that an enormous asteroid will hit Earth in 500 years, David develops the WormCam, which allows remote viewers to spy on anyone, anytime. The government steps in to direct WormCam use–but before long, privacy becomes a distant memory. Then David and his half-brother, Bobby, discover a way to use the WormCam to view the past, and the search for truth leads to disillusionment as well as knowledge. Only by growing beyond the mores of the present can humanity hope to survive and to deal with the threats of the future, including that asteroid. The exciting extrapolation flows with only a few missteps, and the large-scale implications addressed are impressive indeed.

THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF by David Gerrold (1973)

folded himselfDaniel Eakins inherits a time machine and soon realizes that he has enormous power to shape the course of history. He can foil terrorists, prevent assassinations, or just make some fast money at the racetrack. And if he doesn’t like the results of the change, he can simply go back in time and talk himself out of making it! But Dan soon finds that there are limits to his powers and forces beyond his control. A wild ride!

PASTWATCH: THE REDEMPTION OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS by Orson Scott Card (1996)

pastwatchTagiri and Hassan are members of Pastwatch, an academic organization that uses machines to see into the past and record it. Their project focuses on slavery and its dreadful effects, and gradually evolves into a study of Christopher Columbus. They eventually marry and their daughter Diko joins them in their quest to discover what drove Columbus west. Columbus, with whom readers become acquainted through both images in the Pastwatch machines and personal narrative, is portrayed as a religious man with both strengths and weaknesses, a charismatic leader who sometimes rose above but often fell beneath the mores of his times. An entertaining and thoughtful history lesson.

REPLAY by Ken Grimwood (1986)

replayWhat if you could live your life over and over, and over again? Jeff Winston, a failing 43-year-old radio journalist, dies and wakes up in his 18-year-old body in 1963 with his memories of the next 25 years intact. He views the future from the perspective of naive 1963: “null-eyed punks in leather and chains . . . death-beams in orbit around the polluted, choking earth . . . his world sounded like the most nightmarish of science fiction.” Grimwood transcended genre with this carefully observed, literate and original story. Jeff’s knowledge soon becomes as much a curse as a blessing. After recovering from the shock (is the future a dream, or is it real life?), he plays out missed choices. In one life, for example, he falls in love with Pamela, a housewife who died nine minutes after Jeff; they try to warn the world of the disasters it faces, coming in conflict with the government and history. A third replayer turns out to be a serial killer, murdering the same people over and over. Jeff and Pamela are still searching for some missing part of their lives when they notice they are returning closer and closer to the time of their deaths, and realize that the replays and their times together may be coming to an end. A brilliant book. An all-time classic.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)


slaughterhouse_five“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.”
After he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, Pilgrim’s life unfolds in a display of plot-scrambling virtuosity, concentrating on his shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden. Okay, we’ve all read it.  If not … what are you doing reading this blog? ‘Nuff said.

TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finny (1970)

Time-and-Again-Novel-CoverSimon Morley, an artist with a premium on imagination, is chosen as a possible subject by a group operating on the theory that time is charted by a myriad of details and if surrounded by what appear to be the artifacts and events of an era, they might be able to project themselves into the actual time slot. For weeks Simon is secluded in an apartment in New York’s famous landmark, the Dakota, where he dresses, eats, entertains himself and reads newspapers in tire style of the New York of 1894 and finally he walks out into the Central Park of that January. As Simon wanders and takes photos of the familiar-but-different New York landscape, he becomes involved in the lives of several of his 19th century acquaintances. And there is a mystery that Simon is determined to solve that has to do with a suicide and a cryptic letter that ends “the sending of this should cause the Destruction by Fire of the entire World.” 

TIMESCAPE by Gregory Benford (1980)

timescapeIt’s 1998 and a physicist in Cambridge, England, attempts to send a message backward in time. Earth is falling apart, and a government faction supports the project in hopes of diverting or avoiding the environmental disasters beginning to tear at the edges of civilization. It’s 1962, and a physicist in California struggles with his new life on the West Coast, office politics, and the irregularities of data that plague his experiments. Then he receives an unusual message … 

TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis (1997)

To_Say_Nothing_of_the_DogIn 2057, Ned Henry, an Oxford expert in the 20th century, jumps back and forth from the 1940s to correct a loose screw in the works of the time continuum. A tongue-in-cheek raspberry to Victorian novels, the story unfolds with such madcap screwball intensity it makes the pages burn your fingers as you read. This a fun ride!

UP THE LINE by Robert Silverberg (1969) up the line

Being a Time Courier was one of the best jobs Judson Daniel Elliott III ever had. It was tricky, though, taking group after group of tourists back to the same historic event without meeting yourself coming or going. Trickier still was avoiding the temptation to become intimately involved with the past and interfere with events to come. The deterrents for any such actions were frighteningly effective. So Judson Daniel Elliott played by the book. Then he met a lusty Greek in Byzantium who showed him how rules were made to be broken…and set him on a family-history-go-round that would change his past and his future forever!