An Obscure Killing, Circa 1903

The year was 1902; the place Columbia, South Carolina. Annie Laurie was fed up with a pesky suitor named Charley Hall. She didn’t care if it was Christmas Eve. She told him she didn’t want to see him anymore.
Charley didn’t take it so well. He flew into a rage, storming, swearing, and threatening to kill Annie Laurie. And yet, this display of affection failed to move her at all, and Hall was shown the door.
For many weeks afterward, Hall talked of his love for Annie Laurie. He shadowed her day and night and his friends said he threatened to murder any man he saw with her. In February, Hall heard Annie Laurie had been seen with a man named James Patterson. He was wild with jealousy, and told everyone he would kill Patterson if he saw them together.
Columbia
Main Street in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1903

It isn’t known if Patterson and Laurie were actually an item, but on the evening of February 27, they walked into town together on an errand. They thought nothing of the footsteps following them but as they neared the corner of Laurel Street, Annie glanced backward and saw Charley Hall, just a few paces behind them.

Hall immediately pulled a pistol from his overcoat and shot James Patterson twice in the back, point-blank.

Annie Laurie screamed and ran for safety. As Patterson fell to the ground, seriously injured, Charley fled. Witnesses helped the wounded man to Dr. J.J. Watson’s office.

William Henry Coleman was the sheriff in Richland County 1901 - 1912
Sheriff Coleman

Sheriff William Coleman swore a warrant for Charley’s arrest the next morning. The charge was assault and battery, with intent to kill.

Coleman’s terrible writing and complete indifference to accuracy annoys me more than I can say. For instance, he wrote the wrong year on the warrant. Also, in what world is “Feby” an abbreviation for February?

Assault with attempt to kill
Assault and battery with intent to kill

The investigation progressed, with police collecting witness statements.

  • Lela Jackson, who gives the general impression of being in everyone else’s business, had seen Hall early the morning after Patterson was shot and he brushed off her questions. “He said he wasn’t worried because he didn’t do it,” she told police.
  • Jack Wade said: “I recognized [Hall] as he ran beneath the electric lights.”
  • Annie Laurie explained, “I told him to stop coming to my house about Christmas time. Hall threatened my life when I broke away from him.” She added: “He never spoke to me about Patterson on any occasion.”

The accused man and many of the witnesses didn’t read and write. Officials guessed at the spelling and witnesses acknowledged the statement with their “mark”, an X. As a result, the same names are spelled differently on documents related to the case.

Annie's "mark"
Annie’s mark

In the evening, the police visited Patterson at the doctor’s office. He was coherent and gave a statement. “I turned and recognized [Charley] Hall as the one who shot me,” he said. “He had a pistol in his hand. He shot me twice, and then ran.” Patterson added his mark to the document.

The ante-mortem statement
The ante-mortem statement

After giving his statement, the victim’s health rapidly declined. Dr. Watson, assisted by Dr. LeGrand Guerry, performed a risky operation to save his life but they failed. Patterson died March 16, just over two weeks after the attack. Dr. Guerry gave a statement that one bullet completely severed Patterson’s spinal cord, which was “sufficient to produce death”.

It’s neither here nor there, but look how beautiful the doctor’s handwriting is:

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An inquest not surprisingly found Charley Hall had caused James Patterson’s death. The assault and battery charge was now a murder.

Inquest

Sheriff Coleman scratched a note on the back of the existing warrant, noting the change and wrote (Homicide) on the front. Why not write a new warrant? Was he trying to conserve paper?

The sheriff is trying my patience with all his little idiosyncrasies.

 

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Notes on the back of the warrant
Back of the warrant

Magistrate Robert Moorman interviewed witnesses, but allowed them to leave after signing statements that promised to pay a fine of $200 if they didn’t appear for the trial. That’s over $5,000 in today’s money, and it’s safe to say these people didn’t have it.

The trial was set for the first Monday in April. In the meantime, Hall was free on bail, posted by a David F. Brown.

I wonder if Annie Laurie worried when Hall was free on bail. Her predicament sounds like a Blind Willie McTell song that goes like this:
You might go uptown, have me arrested, have me thrown in jail, but some hot shot’s got money come and go my bail. Soon as I get out, hit the ground, your southern can’s worth two dollars and half a pound. 

Fun fact: Blind Willie McTell was 4 years old when Charley Hall shot James Patterson, living 90 miles away in Thomson, Georgia.

Blind Willie McTell, one of the greatest bluesmen ever
Blind Willie McTell, greatest bluesmen ever

There’s no record of what Charley Hall did during those three weeks. All we know for sure is that he didn’t jump bail and he didn’t kill Annie Laurie.

At his felony indictment April 6, Charley was in court to be formally charged with the murder of James Patterson. He pled Not Guilty and the trial commenced. Besides Charley, there were eight witnesses for the defense, including David F. Brown (the guy who had posted his bail).

defense witnesses
defense witnesses

The prosecution called Dr. Guerry, Dr. Watson, and W.S. Green, the coroner. Seems over-the-top, since any of them could have testified as to what happened from a medical perspective. Perhaps the state’s attorneys got paid by the hour.

Annie Laurie and Lela Jackson (of course) testified. The victim was represented by his statement identifying Hall as his killer.

Prosecution
prosecution witnesses

With witnesses attesting to his promise to kill Patterson, witnesses who saw him do it, and the victim’s own statement identifying Charley as his assailant, Charley faced long odds. The jury unsurprisingly convicted him of Patterson’s murder.

Here is a curious part though. The foreman, T. G. Langston, read the Guilty verdict and added the happily turned phrase “and Recommended to mercy”.

Recommended to mercy

The jury could have – but did not – declare Hall not guilty by reason of insanity. Assuming Charley Hall was in his right mind when he was stalking his ex-girlfriend, premeditating the murder of a new love interest, and actually committing the crime, it seems strange for the jury to recommend mercy. In most places, especially South Carolina, shooting a man in the back is looked down upon as the act of a coward. There must be some reason to recommend mercy but without a trial transcript, we can only speculate.

On April 10, Charley was back in court for his sentencing. The judge ordered him to stand, then he read:

“The sentence of the court is that the prisoner
Charlie Hall be confined in the state penitentiary
at hard labor during the term of his natural life.”

Sentence in the judge's handwriting
Sentence in the judge’s handwriting

I wonder if the judge considered this a merciful punishment? Or did he disregard the jury’s recommendation?

And yet, it was not to be. Charley did not die in prison.

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After nine years, he was paroled for good behavior. On May 21, 1912, the convicted murderer walked out of prison and into the late spring evening.  And that, friends, is the last history records of him.

December 2013 update: History did record more about Charley Hall! Check out the update here

 

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