Trials of the past
The trials of ‘The Axemen of Birmingham’s
Drug-induced confessions lead to winding courtroom drama
on February 20, 2013 at 7:00 AM,
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Birmingham was on the verge of frenzy after four years of ax attacks on immigrant merchants and assaults and murders of interracial couples, when police announced five suspects had been injected with a “truth serum” and confessed on Christmas Eve 1923.
The Birmingham News on Jan. 8, 1924, printed a front-page jailhouse interview with two of those suspects, Odell Jackson and Peyton Johnson, also known as Foots. Both denied confessing to any crimes.
Johnson described being given a shot of a “white fluid just below the shoulder. I immediately became dizzy.”
The two said while under the influence of the drug they were asked what color pants they were wearing, what time it was, and if they had taken part in the murders.
Although they said the drug had a potent effect, both men told The News they never confessed. Use of the drug, scopolamine, in interrogations was ruled a form of torture 40 years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s a funny feeling. Feels like you’re sleeping, but you are not. Just floating around would be a good description,” Jackson told a News reporter.
In February 1924, a third suspect, Fred Glover, was sentenced to 20 years in an assault and robbery case.
During that trial, Glover’s attorney tried to question the use of the drug but a judge ruled in favor of prosecutors who objected. Glover’s suspected role in what The News called the ax gang was also not mentioned at trial.
Johnson was sentenced to death that February after Mary Francis Sanders testified Johnson and four other suspects bragged about the attack on John Turner, a white painter, and a black woman, Lillie Belle (also spelled by The News as Lilly Bell and Lillie Bell). Sanders had been with the group prior to the murders, she testified.
“They said they got the man, but not the woman,” Sanders told the court.
Sanders said Pearl Jackson, a 19-year-old black woman and Odell Jackson’s wife, assured the group Turner was dead “for I saw his brains.”
Pearl Jackson broke down in court when Johnson’s death sentence was announced. “Foots would no more kill a man than I would,” Jackson was quoted as saying.
After the trial, Jefferson County Solicitor James Davis, the prosecutor, praised the effectiveness of scopolamine, although it had not been mentioned in court.
“Before Johnson was subjected to the serum, we had absolutely nothing to work on,” Davis said.
Verdicts come, but violence continues
A few days after Pearl Jackson wept at the news of Johnson’s death sentence, Davis announced she had again confessed, this time without the use of scopolamine, and agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without the threat of the death penalty.
But Davis said he made no promise and would seek the death penalty. Jackson later denied making a second confession and never pleaded guilty.
Across Birmingham, the effects of the four years of violence were still being felt.
Two weeks after the report of Pearl Jackson’s second confession, Ernest Romeo, the son of Elizabeth Romeo and brother of Juliet Vigilant, both brutally murdered with a meat cleaver months earlier, shot a black man outside his Southside grocery store, leaving him critically injured.
“Romeo, police say, has been apprehensive of strange Negroes since then and the shooting Saturday night showed that he had been under a heavy strain and was taking no chances,” The News reported March 17, 1924.
Less than three weeks after Johnson’s conviction, Clem Williams, a black man who delivered The News in the Overton mining camp, was found with “his head split open” and an ax on his chest at his kitchen table on March 19, 1924. Three men, all black, were arrested, but it is unclear if anyone was ever convicted.
Birmingham Police Chief Fred McDuff and Jefferson County Sheriff Thomas A. Shirley, in a Birmingham Age-Herald interview, suggested sensational newspaper reports of the crimes were spawning a crop of copycat killers.
“You may take an ax murder, for example, and play it up until some crazy person is driven to commit a similar murder,” Sheriff Shirley said.
As the Jacksons prepared to stand trial in May 1924, two white men — Richard Warner and L.M. Watkins — were struck with an ax and robbed as they walked through downtown.
Hours later, police chased a black man named Frank Owens and shot him in the arm as they arrested him. Warner and Watkins survived.
The News reported Owens told police he was “determined to strike down pedestrians in the fashion pursued by the axemen.” Owens was later sentenced to hang and attempted suicide by jumping from a courthouse window.
‘The final chapter’
As the Jacksons stood trial, Mary Francis Sanders, who testified against Johnson, told more of the night John Robert Turner was killed.
Sanders said 10 people were in a “shanty in a downtown alley” drinking a liquor she called “skulls and crossbones” when someone suggested they go “skulling,” slang for hitting someone over the head and robbing them.
The couple showed little reaction as they were sentenced to death. The News reported on May 29, 1924, that they and Peyton Johnson were expected to be executed by hanging at the same time.
“Assured now that a complete axe gang is in jail and convicted, authorities desire to make an example of them,” the article stated.
As she faced the prospect of being the first woman in Jefferson County to be executed, and the first statewide since the Civil War, Pearl Jackson told reporters she was confident she would be freed, The News reported in June 1924.
The story then fell from the front page as courtroom dramas unfolded in other states, including the trial of wealthy Chicago students Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924, and later the 1925 Scopes trial, in which a Tennessee biology teacher was accused of violating a ban on the teaching of evolution.
The state supreme court in January 1925 upheld the Jacksons’ death sentences but ordered a new trial for Johnson, saying a letter stating that the prosecution’s star witness was a “good girl” should not have been read in court.
The couple was scheduled to die on June 19, 1925. News articles told of gospel songs they sang with fellow condemned prisoners, how a Jefferson County deputy was preparing their nooses and the final meal Pearl planned to eat — a whole chicken, a whole watermelon, and a quart of ice cream.
She was “ready to die as soon as she gets plenty to eat,” The News reported.
Proclaiming their innocence as the final hour neared, Gov. William Brandon granted a last minute reprieve until Johnson’s second trial ended. A new execution date, July 17, was set.
Johnson nearly died as that trial began on July 6, suffering a stroke as Lilly Belle (or Bell) testified about the attack that killed John Robert Turner and left her unconscious.
On July 27, having regained composure, Johnson again stood trial, The News reported.
This time, Johnson stood trial with a co-defendant named Ed “Bulls Eye” Jackson, whose name did not appear in previous reports and whose role in the attack was never explained by The News.
After a lengthy jury deliberation, Ed Jackson was sentenced to life in prison, Johnson was given 10 years, and Pearl and Odell were given their third execution date in a span of two months — Aug. 7, 1925.
Gov. Brandon, well-known for his opposition to the death penalty, commuted their sentences to life in prison the day before they were to die. In doing so, Brandon wrote “the final chapter” to the ax slayings, The News reported.
Questions remain 88 years later
The story seems to end there, but many questions remain nearly a century later. People who held the answers likely died long ago.
Of the many crimes the five suspects were accused of, they were convicted of just one. Efforts to find their prison records were unsuccessful. Did they die in prison?
Who was responsible for the other attacks and what happened to them?
The fifth suspect injected with scopolamine, John Reed, was never mentioned again after the confessions were first announced. What happened to him?
How did five years of vicious killings disappear from our collective memory?
Descendants of some victims still live in the Birmingham area and at least one, Butch Baldone, a downtown tailor for 53 years, said black people were unfairly targeted in the investigation.
Baldone’s grandparents, Charles and Mary Baldone and their daughter, Virginia, then 14, were assaulted in their 10th Avenue North shop on July 13, 1921. All three survived, but refused to identify their attackers.
While the five black people injected with scopolamine reportedly confessed to the crime, Baldone said he believes the attack and “at least 90 percent” of the others were the work of an Italian mafia that was trying to plant roots in Birmingham.
“Black people got along with Italians because they were the only ones who would give them credit. The white man didn’t want their business,” Baldone said.
Charles Baldone’s brother made bootleg liquor and members of “The Black Hand” — one of many violent extortion rackets that plagued immigrant communities nationwide in the early 20th century — blackmailed him by threatening his family, Butch Baldone said.
Butch Baldone said his family found the people behind the attack and took the law into their own hands.
“The Baldones found the people who really did it and, to put it simply, they don’t exist anymore,” Butch Baldone said. “That was the closest the mafia ever came to Birmingham.”