Carolina Skeletons Revisited: Part 2 of 4, by David Stout
In 1988, while working as a reporter, David Stout published Carolina Skeletons, based on the true story of a 1940s double-murder, for which fourteen year-old George Stinney was controversially executed. The book won Stout an Edgar award for best first novel. In this exclusive, four-part series, Stout revisits the novel. This is part 2 of the series. Read part 1 here.
I have to know more about the case.
That was my instant reaction that day late in 1981, when I saw a mention in a newspaper article of a fourteen-year-old named George Stinney, executed in South Carolina in 1944 for killing two little girls.
Stinney was black, the victims white. At fourteen, Stinney was believed to be the youngest person ever legally executed in the United States, at least since the Salem witch trials.
I picked up the phone--this was years before people did Web searches--and called the newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. A helpful librarian promised to mail me whatever she could find. (I was a reporter at The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey, at the time, and newspaper people like to help one another.)
From copies of the old clips, I tracked down several people who were still alive in South Carolina. One was the son of the man who had been sheriff of Clarendon County, where the crime occurred, in 1944.
I had a terse, guarded phone exchange with the sheriff’s son. A lawman himself, he noted that George Stinney had confessed soon after his arrest. The son recalled that, when his father was driving Stinney to Columbia for his date with death, he stopped to buy him a Bible and a candy bar. That act of compassion stayed in my mind.
The sheriff’s son watched the execution in the state prison at Columbia when he was only seventeen. In middle age, he was still haunted by the sight of the condemned boy’s face emerging from behind the mask as the generator whined in the background.
I learned that, shortly after the murders, George Stinney’s parents and siblings had taken a train north, settling in Newark.
I found a telephone listing for a “Stinney” in Newark. The woman who answered the phone was old, hard of hearing, frail. In a moment, she handed the phone to a younger woman. She was courteous and friendly, even after I told her why I was calling.
Yes, she confirmed. I am George Stinney’s sister, and the old woman you were just talking to is our mother. Of course, I’m familiar with The Record, she said. I’m a junior high teacher in Passaic County.
I could scarcely believe my ears. Passaic County is next to Bergen and part of The Record’s circulation area. Here it was, the precious “local angle” that newspaper reporters love, as in “Local Man Survives Plane Crash in Andes.” Here, I was sure, was a great story.
But some of my editors were not so sure. They asked me: Do you really think there’s a story there after all these years? And if we resurrect the case now, won’t it look as though we have an agenda?
They told me in late 1981 that they wouldn’t pay for a trip to South Carolina. But I couldn’t let the story go. So I went to see George Stinney’s younger sister in Passaic County.
The soft-spoken teacher shared her memories of how the case had shattered her parents. She recalled taking a train north with her family, never to return to South Carolina, after her brother George was arrested. She steered me to two other brothers. One lived in Brooklyn, the other in Manhattan, where he was a minister.
I interviewed the Brooklyn brother in person. He had an anger that was still hot. He recalled a late-afternoon good-bye from a sheriff’s deputy: “Don’t let the sun go down on you, nigger.”
The minister, who would only talk to me by phone, was no less bitter. The brothers and sister agreed: George Stinney had been railroaded, and the guy who really killed the little girls was probably a bullying white man who lived nearby.
As for the “confession,” it must have been beaten out of George, his sister and brothers agreed.
I reached George Stinney’s court-appointed lawyer in South Carolina. In late 1981, he was a retired state tax official. He was pleasant and self-deprecating over the phone. Heck, he said, there wasn’t much I could do because of the confession. He didn’t suggest that the confession had been beaten out of his client, didn’t seem to have any doubt about his client’s guilt.
But guilty or not, George Stinney was fourteen. Why wasn’t there a national debate beforehand about whether it was right to execute someone that young?
Tomorrow: There’s a War On
David Stout is an accomplished reporter who has been writing mysteries and true crime since the 1980s. Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, Stout took a job at the New York Times in 1982, where he began writing his first novel, Carolina Skeletons. The book won Stout an Edgar award for best first novel and is currently available through MysteriousPress.com.
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