“Cruel, Barbarous & Inhumane”: Emily Cornelius and Planter Divorce

On August 19, 1852, Emily Cornelius fled. She hid, not for the first time, among her neighbors and begged their protection from the man who beat her, William Cornelius, her husband.

Emily and William married September 23, 1847 in Madison County. William was a rich man. He owned about 810 acres and counted among his property at least twenty slaves: Jim, Thirston, Chainey, Jules, Horace, Andy, Bake, Buck, Little, Jae, Bill, Dennis, Palena, Katy, Evilina, Solomon, Sarah, Jane, Charlotte, George, Larkin, Francis, and an infant named Lena.

With his wealth and land, all derived from his surplus of slaves, William Cornelius achieved the status of planter – the rough and tumble elite of antebellum slave society. A planter, even a minor one like William Cornelius, wielded great and ugly power over their estate. White men who were free to terrorize, rape, and sometimes murder, planters rarely resembled the coiffed and dainty aristocrats of film and popular legend.

Due to this power, influence, and their relative scarcity when weighed against the general population, we do not have many records of planter divorces in the antebellum South. Indeed, the normal circumstances for divorce rarely applied to them. Less wealthy white men who allowed a female slave to take their wife’s place in bed might face a case, while planters’ concubines would often be overlooked by wives who wanted to keep their comfortable home. Planters also found fortune in their own counties and had no reason, like so many poor men, to shrug off the burdens of family and flee to Arkansas or the Republic of Texas. In addition, a legal quirk has prevented further insight into plantation marital strife. South Carolina possessed some of the largest and wealthiest plantations in the antebellum South. However, due to their conservative nature and quixotic constitutions, divorce was not legalized there until 1950, almost a century after the end of the slaveholding planter class.

Instead, the few planter divorces on record are often the result of dramatic and brutal domestic violence.

For the first years of their marriage William drank often. Emily described him as “addicted to the immoderate use of intoxicating drink,” but all else was otherwise peaceful. Around 1850, his behavior changed and William Cornelius became “cruel, barbarous, & inhumane.”

When he drank he fell into the “frequent habit of heaping curses & imprecations of the most direful character,” upon her. It quickly progressed from curses to shouted threats of violence and death. Then he started hitting her, delivering “violent blows with his fists & feet upon your oratrix.” During the worst assaults neighbors intervened to save her life.

Emily Cornelius began running from her husband. She counted at least four times prior to August 19, 1852. Each time she hid from him, William appeared later, sober and making “the most earnest asseverations…& uttering promises of the most solemn & sacred character,” that he would quit drinking. Each time she returned, convinced by his pleas, that she might “hope for peace & happiness & safety in the discharge of her duties as a wife.”

Each time he lied. The tension built in their marriage and he progressively used greater means of violence. In early June 1852, Emily Cornelius gave birth to a son – William Roland Cornelius – like his father. During her recovery period, when the infant was but three weeks old and she still feeble, William Cornelius attacked her. She cradled the infant in her arms while her husband “threatened to take the life of your oratrix if she opened her mouth.” During the assault William grabbed a chain and raised it to threaten her. He said he would kill her with it.

His mother, Ellen Cornelius, intervened. Ellen Cornelius moved between them and bodily shielded both Emily and the infant from her son’s rage. For this she “received a severe blow.” Afterwards, when William Cornelius began to drink they both hid.

Just a few weeks later, on August 19, he confronted her in a drunken rage. This time he brandished “an open Kine in his hand,” and told her it was time for their “final separation.” William told her to run and never come back, stating that if she returned he would finally kill her. She fled. Emily Cornelius took refuge with the neighbors and this time refused to return to her husband despite all his pleadings. [1]

In her suit Emily Cornelius lists her total property as a slave named Harriet “about 14 years of age,” who acted as a nurse for her infant son. She requested that the court grant her a divorce, custody of William Roland Cornelius, and a portion of her husband’s ample estate as maintenance.

William Cornelius responded the same day. He affirmed that, yes, they had married in 1847, and readily recognized that he was “addicted to the occasional immoderate use of intoxicating drinks,” but protested at being called “an habitual drunkard.” He said that he wanted to quit drinking and wished longingly that “his morbid apetite for stimulants had permitted him to keep his oft renewed resolution of Amendment.” He alleged that Emily Cornelius knew about his problems with alcohol long before they got married and “they have become no worse since.”

The response also implied that the marriage was a sham to get at William’s money. He claimed that prior to the wedding he had been “in one of the worst paroxysms of intoxication of about a week’s standing,” and that during the actual ceremony he “was so much under the influence of liquor that he could scarcely stand.”

William Cornelius framed the divorce proceedings as an elaborate ruse by Emily’s father to get some money to pay off his debts in Texas. His evidence for this was that her parents had been visiting during his most recent, and last, alleged assault and that she had spent much time with them. Despite all these claimed machinations by herself and her family, William Cornelius contended that he held her in “tender regard,” and simply wished for her to quit the divorce bill.

Abram Walker, the chancery court judge, saw all of this and issued his ruling on June 29, 1855. There would be no divorce, but William Cornelius would pay at least a thousand dollars in alimony and the infant should remain in Emily Cornelius’s care. Although it did not grant her absolute autonomy, one can imagine Emily Cornelius finding temporary relief in this outcome.

It would be far too temporary. William had successfully appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. In 1858, almost six years after Emily Cornelius petitioned for divorce, some men in Montgomery made a final declaration.

The remarks of Alabama Supreme Court Justice George Stone summed up the difficulties that the wives of planters sometimes faced when seeking equality before the law. Although Justice Stone readily admitted that when William Cornelius drank he became “a boisterous madman; [and] that these fits last for days,” and that his violence required the intervention of neighbors to protect his wife and mother, the Justice still thought William Cornelius capable of reform. Poorer men who drank too much and assaulted their wives often had their marriages dissolved, but due to his wealth and stature, William retained some possible future rights to his son when he no longer required, “those tender offices that only a mother can bestow.”

Although everyone knew of William Cornelius’s temper and fondness for liquor and witnesses readily told of his cruelty towards Emily Cornelius, he managed to parlay his wealth and power into good lawyers and Supreme Court appeals. Emily Cornelius appealed to the better nature of antebellum slave society and found none.


Censer, Jane Turner. “”Smiling Through Her Tears”: Ante-Bellum Southern Women and Divorce.” The American Journal of Legal History 25, no. 1 (1981): 24-47.

Emily Cornelius by her next friend Robert True vs. William Cornelius, Book V, 605-618 (1852).

[1] Kine is both an archaic term for cattle and general farm implements. The documents do not specify but it is most likely a tool that could have done serious damage.


The Petition of 1828

On August 13, 1828, something extraordinary happened in Huntsville, Alabama. Eleven enslaved people petitioned the circuit court for their freedom.

We only know the names of the first ten: seven adults named Isabel, Daniel, Nancy, Peter, George, Lebadie, and Noah; and three children named Minerva, Sally, and Cornelius. A final unnamed child is mentioned several times throughout the petition and is represented with a large blank space.

Their combined petition existed in a strange legal limbo. They turned to the courts in a time before courts could certify manumission and in turn cast themselves upon the justice of a system that designed itself to offer none to them. During the Antebellum states framed their own laws regarding slavery. There existed little national standard beyond Tidewater colonial precedence and, because slavery in the United States rarely resembled the conditions of servitude found in Medieval and Early Modern England, occasionally an individual judge’s interpretation of Roman law. This lack of definition fostered a patchwork of vagaries and horror that stymied the efforts of many enslaved people who tried to navigate it.

The petitioners previously belonged to a man named Thomas Jones. He decreed in a will dated August 9, 1821, that all seven adults, “with their increase,” pass to his widow Rachel Jones. Thomas’s wishes were that after their “expected industry & obedience in the further service of his widow,” they would all become free upon her death. Thomas Jones fathered no children and left no debts, he could not conceive of anyone else laying claim to them.

For six more years they toiled. Finally, in 1827, Rachel Jones died. Tragically she also married a man named William M. Stamps sometime before her death. Prior to a wave of married women’s property laws that swept the United States during the 1840’s, all the property that a woman brought into a marriage passed to her husband. According to Alabama law William Stamps now owned them.

He wasted little time in trying to make money from their misfortune and hired out six of them to a man named David Monroe for a term of one year. On January 1, 1829, William Stamps would have been an abhorrent yet well-compensated man. However, he died in the early part of 1828. All eleven petitioners had managed to outlive three masters in the span of seven years with their community and families mostly intact.

William Stamps, like Thomas Jones, fathered no children and left behind no debts to satisfy with the sale of human skin. Yet he did have brothers. Elijah Stamps and Joshua Stamps became the administrators of his estate. The brothers claimed the profits from their labor for David Monroe and began to act as they owned them. The alarm fully sounded in the early summer of 1828, when Joshua Stamps unsuccessfully attempted to “run off & sell Daniel” but apparently found resistance or a lack of buyers.

Terrified that their collective hopes of a free future for themselves and their children might be “greatly embarrassed or wholly defeated” by the avarice of Joshua and Elijah, the petitioners reached out to a man named Robert Malone to serve as their next friend.

The next friend was a white man, or rarely an unmarried woman, who represented those who could not legally represent themselves; this included women seeking a divorce, children, and in the rare case of the petitioners, slaves. Fathers, friends, and unwed daughters all served as next friends in Antebellum Alabama divorce proceedings. Following this precedent, it makes sense to assume that Robert Malone was either an extremely close friend of Thomas Jones, in a relationship with one of the petitioners, or related to them.

Thus, they submitted their petition to the circuit court. They asked to be compensated for their additional time in bondage and to be taken into the protective custody of the sheriff or placed under the safekeeping of Robert Malone. Then they waited for the decision of an entity that could not legally free them.

The courts possessed little leeway in manumission cases until 1834. Although they petitioned a circuit court and not a county court, as specified in the 1834 legislation, the 1819 Constitution still required that the state legislature pass an individual act recognizing the manumission. Their attorneys made mention of this in the petition and it would have been fresh in the minds of any enslaved people near Huntsville, on January 9, 1828, the legislature had freed a man named John Robinson after people from across Madison county petitioned Senator Miller on his behalf. They would have known about Robinson’s manumission but the petitioners lacked the powerful voice that Robinson gained in a state senator. They ran the gambit that a court ruling might prompt legislative action.*

Judge Taylor issued an injunction on August 14, 1828, that prevented their removal from the county or their return from David Monroe to either Elijah or Joshua, until the Stamps brothers issued a $3,000 bond for their upkeep and good behavior. The sheriff delivered the injunctions and everyone waited for Taylor’s final decree in November.

On November 28, 1828, John M. Taylor, Fifth Circuit Court Judge, dismissed their case. They planned to appeal to Alabama Supreme Court but from the lack of a ruling it appears that court also sidestepped the issue.

They lost.

The petitioners navigated the complexities of Alabama’s manumission laws and attempted to use the circuit courts to amplify their own voices in a time where access to that kind of power was beyond rare for the enslaved. In the coming years, manumission requests continued to pour into Tuscaloosa, and later Montgomery, from across the state. Six years after the petitioners attempted to secure their promised freedom the power of manumission was delegated to the lowest level of the courts. In 1837, in true regressive style, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in Trotter v. Blocker that manumissions made in a will or on a death bed were no longer valid.

It provided no comfort to Isabel, Daniel, Nancy, Peter, George, Lebadie, Noah, Minerva, Sally, Cornelius, or ___, but by turning to the courts and relying on last wills, they forecasted the next decade of changes in Alabama manumission laws.

*In 1831, Robinson would be granted a special privilege by the Huntsville City Council as the only free black excluded from a new city law prohibiting the hiring out of slaves by freedmen.


Isabel, Daniel, Nancy, Peter, George, Lebadie, Noah, Minerva, Sally, & Cornelius (People of Colour) vs. Elijah Stamps & Joshua Stamps, Book D, 266-268 (1828).

“1827 Acts, 145-157.” Alabama State Legislature. http://www.legislature.state.al.us/aliswww/history/acts_and_journals/1827/acts/Acts_145-157.html

“1827 Senate Journal, Dec 21.” Alabama State Legislature. http://www.legislature.state.al.us/aliswww/history/acts_and_journals/1827/senate-journal/Dec_21.html

Cox, Dwayne. “The Alabama Supreme Court on Slaves.” Auburn University Archives and Manuscripts Department.                       http://www.lib.auburn.edu/archive/aghy/slaves.htm

“Manumission By Last Will in Antebellum Alabama.” Auburn University Archives and Manuscripts Department.    http://www.lib.auburn.edu/archive/aghy/manumission/manu-txt.htm

“Trotter v. Blocker”. Auburn University Archives and Manuscripts Department.  http://www.lib.auburn.edu/archive/aghy/manumission/trotter.htm



This New City, Part 3: Since Houses So Built

Alabama’s first dalliance with federal housing programs came in the form of relief – from the dying light of Birmingham’s steel industry, from the cities and urban poverty. It was 1933 and the National Industrial Recovery Act found a test bed in Alabama.

Of the 25 million appropriated for solving “the overbalance of population in industrial centers,” a little over six million, or about a quarter of the total, wound up in central Alabama. Five communities in poverty stricken Jefferson and Walker counties – Palmerdale, Gardendale, Trussville, Bessemer, and Jasper – split the money between them. Each blossomed from Birmingham’s lagging steel production: Palmerdale was actually founded by the Resettlement Administration, Gardendale only incorporated as a real city in 1955, and neighborhoods in Jasper and Trussville both date from the period.*

North Alabama, deemed sufficiently rural by the federal government, avoided the constraints of various resettlement schemes until the outset of World War II. At that time the Lanham War Housing Act allowed Huntsville to begin receiving funds. Defense housing initiatives differed greatly from previous rural resettlement plans. Whereas the communities in Jefferson and Walker counties were allowed farming plots and often assigned a local industry; usually textile mills. The housing situation in Huntsville reacted to preexisting needs.

It soon mutated into something else entirely.

Defense housing came to Huntsville in September 1941. Five local businessmen, the first board of director for the Housing Authority of the City of Huntsville, met with Colonel R.C. Ditto of Redstone Arsenal. They asked Colonel Ditto to declare Huntsville and the surrounding communities a “defense area” so that they might start requesting federal funding for housing projects. It only made sense, Huntsville had the one big arsenal and the Army planned to construct a new chemical warfare plant next to it.**

Discussions lasted for several months. The Local Authority reached out to Representative John Sparkman. He offered to help in the fight. Finally on November 3, 1941, the United States Housing Authority stepped forward and politely declined Huntsville’s offer to become a defense area.

Then the Japanese attacked.

The United States no longer needed to prepare for war, it was there.

In February 1942, the USHA decided to approve a 300-unit housing complex for the Redstone Arsenal and the Huntsville Chemical Warfare Plant. They’d be made of brick, “since houses so built would bring a better price at the end of the emergency.” Even as the bloodiest war began to rage the men of the HHA thought of ways to turn this new defense housing to the city’s advantage.

*Cursory googling shows that the names for the planned communities; Cahaba Village (Trussville) and Farmstead (Jasper), survived and thrived to the present day. So although the original industrial settlements were eventually swallowed by their more organic counterparts, they managed to splatter their legacy all over everything.

**A surprisingly short lived endeavor, the plant merged with Redstone Arsenal on April 1, 1950.

This New City, Part 2: Let These Laws Be the Foundation

Housing policy in the United States first rose to national prominence during the Great Depression and funding for it only accelerated during the lead up to World War Two. Although it resulted in the loss of four percent of the entire human population, the immediate aftermath of that wartime mobilization meant that many Americans now possessed a certain level of infrastructure that they, and their congressmen, thought right to maintain. As such, the transition from ‘war housing’ to ‘public housing’ proved surprisingly smooth in Huntsville.*

Throughout the rest of the series I’ll be referencing a variety of housing laws that stretch from the earliest investments in Alabama infrastructure to the most important housing law of the 1950’s. We’ll briefly review them below.

A Chronology of Early Housing Laws:

1933 – NIRA, Title II

The National Industrial Recovery Act proved to be the first widescale federal investment in southern housing. Previous to this there had been tepid attempts to provide more adequate public housing in New York, but Title II of the NIRA “provide[d] for aiding the redistribution of the overbalance of population in industrial centers.” Think of it as a government mandated exodus from the cities.

Now, the Supreme Court eventually declared the NIRA unconstitutional. Not because of its housing components but because other parts of the law interfered with interstate commerce. The actual case that ended everything was A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corporation vs. United States, because sometimes government just does too much to regulate chickens.

1937 – Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act

A surprisingly large number of early housing regulations focused in on rural and farm poverty instead of the growing urban blights. The Bankhead- Jones Act not only provided low interest loans to farming families but also made provisions for the “retirement of submarginal land,” in effect creating new wilderness areas to help protect the “health, safety, and welfare” of the American public.

This focus on health and welfare belied a much deeper trend towards revitalization during the Great Depression. People understood that the world around them was changing, especially in the quickly industrializing south. Southerners no longer accepted the miasmas, fevers, and social conditions of old. They wanted a cleaner, more just, world. One that substituted tenants, sharecroppers, and hard scrabble land for small farmers and modern-day yeomen working decent soil.

By 1936, both Democrats and the GOP integrated farm tenancy issues into their platforms, vowing to find a solution to the poverty and exploitation that stalked all who worked another man’s fields. Which is why John Bankhead, a senator from Alabama, and Marvin Jones, a representative from Texas, introduced legislation that directly attacked the social and economic systems of their home states.

1937 – Wagner-Steagall Housing Act

At the same time that John Bankhead attempted to alleviate rural poverty through the ownership of land; a Democrat from south Alabama, Henry B. Steagall, partnered with New York Democrat and German immigrant turned senator, Robert Wagner, to tackle the issue of slums and urban renewal.

Suddenly an actual federal agency, the United States Housing Authority, possessed the ability to disperse funds to a variety of localities around the nation. Prior to this, subsections of the Public Works Administration undertook the construction of fifty-two various public housing units around the nation; including Atlanta’s Techwood Homes and New York City’s First Houses, which hilariously came second.** Although a previous effort existed, the PWA only possessed the resources to attack the most horrendous cases of urban neglect.

This short-term alliance between the rural south and the heavily urbanized north marked America’s opening salvo in the war on inadequate housing. Within two years, some fifty thousand new homes cropped up across the United States.

1940 – Lanham War Housing Act

It was clear that we would go to war. By June 1940, Continental Europe lay in the waste, Britain stood alone, and the Japanese cut away swathes of Asia daily. The reality dawned by Dunkirk. Americans knew that somehow, some way, they’d be dragged into this global war.

Factories must be constructed, arsenals incorporated, and emergency housing built. Into this gap emerged the 1940 Lanham War Housing Act. Fritz G. Lanham, a House member from Texas, worried about the accessibility of affordable housing for defense workers along the Gulf Coast and in his own Dallas-Fort Worth area. Although Lanham might be remembered for his strong stance on trademark laws, he introduced “the most significant piece of public housing legislation for the 1940s.”

Although some previous war housing existed under the authority of the USHA and the American military the Lanham Act centralized all the activities under the Federal Works Agency, a suddenly revitalized New Deal program, and kept in place the previous defense housing coordinator – an Atlanta real estate man named Charles Palmer.

Charles Palmer spent most of his adult life advocating for public housing and slum clearance programs throughout the southeast and the nation. He toured pre-war Europe, Mexico, and South Africa to investigate their housing programs. Much of his expertise came to bear when he led the fight for Techwood Homes in his native Atlanta, famously joking in his autobiography Adventures of a Slum Fighter that by 1940, “after 76 years Uncle Sam helped rebuild more than Sherman burned.” 

With Palmer at the forefront defense housing boomed. Although it initially differed from traditional notions of public housing – defense housing, for example, often popped up on the edges of industrial sectors and outside of major cities. These early experiences with housing industrial and defense workers prompted a variety of smaller cities, like Huntsville, to invest more heavily in their slum clearance and housing initiatives during the post war period.

1949 – Housing Act of 1949

On January 5, 1949, President Truman issued his fourth State of the Union. He spoke of rising medical costs, drilling for undersea oil, and the absurdities of “trickledown” economics. Topics that modern readers might difficult to identify with or understand. However, one of his greatest rallying cries (and the one most apropos for this update) occurred about halfway through his speech:

“Five million families are still living in slums and firetraps. Three million families share their homes with others… The housing shortage continues to be acute. As an immediate step, the Congress should enact the provisions for low-rent public housing, slum clearance, farm housing, and housing research which I have repeatedly recommended. The number of low-rent public housing units provided for in the legislation should be increased to one million units in the next seven years. Even this number of units will not begin to meet our needs for new housing.”

What emerged from Truman’s call, and a bipartisan push propelled by innate feelings of national shame over substandard housing, was “a shotgun wedding between enemy lobbying groups.” The Housing Act of 1949 took literal years to pass. It began life in 1945 as the Wagner-Ellender-Taft Bill, usually abbreviated as either WET or TEW, and gradually grew in the national consciousness. Whatever you called it, the original bill passed the Senate multiple times.

All that stood in its way was a bastard from Michigan.

Jesse Wolcott built his legislative career around a few things; hating the New Deal, fighting socialism, and obstructing basic housing reform. As the chairman of the Banking and Currency Committee he possessed the ability to consistently bury the TEW in various subcommittees. Aided by reactionary anti-housing Democrats and hardline Republicans, along with McCarthy’s early coalition partners, Wolcott effectively stalled a good housing law for almost an entire presidential term.

Until Truman made it a leading issue of his 1948 campaign. Congressional inaction made for a grand strategy, people rallied behind their president. Senate members began to show signs of weariness, John Sparkman  (D – Alabama) headed the subcommittee attached to the TEW. Over a four year period of constant bickering and filibusters the housing bills produced “9,224 pages of testimony,” or something nine times as long as the collector’s edition of the Lord of the Rings. Sparkman, who later became a major figure in housing legislation, lamented this fact when he said “few pieces of legislation had been so exhaustingly studied.”

After a long fight, a good fight, the 1949 Housing Act became law. It represented the only win for Truman’s Fair Deal during his entire time in office. Sure Democrats managed to expand Social Security and other New Deal measures but that was all Roosevelt era legislation, practically sacred by the end of the war. No, this housing act represented all of Truman’s reforms.

On July 15, 1949, it passed.

1954 – Sparkman Act

John Sparkman, a Democratic Senator from north Alabama, introduced housing legislation that broadened several provisions from the 1949 housing act. However, the 1954 Act took a proactive stance. Now local housing authorities possessed the ability to stymie the supposed advance of slums, when coupled with new stipulations regarding urban renewal (new developments only had to be at least half housing), then one effectively found a license to redesign a city however one felt. All you had to do was fill out the correct paperwork.

The stage was set. A series of laws and regulations (inordinately influenced and designed by Bankhead, Sparkman, Hill, and other congressmen from Alabama) laid the framework for a reshaping of the modern American city. Huntsville proved an active testing ground.

*Although the growth of early public housing out of WW2 infrastructure, on like the national scale, is a pretty cool topic that someone with more time and inclination might pursue.

**It’s worth noting that ATL tore down Techwood Homes, while NYC still operates First Houses.


Alexander Hoffman, “A Study in Contradictions: The Origins and Legacy of the Housing Act of 1949,” Harvard University, https://www.innovations.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/hpd_1102_hoffman.pdf

“A Chronolgy of Housing Legislation and Selected Executive Actions, 1892-2003,” U.S. Government Printing Office, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CPRT-108HPRT92629/html/CPRT-108HPRT92629.htm

“Harry S. Truman,” University of California Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=13293

“Housing Act of 1949 S 1070 – P.L. 171,” CQ Almanac, http://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/document.php?id=cqal49-1399761 

James G. Maddox, “The Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act,” Duke University, http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1875&context=lcp

Sarah Jo Peterson, Planning the Home Front: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 83-90.


One Year Later.

On August 16, 2015, I wrote The Roof.

It clocked in at 265 words and told the story of a madman with a hatred for log cabins and local silversmith-cum-punching bag William Badger. “This is it,” I said as I hit the publish button, “people are gonna love this stuff.”

And they did, it’s still one of our most popular posts, but I soon realized that I needed more material. So I wrote an article about hog theft, more than a few about divorces, and one or two about syphilis and UFOs.

Then unexpected things started happening. I always assumed that I’d quit after five posts. That’d I’d grow despondent and go back to a life of wishing I had enough money for grad school. Yet you, all of you, refused to let that happen: people called me their favorite internet writer, one of Huntsvillain’s biggest boosters turned out to be the son of Ecuadorian immigrants, our first logo was designed by a dude from Dubai, and people from New York, Michigan, and Canada faithfully listen to our podcasts. Oh yeah, by the way we have a podcast.

All of these are beautiful individual moments and things. Though taken together they reveal something deeper. They show that my history, Alabama history, contains a universality – an accessible kernel that speaks to the triumphs and tragedies of the human experience. There’s something wonderful about this place and its people. I’ve always known it. Now you know it too.

So what was once mine is now ours and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thank you for reading because I do this for y’all,

John O’Brien

This New City, Part 1: And what do rockets eat?

Kenneth Elkins took the boy’s photo.

As a courtesy they let him cover his face. He was weak, just twenty-two pounds and seven years old. James Strickland had what his mother described as a “brain injury.” The rest of him was bones, sinew, and terror.

Elkins gave James Strickland a comic book to cover his face. The boy proved so weak that he couldn’t hold it by strength of arm alone. They folded the little book in half and propped his spindly elbows on his hungry knees. Forever curious, James Strickland peered out at the photographer.

The picture shook the city.

‘This was Huntsville!’ Had we not the Army Ballistic Missile Agency? Had we not the Redstone Arsenal? Had not our engineers designed the missiles and rockets that took monkeys and satellites into orbit? Had not our munitions factories helped win the big war? Had not our city grown?

This was Huntsville, children don’t starve here.

Except when they do.

Starving Child
July 21, 1959, The Huntsville Times

Between 1950 and 1959, Huntsville experienced a 340.3 percent population growth; it went from the second city of north Alabama with a sleepy watercress farming populace of 16,437 to an industrial powerhouse of 72,365. The city expanded in every direction, devouring smaller communities like Monte Sano, Whitesburg, and Viduta, while completely encircling the last gerrymandered bastions of rural suburbia. To anyone living in those heady days Huntsville would have seemed like a behemoth: a city that finally smelled itself and decided to annex the whole damn county.

Yet the housing crisis still came. Rents doubled. Then quadrupled. Suddenly the most wretched citizens became more so. Everyone turned their attention to the local slums. A series of shantytowns with colorful names like Honey Hole and Boogertown dotted Huntsville. City officials realized that their very presence clashed with the image of the manicured and modern ‘Rocket City’ that Huntsville wished to project.

So they started tearing them down. With the help of John Sparkman, an influential Senator from north Alabama who crafted much of the federal housing policy of the 1950’s and 60’s, city officials turned Huntsville into a test bed for new housing policies that were later replicated throughout the state and nation.

There are no slums in Huntsville now, but for a period of time their maintenance and removal became a driving force in local politics and an issue that reverberated across multiple states.

As such, consider this the beginning of a series.

Boogertown Is Evacuated

The Lyon and Yellow Mama

In 1923, Ed Mason made the thing. The guards came to him and said, “Ed, we know you’re a carpenter and you’re far away from home,” and they were right because Ed was British and this was Kilby, just four miles north of Montgomery. They worked the men at Kilby on cotton mills and dairy cows, so the building of a chair meant something; a new activity to refresh the soul.

“Ed,” they said, “we know you’re a carpenter and you’re far away from home. So just build this chair to pass the time.” So he did. When Mason asked for paint the warden said “all I’ve got is leftover road paint. It is the color of order and progress and it will look good on that chair.”

So Ed Mason painted one of America’s most voracious electric chairs. The condemned gave it a suitably horrifying name.

They called it Yellow Mama because all of their mothers were dead and this new demon made the gulf between Holman and Heaven a little bit smaller. Although Ed Mason finished crafting the beast in 1923, the state of Alabama refrained from using it until April 8, 1927, for the execution of Horace Devaughn, who earned his ride by way of murder in Birmingham. Horace only warmed the seat up because two weeks later, on a Friday night, Great War veteran Virgil Murphy fell before the current of Yellow Mama’s various nodes and nozzles; something so simple as wood and power did what all the bombs of the Kaiser could not.

The longer that Alabama used Yellow Mama the more efficient she became. Widespread electricity only came to the southern United States during the Great Depression; so state officials, possibly unsure of how long this federal bounty might last, approached executions with a kind of horrifying economy. This meant that throughout much of the early days of the TVA and into the nadir of the Second World War, Yellow Mama often swallowed multiple souls in a single day. The most egregious of these mass executions took place on the ninth day of February 1934, when the chair murdered five men in forty-seven minutes.

For 75 years Yellow Mama reigned over the Kilby Prison, and later the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia county just north of Atmore. It grew in fame: as equal parts executioner, psychopomp, and cultural icon; the Yellow Mama became a byword for grisly state sanctioned murder and a symbol of the Bible Belt’s unbending moral rigidity and fondness for Old Testament justice. That chair was yellow, but its world was black and white.

How fitting then that its last victim might be someone so gray.

The death of Lynda Lyon Block excited the passions of the people because her life followed a circuitous route to Yellow Mama.* She was an educated white woman, a libertarian, and a former librarian. Lyon existed outside of the narrative of broken homes and burglaries. The confusion over her case and its bucking of well established tropes made her famous: journalists wrote about her loner tendencies, she appeared in a documentary about women on death row, some called her a martyr, and the – necessarily macabre – blog “Dead Man Eating” mocked her decision to forgo a last meal as an attempt to ‘keep her figure.’

Lynda Lyon killed a man.

On October 4, 1993, Lynda Lyon and George Sibley stopped at a payphone in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The two parked “near Big B Drug[s] in Pepperell Corners Shopping Center in Opelika, Alabama.” They had recently fled Orlando, Florida due to a domestic assault charge issued against Lynda after she knifed her elderly ex-husband Karl Block. The pair, often referred to as a common-law husband and wife, left The Sunshine State for Mobile, a city which Lyon described as “a large port where strangers come and go everyday.” They hoped to fade into obscurity along the Gulf Coast. Sibley and Lyon also brought her young son, Gordon, with them.

This proved to be a terrible mistake.

While they idled in that Wal-Mart parking lot and tried to plan for the future; a woman named Ramona Robertson saw a young boy signal her for help. She kept an eye on their Mustang as it moved from parking spot to parking spot. Eventually, overtaken with concern, she approached a uniformed police officer and told him about the child in the car.

Sergeant Roger Lamar Motley responded accordingly. Originally at the Wal-Mart to purchase supplies for the local jail, he took Robertson’s story seriously and began searching the lot for Sibley. Lyon still conversed on the pay phone near Big B Drugs. Eventually Sergeant Motley found Sibley and Gordon. He asked for some form of identification and Sibley, a radical libertarian and ‘Sovereign Citizen’ refused to supply it. This escalated quickly.

Witnesses reported Sibley reaching for a pistol, Lynda and George claimed that Sergeant Motley pulled out his service revolver first. Either way Sibley and Motley soon found themselves shooting at each other. Lynda Lyon remained on the payphone during the opening salvo. She saw her common-law husband and an officer ducking behind cars and firing off rounds and she put down that phone and pulled out her 9mm.

Lyon ran at Sergeant Motley and fired until he quit and “[s]he remembered later how surprised he looked.” As Motley faded from this world he reached inside his cruiser and put out a distress call.

Sibley and Lyon knew they had to get out of there. They left with haste and tore west, hoping against hope that they might make it out of the state before anyone noticed a dead officer. They only made it ten miles. Lee county law enforcement set up a massive roadblock on Wire Road in Auburn, Alabama. They pulled up alongside it, released Gordon to the authorities, and then Lyon attempted to negotiate with the police for close to four hours before finally surrendering.

During her trial she argued that Alabama never reentered the union after the Civil War, that there existed a conspiracy to silence her, and that Sergeant Motley’s character did not befit an officer of the law. Lynda Lyon failed to realize that Alabama measured justice in coffins. On May 10, 2002, Yellow Mama got Lyon ready for hers.

Lyon rests in the ground now and Yellow Mama is stored in the attic above the execution chamber at Holman Correctional Facility. They encountered each other for a brief dichotomous moment. One a symbol of the state’s power to enforce by violence and the other cocksure that they existed on a separate plane of freedom; yet they remain entwined, witnesses to each others’ last day.


Info on Lynda Lyon from Clark County, Indiana Prosecutor’s Office

History of the Alabama Department of Corrections

The Night Alabama Executed Five Men

*Although many media outlets referenced her surname as Block, she signed an April 29, 2002, petition to Governor Don Siegelman as Lynda Lyon, so I shall use her preferred surname for the rest of the piece.