Until You Are Dead, Dead, Dead: Resurrection in the Blues
Special thanks to University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Ms. for making this available through netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Six members of the L.S. Earll family were brutally murdered in Calcasieu Parrish, Louisiana, in February, 1902. On August 14, 1903, Albert Edwin Batson was executed in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the Court Seat for the Parrish. He was twenty-two years old. He was hung from the gallows. He shouted "Goodbye" as the trapdoor opened beneath him. Sheriff John Perkins pulled the lever. It was his first time to execute a man. The knot wasn't quite right. The fall didn't snap Batson's neck. He dangled, twisted, and choked. It took him twenty minutes to die.
Albert Edwin Batson, 1881-1903
It was easier to hang a man in 1903. Quicker, too. Batson had been the handy man on the Earll place. They were rice farmers who had moved to Louisiana from Michigan to live a wealthier life. And they had. L.S. Earll had banked $700.00 from his rice harvest. L.S. had his own home on the farm he shared with his wife and three of his children. His son, Ward, lived in his own home located a short distance away. Both L.S. and Ward had a goodly amount of livestock on the place, too.
Batson was tried twice and convicted twice. Sentenced to death twice. He had two lawyers appointed to represent him. Well known lawyers. Of course, criminal law wasn't their specialty. They were better at drawing up a deed, a contract, or drafting a will. They did a good job, though. They got their young client's case reversed on appeal after the first conviction on an evidentiary ruling. They launched a review by the Pardon Board to have their client's sentence commuted to life in prison after the second conviction. Two out of three members of the review committee thought the evidence was too flimsy to hang a man. But the third member was from Calcasieu Parrish. His people thought a hanging was due. His opinion carried the day with the Governor and Albert swung. Until he was dead, dead, dead.
It was a sensational two trials. The murders were ghoulish. Gory. Bloody. Six members of one family wiped out. Bludgeoned. Blasted with a shotgun. Throats slashed ear to ear. The trials brought reporters from around the country.
As always, once somebody swings, life goes on. People forget. Everybody seems to have forgotten Batson. In 1910 a fire burned down most of Lake Charles, including the Courthouse, taking whatever records of Batson's cases had ever existed. Nobody knows what happened to the records at the appellate level. They were just gone.
But cases like Batson's have a way of coming back. In the 1930s, the WPA had projects all over America, putting people to work. The Lomax brothers were in Louisiana collecting folksongs. Their collected works are in the Library of Congress today. In 1934 they met Stavin' Chain, the performing name for a blues musician, Wilson Jones, a black man with a black string band. Those bands don't exist much anymore. The Lomax brothers recorded a number of songs played and sung by them. One was the Batson Ballad. It had thirty-five verses. The refrain was, "Mama, I didn't done the crime."
Just as people forgot about Albert Edwin Batson, folks seem to have forgotten about the Lomax brothers and Stavin' Chain, and the Batson Ballad. Strange, though. These things have a way of coming back.
In 2008, an Englishman interested in American Folksongs, contacted Danielle Miller a librarian at the Genealogical and Historical Library for Calcasieu Parrish in Lake Charles wanting to know more about the Batson Ballad. Miller started digging. She found enough information to discover the song was based on a real event. She dug further and found enough information to make her wonder about the ballad's refrain. What if Batson "didn't done the crime"
Miller contacted Jim Bradshaw which led to Until You Are Dead, Dead, Dead: The Hanging of Albert Edwin Batson, published in 2014. Danielle Miller is Bradshaw's co-author. Rightly so.
At the time of Batson's trials there were no rules on jury selection in a capital murder case. No limits. The District Attorney could pack twelve men on a jury who were committed to hanging a man on circumstantial evidence alone. That didn't cease to be the case until the United States Supreme Court rendered its opinion in Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968). 1968 Yep.
Now, don't go thinking that this is a book for lawyers because I put up that fancy dancin' legal citation up there. This is a bone chilling read. It will appeal to lovers of historical fiction as well as non-fiction. This is one that will make the short hairs stand up at the back of your neck. Poor Albert Edwin Batson. Two juries couldn't see past their own noses. The sentencing judge screamed out "Until you are dead, dead, dead," at his first pronouncement. The second time, perhaps having been a bit more circumspect in watching the flimsy evidence unfold, that's the reason spectators had to lean forward to hear him whisper the same words.
In the end, the outcome was the same for Batson. He was truly dead, dead, dead. Funny thing. The sheriff that hung him He said that young man never looked like a killer to him. You know He just may have been right. It's enough to make you think about your opinion on capital punishment. Even a grizzled old retired career prosecutor. Like me.
READ THIS BOOK.
Wilson Jones, "Stavin' Chain", 1934
Listen to Stavin' Chain sing the Batson Ballad. For those curious, a stavin' chain is a tool used to bind the staves of a barrel together until the metal band is applied to hold the pieces together.
The universally applied rule for the use of circumstantial evidence is that it is perfectly admissible as long as it points to the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt. If it is explainable by any other reasonable hypothesis, it is the jury's duty to acquit. One Earll son survived the blood bath on the Earll farm. Fred Earll claimed he lived in Iowa. No existing record indicates a person by that name was a resident of Iowa at the time the six members of the Earll family were killed. Just food for thought.