A TRIPLE MURDER IN GREENSBORO, ALABAMA1
(Published in 1908)
While the occurrence to be noted does not belong, strictly speaking, to the history of Greensboro, yet the citizens of the town were so wrought up over the matter, and the parties concerned were so well-known here, that it is inserted as part of this volume.
Crawford left to spend the night with M. C. Hall
The night of December 1, 1897, was a cold, dark and dreary one. All day long a drizzly rain had fallen, and it was muddy and sloppy under foot, and the clouds were black and heavy overhead. It grew no better as night Canne On.
Sometime after the Sun had gone down, Phelan Crawford left Greensboro to spend the night with his father-in-law—M. C. Hall—who resided about ten miles northeast of the town. Just before he reached John A. Singley’s residence,—old Warren’s Store—eight miles out, the horses he was driving became violently frightened at some object on the roadside, and made a break to run.
Heard a deep groan
The darkness was so dense that Crawford could see nothing, but as his horses dashed up the hill in the blackness of the night, he thought he heard a deep groan coming from some one in pain or distress. It made his blood run cold— out there alone in the darkness and rain and stillness of the night. It was enough to make the stoutest heart quail with fear. He put a whip to his already frightened horses and was soon at the place of his destination.
He was not long in telling his experience, and at once went out and gathered a number of the neighbors together, who resolved to go back to the spot where the deep groan was heard. They plodded on through the night and mud, back to Singley’s home on the roadside.
Arriving there they found that all was quiet and still within. Not a sound could be heard save the dripping of the rain from the trees and the rush of the wind as it passed through the boughs on towards the South.
Man groping along on his hands and knees
They continued their journey down the road about fifty yards, and to their horror they saw in the dim light afforded by a lantern, a sight to make one’s hair stand on end—a man groping about on his hands and knees, groaning at every breath. They called to him,-but no answer came. They approached closer and saw that his hands and clothing were clotted with blood and besmeared with mud. They did not recognize the man at first, but a closer scrutiny disclosed the fact that it was John A. Singley, one of the most well-to-do and respected farmers of Hale county.
They asked him what had happened, but he made no reply—only pointing to his throat. Then the men discovered that it was cut from ear to ear. They lifted him up and assisted him to the house. An attempt to open the front door disclosed the fact that it was locked. They hastily broke it in, and then the men fell back with exclamations of horror, for indeed it was a ghastly sight that greeted their gaze. For a moment they stood paralyzed.
There upon the floor lay Mrs. Singley in a pool of blood, her head crushed and her throat most cruelly cut, cold in death. But where was the little boy, the only child of the fond parents?
The party searched further, and in an adjoining room, they found the little twelve-year-old son, lying face downward, butchered in a most brutal manner.
John Singley house where the murder took place (HISTORY OF GREENSBORO, ALABAMA From Its Earliest Settlement by William Edward Wadsworth Yerby, Montgomery, Alabama)
Who did it? What could it all mean?
The men had no idea that Mr. Singley would be able to throw any light on the mystery, but as he lay on the bed on which he had been placed, breathing hard and gasping for life, he beckoned them to come closer. They approached and began to ask him questions.
They discovered that he was in possession of his mental faculties, and could make himself understood by signs and nods of the head. He was asked who had committed the crimes. He indicated the direction in which the guilty party resided by pointing up the road from his home. They called the names of several persons, but at each, he would shake his head.
Finally, someone asked if it was Bill Scott,-a negro who lived three miles above him—and he nodded his head affirmatively several times most emphatically. By this time, the cold gray dawn of another bleak December day began to show itself, and a large number of people had gathered—some from Greensboro, who had been notified soon after the discovery of Singley’s condition.
Bill Scott committed the crime
The suffering, dying man told all he knew of the horrible crimes. The full particulars—which developed later—are given as follows: Bill Scott, a negro to whom Singley had advanced money and goods for several years, came to the house, some time after dark on the night of December 1st, and told Singley—who was sitting by the fire chatting with his wife and little son—that his (Scott’s) mule had gotten loose, and asked him to please come out and help him catch it.
Having known Scott for quite a while, and not for a moment suspecting foul play, Singley at once lighted a torch and went with Scott down the road. When they had gone about a hundred and fifty yards from the house, near the foot of the hill, Scott suddenly turned upon Singley, and at one stroke felled him to the ground with a heavy stick. He then took Singley’s knife from his pocket and cut the throat of the prostrate man from ear to ear—severing everything except the jugular vein.
He left his victim for dead, and hastily went to Singley’s home, cautiously opened the front door, and as Mrs. Singley, who was sitting near sewing, looked up he struck her a blow on the head with the stick, knocking her from the chair, and then cut her throat, killing her instantly.
The little son, who was sitting in the room with his mother, seeing her so horribly murdered, fled to the adjoining room, followed by the fiend, who brained him with the same cudgel he had used on his father and mother. He then cut the little boy’s throat. Having committed these awful murders, he went to the bureau drawer, forced it open, and took therefrom seven hundred dollars—the object he had in view when he went to Singley’s house.
The old stable at the top of the hill. Singley had crawled a hundred yards up the road and was found near the gate to the left. (HISTORY OF GREENSBORO, ALABAMA From Its Earliest Settlement by William Edward Wadsworth Yerby, Montgomery, Alabama)
Died in the evening
After securing the money, Scott locked the front door, went out the back way, threw the key away, and returned to where he had left Singley on the ground, and thinking to be doubly sure of his murderous work, he cut another gash in his throat, and then went to his own home three miles up the road, and remained there until early next morning.
Singley lingered nearly all the next day after being so horribly butchered but died when the evening shades began to gather.
It was a sad funeral cortege that left the once happy home of John A. Singley on Saturday, December 3rd. The hearses containing the coffins of father, mother, and son, followed by a large number of friends and relatives, slowly wended their way over the hills and vales to the cemetery hard by the little Methodist church at Havana, and there, after a most touching funeral sermon, the remains of the three persons—an entire family—were deposited in one grave.
Officers and citizens were soon in pursuit of the murderer. His trail was followed all day Thursday and Friday. On Saturday he was captured by a negro man named Wes James at his (James’) home, in Perry county, whither Scott had gone, and was driven to the house by hunger, little thinking that James had heard of the murder of the Singleys.
In this he was mistaken, and soon after he entered the house, James leveled his shotgun on him and told him to consider himself under arrest. The prisoner was carried to the Perry County jail, and remained there for a short while, after which he was taken to Selma and lodged in the jail at that place—it being considered unsafe to bring him to Greensboro, so bitter was the feeling and so great was the excitement.
In a day or two after his capture, Scott confessed his guilt—or at least a part of it—and told that the money he had taken from the bureau drawer had been divided with other parties, but that he had gotten half of it, which he had hidden at a place he designated. A search revealed the truth of the statement, for exactly where he said he had put the money, three hundred and fifty dollars were found. Before his death, Singley told that the amount he had in the drawer was seven hundred dollars. The other half of the money was never accounted for.
Scott endeavored to implicate several other negroes in the horrible crime, but in every instance the accused parties were proven to have been elsewhere on the night the Singleys were killed. The clamor for a speedy trial of the brute was so persistent that Judge John Moore ordered a special term of the circuit court of Hale county to try Scott, which was held January 19, 1898.
He was brought from the jail in Selma a week or so before the day set for his trial, and the author of these lines and Edwin S. Jack, Esq., were appointed by the Court to defend him,-he being financially unable to employ counsel.
Conversations with Scott
The writer recalls that he had several conversations with Scott relative to the case, and he would talk freely about the murder of Singley and his wife, but when asked “What about the little boy, Bill,” he would exclaim: “Oh, for God’s sake, don’t talk about that child !” And then he would swear that he didn’t kill him,-that another man did that; that he loved the boy, and the boy was fond of him. The day for trial arrived.
The town was filled with people from far and near who wanted to get a glimpse of this human monster. Trouble was expected, and the Sheriff swore in a number of special deputies. But no disturbance occurred. The session of the court was extremely orderly. The prisoner was arraigned, the indictment charging him with the murders was read, and Scott entered a plea of guilty.
After confessing his guilt, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first-degree and fixed the punishment at death. The judge told Scott to stand up and asked him if he had anything to say why the sentence of the Court should not be pronounced upon him, and he replied “Nothing.”
Then the Judge sentenced him to be hanged by the neck until he was dead. Scott received the judgment of the Court without a tremor and was hurried back to jail by the Sheriff and his deputies, where he was kept closely guarded until February 25, 1898, when he was brought forth and hung. His body was cut down and buried in the pauper’s field at the expense of the county,—his family refusing to have anything to do with it.
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