Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Chivalry & the Death Penalty: The Cora Vinson case - 1922

HEADLINE: Will Chivalrous Georgia Execute Woman For Killing Husband Who Sought Divorce? - Plight of Mrs. Cora Lou Vinson Stirs State Where Reverence for Womanhood Is a Tradition. - Will Sex Alone Save Her From Gallows ? – ‘They’ll Never Hang Me, I’m Not Worrying’ - She Declares In Her Cell - Only Case in Southern Commonwealth Where Feminine Slayer Paid Death Penalty Was in 1872, and Governor Was Ousted for Not Commuting Sentence.


FULL TEXT: The State of Georgia is agitated today ever a question that is one of the most perplexing problems of the criminal law.

The same question has racked the brains and the hearts of thoughtful men and women at some time or ether in all parts of the United States.

Should the law exact the death penalty from a woman convicted of murder?

Should a woman’s sex alone be sufficient to save her from an ignominious death on the scaffold or in the electric chair?

The safeguarding of human life is the chief duty of organized society, from the first recorded murder, that of Abel by Cain, mankind has sought means of dealing adequately with the crime.

Today, in a cell in the Fulton County Tower at Atlanta, Ga., is Mrs. Cora Lou Vinson, the third woman in that State to be sentenced to death by hanging.

Mrs. Vinson was convicted June 3 of the murder of her husband, Dr. W. D. Vinson. He was shot to death in his drug store March 30.

The woman has been sentenced to die July 28, but her attorneys have asked for a new trial.

“I’ll never hang,” says Mrs. Vinson. “The sentence doesn’t worry me.”

The official records of Georgia show that only one white woman has been hanged there. The execution recurred just fifty years age, when Susan Eberhart was hanged for slaying the wife of the man she loved. The exaction of the death penalty in that case aroused a storm of indignation through the State and led to the ousting of the Governer.

In the only ether recorded case of a white woman sentenced to death in Georgia the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

~ Southerners Have Deep Respect for Womankind ~

It is an ancient tradition that Southerners have a deep and abiding respect for womankind, and having such it is hard at times to convict a woman of any crime she may have committed. Dr. George Vinson, brother of the slain man, has summed up this feeling in the following words :

“It is well known that in Georgia it is extremely difficult to convict a woman of a capital crime, and it hat come to he almost unwritten law that no woman is to serve mere than a few years in the penitentiary, despite the fact that she may have been guilty of a most atrocious murder.”

“The condition is perhaps due to the fact that the men of the South still, in a large measure, hold to the belief which they inherited from their forefathers that women were endowed by their Creator with certain qualities which place them forever on a higher plane than men and which entitle them to a greater degree of consideration.”

“This is a beautiful sentiment which has long dominated the men of Georgia and ether Southern States in dealings with women, whether politically or in the administration the criminal law.”

Mrs. Vinson herself scoffs the idea of being hanged.

“I am going to a new trial,” she insists, “and the people of Atlanta will learn that I am not the coldblooded murderess that they have pictured me to  be.”

It was with the same attitude that she received the verdict of the jury and sentence of the Court. Without a trace of emotion, chewing gum and staring into the face of the foreman of jury who had in hands the announcement which would mean death to her if carried out, listened to the words of as they fell from the lips of the juror. When asked if she had anything to say she shook her head and continued to chew gum.

The verdict of guilty without a recommendation for mercy, coming as a complete surprise to every one  interested in the case, fell like a pall upon these who had gone to the Fulton County Superior Court that Saturday afternoon of June 8. The scene, temporarily at least, alive with startled exclamations and gasps of astonishment.

The sentence was given in a dramatic setting. It was just after dark. For almost a week the trial had been on. The courtroom was crowded with curiosity seekers, most of them women. Sensational developments had come with each hour. The newspapers were carrying streamers in every edition. Lawyers had been fighting or every inch of ground. Passionate pleas on both sides had been made by whose oratorical talents are known throughout the state.

Almost two hours had passed since Judge John D. Humphries had charged the jury and ordered its retirement. The whole was charged with suppressed excitement.

~ Guilty, Says Jury, With No Recommendation ~

At last the jury announced itself ready. The Judge entered the courtroom and the twelve men of jury filed in. The foreman read the verdict. The defense asked for a poll of the jury and each man answered “guilty.”

The crowd had leaned forward to hear better. A few in the rear stood on the benches to catch every word. They were waiting for the recommendation. At last it dawned that no recommendation had been made.

“My God!” some one whispered, and the words were carried across the room.

The verdict had come as a complete surprise.

Solicitor General John Boykin, prosecutor, had asked, in his concluding arguments for the State, a verdict of guilty, with a recommendation for mercy. No plea for death penalty had been made by any member of the prosecution.

“I never asked a jury to hang a woman, and I will not do so in this case,” Solicitor Boykin had concluded his argument. “The evidence shows conclusively, however, that Mrs. Vinson’s act in taking the life of her husband was premeditated and coldblooded. I ask you to return a verdict of guilty, but with it a recommendation to the Court for mercy.”

The murder of Dr. Vinson was one n series of sensational shootings in which women have played important parts in Georgia within the last few years. In none of the other which have been recorded has a returned such n verdict that carried with it the death penalty.

The story of the domestic troubles which led to the shooting of the Atlanta physician is sordid. Charges of cruelty against both parties were contained in divorce proceedings and answers en at the time of the murder, which came as the dramatic climax to six wars of discord and unhappiness.

The murder occurred about dusk as Dr. Vinson sat at his desk in the Pierce drug store in Marietta street, Atlanta, filling out a prescription. He was alone in the store with the exception of G. L. Edwards, a clerk, who was at the time in the front part of building.

Mrs. Vinson walked into the store, spoke to her husband, and, according to Edwards, opened fire without apparent provocation. Four shots entered his head and he died without regaining consciousness.

As Mrs. Vinson rushed from the store and started toward a taxicab which she had left near the corner with instructions to wait for her, two county policemen. Jack Carroll and T. J. Davis, were passing. Mrs. Vinson was arrested.

~ “I Did Not Mean to Kill Him, I Just Shot Him” ~

Her first words, according to these policemen were: “I did not mean to kill him, but when I thought how he had mistreated me I just shot him.”

These were the last words uttered for publication by Mrs. Vinson before the trial two months later. Then she charged that she had shot her husband in self-defense, that he had once shot at her and had repeatedly threatened her life, and that she had seen him make a motion for his gun when she visited him at the drug store. This statement camp as a distinct surprise, as no evidence that Dr. Vinson had had a pistol or had ever carried one was introduced then or later.

The woman, soon after her arrest, entered a plea of insanity. She was taken to the courtroom en a stretcher, her health having apparently given way. After a sensational trial, in which the unfortunate woman took no part, a jury declared her sane, and she was sent back to the tower to await trial for murder.

A week before the murder occurred Mrs. Vinson was tried before Ordinary Thomas Jeffries on a lunacy charge brought by her seventeen-year-old daughter by a former marriage, Mrs. Pauline Brown, and at that time she was found sane. A week later the shooting occurred.

It was this that made the defense charge that the State of Georgia was morally responsible for the murder of Dr. Vinson and net the woman. Had she been sent to the State insane asylum, as she should, the defense contended, no murder would have taken place.

Throughout the murder trial only one member of Mrs. Vinson’s family steed by her, that being her daughter, Mrs. Brown. The girl remained true to her mother when all others left her to her fate.

The family of Dr. Vinson, particularly his brother, Dr. George Vinson, have been actively engaged in assisting the prosecution. At the request of Dr. Vinson, the brother, William Schley Howard, former Congressman from Georgia and one of the leading attorneys in the State, came to the assistance of the prosecution. Two nephews of Mrs. Vinson, Roy and J. S. Jackson, testified against her, declaring that they had often heard her say she would kill her husband some day.

~ Openly Ridicules Idea That She Will Hang ~

Since the trial Mrs. Vinson has been in better health than in six years, she told a newspaper representative. She discussed her case freely, and openly ridiculed her case freely, and openly ridiculed the idea that she would hang.

“Hang a woman for protecting herself! The thing is preposterous!” she exclaimed. “Newspaper headlines don’t scare me. They don’t mean anything. People like sensational reading, but that doesn’t affect the situation one way or the other so far as I am concerned. I’m not a cold-blooded murderess, as some people want to believe.

“It was a case of kill or get killed, and I killed first. They would net even hang a man for doing that and they won’t hang me. They don’t hang women in Georgia.”

“I am happier today than I have been in years. I enjoyed a good sleep the night after the verdict for the first time since my husband filed his suit for divorce. It was a relief to knew it was ail ever, even if the jury did fail to recommend mercy for me. The trouble I have gone through would have killed an ordinary woman. It very nearly put an end to me, but it is over, for a while at least, and I can rest.”

“The higher court must grant me a new trial. It cannot do otherwise. I did not get justice at my recent trial because many testified against me and few in my behalf. The next time it will be different. I knew I will be acquitted, but if things should go to the contrary then it would be up to the Governor.

“When he investigates my case and sees hew unjustly I have been dealt with, it won’t take long for him to order that I be pardoned. However I am not going to worry about that until the time comes. I want to stay here a while and rest.”

The trial, which began exactly two months after the shooting, was fraught with senational testimony and bitter fighting en both sides. Former Judge Newt Merris, attorney for Mrs. Vinsen was lined for contempt of court by Judge Humphries for repeatedly asking directing emotions, and en ether occasions the Court was called upon te reprimand the counsel.

Mrs. Vinson was the only witness for the defense. She took the stand and for the first time made a statement in regard to the murder. She said Dr. Vinson had told her that he was going to divorce her se he could marry a younger woman. that he was tired of having n hysterical old women around him mid that he was through with her forever.

“He made me a dope fiend,” she said. “He choked me and insulted me and went with other women. One day he shot at me and the bullet is still in the sofa in my parlor at home.

“He told me he was going to get rid of me so he could marry another woman. I told him I would fight for him to the end and if I couldn’t have him no other woman should.”

~ I Loved My Husband; I Curried His Horse ~

“I loved my husband. I used to curry his horse for him. I did that because I loved him so much. He kept telling me that he dodn’t love me and he didn’t buy me a thing to wear for years and years. At last I got to the place where I couldn’t stand it.”

Mrs. Vinson then went into the details of the shooting. She told of calling a taxicab, driving to the drug store and et waiting there for her husband to appear.

“I went in and talked to him, after a while, I asked him to withdraw his divorce and he told me he would not. We argued about it and I saw him draw back his coat and reach for his pistol. He had shot at me once, so I knew what to expect. I grabbed my pistol and shot him. After the first shot I don’t remember anything else.”

At this point in her testimony Mrs. Vinson broke into sobs, and as she spoke of shooting her daughter fell to the floor in a faint.

To rebut the statement by Mrs. Vinson, the State sought to show that the murder had been deliberately planned and executed. It was contended that the shooting grew out of the suit for recovery of certain property given to Mrs. Vinson to her husband.

With the suit for divorce a petition for the recovery of the property was filed by Dr. Vinson. In this petition he declared that Mrs. Vinson had “bounded” him into giving her  the property, had threatened to kill him if he did not and had used every means in her power to make him turn ever the property to her.

Dr. George Vinson has outlined what he contends to have been the motives behind the sheeting.

“Soon after the marriage my brother,” he said, “his wife began to demand of him that he deed ever to her several pieces of property which he owned. When he at first demurred she began mistreating him and abusing him, and finally drove him away from home.”

“He made every effort to pacify her, but she was determined to have the property and would be satisfied with nothing less. Finally he did make over to her deed for certain parts his property. She promised to live with him and to treat him kindly if he would do this and on several occasions threatened to kill him if he did not.”

~ Continually Abused Him; Drove Him Away Again ~

“Even after he had complied with her demands she continued to abuse him and finally drove him away again. At last he started suit for divorce and recovery of his property. She made every effort to stop the case and eventually became desperate. She feigned insanity and when she was found sane she deliberately planned the murder.”

“No leader of a gang ever showed less mercy to his defenseless foe than she showed. It was a cold-blooded murder with no extenuating circumstances, the motive being purely mercenary, with the murderess showing a contemptuous disregard for the laws of God and man.”

“The man she shot down was a good man who had borne with her long and patiently. At the trial no word was uttered against him except by this woman. Is it any wonder that with the evidence before them, the members of the jury, having sworn to try the case according to the evidence, and having in mind their duty to society, felt there was no alternative but to say “guilty’?”

Voluminous evidence that Mrs. Vinson frequently threatened to kill her husband and deliberately planned the manner of his death was introduced by the State. J. W. Mann, a taxicab driver, in his testimony fixed the blame on the woman for planning in advance what was to follow.

“I got a call that afternoon to go to the Vinson home,” Mann told the jury. “They told me to go to the rear of the house. I did. Mrs. Vinson got in and told me to drive to the drug store by a roundabout route. She wanted the shades pulled down in the car and I pulled them down.”

“We parked about a block away from the store and waited. Dr. Vinson wasn’t in then. A little while later he went to the drug store and Mrs. Vinson got out and followed him. She told me to wait for her. I heard four shots fired and then I saw her come out of the drug store. Two policemen caught her and that’s all I know.”

Nephews of Mrs. Vinson testified that they had often their aunt threaten to kill her husband. Onn cross-examination they admitted they didn’t care very much for her and that they were not on speaking terms with their father, her brother, who is now serving a jail term in another county.

A drug clerk said he had seen Mrs. Vinson attack her husband without apparent cause and kick him repeatedly, calling him at the same time all sorts of names that were degrading and insulting.

A trained nurse told of her visit to Vinson home the night before the murder and of a conversation with Mrs. Vinson in which the latter said it would have been better for her husband if he had let her go to the insane asylum a week before.

A number of neighbors were placed on the witness stand to show that she repeatedly made threats that she would kill her husband some day.

Dr. Vinson practiced medicine in Atlanta for thirty years. He had been married twice before his married twice before his marriage to the woman who killed him, having children by all three wives. Mrs. Vinson had also been married twice before her marriage to Dr. Vinson, both of her former husbands sill living in Georgia, it is said.

~ Doctor Left His Wife and Lived in a Hotel ~

The couple were married nineteen years ago and lived together until six years ago, when real trouble seemed to have developed. However, the actual separation did not occur until two and one-half years ago. Dr. Vinson then went to the Williams House, a downtown hotel, where he lived alone. Mrs. Vinson remained in her home on Ponders avenue.

She is said to have met Dr. Vinson on numerous occasions and at every meeting something disagreeable arose. In speaking of this later in the tower, she said:

“When I shot Dr. Vinson I had reached the limit of my endurance. I was out of my mind. I had to put up with abuse from him as long as I could stand it. His filing for divorce when I was ill and on the verge of nervous prostration was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I couldn’t stand it any more.”

Mrs. Vinson is confined in the matron’s quarters at the Fulton County jail. In a large room with her are a dozen women waiting trial on charges varying from larceny to attempted murder.

She has worked herself into the affections of these prisoners. At first her health had given way and she was little more than an invalid. The prisoners waited on her. They call her “mother” and do whatever they can for her comfort.

“Poor things! I wish I could help them,” she said recently, surveying the crowd of women who had moved away while she talked with a newspaperman. “I feel sorry for them when I think they have their whole lives before them and are starting out under the stigma of ‘jail bird.’ I pray for them every night and ask God to have mercy on them and give them another chance.”

“Blondy,” one of her cellmates, a girl of eighteen, who is awaiting trial on a charge of robbery, smiled at Mrs. Vinson as she expressed sympathy for the others.

“Don’t worry about us, mother,” she said. “We’ll come out all right. I’d be willing to do a stretch of ten years if I thought I could help you by it.”

Mrs. Vinson brightened even more when told that Atlanta women’s organizations were interesting themselves in her behalf.

“It takes a woman to see that her less fortunate sister is given a fair deal,” she said.

In a cell nearby is Frank DuPre, the Peachtree bandit, as he is known to Atlanta. This eighteen-year-old boy is also under the sentence of death, for shooting a Pinkerton detective while attempting to stage the most daring daytime robbery ever committed in Atlanta. The murder occurred a week before Christmas

~ First Woman Hanged in Georgia in 1872 ~

From all parts of the State have come stories of the two cases previous to this when women were sentenced to hang.

The case of Susan Ederhardt, who was hanged in Preston, Ga., in 1872, shook the entire State, cost a Governor to loose his seat and brought down the excoriations of virtually the whole populace upon the court, sheriff and law.

The woman is said to have plotted with her sweetheart to kill the latter’s wife. On three occasions, it is said, her nerve failed her and the plot was unsuccessful. At last, however, the crime was perpetrated and the woman was convicted and sentenced to hang with the man.

The details of the execution are a bit hazy and statements regarding it are a bit counter. However, all agree that Susan Eberhardt was the first and only woman to hang in Georgia [in 1873].

Another case which ended with a commutation of sentence was that of a Mrs. Nobles, then Kate Southern. Her sentence was commuted after the Supreme Court had refused to interfere. The story of that case is told by a correspondent to an Atlanta newspaper, W. A. Covington, of Moultrie, Ga.

“A very celebrated case in the criminal history of Georgia was that of Kate Southern, who killed a woman at a country dance at the foot of ‘Sharp Mountain,’ east of Jasper, in Pickens County,” Mr. Covington writes. “Roughly, I should say, this happened in the year 1877. I was a very small child then, living in Upper Cherokee County, not far from where the killing occurred.”

“As I remember the circumstances, Bob Southern, the husband of Kate, had just danced with a former sweetheart. His wife stepped into the yard., asked her father for his pocket-knife and returned to the dancing room, where she took the offending girl by the hair, pulled her

“She was tried and convicted under Judge George N. Lester, a one-armed Confederate veteran, who was Judge of the Blue Ridge Circuit at the time. She got the death penalty, whereupon the whole country interested themselves in her case and presented a petition in Governor Colquitt, who continued her sentence to life imprisonment.

“Since Georgia was then under the lease system, he took her to his house, and presently gave her a pardon. I think she lives in the same community in Pickens County to this day. I was interested to see a newspaper account of her accidentally shooting one of her daughters about ten years ago.

“I thought perhaps some one might be interested in this account. In the meantime, of course, we will not hang Mrs. Vinson.”

A skeleton motion for a new trial has been filed by counsel for Mrs. Vinson. This will, of course, prevent the hanging on July 28 as originally set. No technical grounds for a new trial have been made public by the defense, and unless something of a surprising nature is shown, the general opinion is that Governor Hardwick, will be called upon to decide the fate of the woman.

In the meanwhile the public will, to a large extent, forget what has happened, and when the time comes for the final decision, it is freely predicted, tradition will prove stronger than technical justice.

And also in the meanwhile the woman in jail scorns the idea that she will hang.

“I am a woman,” she keeps repeating. “They don’t hang women in Georgia.”***

[“Will Chivalrous Georgia Execute Woman For Killing Husband Who Sought Divorce? - Plight of Mrs. Cora Lou Vinson Stirs State Where Reverence for Womanhood Is a Tradition. - Will Sex Alone Save Her From Gallows ? – ‘They’ll Never Hang Me, I’m Not Worrying’ - She Declares In Her Cell - Only Case in Southern Commonwealth Where Feminine Slayer Paid Death Penalty Was in 1872, and Governor Was Ousted for Not Commuting Sentence.” Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pa.), Jun. 16, 1922, p. 25]

FULL TEXT: Atlanta, Ga., Oct. 21. — Mrs. Cora Lou Vinson, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of her husband here last March, today escaped the gallows when she appeared in superior court, and was given an immediate new trial, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

[“Mrs. Vinson Escapes Gallows But Gets Life,” syndicated (International News Service), The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, In.), Oct. 21, 1922, p. 1]

SEE ALSO: Article on the public debate generated by this case over the death penalty for women.

For more on this topic, see Chivalry Justice Checklist & Links


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