“Wonder why they always do it in the middle of the night” asked Leland Harris.
“I think it’s cause they don’t want the other inmates getting’ riled up and causing problems” responded James Stokes as he pulled off the white barber’s jacket to reveal his white shirt and dark tie underneath.
Samuel Washington just listened to his colleagues and kept sweeping up the hair he had cut from his last customer of the day. He kept private the feelings he experienced knowing Edgar Moore would be sitting in Central Prison’s electric chair in less than eight hours. But he was one of the few in Lawrenceville who wasn’t talking. Even though they hadn’t discussed it in front of their white customers, now that it was just the three black men cleaning the barbershop, even Leland and James were expressing their opinions. But among the clientele, it had been the main topic of conversation throughout the day—a chilly October day. But the entire autumn of 1922 had been colder than normal thus far.
Everyone knew Moore’s story. Last spring, a jury of his peers had convicted him of the murder of his brother-in-law, Ransom Toler. Moore had worked for Toler for several years before the store owner was found one Saturday morning, lying in the storage room of Toler’s General Merchandise in a pool of his own blood. His head had been smashed in, presumably with the pipe wrench found lying beside him.
The victim had been a prominent, if not popular, businessman, owning one of Lawrenceville’s two general stores. But Ransom Toler was not the most pleasant of men. He had a violent temper, which often led to physical aggression. Sam had heard numerous stories of Toler tongue-lashing those who crossed his path. And on occasion, he had been known to physically throw them out of the store. This behavior was particularly prevalent in dealing with “coloreds,” as the more polite southerners called them.
The murder scene that Saturday morning initially pointed to a botched robbery. The heavy green wooden door opening to the back alley was splintered, and the cash register was empty. Edgar Moore told Chief Daughtry he had left the store at 6:00 p.m. the night before. He stated that Toler had told him he would be working late, as Maggie, his wife, was visiting her aunt in Greensboro. Maggie normally kept the books. But since she had been gone for several days, he needed to work late to catch them up. Moore said he had locked the front door, and gone out the back. He had not locked the alley door, as Toler normally took care of that task.
Moore’s story quickly fell apart. While searching the store for clues, Chief Daughtry had found the object used to pry open the back door—a shiny new crowbar. The streaks of green paint, and the indentions on the door and frame, which perfectly matched the crowbar, left little doubt. However, it was in an unusual location—a storage bin with several other new crowbars just like it. What was the likelihood that someone had broken in from the alley using a new crowbar just like the ones sold in the store, and then left it in the bin?
And then there was the matter of the money. Chief Daughtry knew from earlier conversations with Ransom Toler, that it was his practice to count the day’s receipts as soon as the store closed, and to immediately lock them in the safe for deposit on the next banking day. But that morning, the safe door was ajar, as it was during the day. No money was in the safe or in the cash register. Knowing Toler’s demeanor, he found it highly unlikely that money would have been left unsecured, or that Toler would have opened the safe for a burglar.
Acting on these pieces of evidence, and a conversation he had overheard in a local business, Chief Daughtry obtained a warrant to search the small clapboard house Edgar Moore called home. That search turned up a coffee can with almost four hundred dollars in cash. Stored in a rundown shed behind the house, some of the bills were stained with blood.
Despite Moore’s protestations of innocence, he was arrested and tried for first-degree murder. The jury was convinced by the crowbar, the bloody money, and the testimony of a man who told his story of walking down the alley behind Toler’s General Merchandise that Friday evening. The dark-skinned man spoke barely above a whisper as he told of walking past the green wooden door, which was slightly ajar. He told of hearing an angry Ransom Toler threaten an unknown individual with imprisonment for stealing from him. The witness stated that Toler yelled “With all I’ve done for you, you steal from me. I’ll see you rot in the county jail.” Although the quiet man on the witness stand did not see the other party, everyone on the jury, and in the courtroom, assumed it to be Edgar Moore.
The prosecutor’s closing argument was quite persuasive. He painted the picture of an embittered Edgar Moore spending fifteen years working in the shadow of his wife’s successful brother. Moore’s bitter frustrations had led him to take money from the register until he was caught by Toler. An argument ensued. Moore lashed out in anger with the first thing he touched—a pipe wrench in the back room. Panicking, he staged the scene to look like a robbery before sneaking home.
The deliberations lasted just over an hour before the jury returned with a verdict of “guilty.”
“Sam, you ain’t saying much. ‘Specially since you helped put Mr. Edgar in that chair” Leland Harris said to his colleague.
Washington just shook his head as he looked at the three barber chairs lined up in front of ornately mounted mirrors. He thought back to that Saturday morning, before Toler’s body had been discovered. Chief Daughtry had been sitting in James Stokes’ chair, in the far rear of the shop, as he did every Saturday morning, waiting for his shave and trim. Sam had been running a few minutes late that morning, and was putting on his jacket in the back room when Leland Harris had stepped back to get a bottle of tonic.
“You ought to have heard the fuss going on next door yesterday evening,” Sam had said. “I was walking through the alley on my way home, and Mr. Ransom was laying into somebody for taking money from him. He was mad, and yelling like all git-out.”
Sam spoke as if oblivious to Chief Daughtry’s presence outside the storage room door. He knew better than talk about a prominent white citizen that way in public. He had learned that in his four years in Lawrenceville.
Sam had been perfectly happy living with his family in New Jersey. But when America had entered the war in Europe, he had done his duty and joined the army in hopes of fighting with Gen. Pershing’s troops in “The Great War.” However, his dreams of bearing arms for his country were soon dashed as he learned that a black man in the army was more likely to serve as manual labor. He had been shipped to North Carolina to help clear brush and trees for a new army camp known as Camp Bragg, near Fayetteville.
Sam never got near the fighting in Europe. But he did get near a local girl named Ella Smith. He’d gotten so close that when the war ended, he decided to stay in North Carolina with his new bride. Luckily, the local barbershop was looking for a barber. Sam had learned the trade from his uncle in Jersey. He was happy to have a job that didn’t require him to spend his days in the cotton or tobacco fields of Stuart County. But one downside was working in the building right beside an unpleasant character like Ransom Toler. The low point of that circumstance had come just over two years ago with the loss of his best friend, Emmett Walker.
Emmett had grown up in Cleveland, Ohio. As bunkmates at Camp Bragg, he and Sam had become as close as brothers. After their discharge, Sam had encouraged Emmett to come and live with him and his new bride until Walker could get on his feet. He had no real family in Ohio, and no skills to get a good job. But through Ella’s family, Sam found him a job working as a farm laborer. After a few months of working, the man had saved enough money to rent a room of his own, and was doing well for a black man with no education.
On that fateful day, Emmett had gone to Toler’s to pick up chicken wire to repair a fence. The story was told that while standing at the register to pay, he commented to the white lady behind the register regarding the flowery dress she was wearing. “You sure look good in that dress,” he had said. Emmett told Sam that afternoon that he had meant no disrespect, but was just being friendly. However, Emmett Walker had been friendly with the wrong white lady. This one was Ransom Toler’s wife, Maggie.
“Boy, who do you think you are? And what kind of woman do you think I am?” she had yelled at him. Emmett’s attempts at an apology were met with more anger, so he left and went back to the farm. Late that afternoon he had gone to Sam’s house and asked for advice.
“The best thing here is that Mr. Ransom wasn’t in the store. If he was, you might not be talking to me right now” Sam told him. “Just lay low tonight, and I’ll go by and see him first thing in the morning.” Although Sam knew Toler to be a bigot with a hot temper, he had maintained a civil relationship with him over the years. The storeowner came into the barbershop every other week for a haircut and a shave. He said that even though he shaved himself every day, lying back in a chair to be shaved was a luxury he enjoyed. Sam found it amusing that the man who openly disliked “coloreds” was so quick to relax while a dark-skinned barber held a razor to his throat.
Sam never got a chance to have that talk with Toler. Early the next morning, a knock on his door led to his accompanying a local constable to a cotton field just outside the city limits. There, a white sheet was pulled back to reveal the severely beaten body of Emmett Walker. Sam was asked to identify the body, which had been found by the field’s owner just after sunup.
There was no doubt in Sam’s mind who was responsible for his friend’s death, and he told his story to the constable.
“You better be careful what you’re saying, boy. Talk about an upstanding businessman like that and you could end up like your friend.”
A few days later, Sam was emboldened again after listening in on a whispered barbershop conversation between Edgar Moore and a farmer from the south side of town. As they sat on the wooden bench waiting to be served, they did not realize Sam was in the storage room beside them. And even if they did, they wouldn’t have worried too much about an “ignorant colored boy.”
“You help your boss with that lesson he taught the other night?” asked the farmer.
“Oh, yeah. He didn’t need a whole lot of help with that piece of trash. But I got my licks in, too.”
Sam knew better than go to the constable or Chief Daughtry. But he also knew he would not leave his friend without justice. So he waited, and watched, and watched, and waited until nearly a year passed. Almost everyone had forgotten about Emmett Walker. Almost everyone except Sam.
So it was on a quiet autumn Friday night, knowing from the conversations in his barbershop that Mrs. Toler was away, Sam Washington waited at the back door of the barbershop, and hoped that Edgar Moore would leave before his boss. As luck would have it, he did.
Entering the back door, he called to Toler that he needed help with Moore, who had been robbed in the back alley. When Toler entered the back room, Sam meted out a measure of justice. But that was only half of the job. He carried out the plan he had devised over the past few months to place a few pieces of evidence in the store, followed by a clandestine mission toMoore’s storage shed in the middle of the night. His plan would assure that the State of North Carolina, took care of Edgar Moore. By planting the seeds of suspicion in Chief Daughtry’s head the next morning, he even pointed him to his suspect.
Continuing to silently sweep the floor, Sam glanced up at the clock. Only a few more hours. It was almost too easy; even for an ignorant colored boy.