The Wilbur Hendrix murder case had enough twists that, had it happened eight decades later, it might have been a cable news staple for months.
As it is, it’s still an interesting story, one that made history.
A prominent Lexington County storekeeper is shot to death when he tries to defend himself and his family from masked gunmen during a botched robbery. His wife, brother and a friend are in the store with him, and his two young boys are in adjoining rooms.
Five black men are arrested for the crime the following week, are convicted a week later and are executed 52 days after the murder. Another black man convicted of murder is electrocuted the same day, maxxing out the capacity of the death chamber at Columbia’s old Central Correctional Institution for the first time.
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It was a crime of the times, as the country sank into the depths of the Great Depression and an armed robbery story made the front page of The State nearly every day.
It also was a punishment of the times. South Carolina electrocuted more people (68) in the 1930s than in any decade. Many were black, and their deaths came quickly after trials.
The case was historic, yet few people alive today in South Carolina have heard of it. It was overshadowed in the 1930s by high-profile gangster cases and, in terms of African-American history, by the nine black teens accused of raping two white girls in Scottsboro, Ala., just a month later.
The Feb. 27, 1931, execution total in the Hendrix case still ranks as the most African-Americans put to death by electrocution in one day in state history, though many more, by some accounts 22 in one day and 35 total, were hanged after the Denmark Vesey slave revolt in 1822.
Race, of course, was a factor, though it was not as clear-cut as it might seem. Lexington County farmers had been itching to lynch two white men first picked up as suspects in the case. Handkerchiefs had masked the robbers’ faces, and at least one was described by witnesses as light-skinned.
University of South Carolina history professor Val Littlefield said the case should be viewed in the context of the Depression, when desperate people turned to armed robbery. “Most of the time, black or white, they ended up dead in shootouts or the electric chair,” she said.
The history buffs in the Hendrix family have read about the case in yellowed newspaper clippings stored in attics for decades. Seth Hendrix, who was an 11-year-old sleeping in an adjacent room the night of the robbery, seldom brought up the incident. He died at age 81 in 2001, 70 years and one day after his father’s death.
“He never really talked about it,” said Sonja Shull, Seth Hendrix’s daughter. “Only if I asked a question about it, and then he only answered directly.”
One of the bullets barely missed Seth’s 13-year-old brother, Kenneth, who was getting ready for bed. Kenneth, who died in 2005 at age 87, always told his own children he felt it was unfair for five men to be executed when only one man fired the fatal shot, said his son, Bobby Hendrix.
At 9:10 p.m. on Jan. 6, 1931, four gunmen approached the Hendrix store, a few miles outside of Lexington (where The Farmer’s Shed is now). They left behind one accomplice at their car a few hundred yards down the road. Two went inside, one brandishing a pistol, and ordered everyone to stick ’em up.
Wilbur Hendrix instead picked up a chair for cover and hustled into an adjoining room, where he kept a shotgun. The robber fired, his pistol shot aimed high. Hendrix returned fire, hitting one of the robbers with bird shot.
As all four robbers fled, one turned and fired twice into a window. One of the shots hit Hendrix in the chest, killing him almost instantly.
Wilbur Hendrix, 41, was related to half of Lexington County – his mother was a Seay, his wife a Sease, both names nearly as common as Hendrix in the region.
Many people owed him a debt of gratitude, if not money. He was one of those big-hearted shopkeepers who allowed customers to buy on credit in those tough times.
Law enforcement officials from Lexington and neighboring counties were joined by farmers and merchants in the search for the robbers. Two white men, labeled itinerants in the newspaper accounts, were arrested the next day. One of the men had tried to pass a bad check at the store the day before, and there was a spot of blood on the running board of their car. The two suspects were taken to the state penitentiary, in part for their protection.
Investigators soon had another lead. A black man who had hitched a ride to Columbia the day after the crime with five other black men told police one of those men had been shot in the hand. The men had since left Columbia, but investigators traced them to Asheville, N.C.
When police in Asheville burst into the boarding house room of a suspect in another robbery, he reached for a gun to defend himself before surrendering. The gun later was linked to the Hendrix case.
The Asheville suspect, George Byrd, confessed to multiple robberies, including the Hendrix case, and implicated four others. After a chase through four states, those four were arrested in Bluefield, W.Va. Authorities said they all confessed to involvement in the Hendrix murder and other robberies in South Carolina.
Byrd, who lived in Columbia and had worked for a railroad until recent hard times, was the only South Carolinian in the gang. The others were Robert “Greasy” Eldredge of Richmond, Va., James Ackwright of Ben Hill, Ga., Ernest “Tee” Thomas of Hendersonville, N.C., and James Hickman of Whiteville, N.C. Only Eldredge could write his name, but authorities said they all marked their confessions as true.
According to the confessions read in court, Byrd knew the area and suggested the Hendrix place as a robbery target.
He approached the store with his pistol raised, but when he saw how many people were inside, he was reluctant to go through with it. Thomas took the pistol from Byrd and went inside with Hickman. Thomas fired two shots from inside the store. (In his confession, he said he purposely aimed high, implying that he didn’t want to kill Hendrix.)
As the robbers fled, Ackwright fired the two rifle shots from outside, one of which killed Hendrix. Eldredge waited back at the car for the others to return.
Two weeks after the murder, the trial in Lexington on Jan. 20 began at 10:50 a.m. and went to the jury at 4:45 p.m. after eight witnesses took the stand for the prosecution. The defendants’ appointed attorney, J.D. Carroll, presented no witnesses on their behalf.
The Lexington County jury of 11 farmers and one businessman took only 10 minutes to come back with a guilty verdict.
Gov. John G. Roberts, as one of the last acts of his term, ordered National Guard troops to escort the defendants to and from the court to avoid the threat of lynching.
The judge sentenced them to die in the electric chair on Feb. 27. When Tillman Poozer was convicted the next day in Lexington for the murder of Cayce night watchman C.D. Mills, his execution also was set for Feb. 27.
Never since the state started using the electric chair in 1912 had the maximum of six prisoners been put to death in one day, according to the Espy File, a national capital punishment database. The state dealt out six electrocutions in a day only one more time, in 1939, after six white convicts were found guilty in the stabbing death of a prison guard.
The day after the men were moved to the death house, Eldredge grew ill and was diagnosed with meningitis. Newspaper stories for weeks related the struggle by prison officials to get him healthy enough to die in the electric chair.
More than 1,000 people requested to view the execution, but state law and the death house setup allowed for only 24 seats.
Some people made public appeals on the prisoners’ behalf, including several letters to the editor in The State questioning the validity of the confessions and the fairness of a trial jury in a community the governor feared was ready to lynch the suspects.
Eldredge’s family back in Virginia appealed to Gov. Ibra C. Blackwood to delay his electrocution because of his illness. A few days before the executions, a group of black ministers asked the governor for clemency. Twelve hours before the scheduled executions, the SC Supreme Court turned down a final appeal by a local attorney who claimed the trial didn’t amount to due process as spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.
Starting at 5 a.m., the men were led in one-by-one, with Ackwright first. His execution at 5:08 a.m. was viewed by 14 members of the Hendrix family. He was followed by Poozer, Byrd, Eldredge (who was still so weak he had to be helped to the chair) and Thomas. Each was asked if he wanted to make a final comment. None denied guilt. Thomas had the last word: “O Lord, pray for me.”
Only Byrd’s body was claimed by family members. The others were to be buried in the prison cemetery.
“At 7:03 the executions were over, and the death house was empty,” according to the account in The State.
“Friday’s dawn had come and given way to the day,” the paper reported.
“It was light outside.”