Century-old homicide reports reflect timeless nature of crimes

By Updated: May 13, 2019 4:00 AM CT | Published: May 10, 2019 4:16 PM CT

Memphis homicides, some a century old, and the records they generated are now housed on the fourth floor at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.

The Memphis Police Department donated its homicide reports from 1917 through 1936 to the library in 2017. Rhodes College students helped assemble and organize the records.

As Memphis celebrates its 200th birthday this year, the records offer a look at details of homicides that occurred 80 to 100 years ago in a city that 2017 FBI statistics, the most recent available, say today has one of the highest homicide rates in country.

“Keep in mind that every one of these people killed, even 100 years ago, they have families and they have descendants in many cases, and it is recorded in these reports that they can now come and research,” said library archivist Wayne Dowdy. “This gives us a better understanding of how law enforcement works. Today the technology is different, but the procedures are the same. Collecting evidence, making reports, they are doing that today.”

Just like today, Dowdy said the older homicides reflect unchanging human nature – passion, greed, money, love and hate.

By 1923, Memphis had so many homicides that it was declared the “murder capital of America.” The homicide rate was 67.4 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the book “Memphis in the Twenties: The Second Term of Mayor Rowlett Paine 1924-1928” by Robert A. Lanier.

In 2017, the city had 181 homicides, or 28 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting statistics released last month.

The homicide reports, for which the police department did not start keeping records until 1917, are all neatly typed on paper embossed with the Memphis Police Department’s letterhead. The ink from the typewriter is purplish blue on the once-white paper that has since yellowed with time.

The reports are organized by year and stored in 10 gray boxes made from acid-free paper designed to preserve against aging and the elements.

Anyone interested in a crime can sift through the more than 500 homicide reports, whether for historical research, a family connection or morbid curiosity.

Some of the homicides, like Depression-era crimes of the 1930's, involved robberies in which people were killed over a nickel, said Gina Cordell, curator of the Memphis and Shelby County Room at the main public library branch. Cordell helped organize the reports.

Workplace violence also is reflected in the reports, such as a 1917 shooting in which a steam boat captain shot and killed his employee.

A laborer identified as "Ed. Taylor, colored" was shot and killed by John W. Harris on the steamer Bart Tully the morning of Jan. 26, 1917, according to the report.

“Taylor says that he was putting coal on the boat and the captain told him to put more on and the negro replied that he could not, as there was no more shovels and claims that he started to walk away and the captain shot him,” says the report, taken by officers before Taylor died from his gunshot wounds.

The captain told police a different story.

“Capt. Harris says that he told the negro to put more coal on the boat and the negro said that he was not going to get a shovel and do nothing, using a lot of profanity at the time and pulled a pistol on him and he shot him.”

Harris was not charged because he claimed self-defense. No charges were filed in many cases involving white perpetrators and African-American victims, the records show. 

Morbid morsels abound in the documents, such as tales of domestic violence homicides in which husbands killed wives, wives killed husbands and lovers killed their loves. Such was the case of star-crossed lovers Ike and Maude.

“Ike Kahn was killed by Maude Kline on Nov. 18, 1918 at 200 S. Second," a report states. "He was shot during an argument between the two. Kahn was shot through the heart. Kline then shot herself in the heart.” 

Some slayings in the reports were infamous, such as the April 1917 rape and murder of 15-year-old Antoinette Rappel, which made front-page news and led to the lynching of Ell Persons.

The body of Rappel, who was white, was found on Macon Road, about 10 miles from the city, near the Wolf River bottoms April 30, 1917. Her body was found by her brother-in-law, Will H. Wilfong, and neighbors who had been searching for two days after she left for school on her bicycle and never returned home.

Memphis police officer James Armstrong wrote in the report: “The finding of the body disclosed one of the most fiendish crimes that has startled the people of Shelby County in years.”

He added: “Searchers recoiled in horror when they saw before them the child’s body, with the head hacked off and lying a few feet away, with the golden curls stained with blood.”

Persons, a black man and a woodcutter who lived near the crime scene on Macon Road, was arrested May 7, 1917. Police claimed in the report that Persons confessed to killing Rappel. He was taken to the state penitentiary in Nashville “for safe keeping.”

That is all the report says about Persons. It does not mention that when police transferred him from Nashville back to Memphis for trial, a lynch mob pulled him off the train. He was lynched May 22, 1917. He was burned alive and his body dismembered. His head and foot were dumped on Beale Street for African-Americans to see, according to a marker about Persons on Summer Avenue.

“As you look through the homicide reports, you will see that police did not fill out a homicide report for Mr. Persons,” Dowdy said.

The donation of the reports has forged an unlikely partnership between the police and the library.  

Memphis Police Sgt. Joe Stark, who investigates the department’s cold case homicides, recently asked the library’s curator, Gina Cordell, for help on a 30-year-old murder committed by one of the deadliest serial killers in the country’s history.

Earlier this year, Samuel Little, a convicted serial killer, confessed to 90 murders of women across the country, including the 1984 murder of a woman he told police he killed in Memphis. Little said he then crossed the bridge into West Memphis and threw her body into the Mississippi River.

Stark traveled to Texas, where the 78-year-old Little is serving life, and saw the detailed picture Little drew of the woman he said he strangled in Memphis. He remembered what the woman looked like but not her name.

Stark, a 30-year veteran with MPD, needed help with research on the 35-year-old murder, and who better to help with research than a librarian?

“We had no name, no clues,” Stark said. “All we knew is that he killed her in Memphis and then threw her body in the river.”

Cordell, who has the "Law and Order" TV show theme song as her ringtone, jumped at the chance to help police possibly solve a cold case.

But where to start?

“Databases,” Cordell recalled. “I started with homicide cases in Arkansas and looked through newspapers. We searched counties down river.”

Every clue that she got, she sent to Stark. After searching databases, Cordell narrowed her list to three to five names of women who matched the age of the woman Little confessed to killing.

But none of the information Cordell found matched. 

Neither Stark nor Cordell has given up hope, however. 

“I hated that we couldn’t find this woman some peace,” Cordell said. “Maybe the man who killed her will continue to remember.”

She added: “This is a unusual relationship between the library and the police, but they would not have known to reach out to us if they had not toured after they donated the old homicide records.”


Homicides Memphis Memphis Police Department Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library
Yolanda Jones

Yolanda Jones

Yolanda Jones covers criminal justice issues and general assignment news for The Daily Memphian. She previously was a reporter at The Commercial Appeal.

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