April 16, 2012
A Negro Leaguer's Execution
Over at the blog One for Five comes the story of an ex-Negro League ballplayer named James Hugh Moss, who was executed by the State of Georgia in August 1928. Not much is known about Moss as a ballplayer. The newspaper accounts of the crime he was put to death for mention his past playing history, but only in passing. The recent influx of Negro Leagues information at Baseball Reference also isn't much help, but even that is admittedly incomplete. Some sites mention an entry of "Moss" in James Riley's Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. The Moss in the encyclopedia pitched for the Chicago American Giants in 1918. It's impossible to say if the ballplayer referenced is James Hugh Moss, but we do know the sad story of how Moss's life ended—even if the circumstances that led to it are very questionable.
As it stands, Moss was convicted, along with Clifford Thompson and his wife Eula Mae Thompson (both white), for the murder of Coleman Osborne. It seems that the three murderers/conspirators were in the bootlegging business to some degree. One night, they stopped the car they were using to haul whiskey near Osborne's home. Someone met Osborne at the door of his general store, there was some shouting, and Osborne was shot dead. The court found the three bootleggers guilty and ordered them to death by electric chair.
The two men were to be executed first, but, on the eve of the execution, Eula Mae apparently had a change of heart and came forward with a new story. While awaiting her own execution, Eula Mae called in the jailor and made a statement. In it, she claimed that the murdered man had learned of an affair she was having with one B.W. Swan and that she and Swan plotted the murder. They decided to frame the death on her husband, thereby clearing out any obstacles to their affair. Moss, in this story, was the victim of very bad luck.
Upon hearing this confession, Georgia governor L.G. Hardman went "on a personal investigation of her story" (see the update below) as he decided what to do with the information. After delaying his final decision for an hour, Hardman decided that the information "did not warrant a respite" and allowed the execution to go on as scheduled. Clifford Thompson and James Hugh Moss were executed later that afternoon.
A few weeks later, as Eula Mae continued to await her fate, she came forward with yet another "confession." This time, the story of an affair with Swan (a prominent farmer, as it turned out) was gone. Instead, she claimed that the three of them had stopped late at night near Osborne's store and that Moss went alone to his door for gasoline. When Osborne refused to give Moss his change, the two got in an argument and Moss eventually shot Osborne. Moss had changed from a man she didn't even know in the first story into the man solely responsible for Osborne's death.
In September 1928, on the eve of her own execution, Governor Hardman gave Eula Mae a 60-day reprieve in order to more fully explore the details. There doesn't seem to be any direct mention of the death sentence being commuted to one of life but, by November 1928, newspapers were reporting on the impending marriage of "lifer" Eula Mae Thompson as she "awaits transportation to the state prison to begin a life sentence." Dan C. Harrison, an Atlanta butcher (or news vender), had fallen in love with her upon seeing her sad state when she was first sent to prison and had, in the meantime, spent much money in helping mount her defense. They were planning to marry that November.
In the end, little is known about exactly what happened to cause the execution of Clifford Thompson and James Hugh Moss. Did Moss and his companions really kill Coleman Osborne over a simple argument during a bootlegging run? Was Eula Mae Thompson actually telling the truth in her first confession, giving us proof of the execution of two innocent men? Was she even telling the truth in her second confession? No matter the circumstances, it was a sad end for the former Negro Leaguer James Hugh Moss.
For more on the story, including the complete text of contemporary newspaper accounts following this story (including a letter written by Eula Mae herself written to young women of the time), I highly recommend the post over at One for Five. It's an excellent overview of this sad tale and includes a lot more detail. If nothing else, it shows just how captivated old newspapers could become with a young "murderess."
UPDATED: A few more updates on Mrs. Eula Mae Thompson. According to this Find A Grave posting (apparently updated by a relative), Eula Mae lived to the age of 76 before dying in 1980. She was paroled from the life sentence in 1936. Five years later, Eula Mae and two other men were jailed in the death of Walker Elrod, Eula Mae's brother. Walker was stabbed to death after an argument. The Find A Grave listing does not detail what happened to Eula Mae in the wake of her brother's death, so it's uncertain if she served any further jail time. However, the listing does give details on each of Eula Mae's siblings. For Walker Elrod, it says "walker elrod (1907-1941) ... walker was killed by his sister eula [sic]".
Regarding James Hugh Moss, the listing includes text from a 1928 Dallas Morning News article. When Eula Mae gave her initial "confession", Governor Hardman was said to have undertaken a "personal investigation" before deciding how to act on her words. According to the Dallas Morning News article, that personal investigation included phrenology - the study of lumps on the head.
Gov. J. B Hardman Thursday turned to phrenology as an aid in determining whether or not clemency should be extended to a woman awaiting death in the electric chair. ... Governor Hardman announced recently that the phrenology of Clifford Thompson, the woman's husband, and Jim Hugh Moss, Negro electrocuted for the murder of Osborne, played a part in his decision not to interfere in their cases. ... Governor Hardman is a physician.
If Eula Mae's original confession had any truth to it - and, considering that it was made out of a guilty conscience and with no lawyers present, I tend to believe it did - it goes to show just how hard of luck James Hugh Moss was. In her confession, she claimed that she didn't even know who Moss was and that it was a different black man - Jim Lowry - who helped with the murder. If true, Moss was wrongly convicted for the murder and, when given a chance at freedom, the governor - a physician no less - decided against the evidence based on the flimsiest of pseudo-sciences. A sad story indeed.