Did brutal railroad-car murder end in cynical “railroad job”?
Local authorities were stumped; the entire nation was watching, and the most likely suspect, a uniformed U.S. Marine, was already being hailed a a heroic would-be-rescuer in the press.
By Finn J.D. John — June 26, 2016
On the bitter cold winter night of Jan. 22, 1943, a beautiful 21-year-old woman named Martha Brinson James was settling into her sleeping berth in a crowded Pullman coach, headed for San Francisco.
Young Mrs. James would not live to see the sun come up on Jan. 23. And the circumstances that led to her death are, 70 years later, still emerging from a cloud of mystery not unmixed with deliberate obfuscation — but one of the few things we do know, with near certainty, is that the man sent to the gas chamber for this crime was innocent.
Here’s the story as it was told the next day in the Portland Morning Oregonian:
Martha Brinson James came of a blue-blooded Virginia family, her father a good friend and neighbor of the governor of that state. On the night of her death, she had been married for just four months, to a dashing young Navy pilot named Richard James. The two of them were traveling from Seattle to their new home in California, where Richard had been stationed as a reserve Naval aviator. Richard, a lowly Ensign (the lowest rank of commissioned Navy officer), was sent on a troop train; his wife followed a few hours behind on the Southern Pacific West Coast Limited.
The West Coast Limited was packed on that chilly day. It was still early in the Second World War, and the tide of war was only just starting to turn in favor of the U.S. Military personnel and their families were being shuttled all over the country, and trains, like all bits of home-front infrastructure, were being run as Spartanly as possible; traveling was not fun. They were crowded and cramped. In one car, a family of five was packed into two twin-bed-size berths. The windows were blacked out under wartime rules, making the train car into a coffin-like box hurtling through the night. Inside that box, people sweated, swore, emitted noxious gases, feuded, got carsick … and, after midnight or so, tried desperately to sleep.
At about 4 a.m., the passengers on Car D were startled awake by a scream — a woman shouting, “Oh my God, he’s killing me!” They rushed to pull aside their curtains and saw the form of a woman who had obviously fallen out of her berth, lying on her back in the middle of the aisle. Standing over her was a uniformed Marine Corps private, apparently the first on the scene. He was covered in the blood that was still spurting from her throat, which had been savagely slashed.
The Marine, Pvt. Harold Wilson, said he’d been in the bunk just above hers when he heard her scream; he’d pulled aside the curtains in time to see her falling out of her berth, and to see a dark, heavy-set man running from the scene.
“He kind of turned a little sideways, so I could just get the side of his face,” Wilson told investigators later. “It was pretty full. He had on a brown pin-point stripe suit. I think he was about 5 feet 10 inches, and he had short hair. The light was so dim I couldn’t tell whether he was a light Negro or a dark white man.”
Hastily pulling on his pants, Wilson said, he’d jumped down from his berth to see if she needed help, but had quickly realized she was beyond the reach of aid.
When the train arrived at Eugene, authorities went through it as carefully as they could. There was a trail of blood drops that led to the back end of the train, which suggested that perhaps the murderer jumped off into the night; but then again, some or all of that trail was likely left by Wilson, the too-late would-be rescuer. Other than that, the evidence was scant. The victim’s throat, early reports claimed, had been slashed with something dull or blunt; the weapon wasn’t found.
At Eugene, Wilson was taken into custody as a material witness, along with an African-American dining-car waiter who matched the vague physical description of height, build and complexion he had given.
As you can imagine, the entire country found this story riveting. More than one historian has compared the whole thing to a story from one of the many tawdry “true detective” pulp-fiction magazines. It had all the elements … all the elements but one, that is: A villain. For it soon appeared that the local law-enforcement authorities were stumped on this one.
Tracks were found in the snow near where the train had been when the murder took place, and even some blood. But that trail went cold when authorities found the tracks came from and returned to a local farm; the farmer said he’d suffered a nosebleed from the cold. Clearly whoever did the killing remained on the train.
There was that dining-car waiter. But he was quickly eliminated as a suspect. He had been asleep in a berth at the other end of the train, and had several solid witnesses to back up his alibi.
Then there was Pvt. Wilson, of course, found standing over the body with blood all over his hands. But Wilson was a U.S. Marine, and one rather expects Marines to run to the rescue of women who cry out in the night. Nobody wanted him to turn out to be the guy who did it; it would be like learning that a firefighter was a secret serial killer. How would that look to the citizens of a country at war, its trains and subways packed with young men in uniform? How would home-front logistics be affected if women started looking at every young man in uniform as a potential predator? How would it reflect on the military; how would it affect home-front morale?
So the authorities were quite relieved when a third suspect was found: a cook by the name of Robert E. Lee Folkes.
The official story was that Folkes was fingered after Pvt. Wilson recalled seeing him in the kitchen as he raced through in pursuit of the brown-suited man, and noticed he was sweaty-looking. So the Los Angeles Police Department had brought him in for questioning. Folkes, the LAPD claimed, had maintained his innocence until confronted with assurance that two women who said he’d made aggressive passes at them earlier in the evening had positively identified him from his mugshot, at which dread news he “broke down” and confessed it all.
Wilson, who freely and frankly acknowledged how bad things looked for him, greeted the news that Folkes had confessed with an obvious sigh of relief. “Boy, am I glad to hear that,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one. Folkes was everything the authorities could have wanted in a suspect, and then some: sophisticated and urban in that jazzy Harlem-Renaissance way, he appeared in court sporting a bright-blue “zoot suit.” Even better, he was black — which in 1940s America made stories of his alleged wickedness a whole lot easier to sell than would have been the case had he been white.
Those stories sold very well indeed at Folkes’ murder trial, a sensational proceeding held in Albany at the Linn County Courthouse and juried by eight women and four men. After 17 hours’ deliberation, they found him guilty and sent him off to the gas chamber; two years later, his appeals exhausted and the governor refusing to intervene, this was done.
But questions still lingered in the air. The only real evidence against Folkes had been his confession — obtained by the LAPD in an interrogation. Had that confession been faked or coerced? Was Folkes guilty only of being handy when someone needed a scapegoat?
The short answer is, almost certainly, yes. But the longer, more accurate answer is coming with next week’s column.
(Sources: Geier, Max G. The Color of Night. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2015; Barker, Neil. “Murder on No. 15.…,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, fall 2011; archives of the Portland Morning Oregonian, Jan. 24, 1943)