In trial, top suspect became star witness against innocent man
Apparently desperate to avoid charging a uniformed U.S. Marine with the crime, prosecutors sought a scapegoat to pin the murder of Martha James on. They found one, and they had to work really hard to make it stick ... but they got it done.
By Finn J.D. John — July 3, 2016
On April 22, 1943, a jury of Albany-area housewives, millworkers, and farmers brought back a verdict against the strange, well-dressed black man who stood facing them. It was “guilty.”
The verdict brought to an end a trial that had been so laden with stereotypes and literary tropes that the Sunday magazine American Weekly, the following month, recapped the whole affair with a dramatic package headlined, “Actual Crime with All the Settings of Fiction.” It laid out, in sensationalistic prose with lurid illustrations, the official storyline: Murderer Robert E. Lee Folkes, a cook in the train’s dining car – having spent the evening shirking his job duties, drinking cheap liquor, and making boorish passes at random white maidens, and now afire with carnal lust — tiptoes into the Pullman coach, planning to rape the lovely young Martha James at knifepoint. When she awakens and screams, he cuts her throat to silence her, then leaps out of the berth and races back to the kitchen, where he stations himself over a cold stove and pretends he’s been cooking eggs on it the whole time.
Meanwhile, a brave and noble U.S. Marine has heard the scream and is racing to her rescue – alas, too late to do anything but help penetrate the murderer’s defenses, break his alibi and see that justice is served.
Left unmentioned in the American Weekly account were a couple other literary tropes that the trial fitted so well. It was every bit as race-baitey as the 1915 movie “The Birth of a Nation,” depicting Black Man as a bestial creature with an uncontrolled lust, ever yearning to “defile” the daughters of middle-class white people. And in other ways, it was almost a straight rip-off of the railroad-train variant of the classic “locked-room mystery,” like “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie. And, according to Western Oregon University professor Max G. Geier’s book about the case, that similarity to familiar literary tropes was not an accident.
Also left out of the story are a wide range of inconvenient facts that make Folkes’ guilt almost impossible to believe in — chief among which are the fingernail clipping samples that were taken and tested after the murder, and revealed traces of nothing but starch, grease, flour and baking soda – absolutely no blood.
Geier makes a powerful case that Robert Folkes was a scapegoat, a target of opportunity seized upon to solve a very specific set of problems faced by nearly everyone in a position of authority. To win a conviction against him, prosecutors tried, successfully, to distract from the lack of actual evidence by manipulating their story to make it as familiar as possible, and appealing to the prejudices that had made “Birth of a Nation” such a popular movie in those dark pre-war years of nationwide Jim Crow-ism.
In fairness to those jurors, this likely wouldn’t have worked on its own. But in combination with a confession that had almost certainly had been either fabricated or beaten out of Folkes during a three-day interrogation session with Los Angeles Police Department officers at the city jail, it was more than enough.
But one of the most striking things about this case is how overwhelming was the evidence against that Marine who claimed to have come too late to Martha James’ rescue — Pvt. Harold Wilson.
Wilson, it turned out, had been released from the brig the day he boarded the train in Washington; he’d been locked up there for an alleged sexual assault. His commanding officer was sending him to a combat unit, in the same way misbehaving German soldiers were sent to the Eastern Front. He might very well have been thinking this train trip would be his last few hours of freedom.
And the witnesses’ accounts dovetail perfectly with an attempted sexual-assault-at-knifepoint gone wrong. Each remembers the words slightly differently, but most agree it started with a woman saying, “I can’t stand this any longer!” followed by, “He’s killing me!” and a horrible scream. Sleep-fogged passengers poked their heads out of the curtains to see Wilson already bending over the still-bleeding body. Then one of the passengers pulled the cord to summon the steward, and it was only after that bell rang that Wilson started shouting that murder had been done.
Wilson’s story started out sketchy and changed almost every time he retold it. First he claimed to have run to the end of the train in pursuit of the killer and seen no one; then, when a trainman replied that he had to have seen at the very least a cook, a waiter and a steward, he changed his story to include all three of those characters. He miscounted the number of cars he ran through and then said maybe he hadn’t made it to the back of the train after all (although one source says a blood trail was found leading to the end of the train). He claimed it took him nine steps to get to the end of the car in pursuit, when he was less than 6 feet from it. On the witness stand, he was unable even to identify his military unit. And one of the witnesses recalls him actually trying to plant a bloody towel in the bathroom between the murder scene and the cook’s car.
But in court, the prosecution seemed to fight desperately to avoid even considering the possibility that Wilson had any role in the murder other than that of too-late would-be-rescuer. The railroad ordered its employees not to cooperate with Folkes’ defense attorney. And the prosecution even constructed, in an Albany railroad yard, a life-size diorama of the murder train — except it had been modified so that the cook’s car, in which Folkes was working, was one car away from the murder car instead of five or six.
So, why turn a blind eye to such a promising suspect and focus all energy on pinning the job on a man with a pretty decent alibi, and against whom the only evidence is guesswork, tainted and shifting testimony from Wilson, and an unsigned and probably coerced confession extracted from him by what was then one of the most notoriously brutal police departments in the country?
The most likely answer is that, for every authority involved, Folkes’ conviction represented salvation from consequences ranging from inconvenience to catastrophe.
We’ll talk about those consequences in 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)
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