In August of 1900, the gawking citizens of Raleigh climbed every roof, tree and telephone pole on Fayetteville Street, craning their necks, shoving with elbows, wrangling for a spot to see Tom Jones hang.
More than 1,000 people begged the sheriff for tickets to the courthouse execution, hoping to witness the violent end of the preacher who’d slain his lover with an ax, turned the weapon on her daughter and then set their house ablaze on his way out the door – killing four more children in their beds.
Now on the gallows, Jones bowed, said a prayer of contrition and kissed a silver crucifix twice. And when the trap sprung, he dangled in the air for 13 minutes, jerking and convulsing while the crowd surged forward to touch his body. One spectator snapped pictures with a primitive Kodak, standing roughly where a hot dog vendor now parks his cart.
This Wake County abomination is notorious enough that it appears in the 2014 book “Gruesome Spectacles,” a collection of capital punishments gone wrong. But I’m digging up the story today because, sigh, it’s October again – the season for North Carolina ghost and horror stories. Consider the dark tale of Tom Jones to be chapter one.
“His feet are treading the brink of eternity,” an unnamed N&O reporter wrote 115 years ago. “Tom says he is ready to go, and a greasy and much be-thumbed Catholic Catechism is his constant companion.”
While he stood trial, much discussion turned to whether Jones qualified as a real preacher and, if he did, whether he possessed enough marbles in his head to do the job. A defense witness testified that Jones, just 29, had described being deputized in the faith by the Lord himself – a miraculous encounter that church officials in Raleigh vigorously disputed.
What’s clearer is the preacher’s wandering eye and tomcat nature. Some time before the killing, he’d offered his lover Ella Jones $2 to stay quiet on the subject of their baby, wrote Marshall Lancaster in his exquisite book “Raleigh: An Unorthodox History.” Ms. Jones already had four children by another father, and tempers flared when the preacher suggested they visit a justice of the peace to settle the question of paternity.
“She got mighty mad and cussed me,” Jones apparently said in a confession that the N&O printed. “If she done that, she couldn’t get any more money. ... She raised up in bed and grabbed at the ax. I grabbed it before she could, and hit her. She fell back and hollered. Ida raised up and I hit her, too. I don’t know why I hit her.”
He stressed, however, that he had no recollection of dousing their house with kerosene.
Jones’ attorney, who referred to his client as “that thing,” made a feeble try at an insanity defense. The same Raleigh church clerk who denied Jones’ credentials noted that neighborhood boys would coerce him into preaching so they could ridicule him. But regardless, Jones followed a direct path to the gallows following the testimony of a 7-year-old girl – one of two children to escape the fire.
“What is your name?” asked the prosecutor.
“And what is your mother’s name?”
“Is your mother living?”
“Tell me all about what happened there the night your mother died. Who killed her?”
“Mr. Preacher killed her.”
“Look around here and see if you can find the man that killed your mother.”
The girl raised an index finger at the defendant.
“Yonder he is, Mr. Preacher.”
Condemned, Jones sold his body to science. He got $10 for it, which he used to buy food and ice water in the hot August jail. The remaining $6 he split between two cellmates – Louis Council and Tom Smith – and a donation to the poor.
While he waited, crowds flooded to the jail door for a peek at Jones. “Black and white, of every color and almost every condition, they came, actuated by cold and morbid curiosity,” the N&O reported, adding this postmortem. “One man wanted to touch the body, and they all were pushing and struggling to get near.”
Thus he finished, a hooded display.
I picture Jones when I walk past the modern courthouse – a reminder of the sort of people we used to be, the sorts of rites we used to carry out, the sort of history that still hangs here.