Tom Woolfolk and the Woolfolk
August 6, 1887
Just west of Macon,
in Bibb County, nine members of Tom Woolfolk's family were
murdered with an ax.
February 10, 1888
Tom Woolfolk is
found guilty of murder and sentenced to die
February 11, 1889
On appeal, Tom
Woolfolk's conviction is overturned.
June 3, 1889
Tom Woolfolk is
again tried for murder
June 25, 1889
A jury again
convicts Tom Woolfolk on murder and sentences him to die
October 29, 1890
Tom Woolfolk is
hung in Perry, GA
It was a grisly
scene at the Woolfolk plantation west of Macon and south of the
Thomaston Road on the warm August morning when the bodies of 9 members
of the Woolfolk family were discovered. Tom Woolfolk ran to a neighbor's
house and told a story of struggling with intruders who had broken into
the house near Lake Tobesofkee in western Bibb County.
Suspicion quickly surrounded young
Tom, who had just turned 27. Before the murders, Tom had been acting
strangely, and had been seen with the murder weapon the day before the
killing. Tom was arrested.
Defending him was one of Macon's
top attorney's, John Rutherford. Rutherford had been president of the
Macon Bar Association since 1877 and was both well known and well-liked
in the area. Opposing Rutherford was John Hardeman, a Macon attorney
whose father had been politically active in the community. In spite of
an active defense the jury found Tom Woolfolk guilty of murder in the
death of his father, 54-year old Richard Woolfolk, and Tom was sentenced
The verdict, however, was appealed
to the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled that the judge erred by
allowing inadmissible evidence and not stopping spectators from
repeating "Hang him, hang him..." during closing arguments.
The case was retried. Woolfolk was
once again found guilty of murder and hung not far from the courthouse
Professor Wilkes - University of Georgia School of
The Athens Observer, p. 20A (November 21, 1990).
A century ago, Oct. 29, 1890, the man who committed
the most horrible and notorious murders in the history of the state of
Georgia was publicly executed on the gallows. He killed more persons on
a single occasion than any other murderer in America who did not use a
gun, explosives, fire, or an automobile.
Although he performed his crimes near Macon and was
hanged in Perry, the murderer had close ties to Athens, where he was
raised. Because the story of these murders is rarely mentioned in books
on the history of crime in America and because the story has been almost
totally forgotten even here in Georgia, this seems the appropriate time
to retell it.
Thomas G. Woolfolk (pronounced Wool-fork) was born in
Bibb County near Macon June 18, 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. His
parents were Richard F. and Susan M. Woolfolk, who met while Richard was
a student at the University of Georgia and married in Athens in 1852,
two years before Richard graduated. Born on his father’s cotton
plantation, Tom Woolfolk was his parents’ third child and first son.
Shortly after Tom’s birth his mother died and Tom was sent to stay with
his aunt, Fannie Moore, his mother’s sister.
Tom lived with his aunt at her house in Athens for
the first seven years of his life, from 1860 to 1867. Fannie, who later
married Athens architect John Ross Crane, lived in a house at 716 Prince
Avenue which was torn down many years ago, on the site of which there is
now a medical arts building parking lot.
Little is known of Tom’s childhood in Athens except
that he dearly loved his aunt. While Tom was growing up in Athens the
city went through the ordeal of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Many
times as a child Tom must have ridden in a horse-drawn carriage up and
down Prince Avenue as he traveled about the town with his aunt.
In 1866 Tom’s father remarried and soon after Tom
left Athens to live with his father and new stepmother, Mattie H.
Woolfolk, at his father’s plantation home near Macon. Tom, who was
quarrelsome and irascible by nature, never liked his stepmother; nor did
he care for the six children born as a result of his father’s remarriage.
Tom’s last trips to Athens were in March and June
1887, when he visited his Aunt Fannie. On both occasions he behaved
bizarrely: his talk was incoherent, he was insanely suspicious, he paced
the floor, and he carried a pistol. It was clear to his aunt that his
mental condition had deteriorated, that in fact he was crazy.
Massacre near Macon
Sometime between 2 and 4 a.m. on the morning of
Saturday, Aug. 6, 1887, nine persons were brutally slain at the Woolfolk
plantation home near Macon. The victims were Richard F. Woolfolk, then
aged 54; his wife Mattie H., aged 41; their six children, Richard F.
Jr., 20; Pearl, 17; Annie, 10; Rosebud, 7; Charlie, 5; baby Mattie, 18
months old; and 84-year old Temperance West, a relative of Mrs. Woolfolk
from Americus who had been visiting the Woolfolks for several days.
All the victims were killed by being struck in the
head or upper body with a short-handled ax that belonged to Tom Woolfolk
and was found in one of the rooms. All the victims were found dead in
bed, except the two sons, who were lying on the floor of their parents’
bedroom, and 10-year Annie, who was kneeling in front of an open window,
evidently having tried unsuccessfully to flee her killer.
In the room where the victims lay brain tissue, blood,
and gore was all over the beds, walls, and the ceiling. Pools of blood
lay on the floor.
The only inhabitant of the home not slain that
terrible morning was Tom Woolfolk, who at daybreak sought help from
neighbors, claiming that his father’s family had been murdered and that
he had escaped death only by jumping out a window and fleeing.
He then returned to the house before anyone else got
there, confirmed that everyone was dead, and, he said, heard the unknown
killers exit the back way, slamming the fence gate behind them. He also
washed himself and flung his blood-spattered clothing down the well.
Within hours several thousand people had rushed to
the Woolfolk home, and a coroner’s inquest was held on the spot.
Suspicion immediately focused on Tom. He admitted
that the bloody footprints in the murder room were his; he had specks of
blood in his ears; there was a bloody handprint on his leg; he behaved
oddly (showing no emotion about the tragedy and appearing more
apprehensive than grief-stricken); and his explanation of why he alone
had survived seemed unlikely. There was no evidence of forced entry or
theft. The coroner’s jury therefore concluded that Tom was the murderer,
but even before the verdict was rendered the sheriff had hurriedly and
quietly conveyed Tom to jail, to prevent the angry crowd from lynching
The horrible murders were widely publicized in the
local and national press; they even made the first page of the New
York Times. Understandably, the press coverage at times was lurid.
The crime was called “the bloodiest, blackest, chapter in Georgia
criminal history,” “the most shocking murder ever committed in Georgia,”
“one of the most heinous crimes committed in this or any other state,” a
crime “without parallel in the criminal history of the South if not the
world,” “the bloodiest tragedy in the annals of crime,” and “the most
ferocious and harrowing crime ever recorded in the annals of
Tom Woolfolk, as the chief suspect, was described as
“the most brutal murderer that ever figured in the annals of our state,”
“the most notorious criminal of modern times,” and even as the “the
greatest monster of the age ... the cruelest and [most] bloodthirsty
brute on record.” Tom was often referred to in the press as “Bloody
Judicial Proceedings Against Tom Woolfolk
Tom Woolfolk was brought to trial in the Superior
Court of Bibb County on a charge of murder in December 1887. He was
fortunate to have a dedicated lawyer, John C. Rutherford, who worked
without being paid and did everything possible in Tom’s behalf, laboring
so mightily for his client that he died of exhaustion shortly after
In the 19th century a Georgia criminal defendant was
not allowed to take the stand and testify under oath, but was permitted
to make an unsworn statement to the jury. Tom made such a statement,
completely denying he crime. No insanity defense was interposed. The
case against Tom was circumstantial but the evidence was strong, and
Tom’s lawyer was unable to pin the blame for the slaughter on anyone
else, with the result that Tom was convicted by the jury and sentenced
However, because several courtroom spectators,
referring to Tom, had shouted out “Hang him! Hang him!” during the
prosecutor’s closing arguments, the Georgia Supreme Court ordered a new
trial in February 1889.
Due to community hostility, Tom was granted a change
of venue and his second trial took place in Perry in the Superior Court
of Houston County. The retrial took almost the entire month of June
1889 and resulted in another jury verdict of guilty and another sentence
Incredibly, Rutherford’s closing arguments to the
jury took 13 hours, as did the closing arguments of the prosecution!
The case against Tom was so strong, however, that the jury’s
deliberation took less than 15 minutes. A year later, in July 1890, the
Georgia Supreme Court upheld the sentence.
Tom Woolfolk was hanged in Perry on Wednesday, Oct.
29, 1890 before a crowd of 10,000 people, some of whom munched on possum
sandwiches while they watched. Since public hangings were permitted in
1890 only in the discretion of the sentencing judge and since the
General Assembly outlawed all public hangings three years later, Tom’s
hanging was one of the last public executions in this state.
While on the scaffold, literally at death’s door, Tom
once again affirmed his innocence, disappointing the crowd which had
hoped for a last-minute confession. His death was gruesome and painful:
the fall through the trapdoor did not break his neck and it took 15
minutes for him to choke to death at the end of the rope.
The Woolfolk Murders 100 Years Later
The only mass murder in Georgia possibly comparable
to the Woolfolk case is the mass slaying of six members of the Alday
family in Seminole County in 1973. Indeed, there are striking
similarities between the Woolfolk and Alday murders.
In both cases the victims were all members of a
prominent local family; in both cases the press coverage was
extraordinary; in both cases the initial conviction and death sentence
was set aside on appeal; and in both cases the accuseds received a
change of venue at the retrial.
Amazingly, Carl Isaacs, the alleged ringleader of the
murderers of the Alday family, was, like Tom Woolfolk, retried in Perry,
found guilty, and sentenced to death there.
On the other hand, the Aldays were shot rather than
axed, and died at the hands of total strangers rather than a relative.
In preparing this article, I decided to visit the
graves of some of the persons involved and the sites of the key events
in the Woolfolk murder case. I visited the grave of Tom’s Aunt Fannie,
who is buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery here in Athens. I visited the
graves of the nine victims, who are buried in two rows in Rose Hill
Cemetery in Macon. The three adults and two older children lie in one
row; the four smaller children lie in the second row. Each of the nine
graves is topped by a rectangular brick tomb flush with the earth and
beginning to show the signs of a century of exposure to the elements.
I also visited the grave of Tom Woolfolk, who is
buried near one of his older sisters in Orange Hill Cemetery in
Hawkinsville. His tombstone is almost illegible and was recently
repaired after being vandalized.
The place where Tom was hanged was the usual place of
public execution in those days in Perry. It is a natural valley where
Big Indian Creek joins the Fanny Gresham Branch, about a quarter mile
west of the Houston County Courthouse. I visited the place October 3.
Today the Dr. A. C. Hendrick Memorial Bridge spans the valley, near
where Main Street empties into Gen. Courtney Hodges Boulevard. Every
day thousands of persons in their cars pass over the bridge, totally
unaware of the hangings that used to occur in the valley under the
The site of the Woolfolk murders is approximately 12
miles west of Macon, several hundred yards south of State Road 74. The
late E. Merlton Coulter, the legendary history professor at the
University of Georgia who wrote a 41-page article on the Woolfolk
murders published in the Georgia Historical Quarterly in 1965,
visited the site in April 1964. He discovered nothing was left of the
Woolfolk home except ruins.
In August and again in October of this year I made
two attempts to locate the site, which lies in a wooded area. I found
that houses had been built in the general vicinity of the site, and that
still more houses were being built. Although I spent hours tramping
through the woods in the vicinity of the home, I was unable to locate
the ruins. Not only the house where Georgia’s worst murders occurred
but even the ruins of the house appear to have vanished from the bosom
of the eternal earth.
information on the Woolfolk murder case, see Carolyn DeLoach, The
Shadow Chasers: The Woolfolk Tragedy Revisited (2000).
Remains of mass murder house found
Professor Wilkes -
University of Georgia School of Law
Flagpole Magazine, p. 6 (February 12, 1997).
The most atrocious mass murder in the history of the
state of Georgia was in 1887 when Tom Woolfolk (pronounced WOOL-FORK)
killed nine members of his family with an ax. After two trials and two
appeals Tom Woolfolk was publicly executed on the gallows in 1890.
Although they occurred near Macon, the Woolfolk
murders had close connections to Athens. One of the victims, Tom
Woolfolk's father, was an 1854 graduate of the University of Georgia in
Athens; and another victim, Tom's stepmother, was originally from Athens.
The murderer had been raised in Athens for the first seven years of his
life, and made the last of his frequent visits to Athens just two months
before the crimes. A sister of the murderer, as well as his aunt (who
now lies buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery), then resided in Athens. The
murderer's chief defense counsel was an Athens lawyer.
The Woolfolk murders were committed inside the
Woolfolk family farmhouse on what was then an 867 acre plantation in
rural Bibb county, several miles west of Macon and several hundred yards
south of what is now State Road 74 (popularly referred to as the
Thomaston Road), in 1887 known as the Culloden Road.
After the terrible event the farmhouse appears to
have been unoccupied for a time, and then to have been sold. In 1909 it
appears the house was briefly occupied and used as the offices of an
automobile club. Thereafter the house was again vacant, and may have
been damaged by fire.
In 1964 legendary UGA history professor E. Merton
Coulter visited the site of the Woolfolk murder house and found only
By the early 1990's, years after Coulter's death,
scholars studying the Woolfolk murder case believed that all remains of
the murder house had vanished. One scholar even suggested the
possibility that the site of the killings was now beneath the waters of
a man-made reservoir.
Twice--in August 1990 and October 1990--I drove to
Bibb county, attempting to locate the site of the murder house. On the
second attempt I was taken to a wooded area near State Road 74 by a
descendant of the Woolfolk victims who gave me an interview and also
graciously offered to point out to me the general location where she
thought the house had been situated.
Although I spent several hours laboriously walking
and clambering through hundreds of square yards of thickly wooded and
brush-filled hilly terrain, I failed to find any sign of the murder
house. I even published an article that year flatly stating that the
remains of the house had vanished forever into bosom of the earth.
I was wrong. The remains of the murder house still
exist, and I have now recently visited them.
Thanks to the kindness of several persons--and they
will remain anonymous, out of respect for their privacy--who are
familiar with the part of Bibb county west of Macon, I was conducted to
the ruins of the murder house on Saturday, February 10, 1996. On my
visit I was accompanied by Mr. Ed Green, Jr., an expert authority on
crime history who has extensively researched the Woolfolk case.
During my visit I discovered that since Coulter's
visit 32 years ago the site remains recognizable, but that the ruins
have generally deteriorated and that the woods and vegetation and the
ravages of time are steadily erasing all traces of the murder house.
Some of the photographs I took during my visit are
now published for the first time. I have also prepared a chronology of
the Woolfolk case.
I extend my deepest thanks to those wonderful persons
from Bibb county who were kind enough to contact me and show me that,
contrary to my previous belief, the remains of the tragic house in which
nine human beings were slaughtered 109 years ago do, in fact, still
WOOLFOLK MURDER CASE CHRONOLOGY
June 18, 1860
Thomas George Woolfolk is born in the Woolfolk family farmhouse west of
Macon, in Bibb county, the third child and only son of Richard F.
Woolfolk, of Macon, and Susan Moore Woolfolk, of Athens in Clarke county.
Shortly after his birth Tom Woolfolk's mother dies and is buried under a
holly bush planted less than a hundred feet from the Woolfolk farmhouse.
Tom Woolfolk resides in Athens, being raised in the care and custody of
his deceased mother's sister, aunt Fannie Moore Crane, who appears to
have lived on either Pulaski St. or Prince Ave. In 1867, on the
remarriage of his father, Tom Woolfolk moves back to live with his
father and new stepmother in the Woolfolk family farmhouse in Bibb
Tom Woolfolk pays the last of his many visits to Athens, staying with
his Aunt Fannie. His bizarre, insane behavior attracts attention.
August 6, 1887
In the early morning hours of this Saturday nine persons are slain with
an ax in the Woolfolk family farmhouse near Macon. The only inhabitant
of the house not slain is Tom Woolfolk, who seeks help from a neighbor
and claims to have struggled with unknown intruders and to have escaped
alive only by jumping through a window.
The nine victims are: Richard F. Woolfolk, 54, Tom
Woolfolk's father; Mattie Woolfolk, 41, Richard's wife and Tom
Woolfolk's stepmother; their six children (2 boys, 4 girls)--Richard,
Jr., 20; Pearl, 17; Annie, 10; Rosebud, 7; Charlie, 5; and baby Mattie,
18 months old; and 84-year old Mrs. Temperance West, an aunt of Mrs.
Woolfolk paying a visit.
The murder weapon, a short handled ax, smeared with
hair and blood, is found in one of the rooms of the house. Witnesses
say they saw Tom Woolfolk making baskets with it the previous day.
An inquest is held at the scene of the crime.
Tom Woolfolk is arrested for murder and taken to the
county jail in Macon.
August 7, 1887
The nine victims are buried in two rows (their graves later topped by
red brick overlays) in Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon. Sometime during
this day the Woolfolk farmhouse well is dragged by the sheriff, and a
bloody shirt and pair of drawers belonging to Tom Woolfolk are found.
Indicted on nine counts of murder, Tom Woolfolk goes on trial for the
murder of his father in Macon in the Superior Court of Bibb county. His
lead attorney is an Athens lawyer, John C. Rutherford.
February 10, 1888
After 12 minutes of deliberation, Tom Woolfolk is found guilty by the
trial jury, and he is then sentenced to death by the judge.
February 11, 1889
The Georgia Supreme Court reverses Tom Woolfolk's murder conviction and
death sentence, giving as reasons: (1) the trial court had allowed the
introduction of certain inadmissible incriminating evidence, and (2)
certain courtroom spectators, referring to Tom Woolfolk, had angrily
cried out, "Hang him! Hang him! Hang him!'' during the prosecutor's
closing arguments, and the trial judge had done nothing.
June 3, 1889
Tom Woolfolk's retrial for the murder of his father begins in the
Superior Court of Houston county in Perry.
June 25, 1889
After 45 minutes of deliberation, the trial jury convicts Tom Woolfolk
of murder, and he is again sentenced to death.
July 28, 1890
The Georgia Supreme Court affirms Tom Woolfolk's murder conviction and
October 29, 1890
At 1:30 p.m. on this Wednesday Tom Woolfolk is hanged in front of a
crowd of 10,000 spectators in Perry. The same day Tom's body is buried
in Orange Hill Cemetery in Hawkinsville in Pulaski county.
After being vacant for years, in 1909 the Woolfolk murder house becomes
for a short while the headquarters of the Macon Auto Club. Thereafter,
the house again becomes vacant and appears at some later time to have
April 16, 1964
UGA professor E. Merton Coulter visits the site of the ruins of the
Woolfolk murder house, finding only ``two large piles of brick and
stones, marking the chimney places; a depression, appearing to have been
the cellar; a well nearly filled up near a cedar tree; some shrubbery;
and a large holly tree, marking the site where Susan M. Woolfolk,
Richard's first wife, was buried.''
Published articles [Wilkes, "Bloody Woolfolk,'' The Athens Observer,
p. 20A (Nov. 21, 1990); Gray-White, "The Terrible Woolfolk Murders,''
North Georgia Journal, p. 60 (Summer 1994)] on the Woolfolk murder
case erroneously state that no remains of the Woolfolk murder house are
February 10, 1996
UGA law professor Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., and crime history expert Ed
Green, Jr. are taken to, examine, and photograph the ruins of the
Woolfolk murder house.