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Thomas George WOOLFOLK

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

   
 
 
Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Parricide
Number of victims: 9
Date of murders: August 6, 1887
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: June 18, 1860
Victims profile: Richard F. Woolfolk, 54, Tom Woolfolk's father; Mattie Woolfolk, 41, Richard's wife and Tom Woolfolk's stepmother; their six children, Richard F. Jr., 20; Pearl, 17; Annie, 10; Rosebud, 7; Charlie, 5; baby Mattie, 18 months old; and Temperance West, 84, a relative of Mrs. Woolfolk
Method of murder: Struck in the head or upper body with a short-handled ax
Location: Bibb County, Georgia, USA
Status: Executed by hanging in Perry, Georgia, on October 29, 1890
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tom Woolfolk and the Woolfolk Family murders

August 6, 1887

Just west of Macon, in Bibb County, nine members of Tom Woolfolk's family were murdered with an ax.

 

Bibb County, Georgia

   

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 to hang.

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 in Perry.

 
 

Bloody Woolfolk

Professor Wilkes - University of Georgia School of Law

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 Tom.

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 civilization.”

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 Woolfolk.”

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 Tom’s execution.

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 to death.

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 of death.

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 bridge.

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.

For additional 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 ruins.

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 exist.

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.

1860-1867
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 county.

June 1887
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.

December 1887
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 death sentence.

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.

1909
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 burnt.

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.''

1990-1994
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 extant.

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.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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