(June 8, 1901 – March 5, 1945) was an African American maid who was
executed for murder by the State of Georgia in 1945 for killing her
employer, Ernest Knight in 1944.
At her trial she
claimed that he had imprisoned and threatened to shoot her should she
attempt to leave, whereupon she took his gun and shot him.
As a child Baker and
her family worked for a farmer named J. A. Cox chopping cotton. They
were not paid well and even working in a laundry, the family was poor.
At the age of 20,
Baker and a black friend found they could make money by "entertaining
gentlemen." This came to attention of the Randolph County sheriff as
their clientelle were white and interracial relationships were illegal
The two were
arrested and spent several months in a workhouse. On release she was
ostracized by the black community, leading her to become an alcoholic.
In 1941, Baker was
hired by Knight to care for him after a fall broke his leg. In the
town of Cuthbert, Georgia, Knight was viewed as brutal and abusive. He
was a failed farmer who ran a gristmill. He always had a pistol
strapped to his chest.
developed between the two. Knight would provide Baker with alcohol in
return for sex, and the whole town knew of it. Knight was persuaded by
his oldest son to move to Tallahassee, Florida in an effort to break
up the pair, but Baker came with him. Knight's oldest son then gave
Baker an ultimatum to leave. She did, but Knight followed her back to
On the night of
April 30, 1944 Lena Baker went to the house of J.A. Cox, who was now
the town coroner and told him that she had shot Knight. Cox told Baker
to go to the sheriff, while he would go to gristmill where Baker said
Knight's body was. Baker did not go to the sheriff, but instead went
home. She was picked up by the sheriff later that night, but was
cooperative. He gave her two days to sleep off the affects of the
alcohol in her system.
Baker then told her
version of events. Knight had come to her house drunk and asked her to
come to the mill. She did not want to, but knew better than to refuse
the drunk man. She tried stalling him by asking for money to go buy
He gave her some
money and she went to the tavern but found it closed. She waited there
for a while hoping that Knight would leave her house. She returned but
found he was still there. She was forced to accompany him to the mill,
but escaped and hid in some bushes. She bought some whiskey and went
to sleep at the nearby convict camp. On waking the next morning she
decided to go to the mill and she was sure this was the last place
that Knight would go.
However this was
exactly where Knight was. He held her prisoner for several hours, even
though several hours of his absence. He returned and told Baker he
would kill her before she would ever leave again. A struggle ensued,
with Baker being the only living witness the details of what happened
are sketchy at best but Baker managed to get hold of Knight's pistol,
which went off, hitting him in the head, instantly killing him.
Although Knight was
not liked in the town, a white man had been killed by a black woman,
something that was intolerable to the segregationist townsfolk. Lena
Baker was charged with capital murder and stood trial on August 14,
1944. The all-white male jury convicted her by the end of the
afternoon. Her court-appointed counsel filed an appeal but then
dropped Baker as a client.
On entering the
execution chamber, Baker calmly sat in the electric chair and said "I
have nothing against anyone. I'm ready to meet my God." She was buried
at Mount Vernon Baptist Church.
In the 2000s,
members of her family petitioned to have a pardon granted by the
Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, seeing the original verdict as
racist. This was granted in 2005, with the Parole Board suggesting a
verdict of manslaughter would have been more appropriate.
Lena Baker (June 8, 1901 – March 5, 1945)
was an African American maid who was executed for murder by the State
of Georgia in 1945 for killing her employer, Ernest Knight, 67, in
1944. At her trial she claimed that he had imprisoned and threatened
to shoot her should she attempt to leave, whereupon she took his gun
and shot him. Baker was the only woman to be executed by electrocution
in Georgia. She was granted a full and unconditional pardon by the
State of Georgia in 2005, 60 years after her execution. The movie The
Lena Baker Story is about her life, until she got executed.
Baker was born and raised near Cuthbert, Georgia to
a family of poor black sharecroppers. She worked for a farmer named
J.A. Cox, chopping cotton.
Trial and execution
Lena Baker was charged with capital murder and
stood trial on August 14, 1944, presided over by Judge William "Two
Gun" Worrill, who kept a pair of pistols on his judicial bench in
plain view. The all-white male jury convicted her by the end of the
afternoon. Her court-appointed
counsel, W.L. Ferguson, filed an appeal but then dropped Baker as a
client. Governor Ellis Arnall granted Lena a 60-day reprieve so that
the Board of Pardons and Parole could review the case, but clemency
was denied in January 1945. Baker was transferred to Reidsville State
Prison on February 23, 1945.
On entering the execution chamber, Baker calmly sat
in the electric chair, called Old Sparky, and said "What I done, I did
in self-defense, or I would have been killed myself. Where I was I
could not overcome it. God has forgiven me. I have nothing against
anyone. I picked cotton for Mr. Pritchett, and he has been good to me.
I am ready to go. I am one in the number. I am ready to meet my God. I
have a very strong conscience." Initially she was buried in an
unmarked grave behind Mount Vernon Baptist Church. Since her pardoning
a simple head stone has been placed above her grave.
In 2001, members of Baker's family petitioned to
have a pardon granted by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles,
seeing the original verdict as racist. This was granted in 2005, with
the Parole Board granting her a full and unconditional pardon,
suggesting a verdict of manslaughter, which would have carried a
for maid executed in 1945
Campaigners celebrate clemency for woman who killed employer
Younge in New York
Wednesday August 17, 2005
maid who was executed in 1945 for killing the white man she claimed
had held her in slavery and threatened her life is to receive a pardon
from the state of Georgia.
Lena Baker, the only
woman executed in Georgia's electric chair, was sentenced to death by
an all-white, all-male jury after a trial that lasted just one day. In
August 1944 Baker told the court that 67-year-old EB Knight, a man she
had been hired to care for, had held her against her will in a grist
mill and threatened to shoot her if she tried to leave.
She said she had
grabbed Knight's gun and shot him when he raised a metal bar to strike
The decision to refuse
Baker clemency in 1945, said a spokeswoman for Georgia Board of
Pardons and Paroles, Scheree Lipscomb, "was a grievous error, as this
case called out for mercy".
As Baker sat in the
electric chair on March 5 1945, she said: "I am ready to meet my God."
Moments earlier she had said: "What I done, I did in self-defence or I
would have been killed myself. Where I was, I could not overcome it."
Her last words, along
with her picture, are displayed near the now-retired electric chair at
a museum at Georgia state prison in Reidsville.
Baker, a mother of
three, often drank with Knight, and the two had a sexual relationship
that sparked animosity in the small southern town of Cuthbert during
the segregation era.
Knight's son, Eugene,
testified he had warned Baker to stay away from his father. Later, he
told the court he had found the two together, and: "I took her and
beat her until I just did leave life in her."
Baker's body was
buried in an unmarked grave behind a small church near Cuthbert, where
she had been a choir member. In recent years her case has become a
local cause celebre. The congregation of the church where she sang
donated a concrete slab to mark her resting place. Since 2001
campaigners have commemorated the date of her execution at the
graveside and surviving family members held a Mother's Day ceremony
there in 2003.
Roosevelt Curry, who has led the family's efforts to clear her name,
said he had cried when the board informed him of its decision. "Now we
can all cry tears of joy," Mr Curry, 61, told the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution. "She had nothing and no one stood by her. It's
late but it's on time. This case was passed to me. I can pass this on
to my family."
Mr Curry pursued his
great-aunt's rehabilitation with the help of John Cole Vodicka, the
director of the Americus-based Prison & Jail Project, a prison
"It's gratifying to
see that this blatant instance of injustice has finally been
recognised for what it was - a legal lynching," Mr Vodicka said.
Garland Hunt, the
parole board's vice-chairman, said the board did not see the pardon as
striking a blow against racial injustice or righting a historical
"We just felt that
this was a situation that was unique," he said. "We felt it was a good
thing to do for the family." "[We're] not saying she's innocent. As a
matter of fact, the board does not find Lena Baker was innocent of
pardon will suggest she "could have been charged with voluntary
manslaughter" which carries an average sentence of 15 years in prison.
Folk Figure. She was the only
woman to be executed in Georgia's electric chair.
Born in Cuthbert, Georgia, Baker
was an African-American mother of three who worked as a maid for
Ernest B. Knight, a local white mill owner.
On May 1, 1944, Baker was
arrested for the fatal shooting of Knight at his home. She told police
that for months Knight had kept her as a virtual sex slave, and that
she shot him with his own pistol while trying to escape.
Her one-day trial was typical of
the "justice" blacks received in the segregation-era South. She was
not allowed to testify, no witnesses were called to her defense, and
the all-white, all-male jury delivered its guilty verdict in 20
Her appeal never made it beyond
the county court because her court-appointed attorney immediately
resigned from the case, leaving her without counsel. Baker defended
herself to the end.
Her last words were, "What I
done, I did in self-defense. I have nothing against anyone. I'm ready
to meet my God". She was electrocuted at the Georgia State Prison in
Reidsville on March 5, 1945. The Cuthbert Times reported the execution
with the headline, "Baker Burns".
In 1996, author Lela Bond
Phillips began investigating the all but forgotten story. She tracked
down surviving witnesses, who confirmed Baker's allegations of
Knight's abuse, and determined that the evidence against her supported
a manslaughter conviction at best. Historians now say that the lack of
due process in her case amounted to a "legal lynching".
In August 2005 the Georgia courts
agreed to grant Baker a posthumous pardon, only the second in the
state's history. (The first was in 1986 for Leo Frank, lynched in
1915). "The Lena Baker Story" was made into a film in 2008.
By Robert Edwards -
The Lena Baker Story:
Execution in a small town
By Lela Bond Phillips
In 1996 while doing
some research about 1940s Cuthbert, Georgia, I ran across some
information about Lena Baker. At that time, the ordeal and execution
of Lena Baker was one of the best kept secrets in town. After reading
the Superior Court Minutes of her trial, I knew that Lena needed a
voice. Almost sixty years after her tragic death, I knew her story
cried out to be told and I was going to tell it.
Lena Baker had a least four
strikes against her when she was born at the turn of the century in
Randolph County, Georgia. She was from a small, rural southern town;
she was a woman; she was poor; and she was black. Lena was born in a
former slave cabin, about five miles southwest of Cuthbert. At the age
of forty-four in 1944, Lena had never known anything except hard work
and the pangs of poverty and despair. She chopped cotton, cleaned
houses, and took in laundry to help support her mother and her three
When Ernest B. Knight, a local
gristmill owner, hired her to care for him while he recovered from a
broken leg, it must have, at first, seemed like a windfall. Knight, a
white man, was twenty-three years Baker's senior. It was well known in
Cuthbert that Knight was heavy drinker and that he often carried a
pistol strapped to his shoulder. It wasn't long before a sexual
relationship developed between Knight and Baker. When she attempted to
extricate herself from this relationship, Knight locked her in his
gristmill for several days at a time, and as a nearby newspaper
reported after her execution, kept her there as his "slave woman".
At her trial, Lena explained how
Knight approached her house and forced her to go with him on that
Saturday evening of April 29. Baker had been warned by the county
sheriff to stay away from Knight or that she was going to be thrown in
jail; too, she was afraid of physical abuse by Knight (and once even
Knight's son had given her a terrible beating with a warning to stay
away from his father). Therefore, as soon as she could, Baker gave
Knight the slip and spent the night sleeping in the woods near the
convict camp. On her way back into Cuthbert the next morning, Knight
cornered her again and this time took her to the mill house and locked
her in while he went to a "singing" (a form of religious celebration
in the South) with his son. Lena soon became fed up with spending the
sweltering day lying on an old bed in the gristmill. When Knight
returned, she informed him that she was leaving. They, in Lena's words
"tussled over the pistol."
At her trial when asked who pulled
the trigger, she replied, "I don't know." She also explained the
Knight was brandishing an iron bar that was used to secure the door to
the gristmill and that she was afraid for her life.
Under the jurisdiction of Judge
Charles William "Two Gun" Worrill, who presided at court with two
pistols on the bench, the trial didn't last even a full court day,
taking a little over four hours. A former "lawman" out West, Worrill
boasted of gunfights with twelve men, seven of whom died. Later he was
appointed to the Georgia State Supreme Court by Governor Herman
Talmadge, who later became a vehemently segregationist senator. The
jury consisted of twelve white men (not unusual for 1944), but many of
the jurors were good friends who attended the same small churches,
socialized with each other's families at card parties, and shared
morning coffee at a local cafe.
In less than one-half hour the
jury came back with a guilty verdict and Worrill sentenced Baker to
death in Georgia's electric chair, nicknamed "Old Sparky." Her lawyer
immediately asked for a new trial to be scheduled because "the verdict
was contrary to the evidence and without evidence to support it ...
and the verdict was contrary to law and the principles of justice and
equity." He then just as immediately resigned as her lawyer. Later
Lena was granted a sixty-day reprieve by then Governor Arnall, but the
Board of Pardons and Parole denied clemency when they heard the case.
Lena's execution date was scheduled for March 5, 1945. On February 23
she was signed into one of the worst prisons in the United States,
Reidsville State Prison, where she was housed in the men's section
until just a few days before her execution when she was moved to a
solitary cell just a few feet from the execution chamber itself.
Lena went to her death calmly. Her
last words were, "What I done, I did in self-defense, or I would have
been killed myself ... I am ready to meet my God." Witnesses stated
that it took six minutes and several shocks before the prison doctor
pronounced her dead. Although Ernest B. Knight's death had not made
the headlines in the Cuthbert Times, Lena's did. The paper
crassly reported, "Baker Burns."
In 1998, the congregation of the
church Lena attended as a young woman raised $250 for a slab and
marker for her grave. Her relatives, now scattered from New Jersey to
Florida, met this year, the 58th anniversary of her death, to place a
wreath on her grave. They are beginning to reconnect and plan a
reunion on Mothers Day, May 11. They have asked the state Pardons and
Parole Board to clear her of the crime. Perhaps if this happens, a
healing process can begin. The only response thus far from the Board
is that it usually does not grant pardons of this kind.
Author Lela Bond Phillips is an
English professor at Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia. The Lena
Baker Story, Wings Press, is available on amazon.com.