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Lena BAKER

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Alcohol - 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
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: April 30, 1944
Date of arrest: Same day (surrenders)
Date of birth: June 8, 1901
Victim profile: Ernest Knight, 67 (her employer)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Cuthbert, Randolph County, Georgia, USA
Status: Executed by electrocution at the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville on March 5, 1945
 
 
 
 
 
 

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 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 in Georgia.

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.

A relationship 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 Cuthbert.

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 some whiskey.

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.

Early life

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 15-year sentence.

Further reading

  • Phillips, Lela Bond. The Lena Baker Story. Atlanta: Wings Publishers, 2001.

Wikipedia.org

 
 

Pardon for maid executed in 1945

Campaigners celebrate clemency for woman who killed employer

Gary Younge in New York

Wednesday August 17, 2005

The Guardian

A black 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 her.

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.

Baker's grandnephew, 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 advocacy group.

"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 wrong.

"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 this crime."

The pardon will suggest she "could have been charged with voluntary manslaughter" which carries an average sentence of 15 years in prison.

 
 

Lena Baker

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 minutes.

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 - Findagrave.com

 
 

The Lena Baker Story: Execution in a small town

By Lela Bond Phillips

BlackCommentator.com

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 children.

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.

 
 


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