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Corrine SYKES





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Housemaid - Robbery
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: December 7, 1944
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: 1924
Victim profile: Freda Wodlinger (her employer)
Method of murder: Stabbing with a carving knife
Location: West Oak Lane, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Status: Executed by electrocution in Pennsylvania on October 14, 1946

Corrine Sykes was 20 years old when she worked as a housemaid with Mrs. Wodlinger in Pennsylvania, but like most black maids she was considered a "girl".

Corrine was of low intellegence, illiterate and prone to hysteria. When she was hired she gave Mrs. Wodlinger an alias and phony references because she had just been released from prison for stealing jewely.

One day Mrs. Wodlinger was found dead. She had been stabbed several times and three rings, $50 in cash and a furpiece was missing.

Soon Corrine was arrested. She told conflicting stories, blaming different men. She then admitted she was the murderer, retracted her admission, then finally signed a confession.

The Judge, known as a "hanging judge" sentenced Corrine to die in the electric chair.

On October 14, 1946 Corrine had to go to the Pennsylvanian electric chair. It was build in 1913 and nicknamed "Old Smokey". She was only 22 years old!

Her last meal was a special menu, prepared in the superintendent's private kitchen.

Being female, the state had agreed only to shave a spot on the back of Corrine's head for the electrode to make contact.

Corrine walked strait to the electric chair without showing fear. Her steps were steady. She sat defiantly into the chair and placed her arms on the armrests and looked slowly around everyone there. She watched everything and never blinked once, when they placed the black hood over her head and pulled the switch.

At 12.31 a.m. the 22 years old girl was dead.

At the viewing, which was open to only the family and close friends, more than 10,000 people stood in line in vain to see her body.


Corrine Sykes

“The 1940s saw poor young Black girls from North Philadelphia often standing on street corners in prominent neighborhoods waiting for affluent housewives to hire them as housemaids (Gregory, 2004). In one such case, Freda Wodlinger, an older housewife from a prominent White family in West Oak Lane, hired young Corrine Sykes. Corrine was a shy and petite girl with low intelligence, who was illiterate and inclined to hysteria.

Three days after Corrine’s hire, police found Wodlinger dead from multiple stab wounds; there was a terrific struggle with the killer hacking Wodlinger to death with a heavy kitchen knife. Missing from the house were $50 in cash, $2000 in jewelery, and a sable fur piece. Suspicion immediately turned to Corrine, who police arrested after an extensive search. Corrine gave conflicting stories but in the end signed a written confession despite her illiteracy.

A jury convicted Corrine of first-degree murder and the trial judge sentenced her to death by electrocution. Pennsylvania executed Corrine Sykes in October 1946. Troubled by doubts that Corrine was Wodlinger’s killer, some believe Corrine’s judicial killing was a wrongful execution. For one, immediately on her arrest, Corrine implicated her boyfriend, J.C. Kelly, saying that he had threatened to kill her and her mother if she didn’t steal the valuables for him (Grosvenor, 1998). Others find it strange that when Corrine’s boyfriend learned of her arrest ‘he raced to his boarding house, burned the sable, and dumped the diamonds’ (Grosvenor, 1998).

Another point is that Corrine was far too small to have inflicted the severity of the knife wounds that killed Wodlinger. There is also speculation that years after Corrine’s execution, Wodlinger’s husband made a deathbed confession that he had killed his wife.

Whatever happened, Corrine’s execution had a poignant impact on North Philadelphia’s Black community. Some 10,000 people attended Corrine’s viewing although it was open only to family members and close friends. On the day of her execution, most housemaids in the city went home early from their jobs (p.76-77)."


Woman's execution 50 years ago still a hot issue Corrine Sykes at time of her arrest in 1946 for robbery-murder

By Ron Avery -

October 23, 1996

It was 50 years ago this month that Corrine Sykes walked the proverbial ''last mile'' to the electric chair in Rockview Prison and became the last woman executed in Pennsylvania.

The slow-witted 20-year-old black maid was convicted of killing her white employer in Oak Lane during a robbery.

Her name may dredge up memories and emotions for some in Philadelphia's African-American community. The Sykes case can be compared to the O.J. Simpson case in the way it divided whites and blacks.

''I was only 10, but I remember clearly what a big story it was,'' said Harold Franklin, a city employee and part-time filmmaker. ''Everybody was talking about it.'' About four years ago, Franklin was called to jury duty when another prospective juror in a murder trial of a black man told him, ''I won't let happen to him what happened to Corrine Sykes.''

Franklin said the remark ''hit me like a bomb.''

''It's still big,'' he said. ''You talk to some older people about it, and they get all worked up.'' Franklin, too, has gotten worked up about the case.

He has been studying newspaper clippings, working on a screenplay and trying to find financial backers to make a feature movie about Sykes.

A city-employed graphic artist, Franklin has also made four low-budget films, using mostly volunteer actors and crew.

Sykes was convicted of using a carving knife to murder her employer, Freda Wodlinger, on Dec. 7, 1944, and taking jewelry, a fur and some cash.

She had been hired only three days before the slaying under a false name she used to conceal a criminal record for petty crimes.

A prime suspect from the onset, Sykes gave several conflicting stories to police before confessing. She even led detectives to the missing murder weapon under a piano in the house.

Her court-appointed lawyer, Raymond Pace Alexander, who later became a city councilman and judge, told the all-white jury, ''We will make no attempt to exculpate Corrine in this shocking crime.''

Instead, the lawyer tried to mitigate the crime by proving Sykes was mentally slow, emotionally unstable and under the influence of a boyfriend who put her up to the crime.

A psychiatrist told the jury she was a ''constitutional psychopathic inferior.'' A School District witness said Sykes was tested at age 13 and found to have an IQ of 63, giving her a mental age of about 7.

Sykes' boyfriend, bootlegger James ''Jayce'' Kelly, denied any part in the crime and Sykes's claim that he had threatened to kill her and her mother if she did not rob the house.

Kelly was tried later and convicted of receiving stolen goods from Sykes - a ring and the fur - and received a five-year prison term.

There was considerable sympathy among African-Americans for Sykes as she faced the chair. Few women had been executed in Pennsylvania; governors usually commuted their death sentences to life in prison.

Even before the trial, the Philadelphia Tribune ran a headline ''Death Penalty Unlikely For Maid In Murder Case,'' declaring that psychiatrists ''showed the girl is at least temporarily unbalanced . . . in this particular case folks who are still HUMAN would not want to see punishment meted out where TREATMENT is needed.

''The facts stare us in the face that a SUBNORMAL CHILD and NOT A WOMAN committed what we smugly say is an atrocious crime.''

After the conviction, sympathy increased and there was a belief among many that she wasn't the murderer.

''There was a rumor that [Wodlinger's] husband confessed to the killing on his deathbed,'' said Franklin. ''But there's no truth to it.''

While Sykes was a victim to many, thousands of white Philadelphia families who employed black domestic workers were angry and frightened.

Both the state and U.S. Supreme Court rejected Alexander's appeals. In his final emotional plea to Gov. Edward Martin, Alexander said it was her race that doomed Sykes.

A crowd estimated at 3,000 attended Sykes funeral. Four years after the execution, the Tribune ran a story headlined ''Ghost of Corrine Sykes Walks Streets of the City'' concerning rumors ''sweeping the city'' that someone else had confessed to the slaying. But there was no substance to the rumors.

Another African-American publication pointed the finger of guilt at Sykes's boyfriend, implying that the cops protected him because he bribed them to overlook his bootlegging.

''When you talk to people today who remember her, they get all the facts mixed up,'' Franklin said. ''But they all say she shouldn't have been executed - that she was wrongfully put to death.''


Soul Searching

By Kia Gregory

For 17 years filmmaker Tina Morton has been living with a ghost.

It started when her mother told her the story of Corrine Sykes, a black maid working for a prominent white family in West Oak Lane in the 1940s.

During that time, young black girls would stand on the corner waiting for well-heeled housewives to test their expertise at making beds, washing windows and scrubbing floors. Mrs. Freda Wodlinger hired Corrine, a shy, petite girl from North Philadelphia.

On Dec. 7, 1944, Mrs. Wodlinger was murdered, "apparently in a terrific struggle to protect her jewelry and cash from a robber who hacked her unmercifully with a heavy kitchen knife before fleeing," the Inquirer reported at the time.

If Corrine had one vice, it was stealing. She was a known shoplifter--and quite good at it, blacks would whisper from their front porches and church pews. But never murder.

Corrine, 20, was too little and the knife wounds were too deep, they'd say. Yes, she signed a confession, but everybody knew Corrine couldn't read.

Even with the best defense lawyer, none of the extenuating circumstances seemed to matter. On Dec. 7, 1946--exactly two years to the day after the murder--Corrine, without fuss or fight, was taken to the electric chair. She was the first black woman executed in Pennsylvania.

Filmmaker Morton, formerly an X-ray technician, began poring over transcripts and newspaper articles about the case nearly two decades ago. At Temple University's Urban Archives she stumbled on a picture of Corrine and was mesmerized by her wide, piercing eyes.

"The woman haunted me," says Morton, who later hung the picture on her living room wall. "It was like she was pleading to me, like her eyes were calling out for help."

Last week Morton screened Severed Souls, her 27-minute documentary that chronicles the black community's version of the murder. Years after Corrine's death, rumors spread that Mrs. Wodlinger's husband made a deathbed confession: He had killed his wife.

Some say news of the confession was printed in the paper, but no one, including Morton, can find the article.

The story is still a tangle of unanswered questions: Who really killed Mrs. Wodlinger? What part did Corrine's wily boyfriend play? Why did the black community remain silent? Why was Corrine executed so swiftly? And was there really a printed deathbed confession by Mrs. Wodlinger's husband?

Morton says those questions may never be answered, but she realizes now that Corrine had a greater story to tell.

"I see Corrine as changing my whole life," says Morton, now a graduate film student at Temple University. "We cannot be mute about injustice--it's all around us. We have to speak up and not let these types of stories die. My purpose now is to tell these stories."



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