A New Book Draws Attention to a Little-Known Case
Viewers of Forensic Files know that the justice system has a habit of stalling.
It took police just a few months, for example, to identify Pennsylvania state Rep. Thomas Druce as the motorist in a hit-and-run death in 1999 — but he evaded prison until 2004.
Likewise, dentist Glenn Wolsieffer strangled his wife to death in 1986, but didn’t end up behind razor wire until 1992. In between, he had time to establish a new practice and move in with his girlfriend.
George Stinney Jr., on the other hand, had no such luxury.
A 14-year-old African American boy, George was accused of murdering two white girls, Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 7, whose bodies turned up just over the railway tracks that separated the white neighborhoods from the Black ones in Alcolu, South Carolina in 1944.
The state sent George, who reportedly was 5-foot-1 and weighed 95 pounds, to the electric chair less than three months after his arrest.
His story would have made a great Forensic Files episode — some of the best ones focus on crimes from long before the age of DNA evidence (Gerald Mason, Adolph Coors) — except for one thing. Forensic Files portrays only cases that have been resolved after a thorough investigation, another advantage George didn’t enjoy.
Now, journalist Jenna Caldwell has written Still Waters (New Degree Press, September 7, 2022), a novel about the life George Stinney Jr. could have led if not for the rush to judgment 78 years ago.
I recently interviewed Jenna, 25, about the historical details of the case as well as her work of fiction. Excerpts of our conversation follow:
How did you get interested in the case? I think I saw a Twitter feed about it some years ago. I work at Time magazine and I was assigned in 2020 to interview Trayvon Martin’s mom. And it was in the middle of BLM and people were talking about George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. I kept seeing things like, “Today would have been Trayvon Martin’s 26th birthday.” I started thinking, what would their lives have been today? What would George Stinney’s life have been like?
Can you talk about the factual details of the case that spurred you to write Still Waters? The girls were looking for flowers to pick and they went to the house of a white woman they knew and trusted and asked her to look for maypops with them. The woman said she couldn’t because she had to watch her grandson, who was the son of a man named George Burke Jr. There’s a theory that George Burke Jr. stopped by her house and maybe offered the girls a ride and then proceeded to murder them there. He ended up dying two years later.
How did George Stinney Jr. get dragged into the case? George Stinney did say that he saw the girls the day they went to pick flowers, and he was the last person known to have seen them. Also, his mother was a housekeeper at one time for the Burke family. There’s a theory that someone in that family made a pass at her and she never went back. Some people think George Stinny Jr. was blamed for the murders in part because of that.
Are you an advocate for George Stinney Jr.’s innocence? There’s no doubt in my mind that he didn’t do it. It was fueled by racism in a small town, the rush to judgment, the outcry. From the time he was arrested to the time he was executed, there were just 83 days. He was questioned without an attorney or his parents. There were stories that they bribed him with things like ice cream to get him to confess.
What else is known about George Stinney Jr.’s factual young life? His father worked at a sawmill. It was pretty much a sawmill town — that’s where people worked. The family lived in a two-family home. I think George had five brothers and sisters. There was an older half-brother who had just joined the service and he stopped by the Stinneys’ house to visit before he left. The police arrested him and questioned him. They let him go after 5½ hours. But when they arrested George, they kept him.
After George’s arrest, his dad was fired. The family had to pretty much leave town right away. One son had been arrested and they couldn’t risk the other kids being harmed. They packed up and moved to George’s grandmother’s house in a different county.
How did you research the case? I found a book that was basically a transcript of the trial, every single thing that happened, so I read every word of that book. There are hundreds of letters written to the government about this case that I read.
Aside from the family, was anyone advocating for George Stinney Jr.? People wrote to the governor [Olin D. Johnston] and said, you have the power to stop this execution. And it wasn’t all people who thought he was innocent — some thought it was wrong to kill a 14-year-old boy and he should just get life in prison. There were a lot of people both Black and white saying they shouldn’t execute him. One of them said, “I’m not a fan of Negroes, but this is wrong.”
Did you talk with anyone still alive who was there at the time? I did talk to his niece, Norma. A lot of his siblings ended up in the New York-New Jersey area.
Is the niece still affected by what happened? I think the family has made peace with it, but what they want more than anything, the niece said, is for his name to be just as big as Emmett Till‘s and his story to be as big.
You mentioned the (relatively) recent murders of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd — were there other things that spurred you to write about what might have been for George Stinney Jr.? I was reading a book about the colonization of North America that said the worst thing that happened to indigenous Americans was not the killing and enslavement of so many but rather that it was the death of what could have been. We have no idea what this country would be like if we hadn’t killed so many. And I had that same thought about George.
Can you give a little preview of the fictionalized adventures George Stinny has in your book? It’s about him growing up. A friend of mine thought the best part was that I didn’t have him grow up to be an astronaut or cure cancer but rather he truly grew up to have a normal life. He’s married, he’s a father, and he has a successful career as a high school art teacher. They are very attainable things that he never got to have. ♣
That’s all for this post. Until next time, cheers. — RR