Saturday, January 8, 2011

Jan. 8, 1949: The Martinsville Seven

On the evening of January 8, 1949, in Martinsville, VA, Mrs. Ruby Floyd, a white woman, was raped by seven black men who had spent the much of the day drinking. What made this case significant was that, even though the victim's life wasn't threatened in any way, all seven received the death penalty, which was standard in Virginia at the time. However, research by the defense teams (in a sad irony, the men were tried separately to prevent a "judicial lynching"), found that in a their state's history, a white man had never been executed for the crime of rape.

Mrs. Floyd had walked over to the predominantly black east side of town, called "Cherrytown," to collect a $6 debt. Four young men (Booker Millner, Joe Henry Hampton, and half-brothers Howard and Frank Hairston) grabbed her, led her off into the woods, and took turns raping her. Later they were joined by three friends (James Luther Hairston, John Taylor, and Francis DeSales Grayson) and gang raped her again.

The men admitted their guilt and signed written confessions. Knowing they had a potential powder keg on their hands, the local authorities took great pains to prevent any violence against the prisoners. The men were placed in separate jails, moved in secret to the courthouse for arraignment, and even tried separately, but by all-white juries.

Public outcry began soon after death sentences hit the press. While the men were clearly guilty, the punishment, though true to Virginia law, seemed excessive. Furthermore, research showed that Virginia had a disturbing history of executing blacks and giving far lesser punishments to whites for the exact same crimes. Appeals were made to the Governor, the Supreme Court, and even President Truman, the sentences stood.

Joe Henry Hampton, Howard Hairston, Booker Millner, and Frank Hairston were all electrocuted at at 12-minute intervals on February 2, 1951. John Clabon Taylor, James Luther Hairston, and Francis DeSales Grayson were taken to the chair two days later.

READ MORE: The Crime Library

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