The Hawes Murders: a dark moment in Birmingham’s early history

The Hawes Murders: a dark moment in Birmingham’s early history
The pond in Lakeview Park where the weighted bodies of Emma and Irene Hawes were recovered in 1888 after a ''blood-speckled axe'' was found nearby. The pond no longer exists. The property is part of the Highland Park Golf Course. (contributed)

It was one of Birmingham’s most heinous slayings, at a time when the young city was just making a name for itself.
The 1888 triple murder spurred national headlines, and a deadly riot.

Since then, the ghastly event has generated numerous retellings in newspapers, magazines and books, as well as on historic- and crime-focused websites.

It’s a sad story: of betrayal and bigamy, and innocent lives taken before their time. For aficionados of the darker side of Birmingham’s history, it is known simply as the Hawes Murders.

It “created a sensation when it occurred that has been seldom equaled in this section,” proclaimed Major Goldsmith B. West, author of “The Hawes Horror,” a local bestseller published the year of the murders.

More than 130 years later, the curious can still stroll by the two pastoral spots in the city where the three victims, a mother and her two daughters, were discovered. There are no markers commemorating their dark end. But here is their story.

A little girl’s body, found floating

It was the morning of Dec. 4, 1888 when two teenagers took a boat out on East Lake, a newly filled artificial reservoir that was part of a private amusement park at the end of the streetcar line, some 7 miles east of downtown. There, they encountered what at first appeared to be a dead dog floating in the water. Then they realized: It was the body of a young girl.

The public was invited to view the body of May Hawes in the hope that someone would be able to identify her. A Birmingham butcher recognized the child. (contributed)

“After the good ladies had wiped the water away from the cold little face and brushed the hair back from the child’s forehead, it was seen that the little one was unusually pretty,” West said in his gothic-style booklet. “She had large blue eyes, light, wavy brown hair, was dressed in a neat brown or blue worsted skirt, underneath which was a warm plaid underskirt. She wore buttoned shoes and black corded stockings.”

No one could immediately identify the child, although she was judged to be about 7 or 8 years old. In the hope of finding someone who knew her, officials put her body on display at a local funeral parlor. More than a thousand residents filed through, into the night, to eye the corpse. Teachers released their students early from school so the youngsters could view the body.

It was the following day when a local butcher identified the child. Her name was May Hawes, the daughter of a local train engineer and his wife, Richard and Emma Hawes.

It was a troubled marriage, according to some who knew them. The couple had moved to Birmingham after living in Montgomery and, before then, Atlanta. Richard was often away, driving locomotives on the Georgia-Pacific line between Birmingham and Columbus, Mississippi, leaving Emma to care for May and two younger children, Irene and Willie. According to testimony at the coroner’s inquest, Emma had a drinking problem, and it was May who often took care of the children and her mother. Some had heard that Richard and Emma were divorced, and that Richard had left town for good. In any case, the location of the couple and the other children were, for the moment, a mystery.

One of those testifying at the inquest was a woman who washed and cooked for the Hawes family. Fannie Bryant said she had seen May, Emma and Richard the prior weekend and had helped Emma pack for a trip to bring back Willie, age 4 or 5, from a stay in Atlanta with relatives. According to a 2006 recounting in Alabama Heritage magazine, authorities suspected that Fannie knew more than she was telling and arrested her.

In a strange confluence of events, the same evening the inquest concluded, a telegram arrived at the offices of the Birmingham Age-Herald newspaper. It announced that a Richard Hawes, “one of the most popular employees of the Georgia-Pacific railway,” had just married a woman in Columbus. Hawes and his new bride were traveling by train to Augusta, Georgia, the telegram stated, where they planned to embark on a wedding trip through the East.

“The Hawes Horror,” an account of the murders of Emma, May and Irene Hawes, was a bestseller published soon after the event. (contributed)

When the train carrying the bride and groom stopped at Birmingham, authorities were waiting at the station. They arrested Hawes, still dressed in his wedding suit, for the murder of little May. According to accounts, Hawes said little, except to express that he was innocent of the charge.

The sensational case wasn’t what Birmingham leaders desired. At the time, the city was already dealing with a burgeoning reputation as a violent, rough-and-tumble place. In the 17 short years since its founding, Birmingham had grown exponentially as a post-Civil War, “New South” industrial city, fueled by mining and the manufacture of iron and steel. Among the rush of new arrivals were more than a fair share of questionable fortune-seekers, hucksters and ne’er-do-wells who filled the city’s saloons, frequented its brothels and sometimes clashed in ugly, drunken brawls. Despite a much-celebrated visit to the city by President Grover Cleveland in November 1888, Birmingham was struggling to defend an increasingly tarnished image.

To make matters worse, Hawes’ arrest sparked a hyperbolic escalation of competitive reporting by the more venerable Age-Herald, the upstart Birmingham Evening News and a correspondent from the Atlanta Constitution dispatched to follow the case, according to the Alabama Heritage article.

The Constitution called May Hawes’ murder “the greatest sensation in the history of the city.” It predicted, “If conclusive evidence against Hawes is secured, he will undoubtedly be lynched as public feeling is now wrought up to the highest pitch.”

Hawes, in a jailhouse interview with the Age-Herald, insisted he had divorced Emma and that he last saw little May three days earlier – very much alive.

Meanwhile, authorities and local residents were growing increasingly alarmed about the still-unknown whereabouts of the rest of the Hawes family. Willie was soon confirmed safe in Atlanta, but a full-scale search began for Emma and 6-year-old Irene.

Although the community consensus was that Hawes was guilty of murdering the entire family, there were others willing to defend him, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. They hired a detective to help prove their colleague’s innocence. Indeed, the union suggested that Bryant murdered Emma for money and then killed the children to silence them. The police, already suspicious about Bryant, decided to arrest her live-in companion as well.

A ‘blood-speckled axe’

On the morning of Dec. 8, authorities dragged a pond in the Lakeview district after a “blood-speckled axe and a torn piece of ribbon attached to a fence” were discovered nearby, according to the Alabama Heritage story. There was also evidence that something heavy had recently been dragged to the edge of the pond. Shortly after noon, authorities found Emma’s body, weighted down at the bottom of the pond.

According the account in “The Hawes Horror,” it was unfortunate that Emma’s body was recovered on a Saturday, when downtown Birmingham typically swelled with shoppers and fun seekers from across the city and beyond.

“The miners and laboring people of this district are just as good and respectable on the average as the same class anywhere else; but they are very like their prototypes elsewhere: they are easily moved from the emotional standpoint and are apt to be ugly when they unite in the belief that a fiendish crime has been perpetrated under circumstances and conditions leading them to believe that there is any chance for the criminal or criminals to escape punishment.”

Crowds climbed aboard the street line running from downtown to Lakeview, eager to ogle the crime scene. Talk of lynching Hawes spread like wildfire, and by 10 p.m. that night, an alcohol-fueled crowd estimated at 3,000 moved toward the city jail. On the scene were law enforcement and civic leaders. Newly elected Mayor A.O. Thompson and Sheriff Joseph Smith pleaded with the crowd for calm.

But then a gunshot was heard, and police opened fire.

“The simultaneous explosion of forty Winchesters and shotguns followed, and a scene of wild panic ensued,” according to “The Hawes Horror.” “Dead and dying men were seen to be lying in the street and on the sidewalks. As the firing ceased after a duration of from a half to three-quarters of a minute, a yell of horror ascended from the multitude as the extent of the slaughter began to be realized.”

More than a dozen were shot dead or fell wounded. Among those killed was the city’s postmaster, M.B. Throckmorton, and A.J. Brannon, a deputy U.S. marshal from Gadsden. “I went there out of curiosity and to see the lynching if there was to be one,” Brannon was quoted before expiring. “I did not expect to take part in it.” A young George Ward, who would later become mayor of the city, barely missed being struck by a bullet.

The deadly riot drew national headlines, including several days’ coverage on the front page of The New York Times. Within 24 hours of the shooting, Sheriff Smith and city Police Chief O.A. Pickard were arrested for their involvement in the bloody melee. Soon after, some 500 state militia took up positions, at the order of the governor, to guard the jail and patrol the city.

Days passed. Authorities still had not located little Irene Hawes. After repeated dragging of the pond at Lakeview, officials decided to drain it. Three days after the slow process began, Irene’s weighted-down body was discovered about 30 feet from where her mother had been found. With growing fear that a second riot could ensue, Irene’s body was moved to the city cemetery for immediate burial.

Judge Samuel Greene, who sentenced Richard Hawes to hang. (contributed)

It wasn’t until the following spring of 1889, after several postponements, that Hawes went to trial for the murder of Emma, May and Irene. Hawes’ second wife – from a marriage ceremony that likely was never legitimate – divorced him soon after he was arrested and later petitioned the Mississippi Legislature for permission to reclaim her maiden name.

During his last month in jail, Hawes reportedly told his brother Jim and a guard that he had paid an associate, John Wylie, to commit the murders. According to the story, Hawes told the guard that at first he wanted Wylie to kill only Emma and Irene. But when it appeared May might know something about the two murders, Hawes decided to intoxicate May and drown her at East Lake. When the guard made this alleged confession public, Hawes denied it, according to Bham Wiki.

During the trial, Hawes maintained his innocence in a case built on circumstantial evidence. Although he was charged with three murders, the prosecution focused mainly on the slaying of little May.

The trial lasted less than two weeks, and then the all-male jury deliberated for less than an hour. They convicted Hawes of first-degree murder. His sentence: death by hanging. Appeals to the state Supreme Court were denied.

While the appeals were pending, a circus promoter proposed putting Hawes on display as part of his sideshow. The idea was rejected.

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Dressed for the gallows

On Feb. 28, 1890, Hawes was escorted to the gallows. He wore a new black suit, white shirt and necktie, with silk patent leather slippers, all donated by a local merchant. According to Bham Wiki, Hawes’ last meal of steak, poached eggs and coffee came compliments of the Palace Royal Hotel, although he ate little of it.

Tickets to the hanging were going for as much as $200. When the moment came, it was Sheriff Smith – apparently back on the job after questions were answered about the riot – who pulled the lever that dropped a hatch on the specially constructed platform. Hawes’ corpse was transferred by train, in a locked coffin, to Atlanta, where he was buried by his brother in an unmarked grave.

In a letter written the morning of his execution, Hawes told brother Jim that “whiskey and wanton women” were the source of his downfall, according to the Alabama Heritage account. Hawes pleaded with his brother to take care of his son and to do whatever he could to prevent him from becoming an alcoholic, like his mother.

Bryant and her partner, Albert Patterson, were also tried for the murders. Bryant was sentenced to death for aiding Hawes. But in another tragic twist, Bryant was killed in a prison riot while on death row. Patterson, meanwhile, had his sentence reduced after he testified for the state. Wylie also was tried for the murders of Irene and Emma, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

As for Emma, Irene and little May Hawes, they are buried together in unmarked graves in Birmingham’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

Gone is the pond where Emma and Irene were found, but the rolling, green landscape around the spot has hardly changed; it’s now the Highland Park Golf Course along historic Highland Avenue on Birmingham’s south side.

And the lake where little May’s body was found floating? It’s now the centerpiece of East Lake Park, which features a walking trail that circles the placid reservoir.

Two pretty places – with some ugly history – that make for a pleasant autumn walk in Birmingham on Halloween.

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