Table of Contents

Elaine defendants
SA Jones and Elaine Defendants, ca 1925

Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus in

Moore v Dempsey


S. A. Jones










Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus.

Your petitioners, Frank Moore, Ed Hicks, J. E. Knox, Ed Coleman and Paul Hall, state that they are citizens all residents of the State of Arkansas, and are now residing in Little Rock, confined in the Arkansas State Penitentiary, in the Western Division of the Eastern District of Arkansas, within the jurisdiction of this court; that the defendant is the keeper of the said Arkansas State Penitentiary, and as such is unlawfully restraining your petitioners of their liberty, and will, unless prevented from doing so by the issuance of the writ herein prayed for, deprive them of their lives on the 23rd day of September 1921, in violation of the Constitution and laws of the United States, and Constitution and laws of the State of Arkansas.

Petitioners further say that they are Negroes, of African descent, black in color, and that prior to the times hereinafter mentioned were citizens and residents of Phillips County, Arkansas, at Elaine; that on the day of October, 1919, they were arrested, placed in the Phillips County jail and thereafter until their trial were kept in close confinement upon an alleged charge of murder in the first degree for the killing of one Clinton Lee, a white man, said to have occurred on the 1st day of October 1919; that said Clinton Lee was killed, as they are informed, while a member of a posse of white men who were said to be attempting to quell a race riot, growing out of the killing of W. A. Adkins on the night of September 30th, 1919; at Hoop Spur, in said County and State; that said Adkins was killed, as they are advised, under these circumstances and conditions; Petitioners and a large number of the members of their race were peaceably and lawfully assembled in their church house at or near Hoop Spur, with no unlawful purpose in view and with no desire or purpose to injure or do any wrong to any one; that while they were thus assembled, white persons began firing guns or pistols from the outside into and through said church house, through the windows and shooting the lights out therein, causing a great disturbance and stampede of those assembled therein; that the white persons so firing on said church came there in automobiles, of which there were several, and came for the purpose of breaking up said meeting; that said Adkins was killed either by members of his own party or by some other person unknown to your petitioners; that the white men sent out the word to Helena, the County seat, that said Adkins had been killed by the Negroes, shot down in cold blood while on a peaceable mission, by an armed force of Negroes, assembled at said church, which caused great excitement all over the City of Helena and Phillips County; that the report of said killing spread like wild fire into other counties, all over the State of Arkansas, and into other States, notably the State of Mississippi; that early the next day a large number of white men of said county armed themselves and rushed to the scene of the trouble and to adjacent regions, the vicinity of Elaine being one of them, and began the indiscriminate hunting down, shooting and killing of Negroes; that in a short time white men from adjoining counties and from the State of Mississippi likewise armed themselves, rushed to the scene of the trouble and began the indiscriminate shooting down of Negroes, both men and women, particularly the posse from the State of Mississippi, who shot down in cold blood innocent Negro men and women, many of whom were at the time in the fields picking cotton; that highly inflammatory articles were published in the press of Arkansas and especially of Helena and throughout the United States, in which the trouble was variously called a "race riot," "and uprising of the Negroes" and "a deliberately planned insurrection among the Negroes against the whites" of that part of Phillips County; that the officers of Phillips County, especially the Sheriff, called upon the Governor of the State, and the Governor in turn called upon the Commanding Officer at Camp Pike for a large number of United States soldiers to assist the citizens in quelling the so called "race riot," "uprising" or "insurrection"; that a company of soldiers was dispatched to the scene of the trouble who took charge of the situation and finally succeeded in stopping the slaughter. Your petitioners further say that they, together with a large number of their race, both men and women, were taken to the Phillips County jail, at Helena, incarcerated therein, and charged with murder; that a committee of seven composed of leading Helena businessmen and officials, to wit: Sebastian Straub, Chairman, H. D. Moore, County Judge, F. F. Kitchens, Sheriff, J. G. Knight, Mayor, E. M. Allen, J. E. Horner and T. W. Keesee, was selected for the purpose of probing into the situation and picking out those to be condemned to death and those to be condemned and sentenced to the penitentiary; that said Committee assumed charge of the matter and proceeded to have brought before them a large number of those incarcerated in jail and examined them regarding their own connection and the connection of others charged with participation in said trouble; that if evidence unsatisfactory to said Committee was not given they would be sent out and certain of their keepers would take them to a room in the jail which was immediately adjoining, and a part of the Courthouse building where said Committee was sitting, and torture them by beating and whipping them with leather straps with metal in them, cutting the blood at every lick until the victim would agree to testify to anything their torturers demanded of them; that there was also provided in said jail, to further frighten and torture them, an electric chair, in which they would be put naked and the current turned on to shock and frighten them into giving damaging statements against themselves and others; also strangling drugs were put up their noses for the same purpose and by these methods and means false evidence was extorted from Negroes to be used and was used against your petitioners.

Petitioners further say that on every day from October 1st, until after their trial on November 3rd, 1919, the press of Helena and the State of Arkansas carried inflammatory articles giving accounts of the trouble, which were calculated to arouse and did arouse bitter feeling against your petitioners and the other members of their race; that on October 7th, 1919, the Helena World, a newspaper published and printed in the City of Helena, and having a wide and almost universal circulation throughout said County, published an article written and given out by Mr. E. M. Allen, a member of said Committee of Seven, for and on behalf of said Committee, purporting to give the facts concerning what he called "not a race riot," but a "deliberately planned insurrection of the Negroes against the Whites," in which it was stated that the Union, of which petitioners were members, was "established for the purpose of banding Negroes together for the killing of white people"; that a copy of said article is attached hereto, made a part hereof and marked Exhibit "A"; that shortly after being placed in Jail, a mob was formed in the city of Helena, composed of hundreds of men, who marched to the County jail for the purpose and with the intent of lynching your petitioners and others, and would have done so but for the interference of United States soldiers and the promise of some of said Committee and other leading officials that if the mob world stay its hand they would execute those found guilty in the form of law.

Petitioners further state that prior to October 1, 1919, they were farmers, share croppers; that nearly all the land in Phillips Co. is owned by white men; that same is rented out to share croppers to be tilled on shares, one half to the tenant and the other half to the owner; that for some years past there has grown up a system among the land owners of furnishing the Negro tenants supplies on which to make crops and, which is calculated to deprive and does deprive the Negro tenants of all their interest in the crops produced by them; that in pursuance of this system, they refused to give their sharecroppers any itemized statement of account of their indebtedness for supplies so furnished, refused to let them move or sell any part of their crops, but themselves sell and dispose of the same at such prices as they please, and then give the Negroes no account thereof, pay them only such amount as they wish and in this way kept them down, poverty stricken and effectually under their control; that for the purpose of protecting themselves, if possible against the oppressive and ruinous effects of this system, the Negro farmers organized societies with the view of uniting their financial resources in moral and legal measures to overcome the same, which fact became quickly known to the plantation owners; that such owners were bitterly opposed to such societies, sought to prevent their organization, ordered the members to discontinue their meetings and sought by every means they could employ to disrupt them; that on the 30th day of September, 1919, petitioners and other members of the Ratio Lodge, near Elaine, learned that some of the Negro farmers of a nearby plantation had employed U. S. Bratton, an attorney of Little Rock, Arkansas, to represent them in effecting a settlement for them with their landlords, or if he could not so institute legal proceedings to protect their interests, and that either he, or his representatives, would be there on the following day to meet with all the parties concerned, perfect the arrangements, and learn all the facets as far as possible, and decided to hold a Meeting with the view of seeing him while there, and engaging him as an attorney to protect their interest; that accordingly they met that night at Hoop Spur Church house, which resulted, as hereinbefore set out, in the killing of said Adkins and the breaking up of said meeting; that, on the morning of October 1st, Mr. O. S. Bratton, son and agent of Attorney U. S. Bratton, arrived in Elaine for consultation with those who might desire to employ his father, was arrested, barely escaped being mobbed, notwithstanding it was well known he was there only for the purpose of advising with those Negroes as to their rights, and getting from them such facts as would enable his father intelligently to prepare for their legal rights; that he was carried thence to the County jail, thrown into it and kept closely confined on a charge of murder until the 31st day of the same month, when he was indicted on a charge of barratry, without any evidence to sustain the charge; that on that day, he was told by officials that he would be discharged, but not to go on the public streets anywhere, to keep the matter a secret, to leave secretly in a closed automobile and to go to West Helena, four miles away, and there take the train, so as to avoid being mobbed; that he was told that he would be mobbed, or would be in great danger of being mobbed if his release became known publicly before he was out of reach; that the Judge of the Circuit Court, the Judge of the same court before whom petitioners were tried, facilitated the secret departure and himself went to West Helena and there remained until he had seen said Bratton safely on the train, and the train departed.

Petitioners further say that the Circuit Court of Phillips County convened on October 27th, 1919; that a grand jury was organized composed wholly of white men, one of whom T. W Keesee, was a member of the said Committee of Seven, and many of whom were in the posses organized to fight the Negroes; that during its session, petitioners and many others of the prisoners were frequently carried before it in an effort to extract from them false incriminating admissions and to testify against each other, and that both before and after, they were frequently whipped, beaten and tortured; that those in charge of them had some way of learning when the evidence was unsatisfactory to the grand jury, and this was always followed by beating and whipping; that by these methods, some of the Negro prisoners were forced to testify against the others, two against your petitioners, though no one could truthfully testify against them; that on October 29th, 1919, a joint indictment was returned against petitioners accusing them of the murder of said Clinton Lee, a man petitioners did not know, and had never, to their knowledge even seen; that thereafter on the 3rd day of November 1919, petitioners were taken into the court room before the judge, told of the charge, and were informed that a certain lawyer was appointed to defend there; that they were given no opportunity to employ an attorney of their own choice; that the appointed attorney did not consult with them, took no steps to prepare for their defense, asked nothing about their witnesses, though there were many who knew that petitioners had nothing to do with the killing of said Lee; that they were immediately placed on joint trial before an exclusively white jury and the trial closed so far as the evidence was concerned with the State's witnesses alone; that after the court's instructions, the jury retired just long enough to write a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree, as charged, and returned with it into court not being out exceeding two or three minutes, and they were promptly sentenced to death by electrocution for December 27th, 1919.

Petitioners further say that during the course of said trial, which lasted less than an hour, that only two witnesses testified to anything to connect them in any way with the killing of said Clinton Lee; that said witnesses were Walter Ward; and John Jefferson, both of whom were Negroes and were under indictment at the same time for the killing of said Lee; that they were compelled to testify against them by the same methods and means hereinbefore described; that their testimony was wholly false and that they gave such testimony through fear of torture and were further told that if they refused to testify that they would be killed, but that if they did so testify, and would plead guilty their punishment would be light; that they thereafter pled guilty to murder in the second degree and were sentenced to terms of imprisonment; that they attach hereto the affidavits of each of said witnesses showing the falsity of their testimony and the means of its acquisition, make them at part hereof and mark them Exhibit "B" and "C" respectively; that they also attach hereto a certified transcript of the proceedings in the Phillips Circuit Court as Exhibit "D."

Petitioners further say that, large crowds of white people bent on petitioners' condemnation and death thronged the courthouse grounds and streets of Helena all during the trial of petitioners and the other Negro defendants; that on account of the great publicity theirs and the other cases, on account of their being charged with connection with an insurrection against the white people, and that four or five white men were killed, on account of the fact that they are Negroes, and these who ran the court, the Judge upon the bench, the Sheriff, the Clerk and all the jurors being white men, on account of the fact that it was stated and widely published that the purpose of the Negroes was to kill the whites and take their property, and on account of all the race prejudice which normally exists and which was enhanced a thousand-fold at the time, by bitterness beyond expression, was impossible for them to get a fair and impartial trial in said court, before a jury of white men; that the attorney, appointed to defend them knew that the prejudice against them was such that they could not get a fair and impartial trial before a white jury of said county, yet he filed no petition for a change of venue, did not ask the court for time to prepare a defense, and did nothing to protect their interests; that the court, did not ask them whether they had counsel, or desired to employ counsel, or were able to do so, but simply said a lawyer, whom he named, would defend them; that they have, therefore, not had a trial, have had no opportunity to make a defense, but that their ease was closed against them as virtually and effectually as if on a plea of guilty; that if they had been given the opportunity they would have employed counsel of their own choice and have made a defense, their ability to do so having been demonstrated since their conviction; that the feeling against petitioners was such that it over-awed the Judge on the bench, the jury, the attorney appointed to defend them and every one connected with said court; that all, Judge, jury and counsel were dominated by the mob spirit that was universally present in court and out, so that if any juror had had the courage to investigate said charge with any spirit of fairness, and vote for an acquittal, he, himself, would have been the victim of the mob; that such was the intensity of feeling against petitioners and the other defendants that had counsel for them objected to the testimony of the two witnesses against them, said Ward and Jefferson, on the ground that it was extorted by beating and torture, as they are advised he should have done, he himself would have been the victim of the mob; that it is possible counsel did not know how the evidence against them was obtained, and they do not desire to appear to criticize him, yet he knew that if the evidence against them was acquired as before stated, it was incompetent and should have been excluded, a fact which petitioners did not know; that petitioners were ignorant of their rights, had never been in court before, and had counsel asked them about this testimony they would have told him, how it was obtained; that through fear of the mob spirit no witness was called in their behalf and they themselves were advised not to take the stand on their own behalf; that as a result of the mob domination of the court, counsel and jury, the court, although a court of original jurisdiction in felony cases, lost its jurisdiction by virtue of such mob domination and the result was but an empty ceremony, carried through in the apparent form of law, and that the verdict of the jury was really a mob verdict, dictated by the spirit of the mob and pronounced and returned because no other verdict would have been tolerated, and that the judgment against them is, therefore, a nullity.

Petitioners further say that the entire trial, verdict and judgment against them was but an empty ceremony; that their real trial and condemnation had already taken place before said Committee of Seven; that said Committee, in advance of the sitting of the court, had sat in judgment upon them and all the other cases and had assumed and exercised the jurisdiction of the court by determining the guilt or innocence of those in jail, had acquired the evidence in the manner herein set out, and decided which of the defendants should be electrocuted and which sent to prison and the terms to be given them, and which to discharge; that when court convened, the program laid out by said Committee was carried through and the verdict against petitioners were pronounced and returned, not as the independent verdict of an unbiased jury, but as a part of the prearranged scheme and judgment of said Committee; that in doing this the court did not exercise the jurisdiction given it by law and wholly lost its jurisdiction by substituting for its judgment the judgment of condemnation of said Committee; that there is attached hereto as Exhibit "E" a letter from said Committee to the then Governor of the State showing the truth of said charges.

Petitioners further say that, ever since the law of Arkansas for the selection of jury commissioners, the grand and petit jurors, as now stands, was enacted, all of the judges of the courts have been and are now white men, and that ever since then said judges have appointed, without exception, white commissioners to select the jurors, both grand and petit, and that such commissioners have uniformly selected only white men on such juries; that all of this has been done in discrimination against the Negro race, on account of their color; that such has been the unbroken practice in Phillips County for more than thirty years, notwithstanding the Negro population in said county exceeds the white population by more than five to one and that a large proportion of these are electors and possess the legal, moral and intellectual qualifications required or necessary for such jurors; that the exclusion of said Negroes from the juries was, at all times, intentional and because of their color, of their being Negroes; that such was the case of the grand jury by which petitioners were indicted, and of the petit jury that pronounced them guilty; that under the law of Arkansas, as construed by the Supreme Court of the State, an objection to an indictment on the ground that, it was found by a grand jury composed only of white men to the exclusion of Negroes on account of their color, must be made at the impaneling of the grand jury and objection to the petit jury must be made before a plea is entered to the indictment; that at the time said indictment was found petitioners were confined in jail and did not know the grand jury had been organized, did not know it was in session, did not know they were to be indicted for the killing of said Lee or any other person and did not know they were charged therewith; that it was impossible for them to make any objection to the organization of said grand jury for the very simple reason that they were closely confined, had no attorney, and no opportunity to employ an attorney; that at their trial counsel appointed to defend them made no objection to the petit jury or to any previous proceeding; that their failure to do so was through fear of the mob for petitioners and himself, as they believe.

Petitioners further say that after their conviction and sentence to death, their friends employed other counsel to represent them; that through such counsel they filed a motion for a new trial, copied in the record attached hereto as Exhibit "D", which was promptly overruled and an appeal was taken to the Supreme Court of Arkansas, the highest court in said State, where, on the 29th day of March, 1920, the judgment of the Phillips Circuit Court was affirmed, a copy of the opinion of said court being attached hereto as Exhibit "F" (Ed. Hicks vs. State, 143 Ark. 158); that thereafter they applied to the Supreme Court of the United States for a Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court of Arkansas, praying that said court be required to send up the record and proceeding in said cause for review by the Supreme Court of the United States, but that on the 11th day of October, 1920, the application for said writ was denied; that the Governor of the State of Arkansas did on the – day of Aug. 1921, issue a proclamation carrying into effect the judgment and sentence of the Phillips Circuit Court against petitioners and in which he fixed Sept. 23, 1921, as the date of their execution, a copy of which proclamation is hereto attached as Exhibit "G."

Petitioners further say that on the 19th day of October, 1920, the Richard L. Kitchens Post of the American Legion of Helena, Arkansas, an organization composed of approximately three hundred white ex-service men living in every part of Phillips County, passed a resolution calling on the Governor of the State of Arkansas, for the execution by death of petitioners and the seven other Negroes condemned to death by said Circuit Court at the same time and under the same circumstances as petitioners, and protesting against the commutation of the death sentence of any of said Negroes, which said Resolution was presented to the Governor of Arkansas, and a copy of same is attached hereto as Exhibit "H;" that at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Helena, Arkansas, attended by seventy-five members, representing as many leading industrial and commercial enterprises of said city, and of the Lions Club of said city, attended by sixty-five members, representing as many of the same kind of enterprises of said city, each adopted a resolution approving the action of the Richard L. Kitchens Post of the American Legion in the premises, which said resolutions were presented to the then Governor of the State of Arkansas and copies of each are hereto attached as Exhibits "I" and "J" respectively; that said resolutions further and conclusively show the existence of the mob spirit prevalent among all the white people of Phillips County at the time petitioners and the other defendants were put through the form of trials and show that the only reason the mob stayed its hand, the only reason they were not lynched was that the leading citizens of the community made a solemn promise to the mob that they should be executed in the form of law.

Petitioners further say that to further show the overwhelming existence of the mob spirit and mob domination of their and other trials of Negro defendants at the October term, 1919, of` the Phillips Circuit Court, there were six defendants convicted of murder in the, first degree, to wit: John Martin, Alf Banks, Will Wordlow, Albert Giles, Joe Fox, and Ed Ware, whose cases were also appealed to the Supreme Court of Arkansas, which were reversed on account of bad verdicts, due to the extreme haste in securing conviction and executions (Banks vs State, 143 Ark. 154), and remanded for a new trial; that upon re-trial of said cases, defendants, were again convicted and appealed to the Supreme Court, and their cases were again reversed (Ware vs State, Vol. 4 Sup. Court Rep. No. 11, page 674), and remanded for a new trial on December 6th, 1920; that said cases were coming on for trial at the May term of the Phillips Circuit Court, which convened on May 2nd, 1921, and it was represented to the Governor of the State of Arkansas by the white citizens and officials of Phillips County that, unless a date of execution was set, for petitioners there was grave danger of mob violence to the other six defendants whose cases would be called for trial at the May term of said Court and that in all probability they would be lynched; that in order to appease the mob spirit still prevalent in Phillips County and in a measure to secure the safety of the six Negroes whose cases were to be called for trial and were called on May 9th, 1921, the Governor issued a proclamation fixing a date of execution of Petitioners for June 10th, 1921, which was stayed by Court proceedings; that these facts conclusively show that the mob spirit, mob domination, is still universally present in Phillips County.

Petitioners further say that on the 8th day of June, 1921, they filed a petition in the Pulaski Chancery Court for a Writ of Habeas Corpus setting out the matters and things as herein stated, and that on said date the Pulaski Chancery Court issued its writ of Habeas Corpus, directed to the defendant, E. B. Dempsey, keeper of the Arkansas State Penitentiary, commanding him to have the bodies of the petitioners in Court at 2 o'clock P. M. on the 10th day of June, 1921, and then and there state in writing the terms and cause of their imprisonment; that on the 9th day of June, 1923, the Attorney General for the State of Arkansas filed with the Supreme Court of Arkansas a Petition for Writ of Prohibition against J. E. Martineau, Chancellor of the Pulaski Chancery Court, and your petitioners, and that on the 20th day of July, 1921, the Supreme Court of the State of Arkansas issued its Writ of Prohibition against the Judge of the Pulaski Chancery Court, prohibiting him from hearing the Petitions for Habeas Corpus pending in his court and quashed the Writ of Habeas Corpus theretofore issued; that a copy of the Opinion of the Supreme Court in issuing said limit of Prohibition is attached hereto, made a part hereof and marked "Exhibit K," that thereafter, to-wit: on the 4th day of August, 1921, your petitioners made application to the Hon. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, of the United States, for a Writ of Error, to the Supreme Court of the State of Arkansas in the matter of said Writ, of Prohibition, but same was denied.

Petitioners, therefore, say that by the proceedings aforesaid, they were deprived of their rights and are about to be deprived of their lives in violation of Section 1, of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and the laws of the United States enacted in pursuance thereto, in that they have been denied the equal protection of the law, and have been convicted, condemned, and are about to be deprived of their lives without due process of law; that they are now in the custody of the defendant, E. H. Dempsey, Keeper of the Arkansas State Penitentiary, to be electrocuted on the 23rd day of September, 1921; that they are now detained and held in custody by said Keeper and will be electrocuted on said date unless prevented from so doing by the issuance of a writ of Habeas Corpus.

Petitioners therefore pray that a Writ of Habeas Corpus be issued to the end that they may be discharged from said unlawful imprisonment and unlawful judgment and sentence to death.

FRANK MOORE, his x mark,
ED HICKS, his x mark,
J. E. KNOX, his x mark,
ED COLEMAN, his x mark,
PAUL HALL, his x mark

Witness to mark: (Signed)
Murphy, McHaney & Dunaway
Attorneys for Petitioners.

Rumored to have been published as a pamphlet by the NAACP in the 1920's, Scipio Africanus Jones's moving argument for habeas corpus is surprisingly difficult to find. The Society of Bibliophiles of the Law presents this inaugural pamphlet as a modest commemoration of the NAACP's centenary.

Society of Bibliophiles of the Law with the help of a generous grant from The Geist Foundation and assistance from Pirate Pamphlets 2008

Please contact for copies of this pamphlet or with suggestions of subsequent pamphlets.

photograph SA Jones and Elaine Defendants, ca 1925
Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System