Local writer revisits brutal 1878 murder

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Valentine’s Day in 1878 forever changed the Corbett Hill community in southern Wayne County.

On that bone-chilling evening, a gentleman named Noah Cherry discovered the heinous murder of James and Appie Snipes Worley. He notified the authorities and was later identified as one of the couple’s killers by the eldest of three surviving children.

Harris Atkinson and Robert Thompson were later arrested.

A fourth person, Jerry Cox, turned state’s evidence against the defendants. The trio of Black defendants knew their fate rested in the hands of a 12-man white jury.

“Gentlemen of the jury, we are about to enter upon the most important case ever tried in Wayne County, and one of the most important ever tried in the United States,” said attorney William T. Dortch. “The State does not ask for a conviction, unless she fully establishes the guilt of these prisoners at the bar.”

As the jury delivered the verdict, one handcuffed defendant tried to profess his innocence and pointed toward Cox.

The judge sentenced the trio to death by hanging.

Local author, newspaper columnist and screen writer Sherwood Owl Williford revisits that fateful evening in his novel, “Two To The Grave, Three To The Gallows: The Worley Murder Story.”

“I think it is a fascinating story that engages the reader and leaves you thinking did the three convicted men commit the murder or was it an accessory who turned state’s evidence and eventually died four years later?” Williford asked.

The intriguing 456-page paperback provides background on historical Wayne County people involved in the case. Many are memorialized on markers throughout downtown Goldsboro and parts of the county.

Numerous chapters recount newspaper stories, including an excerpt from The New York Times, which first reported the news of the brutal incident.

The Goldsboro Messenger, in its Feb. 14, 1878, edition said, “we are not an advocate of Lynch law, but if the murder is discovered, there is no punishment too severe, cruel or too swift.”

Williford took nearly a decade to pen the novel. He conducted interviews with living family members, researched ancestry.com and newspapers.com, and mentions several story locations.

His most poignant chapters are on the three children — Matilda Worley Newman, Cora Frances Worley Grady and Lula Worley Gerald Cotton and their descendants. Denied the privilege of being raised by their parents, they produced 36 grandchildren and 57 great-grandchildren.

Just eight remain living.

“Even today, for those who have studied the circumstances of their execution, their haunting voices ring out with rhetoric,” Williford said. “I will leave it up to the readers to decide.”

Editor's note: Author Sherwood Owl Williford will sign copies of his book July 1st and 2nd from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at historic Waynesborough Park.

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