BERLIN – Seventy-five years ago this week, a transient
African-American worker brutally murdered a Berlin farmer, his wife and their
two teenage daughters in their beds, touching off one of the most protracted,
most expensive trials in the history of Maryland with a controversial Communist
lawyer representing the defendant who was ultimately convicted and hanged.
Worcester County in the 1930s was still very much an agrarian, rural area
more like its neighbors to the south than its brethren to the north and west.
Jim Crow was still very much alive in Worcester in the Depression Era and the
black population would be segregated from the whites in the county for almost
another 40 years in most public places including schools, restaurants and movie
houses, for example, but the white population peacefully coexisted with its
black neighbors for the most part.
That fragile relationship changed on Oct. 12, 1931, when two Berlin men
concerned about neighbors they had not seen for a few days made a gruesome
discovery in the family’s Taylorville home not far from Berlin near what is now
Route 50. Green Davis and his wife Ivy, along with their two teenage girls
Elizabeth Gertrude, 15, and Mary Lee, 13, lived and worked on a modest 20-acre
farm in Taylorville, not far from what is now Ocean Pines, growing crops and
Davis took on one transient worker late in the summer of 1931, a wanderer
from Virginia known to him only as Orphan Jones, who had taken up residence in a
“colored only” boarding house in Ocean City and often walked out into the rural
county looking for extra work.
It was a decision that would ultimately cost Davis and his family their lives
and perhaps change Worcester forever. Davis operated a produce stand along the
highway a few hundred yards from their home. When the typically bustling
roadside stand was deserted on a busy weekend, neighbors Charles Johnson and
Sebie Howe decided to check on the Davis’ welfare. They walked up the long
driveway to the Davis home and knocked on the door. When nobody answered, they
decided to break in.
“Upon their entry, it became chillingly evident to Johnson and Howe that a
horrible event had occurred,” wrote local attorney and historian Joe Moore, who
chronicled the events of October 1931 and beyond in his recently released novel
“Murder on Maryland’s Eastern Shore: Race, Politics and the Case of Orphan
Jones.” “The sight that greeted the two men was totally horrifying. Mr. and Mrs.
Davis lay in their beds in the blood-spattered bedroom with their heads and
faces horribly mutilated. Although sickened and terrified, Johnson and Howe
forced themselves to look into the adjoining bedroom. Peering in, they were
shaken by the sight of the two young girls’ bloody and battered bodies also
lying in their bed, brutally murdered.”
Because of the enormity of the crime, local authorities enlisted the help of
the State’s Attorney for Worcester County, Godfrey Child, and Sheriff Wilmer
Purnell, who quickly summoned help from Baltimore City detectives. Even before
the Baltimore detectives could reach Worcester County by rail, evidence
collected and witness testimony had already identified Orphan Jones as the prime
Jones, whom Davis had hired weeks before, had been laid off just days before
the murders and there had been a dispute about wages, according to neighbors.
With this information to go on, local officials sought Jones as the main suspect
and he was arrested by Ocean City Police Chief Robert Allen at Martha Miller’s
boarding house where he lived.
Crowds began to form around the Davis home with bodies still inside as rumors
began to spread about a black transient who had murdered its occupants.
Suspicions increased and swift justice was demanded as the normally peaceful
folks of the area began to assume the mantle of an ugly mob. It would get much
uglier before it got any better however.
Concerned for the safety of their star suspect, local officials decided to
transfer Jones to the County Jail in Snow Hill, a short, squat building attached
to the old red brick courthouse still in use. Along the roughly 15-mile trek
through rural Worcester, Jones was allegedly beaten by the law enforcement
officials charged with transporting him.
Once secured in Snow Hill, Jones reportedly underwent tortuous question and
answer sessions and ultimately delivered the first of what would be two
confessions on Oct. 13, 1931. In the confession, Jones provided exact details
about the crimes that only one who had committed them could have known. He also
admitted that the initial dispute was over one or two dollars, although he said
he was driven to commit the atrocious murders by alcohol and the devil. When
asked why he committed the murders, Jones told interrogators “I don’t know
except it was mean whiskey and the devil in me. The whiskey caused me to commit
the worst crime ever been in the history of the world.”
With an overwhelming amount of physical evidence and a confession signed by
the suspect, it was not out of the question for Jones to be tried and punished,
if convicted in a matter of weeks from the discovery of the murders, but the
case was already attracting state and national attention and events would soon
unfold to eliminate any chance at swift justice in Worcester or anywhere else on
the Eastern Shore.
A well-known and respected member of the Worcester County Bar Association,
Franklin Upshur, was initially assigned to be Jones’ counsel. Meanwhile, another
lawyer, a card-carrying Communist and a member of the International Labor
Defense, Bernard Ades, began to intercede in the case and ultimately wound up
representing Jones after several protracted legal battles and even threats on
his life when he visited Snow Hill.
After several failed attempts at visiting Jones in the Baltimore City Jail,
mostly at the objection of State’s Attorney Child in Worcester, Ades was able to
gain access to the prisoner and ultimately convinced Jones to officially enter
him as his lawyer in the case. Ades immediately set in motion an effort to move
the case from Worcester County, where he argued the prevailing mob mentality
prevented any possibility of Jones getting a jury of impartial peers.
Meanwhile, another startling development in the case was taking place. When
the Baltimore detective assigned to the case went to get Jones’ signature on his
original confession, now typed, he learned that Jones’ real name was Euel
Ades was successful in getting the trial removed from Worcester to Cambridge
in Dorchester County, which was still in the First Judicial Circuit and, of
course, still on the Eastern Shore, which, for a short time, appeared to appease
all concerned. However, events unfolded that ultimately forced Lee’s trial to
the Western Shore.
With Lee’s trial set to begin in Dorchester, a horrific event illustrating
the growing anger and violence on the Lower Shore took place in neighboring
Wicomico County. A prominent Salisbury businessman was murdered by a black
employee, who attempted unsuccessfully to take his own life. While in the
hospital, now PRMC, the black suspect was dragged from his bed and out of the
hospital, where he was hanged in a courtyard in front of a mob of people,
including police officers, before being set on fire.
Ades seized on the horrifying event and petitioned the Maryland Court of
Appeals to intervene and move Lee’s trial to the Western Shore. Of course, the
appeals court could not officially weigh in until a decision had been rendered
by the Circuit Court, one way or the other, but the high court handed down a
decision that ostensibly said regardless of what happened at the Circuit Court
level, it would overturn the decision on appeal.
The Court of Appeals decision all but forced the trial to be moved from the
Eastern Shore and Baltimore County was ultimately chosen as the new venue. After
several months of legal wranglings by both sides, increased mob violence across
the Lower Shore including the lynching in Salisbury, Lee’s case was now set to
be heard in Towson in Baltimore County.
On Monday, Jan. 18, 1932, Lee’s trial began in Towson with the contingent
from Worcester County at the prosecution table and Ades and his assistants at
the defense table. Even the matter of jury selection was a point of contention
as Ades argued Lee could not get a fair trial because black men were not allowed
to serve on a jury.
However, the judges- sustained Ades’ objections and the trial resumed. With
the preponderance of evidence against Lee, the prosecution rolled through its
case in short order and the defense took little more time to present its own
case, which was founded on the supposition that Lee was framed. The jury was
given the case at 2:40 in the afternoon and returned with its verdict in just
over half an hour. Lee was found guilty of murder in the first degree and
sentenced to death by hanging.
Ades was not finished battling for his condemned client and quickly filed an
appeal based on eight so-called irregularities, the centerpiece of which was his
original objection about the black men not being allowed to serve on the jury.
The Communist lawyer who had argued from one end of the state to the other for
his client appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and even President Franklin Delano
Roosevelt to intercede for Lee, but in the end, he could not save his
Finally, on Oct. 27, 1933, over three years since the murders in Taylorville,
Lee was dropped from the gallows and pronounced dead.