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Blame it on the roots

Murderers blamed their insanity on all sorts of influences. In 1884 a one-legged English tramp named Michael Murray was hanged at Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, for shooting dead a young man named John Hancuff after the latter had verbally abused him. Just prior to his execution he dictated a letter to be published after his death claiming that he had committed the crime under the influence of witchcraft. Some said the Devil made them do it.22 If the murderer was clearly not what was termed a ‘congenital idiot’, then lawyers usually opted for a plea of temporary insanity caused by alcoholism, bangs on the head, extreme emotional stress, fever, poison, and drugs. In the 1910 case of Cletus ‘Nutty’ Williamson the reading of books of magic was said to have caused temporary insanity. Williamson killed his father-in-law Warren Koons and his wife at Canton, Ohio, while, as he claimed, ‘the evil spirit was in me’. A relative of the Koons recalled, ‘at our home on Easter day 1909, he expressed his belief in witches and ghosts and such things. He said at home he had a book called “The Seven Books of Moses” or some name like that which explained such things fully’. The defence succeeded in getting hold of a copy of the Egyptian Secrets, which the arresting detective confirmed as belonging to Williamson, and produced it as material evidence in court. The defence failed and Williamson was put in the electric chair on 29 April 1911.23

When Baxter Purnell went on trial in 1938 for murdering his nineteen-year-old sister-in-law Martha Jane Fink, he blamed his actions on the effects of some roots he was given by a black root doctor. Baxter was bom in 1906, one of the numerous children of William and Sallie Parnell of Cabarrus County, North Carolina.24 William worked in a cotton mill and Baxter began his working life there too as a ‘doffer boy’, whose role was to take the full bobbins from the spinning frames and replace them with empty ones. By the age of thirty-two he was married and scratching a living as a tenant farmer near the historic Rocky River Presbyterian Church, Concord, which had been founded back in the mid-eighteenth century.

On the evening of the 3 July 1938, while his wife and Martha Jane knelt in a pig pen and prayed after a family row, Baxter, in a fit of anger, plunged an ice pick into Martha Jane’s chest. He then went to the nearby home of the local pastor, John Ricks (1906-2010), and requested that he be escorted to Concord to give himself up. At the subsequent inquest, Parnell, a burly young man dressed in overalls, gave no testimony, but he pleaded not guilty at the ensuing murder trial. He claimed that he had no recollection of his heinous act, except that half an hour before, he had chewed a conjure root that made his mind ‘come and go in waves’, and had rendered him temporarily insane.

The root had been provided by a reputed African-American root doctor from Mecklenburg County named Jennie Morris. She was ordered to testify and duly appeared in a pink-flowered dress, black hat, and veil. She knew, no doubt, that if the plea of temporary insanity was upheld, the consequences for her were grave. It transpired that Baxter had paid her a visit the Sunday before the murder. As she explained: ‘He was takin’ my dust treatment for good luck. His luck had been comin’ mighty bad and I thought he needed some rattletongue root. So I gave him some and told him to gnaw it and spit it out’. He returned the day of the murder in an excited state. Morris said she was scared of him. ‘He was ‘actin’ and talkin’ crazy as a betsy bug’, and she feared that ‘he might get me hexed’. When questioned about the ingredients of her concoctions she was none too forthcoming. ‘I ain’t got time to tell you’, she said. She was concerned, however, to clarify that she did not dabble in harmful magic. She worked to ‘do people good’ and to ‘cure miseries and to bring people good luck’.

As well as the ‘root made me mad’ plea, the jury heard from Purnell’s mother that a head injury he had received as a child had left him ‘addle-brained’. He had also been injured in the head by an explosion. His educational record was cited as evidence of this. He had not gone beyond the first grade when he left school at fifteen, after seven or eight years’ attendance. Although not widely reported, he also told the jury that he had emasculated himself a few years before though he did not know why he did it. This would explain a curious report in a local newspaper a decade earlier which detailed how police had failed to trace two unknown men that Baxter said had mutilated him while out hunting near Rocky River Church on Christmas day. He underwent emergency surgery at Concord hospital.25

Found guilty and sentenced to death, Parnell appealed to the Supreme Court and Governor Hoey, but no interventions were forthcoming. At 10.31 a.m. on 9 December 1938, Parnell was led to the death chamber in Raleigh State Prison. It had been installed in 1910 when electrocution replaced hanging in the State. Then in 1935 it was refitted as a gas chamber.26 Before nineteen witnesses, including the Chaplain, the warden, and other prison officials, he was strapped into the execution chair. The chamber was sealed and the gas switched on. After a couple of minutes, during which he remained calm, the gas took effect and Parnell suddenly strained violently against the straps holding him down. Only after a lull fourteen minutes was he finally pronounced dead. The Chaplain later told reporters that Parnell requested him not to release any information for publication other than the following statement:

He exonerates the old colored woman and takes the full blame on himself.

He says that he did it in a fit of anger and was sorry immediately afterwards. He prayed for the girl’s recovery. He asks that word be sent to the colored woman that he is sorry that he brought her into it and he asks her to forgive him. In fear he gave the story about the ‘roots’, and then understood it is best not to change one’s story. He says he would have liked to have given the truth at his trial but didn’t know what to do.27

Parnell never divulged his true motives. Israel Fink, father of Martha Jane, thought that he had been enraged by the visit of Martha Jane’s boyfriend that evening. Mrs Fink said, ‘I just don’t know... I don’t understand it’. Who really knows what went through his mind, but it seems likely that Baxter was suffering some longterm psychosexual problems. As his comments to the chaplain suggest, though, the case for temporary insanity based on the herb doctor fatally undermined a genuine case of underlying psychological problems.

Temporary insanity, which included the category of irresistible impulse, was much contested throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. The psychiatric profession insisted that only they held the knowledge to decide the boundary between a crime committed in ‘heat of passion’ and one committed while temporarily insane, but the problem is that they did not agree among themselves. The respected American neurologist William Alexander Hammond wrote in 1870 that ‘the act which marks the height of the paroxysm is always preceded by symptoms of mental aberration, while acts done in the heat of passion are not thus foreshadowed’. Furthermore, after the act, the murderer acting under the influence of the passions thinks only of his escape, of his personal safety, whereas the temporarily insane ‘never thinks of escape, nor even avoids publicity. He may even boast of his conduct, or deliver himself into the hands of the law’. But the Baltimore Medical Journal dismissed Hammond’s definitions as a ‘charming... specimen of sophistical reasoning’.28 Some argued philosophically that all crime was symptomatic of mental illness. Where was the line to be drawn?

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