The 1903 Murder of Constable Russell, A Vintage Vignette

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The 1903 Murder of Constable Russell
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
March 23, 2008

The Huntsville newspaper “Weekly Mercury” on March 9, 1904, reported the unusual case of Minerva Walker, a woman convicted of murdering a constable of Madison. A page 3 column headed NEWS OF THE COURTS told of the beginning of her trial. It stated “The trial of Minerva Walker was begun in the circuit court yesterday and at the time of adjournment several witnesses had been examined. The trial attracted a large crowd to the courtroom. The woman is charged with killing Constable W. A. Russell last fall as he entered her home to levy attachment on her furniture. The evidence for the prosecution shows that she struck him on the head with a heavy stick, crushing the skull and causing his death two or three days later.”

This was my first notice of Circuit Court Case 6361, brought to my attention by Donna Dunham of the Madison County Records Center. The newspaper story brought to mind several questions, such as why did a man with his skull crushed take several days to die, and who was Minerva Walker? A Mercury article of Wednesday, November 25, 1903, stated “William Russell, constable at Madison, Ala., died from the blow inflicted by Minerva Walker, a Negro woman, who fractured his skull with an ax as he entered her home to serve papers. The woman is in jail here, and will be charged with murder. Mr. Russell was a confederate veteran and leaves a family.” Walker’s race had not been mentioned in the March 9 article of 1904. A separate article, printed a page later in the November 25 issue of the paper, reported that Russell died on the previous Sunday, and that “his condition had been recognized as serious.” The seriousness should have been quite evident, since it was said that “his skull was crushed in two places.” He was 65 years old and left a widow and 6 children. Oddly, the second article further stated that Walker struck Russell “with a stick”, while the first article of November 25 gave the weapon as an ax. The account also said that Walker was alone in the house and there were no witnesses.

A second article several pages later in the March 9, 1904, issue of the Mercury told that Walker had received a life sentence. However, it further added that “counsel for the defendant made a motion for an arrest of judgment on the ground that no names of Negro jurors were placed in the box by the jury commissioners.” The article closed with the statement “The sentence of the court was suspended.”

The March 13 issue of the Mercury reported that the motion to set aside the verdict of the jury was denied by Judge Speake of the circuit court, and the sentence of life imprisonment was confirmed. However, a 60-day suspension was provided in order to allow for Walker’s attorney to prepare a bill of exceptions for an appeal. No subsequent articles about Walker’s eventual fate (or that of her one-year-old baby) were located in the old newspapers, leaving many unknown details in the tale of several interwoven life tragedies in old Madison.

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