Bill Wilson

Wrongful conviction stemmed from mistaken conclusion that ancient remains were modern ones

In the spring 1912, a father and son fishing along the Warrior River in Blount County, Alabama, noticed a bone protruding from a bluff. Clearing away the soil, they uncovered what appeared to be the remains of an adult and a child. As news of the discovery spread, a number of area residents, presuming the remains to be ancient, visited the bluff in the hope of finding Indian relics.

When no relics were found, a farm worker named Jim House began speculating that the remains were not Indian but those of Jenny Wade Wilson, who had disappeared after obtaining a divorce from Bill Wilson in late 1908, and her nineteen-month-old child. House also belatedly asserted that, shortly after the divorce, he had seen Jenny go into her former in-laws' home carrying a basket. The next day, House said, he noticed footprints leading toward the river and found what he described as a "child's cloth" and blood on a rock.

Blount County Solicitor James Embry was sufficiently impressed by House's tale that he obtained a grand jury indictment charging Bill with murdering Jenny and the child. After his arrest, Bill encountered in jail an ex-convict, Mack Holcomb, who claimed that he overheard Bill tell a relative during a visit, "If you tell anything I will tend to you when I get out." Other witnesses claimed that after the divorce Bill vowed to kill Jenny if he ever saw her again. Embry's case was weakened by the testimony of the prosecution medical expert, Dr. Marvin Denton, who acknowledged that it was unlikely, although perhaps not impossible, that the skeletal remains from the bluff could have deteriorated to the extent they had in just five years. Furthermore, Denton acknowledged, the skull of the child had second teeth, which usually do not develop until about age four.

The defense case, in contrast, was strong. Six witnesses, including Jenny's sister, testified that they had seen Jenny at various times several months after she should have been dead, assuming the prosecution theory was correct. Four relatives of Bill's, and Bill himself, denied House's contention that Jenny had come to Bills parents' home after the divorce. Finally, a defense medical expert, Dr. J. E. Hancock, testified that the teeth in the adult skull were those of an elderly person and that a nineteen-month-old child would not have second teeth. Nonetheless, the jury found Bill guilty, and Judge J. E. Blackwood sentenced him to life in prison on December 18, 1915.

After the trial, further doubt was cast on the verdict when Dr. Alex Hrdlicka, curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., examined the bones from the bluff and declared them to be very old skeletal parts of four or more persons. Judge Blackwood concluded that justice had miscarried, but he no longer had jurisdiction of the case. Thus, he asked the governor to grant clemency effecting Bill's release. Before the governor took action, however, Bill's appellate lawyer, located Jenny and her child, now 11, living in Vincennes, Indiana. She returned to Blount County on July 8, 1918, and the same day, after authorities confirmed her identity, the governor granted Bill a pardon.

— Rob Warden