- Historic Sites
A Reasonable Doubt
HISTORY AT MIDDLE DISTANCE The charge was rape. The accuser was a southern white woman, the accused were Negroes. But what kind of woman was Victoria Price? And what had really happened aboard that freight train?
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
“When you got to the doctor’s office, were you not crying in any way?” Leibowitz asked. “I had just hushed crying, the best I remember I was crying—I won’t say, I ain’t positive,” Victoria said crossly. To the attentive courtroom, Leibowitz recalled Mrs. Price’s story in the original trials: that she and Ruby had gone to Chattanooga looking for work and on the night of March 24 had stayed at Mrs. Gallic Brochie’s boardinghouse on Seventh Street. The next morning, both girls had testified, they fruitlessly searched for a job in the city’s cotton mills before boarding the Huntsville-bound freight at 11 A.M.
Leibowitz pointed out that Mrs. Price had said Mrs. Brochie’s house was three or four blocks from the train yards. Wouldn’t you rather say it was two miles? asked Leibowitz. “No sir, I wouldn’t say two miles,” she replied. “Suppose I told you that Seventh Street in Chattanooga, the nearest point … to the railroad yards of the Southern Railroad is two miles and show you the map, would that refresh your recollection?” he asked sarcastically. “I don’t know,” retorted an equally sarcastic Victoria, “I haven’t got a good enough education.” When he challenged her entire account of the overnight stay in Chattanooga, she broke in, shouting, “That’s some of Ruby Bates’s dope,” and added: “I do know one thing, those Negroes and this Haywood Patterson raped me.” Leibowitz stood and stared at her for a moment. She was, he told her, “a little bit of an actress.” “You’re a pretty good actor yourself,” she quickly replied.
After a few questions about her activities on the day before the alleged incident, the tone of Leibowitz’s voice suddenly changed. Gravely, he asked Mrs. Price: “Do you know a man by the name of Lester Carter?” She thought he was one of the white boys thrown from the train, she replied. “Mrs. Price, I … want to ask you that question again and give you an opportunity to change your answer if you want to,” said Leibowitz. “Did you know Lester Carter before that day, Yes or No?” By his intense expression, spectators in the courtroom knew the question was crucial; they leaned forward to hear her answer. Mrs. Price, losing her composure for the first time, mumbled: “Before in Scottsboro—he—was on the train.” “I didn’t ask you that,” said Leibowitz. “Before this day on the train did you know Lester Carter?” “I never did know him,” she said firmly.
He continued in the same low voice. Had she asked a companion of hers “to pose as your brother, since you didn’t want the authorities to know you were travelling across the state line from Chattanooga … [with] somebody with you?” Mrs. Price looked to the table where Knight sat and then back at Leibowitz. “If I said that I must have been out of my mind.” “Did you say it?” he asked firmly. Shouting, she clenched the arms of her chair. “If I said it I must have been out of my mind!”
Leibowitz questioned Mrs. Price about Jack Tiller, the married man with whom she had been convicted of adultery. “Did you have intercourse with Tiller a short time before you left Huntsville [for Chattanooga]?” She shook her head emphatically. “In the railroad yards?” he asked, still in the same quiet voice. “I have told you three times, and I am not telling you any more—no, sir, I didn’t.” Leibowitz returned to Carter. He asked her again if she had arranged with Carter, or “whatever man that was with you, [that] he wasn’t supposed to know you on the train because you were afraid to cross the state line and [were afraid of] being locked up for the Mann Act?” She turned angrily to Judge Horton: “I haven’t heard no such stuff,” she shouted. “That is some of Ruby’s dope he has got.”
Relentlessly the chief defense attorney continued to probe. He asked Mrs. Price once more where she had spent the night before the alleged assault. Perhaps in a hobo jungle? he asked slyly. Victoria stared at him, her eyes filled with hatred. Columnist Mary Heaton Vorse, one of only two women in the courtroom, found it impossible to describe her “appalling hardness.” Only two years before, reporters had described Mrs. Price as “pretty and vivacious.” Now, with her hair tightly curled in a new permanent and her face heavily rouged, she seemed more than “tough,” Miss Vorse wrote. She was “terrifying in her depravity.” Through clenched teeth Mrs. Price repeated again the account of how she had stayed with Mrs. Brochie while she looked for work. Leibowitz asked her if she didn’t want to change her story. She shook her head. “By the way, Mrs. Price,” said Leibowitz with open disgust, “as a matter of fact, the name of Mrs. Callie [Brochie] you apply to this boardinghouse lady is the name of a boardinghouse lady used by Octavius Roy Cohn in the Saturday Evening Post stories—Sis Callie, isn’t that where you got the name?” Knight jumped to his feet in protest and Judge Horton sustained his objection. Leibowitz, however, had dramatically made his point; he was pleased with the results of his cross-examination.