- 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
Now under round-the-clock protection by National Guardsmen, Leibowitz continued doggedly to hammer away at the state’s case. To intensify the impact for the defense of Dr. Bridges’ testimony, he called to the stand Edward A. Reisman, a Chattanooga gynecologist who had spent all his life in Alabama and Tennessee. After reviewing all the medical evidence, Dr. Reisman declared that in his professional opinion it was “inconceivable” that Mrs. Price had been raped six times, as she claimed. But the spectators completely distrusted Dr. Reisman. As one Decatur resident told the New York Times reporter, “When a nigger has expert witnesses, we have a right to ask who is paying for them.” On Thursday morning Liebowitz presented his most damaging witness. Lester Carter, a twenty-three-yearold hobo, had been on the train when the fight began; it was his name that had so startled Mrs. Price during Leibowitz’s cross-examination. Now, wearing a new gabardine suit and a brightly flowered tie, Carter added graphic details to the story Leibowitz had previously sketched. In January of 1931, Carter testified, a Huntsville police court had convicted him of vagrancy and sentenced him to sixty days in the county workhouse. There he met Victoria Price and her boyfriend, Jack Tiller, who were serving time for adultery. When the three were released in March, Tiller invited Carter to stay around Huntsville for a few days. The hospitable Mrs. Price even offered to arrange a date for Carter with her best girl friend, Ruby Bates. On the night of March 23, approximately forty hours before the alleged rape, Tiller and Carter met the two girls outside the gates of a local mill. Talking and giggling, they walked to the Huntsville hobo jungles.
“What occurred in the jungles that night?” asked Leibowitz. “I hung my hat on a little limb and went to having intercourse with the girl [Ruby],” replied Carter. Less than three feet away, Tiller and Victoria also were “having intercourse.” When a light rain began to fall, the four got up from the honeysuckle bushes where they had been lying and crawled into an empty boxcar pulled onto a sidetrack. During the night, in the intervals between love-making, they “talked and started planning this hobo trip,” he said. The girls complained that they were sick of Huntsville; perhaps they could go to Chattanooga and “hustle” while the two men got temporary jobs. Tiller explained that he did not want to risk another adultery conviction, but he promised vaguely to meet the other three in Chattanooga if they did not return in a few days. Just before daybreak, the girls went home and collected a change of clothes. They agreed to meet Carter in the freight yards that afternoon.
On the way to Chattanooga, Carter explained, he pretended he did not know the girls; they rejoined each other only after leaving the train. Just beyond the railroad yards, they met Orville Gilley, a slender, self-styled “hobo poet.” After Gilley introduced himself, they walked together to Chattanooga’s hobo jungle, built a small fire, and shared a meager meal of chili and coffee. During the night, Carter told the court, he once again had sexual relations with Ruby Bates. He could not say for certain about Victoria and their new friend.
The next morning, the four decided they had seen enough of Chattanooga. Tired and hungry, they boarded the 11 A.M. freight for Huntsville. Five white hobos sat in the next car toward the caboose. Just south of Stevenson, Alabama, Carter said, he heard several shouts above the noise of the train. He investigated and saw white and Negro boys fighting in the adjoining car. By the time he and Gilley could get there, however, most of the white youths had jumped or been shoved from the train. Without striking a single blow, Carter “climbed down where the couplings are” and got off. Gilley remained behind. In Scottsboro several hours later, Gilley denied there had been any rape, said Carter.
Although Carter testified persuasively and was unshakable in cross-examination, the jury and spectators listened with open skepticism. His eagerness to testify, his frequent nervous gestures, and his immaculate appearance, one observer said, gave the impression that the defense had “carefully schooled” him. Carter’s most damaging mannerism was his insistence on saying “Negro,” instead of the typical white southern pronunciation, “Nigra.” In cross-examination, Morgan County Solicitor Wade Wright, who was assisting Knight, drew from Carter an admission that the defense had paid his room and board for almost a month and had even bought him the “fancy” new elevendollar suit he was wearing.
Shortly after noon on Thursday, the defense rested “with reservations,” but Leibowitz had scarcely taken his seat when a messenger brought a note to his table. Walking over to the bench, Leibowitz whispered to Judge Horton, who then announced a brief recess. The courtroom remained quiet but visibly excited. Ten minutes later, National Guardsmen opened the back doors of the room. A heavy-set, perspiring woman in her forties came down the aisle; Ruby Bates walked behind, her eyes fixed on the floor. The spectators leaned forward with an audible gasp; at the prosecution table there was open consternation. Miss Bates’s chaperone, a social worker from the Church of the Advent in Birmingham, explained that the church rector had asked her to bring the young woman to Decatur. The chaperone knew nothing about the case.