City Directories and History: George Wilkerson had spent Saturday night, May 19, 1895, with his friend, J. N. O’Farrell, and around 9:00 Sunday morning, George began walking home. Not far away, at the home of Jake Montgomery, everyone was up and making preparation to attend church later in the day — everyone, that is, except Wilson Montgomery and his friend, Isaac “Ike” Blair, who had spent the night with him. Usually, Wilson got up early on Sunday, ate a quick breakfast, and would leave the house for the rest of the day. But that morning he slept late and stayed in the house. Ike left the Montgomery home sometime around 9:00 that morning. Later, after the
Montgomerys had gotten the news that Robert Feemster had been murdered, they all went to the scene of the crime. All, that is, but Wilson, who could not find his shoes.
Wilkerson, walking home, was just over a mile from the courthouse near the intersection of Lincolnton Road when he discovered the body of a young black man lying face up in the middle of the road. Although Wilkerson knew the victim, he could not identify him for the blood that covered his face and the distortion of the head. He did see a deep gash in the man’s throat. George rushed to the nearby home of David Russell to tell him he had found a dead man. David and Charles Russell went with Wilkerson to the gruesome scene. On the way Reverend Tobia and Reese Foster joined them. One of these men identified the body as Robert “Bob” Feemster, the 18-year-old son of John Feemster.
York Trial Justice M. S. Carroll was notified and, as acting coroner, came to investigate the crime scene — it was not a pretty one. The victim’s face had suffered such heavy blows, it was distorted nearly beyond recognition. The skull was crushed in on the right side, and brain matter oozed out onto the ground into a pool of coagulated blood. The man’s throat had been cut from ear to ear, nearly severing the head from the body. Carroll noticed the man’s pants pockets were turned wrong-side-out and assumed a robbery went bad. Nearby lay a nickel and three coppers (large pennies).
The area around the murder scene was thoroughly searched and, just 50 yards away, J. M. Gadbury found a bloody, two-pound blacksmith hammer. Farther away, Jason Bradley discovered a Barlow pocketknife 150 yards from the body. Both items were unusual and proved to be easily identified. The hammer was the type used by blacksmiths, and the peen was set to the hand in a peculiar way. The knife has its own identifiable qualities — it had only one blade, and the tip had been broken and ground down. Later, the hammer would be identified as belonging to Jake Montgomery and the pocketknife to Wilson.
News of the murder reached York and spread rapidly through the countryside. Soon a large crowd of blacks and whites gathered at the scene. As the number of spectators continued to grow, Carroll completed his investigation and ordered the body to be taken to the offices of doctors Andral Bratton and Miles Walker for examination.
Within a few hours, Carroll had summoned and impaneled a jury. At first, suspicion fell on Daniel Whitener, who lived a mile and a half from the murder scene, and it was rumored he held a grudge against Feemster for an alleged insult he had made to Whitener’s wife. Hoping to solve this case quickly, Carroll signed a warrant for Whitener’s arrest and dismissed the jury until Monday morning when the inquest would reconvene.
After the physicians completed their examination Feemster’s body was released to the family. The customary wake began that night, and like so many others in the community, the Montgomerys went to the Feemster home to pay their respects. Apparently, Wilson had found his shoes and came with the rest of the family. As was expected, friends, neighbors, and family members filed into the house to express their sympathy and view the body — everyone, that is, except Wilson, who remained outside.
Of course, the murder was the main subject of conversation, and several theories were being aired. Some believed the murder grew out of Feemster’s and Mongomery’s vying for the affection of Onie Williams — both had been seen talking with her Saturday night at Swamp Town (a section of Yorkville). One or two believed they had caught the murderer when the sheriff arrested Daniel Whitener. Another said he had seen Feemster change a quarter into coppers that fateful evening for a bit of gambling, was found cheating, and was robbed and murdered. One theory joined all the theories together saying that it was someone who had a grudge against the victim, lured him out of town for a game, and killed him in cold blood. It was obvious to a number of those who attended the wake that Wilson Montgomery became nervous and jittery when the murder was discussed in his presence.
Joe Reed was in town Saturday and had seen Bob and Wilson together. Hoping to get an answer to his nagging question, Joe point-blank asked Wilson when he last saw Bob. Wilson replied, “At Dobson’s Store. Said he was going to North Carolina to get some whiskey.” Joe knew that was a lie. He had been standing in front of the store where he had bought some pistol cartridges for Bob and saw Feemster and Montgomery walk off together. Reed was not the only one left wondering about Wilson’s alibis because that evening he gave several conflicting stories on his whereabouts. Coupled with the fact that Wilson did not go into the house to view the body, it made him highly suspect.
By the time the inquest reconvened Monday morning, suspicion was weighing heavily on Wilson Montgomery, and more evidence was about to surface. Doctors Brattton (Dr. Rufus Bratton) and W. G. White reported they found 14 wounds on the scalp and face and that the throat had been cut to the cervical vertebras, severing all vessels and arteries. There were several dents in the forehead and a skull fracture on the right side through the occipital parietal and temporal bone. Bratton and Walker concluded Feemster was attacked from the rear with a blunt instrument in the hand of a right-handed person. Their report added that though the force of the blows could have killed the victim, his throat was cut after the initial attack.
The testimonies of several witnesses quickly shifted the blame from Whitener to Wilson Montgomery. The most damaging testimony was from Furman Turner, who said he saw Wilson on May 11 on his way back from fishing, and stopped to see if he could do some knife swapping. He identified the murder weapon as the same Barlow knife Wilson Montgomery had shown him that afternoon they talked about trading. The bloody hammer was identified as belonging to Jake Montgomery and the same one used by Ike Blair and Wilson Montgomery for some repair work earlier in the week. By noon M. S. Carroll handed a warrant for Wilson’s and Blair’s arrests to P. W. Love and Will Carroll.
Jake Montgomery’s faith in his son must have been wavering, causing him to rush over to Ike Blair’s and ask if Wilson had been away from Ike long enough to carry Bob’s body a mile and a half to where he was found. We will never know Ike’s answer, but neither of the men could account for themselves at the time of the murder.
When the deputies arrived at the Montgomery home, Wilson did not seem surprised at his arrest and offered no resistance while he was handcuffed. P. W. Love searched the house but found nothing that would link him with the murder. When the officers arrived in town with their captive, Captain J. R. Lindsay, foreman of the jury, bodily searched the prisoner before securing him in a jail cell. The warrant for Blair was served, and he was quietly arrested.
The case came before the Court of General Sessions on July 3. Yorkville’s star-quality attorneys were there — Major James F. Hart represented Montgomery, and Thomas F. McDow represented Blair. Solicitor Henry, assisted by J. S. Brice, represented the state. Because a rumor was circulating that Hart supposedly said Feemster died of gunshot wounds to the head, Solicitor Henry ordered the body to be exhumed and re-examined for the purpose of disproving the statement. Dr. Bratton represented the state and Dr. White the Defense. Both physicians reported there was no sign of a gunshot wound in their first or second examination.
Montgomery testified that he arrived home that evening at 11:15, he and Ike put up the mules, they went into the house where he took off his shoes, and they both ate and went to bed. A number of men were called to testify about the times they recalled seeing the two. Richard “Babe” Buchanan testified he saw Feemster meet Montgomery at Nick Dobson’s corner sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 that evening and headed out of town toward the church at Swamp Town. This agreed with Joseph Reed, who said he met Feemster sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 that evening and that Feemster had given him five cents to buy some pistol cartridges for him. Reed said that when he stepped out of the store and gave Feemster the bullets, Montgomery walked out of Parrish’s Lane and told Bob to “come on.” Dan Whitener testified that he left town just as the 9:00 train went down the tracks and saw both Feemster and Montgomery together on the streets. A few minutes, later John Durham saw them walking between Jenkins’s corner and the Seceeder (A.R.P) church, heading toward the tracks of the Three C’s Railroad.
Jeff Williams probably gave the most damaging testimony that covered the span of several hours. That evening he had purchased a second hand buggy in Yorkville, and Jake Montgomery happened by with his wagon and offered to pull it home for him. Wilson and Ike were with Jake, and they helped hitch the buggy to the wagon while Jake went to collect money for wood he had sold.
After waiting on the older man for some time, Jeff decided to head home, since he would have to drive slowly, pulling the buggy. Jake caught up with Jeff near the tracks of the Three C’s Railroad. Some time had passed when Wilson and Ike joined them, following along behind the wagon. When they arrived at Jeff’s, they unhitched the buggy and visited with Jeff. Jake then went home while Wilson and Ike headed back into Yorkville. The two young men came back by Jeff’s some time later but did not “come into the light.”
The trial occupied the attention of the court until late Saturday afternoon and seemingly made a strong case of circumstantial evidence against the defendants. The jury was out for about two hours and returned with a verdict of “Not guilty.”
The verdict seemed to surprise no one, since the justice system at the close of the century was so weak that a conviction was hard to come by. Not all the jurors were satisfied with the verdict — they believed the verdict should have been “Not proved.” Before the case was concluded, the charges against Isaac Blair were “Nol Prossed” by the solicitor, with a plan to make Ike a witness for the state. His testimony, however, was soon seen as having little practical use.
J.L. West – Author
This article and many others found on the pages of Roots and Recall, were written by author J.L. West, for the YC Magazine and have been reprinted on R&R, with full permission – not for distribution or reprint!
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