Sunday, August 15, 2010

Janie Sharp Series Begins - The Murder

Like many of you, I have heard tales of Janie Sharp throughout my life; rumors, fantastic ghost stories and gory details. Many of which were untrue. But one thing I had never heard was the real story from start to finish. Over the years, the facts have become unclear, encased in legend and subject to the desire to make a good story even more fantastic. These articles are an attempt to tell the story of Janie in as straightforward a manner as possible.

In my research, I believe I discovered several things:

There were some underlying circumstances here that never made it to the surface. I won't speculate on those and the reader can form their own opinions.

The newspapers of the day, especially the Winston County Journal tended to sensationalize the information and some reported information was inaccurate based upon trial testimony.

The community was divided into two camps and both held their beliefs strongly.

The nature of the conflicting testimony indicates that at least some parties lied under oath, either in an attempt to hide their own involvement or to guarantee the conviction of a party that they honestly believed was guilty.

"Because of" or " inspite of" the final trial verdict, the legal system in Mississippi at that time worked in the manner in which it was intended. The judges, prosecution and defense lawyers performed admirably in almost all situations.

We will never know - who killed Janie Sharp.

I have tried to extract the facts as well as possible. Whenever there was conflicting information or testimony, I attempted to indicate this. Some issues have never been raised or examined closely and I will atempt to do so at the end of this series. It should also be remembered that there was not one unsolved murder but three; Janie Sharp, Walter Permenter and Ben Walker.

I would be amiss if I didn't give credit to two compilations about the Janie Sharp event. THE TRIAL for the MURDER of PERNINAH JANIE SHARP by Lucille Wood and TRIAL OF SWINTON PERMENTER FOR THE MURDER OF MISS JANIE SHARP JULY 21,1910 by Ruby C. Hurt. Both of these books are available for sale at the Winston County Library and I encourage those who are interested to take a closer look at these compilations of news reports and trial transcripts.


The Murder

It was 1910. The Civil War was a distant memory and World War One was not yet on the horizon. Life was slow and quiet but rural Mississippi had experienced a few changes over the years. Some folks had telephones in their homes although most had to travel to the general store to make or take a phone call. There were a few "horseless carriages" but the mule was still the most important tool on the farm.

The Rural Hill Community in western Winston County wasn't any different than the hundreds of others scattered across the state. A post office, two general stores, a two room school house and the Methodist church were central to the small farms raising cotton for sale, corn and hay for livestock and vegetables for personal consumption. Some of the more affluent used hired hands or tenant farmers (black and white) to work the land.

The Will Sharp family lived and farmed in the area and were well established. Records indicated that there were eight surviving children including a popular young woman named Perninah Jane "Janie" Sharp. Janie was eighteen in the summer of 1910. According to various accounts, she was a strong healthy girl who caught several young men's eye. Later newspaper reports and court testimony indicated that she was engaged to a young man named Earl Ray.

It was a warm Thursday afternoon (July 21) and Janie had just helped her mother clean away the noon meal dishes and straighten the house. Taking her parasol and a handkerchief that would be key to the story, Janie walked the one and a half miles to Rural Hill to pick up any mail and to purchase some dress goods at the general store. There was some indication that instead of returning immediately home, she intended to stop at the home of Cyrus Ray to do some dressmaking. (In various reports, Cyrus Ray was indicated as not only an uncle to Janie but also as an uncle to her fiancee, Earl Ray.) When she left the Williams' General Store around three o'clock she was observed by several individuals who noted that she had her parasol, two small packages, a copy of The Weekly Commercial Appeal, two letters and a handkerchief in her possession. This was the last time Janie was seen alive by anyone other than the killer.

When Janie had not returned by late afternoon, her mother became concerned and walked to Rural Hill in search of her. Before darkness fell that evening, men from all over the community had formed search parties and were scouring the countryside looking for Janie. Some reports indicated that Will Sharp (Janie's father) contacted the Winston County Circuit Clerk to find out if a marriage license had been issued. For unknown reasons, he may have believed that Janie had eloped with some young man from the community. This seems strange given that Earl Ray, her proclaimed fiancee was a member of the search party. Either this call was made prior to Mr. Sharp's knowledge of Earl Ray's presence or he had reason to believe that Janie had interest in another young man.

Torches were lit and a large area of fields and woods were searched until the morning hours. As the search party grew weary and combined with the difficulty of the search in the darkness, plans were made to defer the search until morning. Lee Sharp, Janie's brother, continued searching along Commodore Road as the party made its way toward the Sharp home.. On the west side of the road, he followed a ravine leading to a small branch of water. It was here that he found the body of his sister, Janie.

Information conflicts a bit here. Some reports indicate that the body was discovered at about 2:00 a.m. while others indicated that it was a bit later in the morning before sunrise. Some also indicate that upon finding the body, Lee Sharp fainted and it was several minutes before he came to and began shouting for help. Reports indicated that Janie's body was partially submerged in the branch in a muddy pool of water. Her throat had been slashed from ear to ear and there was evidence that she had been struck in the head with considerable force. Some stated that her head indicated tremendous damage while later testimony at trial seemed to indicate that she had been struck possibly with the butt of a pistol. There were also signs of assault. Near the body were found the parasol, her packages from the store and the newspaper and letters. The handkerchief was not among these items.

One of the men aiding in the search for Janie was Dr. W. M. Clemmons, a resident of the community. Records indicate that he was a dentist not a medical doctor. Prior to joining the search, Dr. Clemmons made an attempt to contact the local Methodist minister named Oats or Oaks, thinking that perhaps that Janie had eloped. He was not able to locate the minister and no indication was ever provided as to why he thought that elopement was a possibility. He was later asked by Justice MacNally to examine the body. He described the position of the body and the nature of her wounds.

Janie's body was recovered by her father, Will Sharp and carried to the family home about a quarter mile away from the scene. Later that morning, Sheriff Hull and numerous citizens left Louisville for the scene of the crime.

Lee Sharp (brother) returned to the area either later that morning or the following day and observed tracks leading from the road. He believe the tracks indicated a sign of a scuffle, then more tracks leading to another area of struggle. The Winston County Journal at that time indicated that it appeared that Janie was taken from the road and assaulted, she escaped and ran a short distance. Another struggle ensued and she escaped again and ran further where she was again overtaken. It was surmised that she possibly escaped a third time and ran back toward the road where she was overtaken for the final time and killed. The speculation was that she was struck on the head and in an attempt to guarantee the certainty of her death, her throat was slit and she was stabbed several times just under the chin. Information is not clear whether this was the location where the body was found or if possible her body had been moved to the pool of water in an attempt to hide it.

So ends the short life of Perninah Jane Sharp.

By William McCully

Next article posted on Thursday

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