Janie Sharp had been murdered while walking home along a wooded country lane on a hot August afternoon in 1910 near the backwoods community of Rural Hill, Mississippi. Suspicions fell immediately upon a young man, Swinton Permenter, not yet eighteen himself. A two year ordeal ensued that included a trial and conviction, a Supreme Court ruling that overturned the conviction, suspicions cast upon others, the murders of two men and a second trial that was a sensation across Mississippi and the South.
When the Mississippi dust settled, no one was brought to justice for Janie’s murder or those of Ben Walker, an investigator of the crime, or Walter Permenter, the brother of the suspect. To this day, no one can say who committed these crimes and anyone who may have had firsthand knowledge of the events of the day are long gone.
The Sharp’s were convinced of Swinton’s guilt and apparently made no further attempts to find any other suspects. The lack of closure in the case fueled debate, hard feelings and suspicion not only in Rural Hill but in much of Winston County. Almost everyone was a relation or a friend to one or both families. Speculations and accusations continued for many years after the crime and in some forms still exist today.
Up until the 1970’s, students in local schools were forbidden to write about the murder for fear of opening old wounds. I was recently contacted by one individual who stated that the only thing he had ever seen his grandparents argue over was the guilt or innocence of Swinton Permenter. Emotions ran high for many years and rumors of death threats surfaced often when someone began asking too many questions.
As a result, speculation turned to rumor, rumor intermingled with truth and the story became more sensational over the years. Soon, Janie became the subject of legend; a ghost story to tell around a campfire on a cool October evening or a cautionary tale for willful young girls. It seemed that each year the story became more gruesome, bloody and fantastic - and visiting Janie’s grave is now a favorite rite of passage for local high school kids on Halloween night; kids who know nothing about the real events of Janie’s death and the drama that followed.
The people of Rural Hill and Winston County went back to their farms and businesses and continued their lives. But what happened to the principal characters in this story?
The Permenter Family apparently stayed in Mississippi although at some point, they sold their property in Rural Hill. Records show that Swinton’s parents, Edward and Anna are buried in the Hopewell Baptist Cemetery in Choctaw County, Ms. Edward died in 1932 and Anna passed away in 1942. Swinton’s brothers and sisters stayed in Mississippi as well and at least one stayed in the immediate area.
Cyrus Ray (Janie’s Uncle) and his family stayed in the Rural Hill area and most of the family is buried in the church cemetery.
Edward Permenter was killed in 1912 in Eupora. His murder was never solved. He is buried at the Masonic Cemetery in Louisville, Ms. He left a widow (Madie or Maudie) and three children. She soon left Rural Hill and moved to Kemper county and then Philadelphia, Ms. where she raised her children. She died in 1969 and is buried next to her husband.
Hewlet or Hulet Ray, one of the two men accused by Ben Walker of the crime moved to Oklahoma sometime before WW1 where he registered for the draft. He and his wife raised five children and he lived to a ripe old age in Oklahoma and is buried there. Little is known about Thomas McElroy (also accused by Ben Walker) after the trial and it is assumed that he returned to his home in Texas.
Ben Walker was killed in 1912 in the home of Elbert Vowell in Winston County. His killer was never captured or identified. Nothing is known about his past and his body was never claimed by family members, He is buried in the Smallwood or Wood Cemetery in that area.
Earl Ray, the fiancé of Janie Sharp, married in 1914 and continued to live in Mississippi and the general area. He raised several children and passed away in Choctaw County in the 1960’s.
The Will Sharp family stayed in Rural Hill for a short while after the trial, but in 1913, they sold their property and most of the immediate family packed their belongings and moved to Bryan, Oklahoma. Much of the family still live in that area today. Janie’s Father, Will, passed away in 1919 and her Mother passed just one year later. They are buried in Calera, Oklahoma. The Sharp home in Rural Hill burned to the ground in 1921.
Swinton Permenter’s whereabouts immediately after the trial are not known. It is doubtful, that he ever returned to the Rural Hill area for any length of time. Much of the following information here is not verifiable but was accumulated from various sources. It is believed that he lived for a period of time in Okolona, Ms. He entered military service during WW1. Some have indicated that he initially enlisted under the false name, Jesse Jackson. If so, this was corrected as later military records indicate his real name. There is also some evidence that he lived and worked in the oil fields in Texas and Oklahoma for a period of time but he is listed in the 1930 census as a resident of Bolivar, County, Ms. and residing in the household of his younger sister. At sometime after 1930, he apparently married a woman from North Carolina. There is little information about the marriage and no indication of children. In his later years, Swinton apparently endured health problems and may have suffered paralysis in his legs and possibly his hands. As a result, he may have spent his last years in a V.A. home in Johnson City, Tennessee as this was listed as his last address. Swinton Permenter died on August 16, 1946 and is buried at the Mountain Home National Cemetery in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Janie Sharp lost her life on July 21, 1910. She is buried not at Rural Hill but in the Center Ridge Methodist Church Cemetery located several miles east of Rural Hill. This cemetery was probably chosen because her sister, an infant was previously buried here.