Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Homicidal Irony That Shadowed Jesse Hill Ford

Jesse Hill Ford Charged

 During the period between the tragedy and the prosecution's presentation to the grand jury, Jesse and his family tried to cope with the tension. They hoped he would not be charged with murder but with a lesser offense such as manslaughter.

Jesse Hill Ford
Jesse Hill Ford
Jesse told a reporter that he did not expect the grand jury to conclude that it was a justifiable homicide and bring no charge. Part of the reason a charge was necessary, at least in Jesse's opinion, was the racial implications of the tragedy - implications that so echoed the plot of his most famous novel.

"They've got to return some sort of indictment," Jesse said. "I want them to, actually. If they returned a no-bill, Godalmighty, in the East they would say, 'Look, a white man can kill niggers down there and get off scot-free.'"

On February 15, 1971, the grand jury returned indictments that included first-degree murder. Sally was first to hear the news. She and Jesse's mother, who was visiting the troubled family, were sitting together when someone phoned telling of the indictment.

"Oh, God," she said. "I just can't believe they would do that to us. These people were supposed to be our friends."

Jesse came downstairs, his hair still wet from his shower.

Sally told him he was indicted for first-degree murder.

He walked to the other side of the room, sat in a chair and stared into the fireplace that had no fire on. After a long silence, he declared, "God damn it, I think I'll just plead guilty and get the god damn thing over with: I'll just take the god damn fun away from them."

There was some fretting conversation between Jesse and his mother. Then he reflected on the irony of his situation. "Of course, I know what they're doing to me," he said. "I've made them mad all these years writing about their double standards of justice. So now that I've killed my nigger, they've decided, by God, they'll just show me what a single standard of justice is like."

One troubling aspect of the case is the how in the aftermath of the tragedy, Jesse seemed to embrace the racism that his writing had attacked.

While awaiting trial, Jesse met up with an acquaintance who introduced him to another person as, "Jesse Hill Ford  he's that writer over in Humboldt that shot that trespassing nigger." The acquaintance clapped his hand on Jesse's shoulder and told him "it's gonna come out all right."

Jesse's eyes blurred with tears as he said, "I appreciate that."

The Ford family kept up an active social life before his trial.

Sally related to writer Frady that at one party, people played Boticelli, a game in which one person gives out clues to challenge others to guess a selected person's identity. Someone gave out clues to Jesse. "I'm somebody who's become very close to you, Jesse, very important in your life," he clued.

Jesse and Sally could not guess.

The man elaborated, "I'm somebody who's lost his head over you!"

Jesse and Sally were still stumped.

Sally told Frady, "He had to tell us and you know who it was? It was that nigger Jesse accidentally killed!"

The use of the "N-word" may have been meant ironically when Jesse said that the first-degree murder indictment was to show that there was now a single standard of justice. However, his use of the slur and that of his wife, as well as his even appearing to condone its use by sympathizers, could be seen as demeaning to the memory of George Doaks, Jr..

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