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June 5, 1900 to March 5, 1945
A story of poverty and injustice. The first and only woman executed by electric chair in the State of Georgia.
Quotations from Randolph County Superior Court Records and the Cuthbert Southern Tribune Newspaper are written in italic.
Lena Baker, a Black woman born June 5, 1900 in Cuthbert, Georgia on the outskirts of town. Her parents, Mack and Queenie Baker were poor and struggled to provide the family with the most basic of needs like food and a place to live. Both parents were under educated and neither could read nor write. They worked as laborers; Mack as a farm hand and Queenie as a cook, house cleaner and caretaker for white families. Queenie, a very religious woman and strict disciplinarian, never struck her employers' children. However, if Lena disobeyed her mother, Queenie was known to tie Lena in a sack, hang it from a tree, and beat her.
Lena and her mother moved into town when Lena was in her teens, in hopes of finding better paying jobs. Mack continued to live outside of town. Lena met and became friends with Lizzie Thomas. Together they decided to earn money through prostitution. Most of the customers were white men. It was not long before Lena and Lizzie were arrested and charged with "Keeping a Lewd House".
Both females were found guilty on May 10, 1920, and sentenced to ten months in jail at a women’s prison farm. However, the ten months were served at a local convict camp. This practice known as “Peonage” was common in Randolph County. Inmates were leased to private businesses to work on farms and roads with the local government receiving money for their labor. Often women worked side by side with men and were frequently sexually assaulted by inmates and guards. Surprisingly the arresting Sheriff, Walter Taylor, volunteered to be Lena's Probation Officer.
After completing her sentence, Lena returned home to live with her mother and began making positive changes in her life. She attended church and found employment doing various jobs such as cleaning white peoples' homes, washing clothes, and picking cotton. Her pay was well below a living wage. When she washed, dried, and ironed a full basket of clothes, she was often paid only five or ten cents.
It was not long before she gave birth to four children, three of which lived. The 1920 US Federal Census for Randolph County, Georgia listed Lena’s marital status as divorced. The 1930 Census indicated that she was single. It is not clear if she married, had children by one man, different men or if the fathers were black or white.
Even though she worked hard to improve her life, neighbors and church members disliked and ignored her. It was not long before Lena turned to alcohol and began hanging out nights at a local café. Her mother disapproved of her behavior and pleaded with her to stop drinking.
Ernest Knight, a 67-year-old white man and owner of the local grist mill was known around Cuthbert as a mean, heavy drinking and pistol carrying man. Few people other than family members would associate with him. In 1941, Ernest broke his leg and it did not properly heal. His eldest son, Albert Knight, hired Lena to cook and clean for his father. She was twenty-three years his junior. Ernest coerced Lena into a three-year relationship in which he beat and threatened to kill Lena. When his son Albert learned about their relationship, he beat Lena and told her to stay away from his father.
Lena and Ernest often spent time at the gristmill eating, drinking and having sex. She eventually grew tired of the abuse and wanted out of the relationship. Late Saturday night on April 29, 1944, after Lena and her family were asleep, Ernest stopped by her home. He knocked on the door and told Lena to come with him to the mill. She refused to go but asked if he had anything to drink. He told her that he had some home brew. She did not want any of that and asked him for money to get some whiskey. Lena said,
“I was doing that to get away from him because he was pretty full when he come to my home and I knowed how it would be, for I have seen him that way more than one time.”
He gave her fifty cents and she walked over to the café on Dawes Street but the lights were off. She waited for a while but no one came in or out, so she left. When she returned home, Ernest knocked on the door again. Lena told him to go home. He said,
“I be damned if I am going home until you go where I want you to.”
She told him that she did not want to go. He told her that if she does not go with him he would not let her rest. She put on her shoes and the two of them left the house. As they walked by the water tower near the cemetery, Lena walked faster and got away from him. She walked around for a while and then headed back toward the mill. Ernest was sitting on a bench in front of the mill. He saw Lena and said,
“I been trying all night to get you to do as I asked you to and you have not done it.”
“No sir. I have promised not to go to your mill anymore.”
She walked away and tried to find a drink but fell asleep in a pasture for most of the night. When she woke, it was about 4:00 A.M. Sunday morning. She walked by the mill again. Ernest was sitting out front and told Lena to get inside. He then pulled out his gun. She went inside and they talked for a while. She told Ernest that she needed to go home. He insisted that she would be safe there with him. She stayed with him for the night and asked him not let her sleep too long. When she woke, Ernest demanded that she stay in the mill until he returned from seeing his son. Before leaving, he locked her in the mill. He returned later that day with food and whiskey. Lena continued to tell him that she needed to leave. He told her not to go and threatened to kill her if she left. He pulled out his gun and they got in to an altercation. Lena wrestled the gun away from him and Ernest grabbed an iron bar located by the door. At her Court hearing, Lena stated,
“That was not the first time he had throwed that pistol in my face and on me, but I took it and went on. That was one time I thought I had to do something, I believe he would have killed me if I had not done what I did. I was hired to wait on Mr. Knight when he broke his leg, I cooked for Mr. Knight, and I nursed him like I would a baby. His son Mr. A.C. Knight, hired me to do it, yes sir. There was times I wanted to be at home where my mother and children was, but she could not rest and I could not rest at my house, if I had not been threatened that if I didn’t g [sic] to where he wanted me and do what he wanted me to do, what he was going to do to me, and I was afraid not to do it.”
Top L: Lena Baker Georgia State Prison, public domain. R: Cuthbert Georgia Water Tower.
Second L: Mt. Vernon Baptist Church. Lena's family church. R: Church Sign.
Photos taken December 21-23, 2011.
Continued next section.
Quotations from Randolph County Superior Court Records and the Cuthbert Southern Tribune Newspaper are written in italic.
The murder trial was held August 14, 1944 in Randolph County Superior Court. Presiding judge, Charles Williams “Two Gun” Worrill had a reputation as a no nonsense overseer of the Court. When entering the courtroom, he was known for placing his two pistols on the bench before beginning a hearing.
Twelve jurors were selected, all white males, several of them prominent Cuthbert citizens. Some of the men were rumored to have visited Lena and Lizzie's former house of prostitution. In Cuthbert, jurors were selected from voter registration rolls. Blacks were not allowed to register to vote and consequently could not be chosen as jurors.
The trial lasted four hours. Lena was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by electrocution. Directly after the hearing, her defense attorney W. L. Ferguson, filed a motion for a new trial on the grounds that,
“1. Because the verdict is contrary to evidence and without evidence to support it.
2. Because the verdict is decidedly and strongly against the weight of the evidence.
3. Because the verdict is contrary to the law and principals of justice and equity."
Judge Worrill scheduled a hearing date for September 16, 1944, for State's Attorneys Joe Ray and John Terry to show cause as to why a new hearing should not be granted. He also issued an order suspending the execution of the previous sentence.
The State's Attorneys responded immediately,
“Due and legal action of the within motion and ordered acknowledgement, time, copy, and all other further service waived.”
Even though the defense attorney was court appointed, he was not paid for his services and after the trial gave notice to the Court of his intent to withdraw from the case.
“I, W.L. Ferguson, being the attorney of record of Lena Baker having been appointed by the Court to represent said Lena Baker, do herby certify that I filed the within motion for a new trial for the purpose of giving the defendant Lena Baker the right to secure other counsel to prosecute her case and the said Lena Baker was so notified; and I, W.L. Ferguson, do certify that I do not attend to prosecute the with motion for a new trial because I have withdrawn from the case, and Judge C.W. Worrill, the presiding judge is authorized so far as I am concerned to give the within motion for a new trial any direction as the court deems proper and just.”
By September 16, 1944, Lena had not requested a new attorney nor had she requested a new trial. On August 18, Lena wrote to Governor Ellis Arnall requesting that her case be reviewed. On October 9, the governor responded to Lena’s request and granted her a ninety day stay. A hearing was scheduled for November 28, 1944. The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles denied her request for clemency.
Governor Arnall did not, at that time, have the authority to pardon Lena. All requests for pardons were handled by the Georgia State Pardon and Parole Board. Chairman of the Pardon and Parole Board, Edward Everett sent a letter to Lena advising her of her right to appeal the case. The letter however, was mailed to Reidsville prison instead of Cuthbert where Lena was being held at the time. In addition, a copy required to be sent to the Sheriff in Cuthbert was sent to the prison in Reidsville. Consequently, Lena was not informed of her right to an appeal. Court records gave no explanation for this mistake.
On January 6, 1945, Judge Worrill wrote in his decision that he dismissed the motion for a new trial, that he reinstated the sentence and that Lena was scheduled for electrocution on March 5, 1945.
“The above named Lena Baker having been convicted for murder in the May Term, 1944 adjourned Randolph Superior Court and having filed her motion for a new trial in said cause and a hearing on said motion having been set for September 16, 1944 in vacation at Cuthbert, Georgia at 10 o'clock a.m.; and it further appearing that said defendant either in person or by cousel [sic] failed to appear on said date to prosecute said motion, and it further appearing that W.L. Ferguson, attorney for said defendant has withdrawn from said case and does not intend prosecuting said motion; and it further appearing that at the time of filing said motion, said W.L. Ferguson notified, said Lena Baker that he was withdrawing from said case and had filed the motion in order that she might secure counsel to prosecute the same which she has failed to do and makes no effort or attempt to prosecute said motion,
NOW, THEREFORE, be it order and adjudged, and it is so ordered and adjudged that said motion for a new trial be, and the same is, hereby dismissed for lack of prosecution and the Clerk of said court is ordered to file this dismissal as a part of t he [sic] records in said case.
Upon inquiry into the facts and circumstances of this case, and it appearing to t he [sic] Court that the defendant, Lena Baker, was on the 14th day of August, 1944, convicted of Murder, and on the 14th day of August, 1944, was sentenced by order of this court to the punsihment [sic] of death; and it further appearing to the Court that the said sentence has not been executed, having been superseded and stayed by a motion for a new trial, but which said motion was abandoned and dismissed and in lieu thereof, a respite for 90 days obtained from and granted by the Governor of Georgia pending an appeal to the State Pardon and Parole Board of Georgia, and which said appeal and plea was heard and-denied by the Said State Pardon and Parole Board, and an appropriate order having been duly and regularly passed; and it further appearing that the sentence heretofore imposed upon the said Lena Baker still stands in full force and effect and that no legal reason now exists against the execution of said sentence.
Now, therefore, it is ordered, and adjudged by the Court that the Sheriff of Randolph County, or his lawful Deputy, together with such deputies as he may deem necessary (the number of guards to be approved by the presiding Judge or the Ordinary of said County) shall convey the said Lena Baker to the Tatnall [sic] County Prison in Tatnall [sic] County, Georgia, not more than twenty days not less than two days prior to the 5th day of March, 1945, and there deliver her to the State Board of Penal Administration, to be electrocuted, as provided by law, at such penal institution as may be designated by t he [the] said Board.
And it is ordered and adjudged by the Court that the Warden of the Penitentiary of the State of Georgia shall execute the said Lena Baker by electrostriction, as provided herein and by law, in private, witnessed only by her Counsel, relatives and such clergymen and friends as she may so desire, within the walls of said institution on the 5th day of March, 1945, between the hours of 10:00 o'clock a.m., and 2:00 o'clock p.m., as heretofore provided in a sentence and order of this court passed on the 14th day of August, 1944, and in conformity with this provisions of said order and sentence.
And May God Have Mercy On Her Soul.”
On February 23, Sherriff Taylor drove Lena to the Tattnall County Prison in Reidsville, Georgia. On the day her life was to end, Lena was strapped in the electric chair, nicknamed “Old Sparky”. No family members were present on March 5, only prison officials and Mr. H.O. Pritchett from Cuthbert. Lena and her family picked cotton for him and worked in his fields. He represented the family.
When asked if she had any last words, she stated,
“What I done, I did in self-defense, or I would have been killed myself. Where I was I could not overcome it. God has forgiven me, I have nothing against anyone. I picked cotton for Mr. Pritchett, and he has been good to me. I am ready to go, I am one in the number. I am ready to meet my God. I have a very strong conscience.”
Lena was given an electrical shock not once but several times, for a total time of six minutes until she was pronounced dead at 11:26 a.m. After her death, she was transported back to Cuthbert and buried at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church Cemetery.
On May 3, 2005, through the work of her nephew, Roosevelt Curry, Lena Baker was posthumously pardoned by the Georgia State Pardon and Parole Board.
Top L: Location of Lena's trial, former Randolph County Superior Court. R: Grave headstone.
Second L: Mt. Vernon Baptist Church Cemetery. R: Georgia State Pardon.
Photos taken December 21-23, 2011.
Dittmer, John. "Black Georgia in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920." Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980. Print.
Phillips, Lela Bond. "The Lena Baker Story." Wings Publishers, 2001. Print.
Superior Court Minutes Randolph County Georgia: May Term 1920.
Superior Court Minutes Randolph County Georgia: May Term 1944.
"Lena Baker" Ancestry.com, 1910 United States Federal Census. Web.
"Lena Baker" Ancestry.com, 1920 United States Federal Census. Web.
"Lena Baker" Ancestry.com, 1930 United States Federal Census. Web.
"Lena Baker" Georgia Deaths 1918-98, ancestry.com, 1910 United States Federal Census. Web.
"E.B. Knight" Georgia Deaths 1918-98, ancestry.com, 1910 United States Federal Census. Web.
Lohr, Kathy. “Ga. Woman Pardoned 60 Years After Her Execution.” npr.org https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4818124. Web.
Phillips, Lela Bond. “Execution In A Small Town - The Lena Baker Story.” justicedenied.org http://justicedenied.org/issue/issue_29/baker_posthumous_jd29.pdf . Web.
“Lena Baker.” finagrave.com, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/11544277/lena-baker. Web.
Wilcox, Ralph. Dir. The Lena Baker Story. Lionsgate, 2008. DVD.
Millard, Cindy Nelson. “Lena Baker: Honored with new headstone ceremony.” The Cuthbert Southern Tribune. 20 Jan. 2011. Print.
Millard, Cindy Nelson. “Lena Baker: Only woman sentenced to death in Georgia receives new headstone in Randolph County.” The Cuthbert Southern Tribune. 6 Jan. 2011. Print.
Church, Cemetery and Gravesite, Cuthbert, GA.
Cuthbert Water Tower, Cuthbert, GA. 23
Former Randolph County Georgia Superior Court, Cuthbert, GA.
Randolph County Georgia Superior Court, Cuthbert, GA.
Mt. Vernon Baptist Church Cemetery, Highway 82 West, Cuthbert, GA 39840.
All photos property of FindFamilyRoots.com unless otherwise indicated.