The McGill Murder

One Night Marauder attack stands out not because it ended in a murder, but because it may have inspired one.

Mrs. Mary McGill reported an armed intruder on January 21, 1920. She said her husband, Elijah, worked nights and that her unmarried sister-in-law Annie McGill was visiting from Florence, S.C. The home also included a married couple as boarders.  Mrs. McGill and Annie were sleeping in different beds in the same room, and Mrs. McGill had her children in bed with her. She awoke during the night, at about 1 a.m., to see a man standing over Annie’s bed saying, “Be quiet or I will kill you, lie still or I will blow your brains out.” Annie said, “Tell me what you want,” and the man replied with an indecent proposal. Then she screamed. The intruder held a gun to her face and Mrs. McGill yelled out to her boarders, the Johnsons. Mr. Johnson answered. The marauder fired the gun in the direction of Johnsons’ room, and then fired again across the bed in which Annie was laying. If she had been sitting up, the bullet would have struck Annie and killed her. He flashed a flashlight around the room and then and then ran off. Neither woman could describe him.

Six months later, another apparent marauder attack left Mary McGill dead. The Knoxville Sentinel reported that at 3 a.m. on June 16, 1920, a man carrying a flashlight and a pistol entered the house through the front door which had been left open for ventilation. Lizzie McDaniel, a boarder, was the first to awaken and, upon spotting the intruder, sat up and asked “What does this mean?” The man replied, “Don’t you scream, or I’ll shoot every one of you.” She lay back down and put the pillow over her head, sure she would be shot. Mary slept in a bed in between two children, Mollie and Josie, on the floor of the room. She heard the voices and began to scream, trying to get up off the floor. The marauder promptly fired at Mrs. McGill and then shot towards Elijah McGill, Mary’s husband, as he came to her aid from another room. The intruder then ran out the door. Elijah then carried his wounded wife to a neighbor’s house on Johnson Street, where she died.  The couple’s 12-year-old son, Edward, was sleeping at the foot of the bed occupied by Miss McDaniel.

There were few clues to follow. Police were mystified and even the bloodhounds brought to the scene could find no tracks.  Lizzie McDaniel could only remember that the hand she saw holding the pistol was white and that the man had a mustache. Elijah claimed it was a Black man who shot his wife. The children claimed it was Charley Mincy, a man they knew from the neighborhood, who shot their mother. Mincy was swiftly taken into custody, though police doubted he was the killer.  He had been found fast asleep in his parents’ home when the police went to find him, he did not have a mustache, and he was not the same size according to McDaniel. Elijah claimed that robbery had to be the purpose of the intrusion and that $25 he had recently given his wife was now missing. Police wondered how the intruder could have taken anything in the brief time he was in that house.

The coroner’s inquest introduced more mysteries. Nellie Roberts, who tended to the wounded Mrs. McGill, testified that Mary had said “It was Mrs. Cox” between gasps for breath as she died. This news certainly got the neighborhood talking. It seems Elijah was a frequent visitor to the home of Mrs. Belle Cox and was seen taking her out one evening. Lizzie McDaniel had lived with the Cox family before rooming with the McGills and she remembered Elijah’s visits going back several months.  Mr. and Mrs. McGill fought about his relationship with Mrs. Cox on a regular basis and had just had a huge argument on that subject the evening before the shooting. Some neighbors said Mrs. Cox had shown off a gun that Elijah had given her as a gift. She was said to have boasted of Elijah’s gifts even as Mary and the children barely had enough food to eat most nights. For his part, Elijah insisted that this was a simple friendship, and his wife was at fault for her “jealousies.”

Only two days after the shooting, Ed, Mollie, and Lizzie admitted that Elijah had been the one to shoot Mary McGill and that he threatened them if they did not accuse Charlie Mincy. Lizzie elaborated on her description of the events of that night, saying Elijah McGill had been speaking to someone in the front yard before the shooting. He then entered with the gun and flashlight, blinding her and the children. Mary McGill begged for her life, kneeling to hug her husband’s legs. He was unmoved, so Mary stood to run away when he shot her. Lizzie McDaniel said that then Elijah went to his bedroom, removed his pants, and then ran to pick up Mrs. McGill to carry her to the neighbor’s house. Presumably, this was meant to make it look like he had just gotten out of bed. Even the police were suspicious. Sheriff Cate testified at the trial that he had seen Elijah whispering “fiercely” with Miss McDaniels before anyone was able to get her first statement.

When 12-year old Ed McGill and Lizzie McDaniel changed their stories, Elijah denied everything. He had no explanation for Ed’s testimony, but he claimed McDaniels resented his disapproval of her relationship with his older son, Ben, who no longer lived with the family. Elijah also admitted he did not trust McDaniel, saying she was a fake fortune-teller who riled up his wife with stories. She had every reason to lie and say that he had threatened her if she revealed he was the shooter. However, the most damaging evidence came from little Mollie, who said she thought the intruder she saw in the doorway was a stranger, not her father, but that she heard her mother say to her father as she slid to the floor, “You’ve killed me.” She also admitted that her Papa was often out all night, after which her parents would fight. Poor Ed testified with tears streaming down his face that he watched his father shoot his mother and was scared he would be shot as well.

The trial became a sensation and was reported in newspapers throughout the Southeast. The Winston-Salem Journal reported on June 23rd that the crowd in attendance at the courthouse was so huge that proceedings were held outside, on the courthouse lawn, to accommodate all the spectators and escape the suffocating heat indoors.

An indictment charging Elijah with the murder of his wife was returned by the grand jury on July 7. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison on July 22, though he protested his innocence to the very end. He told the press in 1920 he fully expected to die by the electric chair, but that he was spared that fate. The vote of a single juror blocked the death penalty. Elijah McGill died in the State Penitentiary in Nashville in 1932.

At the time of his conviction, Elijah told reporters that his parents would take care of the children. The 1930 census lists Dwight McGill as the “father” of Ben, Mollie, Ed, and Josie. Lizzie is still listed as a boarder, though by then she was identified as Lizzie Latham. It seems that Elijah was completely erased when he went to prison.

And yet, in one poignant closing chapter, Ed—the boy who wept as he testified that his father had killed his mother in front of his eyes, that his father had more than once threatened to kill the entire family, and that his father had dined with Mrs. Cox on the night of the murder while the kids sat down to a meal of corn bread and lard—went on to name his first born son Frank Elijah McGill.

Published by Nancy Locklin

I am a professor of history at Maryville College in east Tennessee.

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