The Story of Kirby Cole by David & Karen Bennett 11 March 2016
Some of you may be wondering why we’re writing a dulcimentary about the murder of Kirby Cole, after all it’s not a tune we play on our mountain dulcimers (not yet at any rate, maybe I can guilt Louise & Jerry in tabbing it out). Well, partly because it was a notorious event that happened in Limestone County in 1921 and is remembered by a dwindling number “old timers” and partly because one of our dulcimer guests, Doyle Kelley, has sung The Story of Kirby Cole at our dulcimer jams on at least two occasions. Doyle said he learned the song from his mother. The lyrics of the song and the audio, as sung by another Athenian, Aaron Sims, are at the end of this dulcimentary.
Kirby Cole (No photo available) was a young local Athens resident who had a short but very distinguished military career and shortly after returning home was murdered in Limestone County. When the killers searched Kirby, they took the 15 cents he had on his body. Kirby Cole is buried in the Athens City Cemetery across from Athens State University.
Even though, as the song tells us, Tom Wilson was indeed scheduled to swing and the gallows was in fact erected, the story did not end with the hanging of Tom Wilson… so be sure to read through the whole article to see what did happen.
Karen and I spent a day at the Limestone County Archives with the Archivist, Rebekah Davis, and the following account is taken from what we found on microfilm copies of The Alabama Courier and the Limestone Democrat between 1921 and 1923. Of the articles that I reference and quote the most often, most are from The Alabama Courier as they were written in a somewhat more entertaining manner than the articles in the Limestone Democrat.
Kirby Cole was born in Limestone County on September 12th, 1899.
Kirby joined the Army in 1916 , at the age of sixteen or seventeen, “when trouble broke out with Mexico.” The “trouble” took the form of a growing number of border incidents with Mexico beginning early in 1916. An invasion of American soil occurred on 8 March, when Pancho Villa and his band of about 1,000 men raided Columbus, New Mexico and left the town in flames and killed 19 people.
In swift response General John Pershing organized an expedition of about 10,000 men to go into Mexico, with permission from the Mexican government, to deal with Poncho Villa. Not only was much of the Regular Army involved, most of the National Guard had been Federalized and concentrated on the border. For nearly two years, Pershing and his soldiers chased Pancho Villa on horseback, in automobiles, and with airplanes. The American troops had several bloody skirmishes with Villa’s rebels, but Pershing was never able to find and engage Villa. The American troops were withdrawn from Mexico in February 1917.
When the United States entered World War I, Kirby again joined the Army, now at age about eighteen, becoming a member of the 42nd Infantry Division and seeing action in France. The 42nd Infantry Division was nicknamed the “Rainbow Division” and came into being when the United States declared war on Germany in 1917 and federalized National Guard divisions to quickly build up an Army. Then Major Douglas MacArthur suggested that a division be formed from the non-divisional units of several states saying that such an organization would “stretch over the whole country like a rainbow.” The name stuck, and MacArthur was promoted to colonel as the division’s chief of staff. During the fighting on the Western Front during World War I, MacArthur rose to the rank of brigadier general. During WWI the Rainbow Division took part in four major Operations and saw 264 days of combat and had 14,683 soldiers killed in action and 12,625 wounded. The 42nd Division was inactivated after WWI and later reactivated in 1943 during WWII.
Sometime after his discharge after the end of WWI, which ended in November 1918, Kirby Cole reenlisted for a year with the flying corps reaching the rank of first sergeant. Kirby Cole left the Army around 1920 and seemed to be contemplating reenlisting at the time of his death.
Kirby Cole at the time of his murder held three honorable discharges from the army. Kirby was given a military funeral, something he had told his mother he desired just a few days before his death.
It is clear from Kirby’s three stints in the Army that he was no coward.
Around 6:30 p.m. on 8 November, 1921, two young men entered the Gilbert Drug store and asked to use the phone to call a taxi. They got hold of taxi driver Junius Inman and told him they wanted to go out to Clements gin on the Bee Line Highway, eight miles east of Athens. On the way Inman picked up his friend, Kirby Cole to take him home on his return. That evening Kirby had just got off work from the Coca Cola bottling works. Cole apparently occasionally rode with Inman on night trips and that evening at Inman’s invitation Kirby Cole got in the front seat of the taxi with the two paying passengers in the back.
Along the way, near Swan Creek, one of the men shot Kirby Cole in the back of the head and the killers ordered the taxi driver to continue on. Eventually the men had Inman pull his taxi over after “Inman complained that he could not manage the car with the body of his friend lying on his feet in the way of the pedals” and they tossed out the body of Kirby Cole and searched his pockets, finding fifteen cents on him. When they neared Ardmore, Inman told the men he had to stop for fuel and maybe water for the radiator. The two murderers did not believe the taxi driver when he said he was out of gasoline and measured the gas for themselves and thought that indeed the taxi had very little gasoline. Actually they did not measure correctly and later it was determined the taxi could have gone another forty miles without more fuel. At White & Sons, Inman jumped out of his taxi and ran into the store calling for help, though at first the men in the store didn’t take Inman seriously. The two men got out of the car and fled in the darkness.
The gunmen successfully made their escape, for a time, leaving the state. A thousand-dollar reward was offered and the newspaper said it was believed their names were known and that they were both residents of the northern and eastern part of Limestone county. Then as The Alabama Courier reported on 31 May 1922, nearly seven months after the murder of Kirby Cole, one of the two men was captured.
It had been thought from the start that one of the two men was Tom Wilson. Tom Wilson was born June 22, 1900, and when he was seven years old was sent to reform school for two years. Two years’ prior to Kirby Cole’s murder, after having pleaded guilty in Limestone County Circuit Court, Wilson spent a couple years in the state penitentiary, using the alias “Jack Curley”, for stealing a mule and a buggy. While in the pen Tom Wilson, along with another inmate, had attempted the murder of a man in prison.
After the murder of Kirby Cole both Wilson and Christopher apparently headed north. Tom Wilson was arrested in East St. Louis, Illinois after being apprehended on burglary charges. It was also in East St. Louis that Tom Wilson’s partner was killed by the police while resisting arrest.
Bob Ewing, chief detective for the L&N railroad, had been interested in the Kirby Cole murder from the beginning and helped in the identification and tracking down of Tom Wilson. When Ewing confronted the suspect, but had not yet accused him, Wilson confessed to the murder of Kirby Cole. Tom Wilson in his confession said it was his now deceased partner who actually pulled the trigger, though he admitted to rummaging Kirby’s pockets. The newspaper stated the physical facts, along with Inman’s testimony disproved his story. Tom Wilson said he didn’t know why his partner killed Kirby Cole as neither of them had spoken to Kirby when he got in the taxi that fateful evening.
So Tom Wilson was tried, convicted, and removed to Birmingham for safe keeping. On May 3rd, 1923, the supreme court of Alabama affirmed the conviction of Tom Wilson in the murder of Kirby Cole and his execution by hanging was scheduled for June 8th.
After Tom Wilson’s verdict was announced Wilson’s attorneys asked for a suspension of the judgement pending an appeal, which was granted, until it could be reviewed by the supreme court of Alabama.
Sheriff Shirley of Jefferson county said Tom was the most dangerous criminal he had ever handled and the most troublesome.
Before 1923, executions in Alabama were the responsibility of the counties, not the State, and were carried out by hanging on private or local gallows. The newspaper stated that “if Tom Wilson hangs it will be the first legal hanging in Limestone County since the civil war.” There had only been two legal hangings in the history of the county. So, in addition to being the first hanging since the 1860s Tom Wilson’s hanging sentence also appears to have made him the last person in Limestone County “scheduled” to be legally hanged. In 1923, legislation provided for state-performed executions by electrocution.
The Alabama Courier article of May 23, 1923 made the following observations:
- Tom Wilson now denied his previous admissions.
- Wilson claimed to be uneducated, yet he was said to be “a constant reader and writes well.”
- Tom Wilson was represented “by two of the ablest lawyers in North Alabama…”
The Alabama Courier then reported on May 30, 1923, “A monster effort on the part of people headed by a number of prison reform workers in Birmingham is under way to prevent the carrying out of the sentence by the lower and supreme court in the Tom Wilson case, who is scheduled to hang on June 8th unless the governor of the state steps in…”
Noting the petition effort to free Wilson the Courier wrote, “Many people have signed the petition without ever hearing about the case… Let the governor let the courts determine the penalties to be handed to criminals… and there will be much less crime.” Even Kirby Cole’s mother was asked to sign the petition, which she apparently did not do.
On May 23, 1923, The Alabama Courier wrote, “The jury and the courts have done their duty. But certain self-appointed guardians of the human race at Birmingham and certain newspapers at the same place who, in their wisdom, assume to know more about the case than the witnesses and the courts, have attempted to surround the Governor with a “Smoke Screen” thereby hoping to have a righteous verdict nullified by commutation or parole… it is not surprising to a thinking public that crime generally in Jefferson County is rampant when self-confessed criminals are made heroes of by its citizens…”
June 3, 1923 Tom Wilson was turned over to the Limestone County sheriff by a Jefferson County deputy to be returned to Limestone County to be hanged at sunrise on Friday, 8 June, 1923 The Alabama Courier noted “the only thing that will save him will be an order from the governor or divine hindrance.”
On June 7, 1923, Wilson was given a reprieve and the execution was postponed until 29 June, 1923. Tom said he was deeply grateful to the governor for the three weeks lease on life he was given. And while being held in Birmingham, Tom was baptized by a minister from Huntsville in a bath tub at the county jail.
The Alabama Courier reported on June 13, 1923, “It is believed that on the 29th that the trap of the new gallows which awaits its victim…will be put into use and the life of this young man, who might have been a useful member of society will come to a close at the end of a grass rope that is being stretched for the occasion.”
Next the Courier reported on June 27, 1923:
“It is the general impression throughout the state that Gov. Brandon is not going to stay the execution of Tom Wilson… and that at sunrise on Friday morning he will pay the extreme penalty at the end of a hempen rope now being stretched at the tool house south of the county jail where the gallows was constructed a month ago…
…The letter and telegram from the state’s attorney in Illinois who was present when Tom Wilson made his confession to Mr. Bob Ewing, the man who went to Illinois to bring him back, convinced the governor that Tom was beyond question guilty of the murder…and would allow the verdict of the court to stand.
Wilson is very cheerful, has a fine appetite, sleeps well and seems to be in general good spirit.
…The last fiasco to obtain affidavits looking to his escape from the noose, was one of the most ludicrous and mediocre affairs… two young women who were brought here for the purpose of obtaining by means, fair or foul, a declaration from Inman [the taxi driver] that Wilson was not the man. As a result, a couple of women were made to appear in a most unenviable light… The only thing that this effort produced was the loss to somebody of a quart of moonshine and two ten dollar fines for two women, one of whom declared from the witness stand that she was as virtuous as any girl in Athens or her home town, Albany.”
It seems that once it was certain the verdict was to be carried out Tom Wilson’s sentence was commuted. On July 4, 1923 in an article title A USELESS GALLOWS The Alabama Courier wrote,
“Does anybody want to buy a gallows and a hangman’s rope? Limestone has a perfectly good one, not second hand, for it was never used, for sale.”
“The gallows made to hang Tom Wilson, the self-confessed slayer of Kirby Cole, the brave and gallant young soldier boy, has been cheated of its victim by the governor of Alabama who had told a number of people that he could not save the man who had committed this cowardly crime from the noose. Yet, when within a few hours of the time for him to pay the penalty, the governor wired the sheriff that he had commuted the sentence to life imprisonment…”
“Tom was carried to Birmingham where he was much lauded and feted and made a hero of.”
Having faced a very narrow escape from getting his neck stretched you’d think Tom Wilson might have mellowed a little bit. The following was reported in The Alabama Courier on March 17, 1927, “The first riot in Kilby prison, known all over Alabama as a “country club for prisoners” was staged there Sunday evening just after the prisoners had enjoyed their splendid Sunday evening meal… The riot was fomented and arranged by the notorious Tom Wilson who was sent from this county to Kilby for life, the sentence of death being commuted by Gov. Brandon twelve hours before the time set for his execution.”
Tom Wilson died in 1947 on a prison farm. Wilson was only about 47 at the time of his death and I don’t know if he died by an accident, by foul play, or if he died from some ailment. Regardless of how he died, that was the end of Tom Wilson and of the Kirby Cole story.
The song, as sung by Aaron Sims, a blind Athens resident, was recorded on the album “Historical Ballads of the Tennessee Valley” in 1982 by the Tennessee Folklore Society.
Here is a blog post I found on the Internet that discusses the album “Historical Ballads of the Tennessee Valley”. [note: It appears you can download the album for free from this link]
Here is a video of local Athens resident and longtime member of the Madison County Ramblers, Doyle Kelley, singing the song the way his mother taught him which is in a distinctly different style. Click on
Come all you reckless bo–ys, where ever you may dwell
and listen to the sto–ry, that Tommy Wilson tells.
One cold November eve–ning, when three of us young men
We left the city of Ath–ens, hardbound for Clements Gin.
We started on our jour–ney, we all were very bold
when about three miles from At–hens, we murdered Kirby Cole.
We drug him from the ta- xi, out on the lone roadside
and there we examined Kir–by, to be sure that he had died.
I held my gun on In–man, while Jackie took his change
when we got back to the ta–xi, and there laid his remains.
We drove up into Ard–more, while it was getting late
where Inman left the ta–xi, ol’ Jackie and I escaped.
We made our way to Hunts–ville, from there to East St. Louis
where Jackie my pal was mur–dered, for the resist of his arrest.
He’s left me in old St. Lo–uis, to wonder all alone
way far away from Ath–ens, where the awful deeds was done.
Now here comes Bobby E–wing with papers in his hand.
saying “Hello Tommy Wil–son, you are the guilty man”
“Who killed Kirby Co–le, that black November night
while he was out with In–man, out on the Ardmore Pike.”
On the 28th day of Ju–ly, I was condemned to die
for the murderin’ of Kirby Co–le, upon a scaffold high.
Come all you reckless b–oys, wherever you may stroll.
And listen to the sto–ry, that Tommy Wilson told.
The Valley Star has published two articles about the murder of Kirby Cole:
- Athens murder of WWI veteran inspired folk ballad by Rebekah Davis, Limestone County Archivist, published 11 September, 2015
- Where trees don’t grow: Remembering Kirby Cole by Jerry Barksdale, published 12 February, 2016
To see past dulcimentaries go to https://athensdulcimerclub.wordpress.com/dulcimentaries/