Cities: Columbus

Stocking Strangler Killings Expose Racial Tensions

In 1977 and 1978 a serial killer targeted Wynnton, a quiet white suburb of Columbus. The murderer burtually raped and murdered seven elderly middle class white women of the Wynnton area. The identity of the so-called “Stocking Strangler” remained unknown because the sole survivor noticed only his mask, gloves, and long sleeves.

Nevertheless Don Kilgore, the county coroner, stated that investigators found “black Negroid pubic hairs” at the crime scenes. Experts at the time denounced the use of pubic hairs to determine a person's race, and leaders of the black community adamantly protested the accusation because of a lack of infallible evidence. Even though Kilgore later tried to reconcile the situation by denying that he accused a black man, he could not erase the damage already done by his previous report. It soon became the focal point of racial discord in the community.

The stocking strangler investigation reopened the gaping wound left by race riots in Columbus in the early 1970s. Once again the city found its white and black populations at odds with each other. The image of a black male rapist that Kilgore's statements painted in people's minds served to terrify the city’s white female population. It also infuriated black residents who found themselves victims of unwarranted police interrogation because of the historic myth of black men's insatiable libidos.

The police department considered the black community uncooperative for not assisting officers in the pursuit of the murderer, and black residents avoided involving themselves in an investigation that condemned a member of their race without just cause. Albert Thompson, an African American state representative for Columbus, articulated black resident's frustrations. Thompson posited that blacks in Columbus should not cooperate with institutions, the police department for example, that failed to ensure black civil rights.

The black community’s distrust of the handling of the case deepened when local members of the Ku Klux Klan offered to patrol the Wynnton area. Although police rejected the offer, they did not stop the Klansmen's occupation of the vicinity. In spite of the obvious implication of the Klan’s presence, one Wynnton resident presented a strong argument for a black man's innocence. The Columbusite stated what black residents already recognized: In a “lily-white neighborhood where almost everyone knows everyone else by sight," residents would notice "a strange black guy creeping around."       

Racial discord climaxed in March of 1978 when a Chicago-based group called the "Forces of Evil" sent threatening letters to Columbus police. In the letters, the Forces of Evil pledged that “a black woman would die every thirty days" in retaliation for the alleged black rampage against white women. Shortly after the authorities received the letters, authorities found the bodies of two black women within days of each other. Many believed that the "Forces of Evil" had carried out their threat. In a twist of circumstances, however, police arrested William Hance, an African American soldier stationed at Ft. Benning, for the murders of two black women--Irene Thirkield, and Brenda Faison (a.k.a. Gail Jackson). He was later charged and convicted of the 1977 murder of Karen Hickman, a white woman. Although some question Hance's guilt because of his limited mental capacity and the heavy presence of racially biased jurors, the court ruled that Hance had tried to use the Stocking Strangler case as a way to conceal his murders of the black women.

Law enforcement officials charged Carlton Gary with the murders six years after they occurred. Police linked Gary, an African American from Columbus, to three of the seven killings. Although investigators did find Gary’s fingerprints at several of the victim’s houses, neither his pubic hairs nor bodily fluids matched those left behind by the killer. Still, the jury convicted Gary on all counts, and he was sentenced to death. As district attorney, Judge Land had worked to exonorate Lucio Flowers for the 1954 murderer of civil rights activist and Columbus native, Dr. Thomas Brewer.

The suspicion that a black male killer targeted middle class white women perpetuated the myth of the black male rapist that came into being during Reconstruction. The stereotype of the black brute justified Jim Crow segregation. Although these events occurred over a decade after the height of Civil Rights Movement activism, the “Stocking Strangler” investigation revealed the fragile nature of race relations in this southern city. This chapter in Columbus's history destabilized the city’s fragile race relations and aggravated issues that the Movement had sought to overcome. Legislators implemented integration on a judicial level, but in reality white and black communities remained suspicious of each other.

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Discussion Questions

1. Why was Columbus fertile ground for racial unrest at this time? Take into consideration Columbus’s and especially Wynnton’s historical background.

2. How did the racial identity of the strangler become such a controversial issue? If you were a detective assigned to solve this case, what arguments would support that the killer was black, and how could you counter this argument to suggest the theory of a white killer?

3. Can you determine reasons why African Americans in Columbus were reluctant to cooperate with the police?

Take it to the Streets!

In contemporary film industries, depictions of interracial relationships remain few and far between. Especially controversial are relationships between black men and white women. Choose one of the films from the list below and compare the approaches of directors who portray interracial relationships between white women and black men. Consider the context of each film, and think about how Columbus residents in the 1970s might receive each film. Then describe how a contemporary audience might receive each film.

Jungle Fever (1991), directed by Spike Lee
Othello (1995), directed by Oliver Parker
Save the Last Dance ( 2001), directed by Thomas Carter
O (2001), directed by Tim Blake Nelson

Writers and Researchers: Jessica Jones-Berney, Marta Kolega, and Ta'Wanda Thomas in Professor Barbara McCaskill's ENGL 4860 (The Civil Rights Movement in American Literature), Fall 2007.

Editors: Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill

Web Site Designer: William Weems

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