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
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
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
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.
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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1. Why was Columbus fertile ground for racial unrest at this time?
Take into consideration Columbus’s and especially Wynnton’s historical
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
3. Can you determine reasons why African Americans in Columbus
were reluctant to cooperate with the police?
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
Save the Last Dance ( 2001), directed by Thomas Carter
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.
Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
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