Small Town Tragedy, Big Time Price. September 1947
Updated: Jan 1
The last execution case carried out for Pulaski County
It has been a while since we posted a murder or mystery case, but we are back! We also have some big news coming soon!
As we mentioned in the last Hometown Murders & Mysteries post, there have been a grand total of two death by electric chair cases to be carried out from cases originating in Pulaski County. Noble "Red" Holt was one of our citizens, but he moved to Cincinatti, where he committed his crimes and was executed in Ohio.
We are glad to be wrapping up the last of these cases! For many reasons, this one was hard to tell.
Pulaski County 1947
In the late summer of 1947, the Somerset City Council was negotiating a new city water system, the VFW's Donkey Ball Game was being planned, John G Prather (Sr.) announced the opening of his new law office, typhoid cases were on the rise in the county, and sadly, a 55-year-old widow, living alone, was brutally raped and murdered at her home in the small town of Ferguson.
While the United States continued to inch toward improved race relations and equality, in 1947, communities were still largely divided between white and black sections of cities and towns. Outside the city of Somerset, most of the towns and communities in Pulaski County shared the same demographics—mostly white residents divided by income classes. Ferguson was different because it was one of the first of the smaller towns in Pulaski County to begin seeing black and white neighbors living in close proximity. There is still a lot of work to be accomplished on that front; however, this is not a story of races and divisions as much as it is about a senseless death and the last murder case in Pulaski County that carried a sentence of death. Pure evil is not limited to any race or class.
The Town of Ferguson
Ferguson was a busy little town while the Ferguson Shops were in operation. The shops were created to employ rail workers and mechanics when the railroad came through the county in the late 1800s-early 1900s. At one point, when the Ferguson Shops were in full swing, the town's crime rate was as high per capita as any big city and sometimes a rough place to live. That was to be expected with transient workers who did not have roots in the community, some with shady pasts, and the hobos making regular pit stops to stir up mischief while on their rail tour of America. However, the good citizens of Ferguson ensured the town maintained integrity by establishing a town council, a marshal, a fire department, and probably most importantly, a church. The town built a beautiful school and even had a cemetery on Old Jacksboro Street, near the railroad tracks. At one point, Ferguson was home to what is now regarded as a legendary sanatorium later used as a tuberculosis hospital, which was long gone before 1947 and another mystery to explore later.
By the 1950s, the new diesel railroad freight locomotive eventually put the Ferguson Shops out of business. In 1947, the shops employed less than 100 men, most of whom were community members, and naturally, the crime rate had dropped, leaving Ferguson akin to life in Mayberry, USA. There were around 156 residences with a total population of 550 residing in the Ferguson city limits (1950 U.S. Census data). The town was a place where neighbors cared for one another, people checked on each other regularly, meals and garden goods were shared, doors were left unlocked, and folks generally noticed things out of place.
Mrs. Mary Ada Hughes
Mrs. Mary Ada Corder Hughes was born in Wayne County, Kentucky, to B. E. and Jemima Corder around 1892. Records indicate that she was married briefly to Herbert Norfleet and may have had twin sons, Homer and Carl Corder, who shared a birth date of October 4, 1911, but did not carry the Norfleet last name. Sometime between 1914 and 1920, Ada and James Hughes were married. Mr. Hughes appears to have had three or four daughters during his prior marriage to Charlie Northcutt Hughes. The first Mrs. Hughes died in 1914, leaving Mr. Hughes a widower. Mr. Hughes' daughters were older than Mrs. Ada Hughes' two sons.
We will respectfully refer to Mrs. Ada Corder Hughes as Ada from this point forward.
James Hughes was about 25 or 26 years older than Ada. During the 1920 census, Ada and James had her two sons and his three daughters in their household on Griffin Avenue, creating a rather large home of seven. By the time the 1930 census was taken, the family was living on Waddle Street, and only the two 18-year-old sons were left in the Hughes' home.
By 1937, James passed, and Ada was left a widow. She attended High Street Baptist church faithfully. The Commonwealth Newspaper reported that Mrs. Hughes "went out of her way to minister to the sick and needy. (…) Her good nature endeared her to all with whom she came in contact."
Ada continued to live at the Waddle Street address—her son, Carl, and his wife lived nearby on Murphy Avenue and stayed with her part-time. Carl's twin brother, Homer, died from tuberculous five years before in 1942, leaving Carl Ada's closest living relative. Life had thrown tragedies at them from every turn, but everything seemed to be calming down for the small family... until that fateful day in mid-September when a restless youth from Somerset would cross her path.
Mr. Luther Williams
Records indicate that Luther Williams was born June 8, 1920, in Pulaski County, Kentucky. In 1930 he was living in District 6 of Wayne County with his mother and father, Jim and Kate Williams, two sisters, and a boarder staying with them. Luther's mother and father had family ties in Covington, Kentucky, and may have lived in several places in Kentucky. In 1940, the U.S. Census had Luther working on a cotton farm in Arkansas, living with his uncle Clyde Johnson (assuming those records are correct). It is probably safe to say that Williams didn't stay in one place for too long while he was growing up.
In 1942 Luther filled out his World War II draft card stating that he lived in Monticello but was born in Pulaski County. As a 21-year-old man, Luther was what one might say "a buck twenty"; he was 5'6 and 119 lbs. We note that because we've heard many police officers agree that it is the "wiry" ones (not the huge, muscle-bound guys) that give the hardest fight, as far as the criminals go. So, that description seems to be the one that stands out to us the most when we review criminal profiles.
The September 17 edition of the Commonwealth Newspaper stated that Mr. Williams was no stranger to the law and was fresh from the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, in late March 1947. Luther had an additional conviction where he previously served a sentence in LaGrange, Kentucky. Luther's convictions were banding and confederating, forgery, and stealing several Old Age Pension checks. It appears Luther spent most of his short adult life in prison.
Since the time Lester pulled his sentence in the state and federal institutions, many changes have been made to the prison systems, but some changes were already starting to emerge. The Terre Haute prison opened in 1940 and was marked as "progressive" due to new policies. The Prisoners were to be called "inmates" instead of "criminals," and they were to be addressed by their names instead of their prisoner numbers. Terre Haute was the first prison to create an open structure without steel cell blocks. One of the more essential changes implemented was that prisoners could learn a trade while incarcerated—small steps toward rehabilitation, but likely not enough for Luther.
In the 40s, even with the new changes, post-release offender programs for reentry into society were non-existent or in the early stages of planning. Even with the latest educational effort, there wasn't much help to find housing and jobs after release. The system cut them loose with $10 and a bus ticket if they were lucky. Once released from prison, they had to have a great deal of self-determination and solid resources available, or they were likely to commit more crimes and start the cycle again. It is easy to assume that a 27-year-old black man just released from prison would have difficulty getting a good-paying job, steady housing, and other means necessary to stay out of trouble. It was a setup for misfortune and failure. Regardless of chance or circumstance, most of us are equipped with enough intelligence and reasoning to know right from wrong and have to "lay in the beds we make." Rightfully so, too.
Shortly after Luther's release, during the spring and summer of 1947, he picked up odd jobs of cutting the grass and other handyman-type services to some of the Ferguson and Somerset locals—Mrs. Hughes was one of his sporadic employers.
Sunday, September 14, 1947
Between 10-10:30 pm, Ada's son, Carl Corder, and his wife came to her house to check on her, as was the nightly ritual to see if she needed anything before she went to bed. When Carl entered the house, the lights were on, and the rear screen door was unlocked, but his mother was nowhere to be found. It was obvious that something was wrong, and he immediately began searching for her. It wasn't unusual for Ada to visit or call on neighbors Pat Beasley and Sterly Phelps, so Carl first checked to see if she was there or if they knew her whereabouts. Unfortunately, the search turned up nothing; neither neighbor had seen her nor knew where she might be. The two neighbors, worried for Ada, followed Carl back to her house. Carl and the neighbors began searching outside in the backyard with a flashlight in hand.
Soon after the search began, they found Ada's purse about 30 feet from the back door, empty of all its contents. With their mind whirling and anxiety high, Carl said he knew something terrible had happened to his mother; he told his wife to call the police as he cautiously continued the search.
Carl shined his light along the plants and shrubs in the backyard, about 145 feet from the back door in a little alleyway against the fence he caught something moving; it was his mother. He rushed to her bloody and badly beaten body to find her with cuts and bruises all over her face, blood coming from her mouth and nose, and one eye was swollen shut. Poor Mrs. Hughes was lifeless and unconscious but still alive.
Oddly, Ada's step-in shoes had been removed and placed beside her body. Lying beside her thigh was a stock of a gun. Pat Beasley, the neighbor, helping with the search, found some of Ada's underclothes in the grass under one of her apple trees in the backyard, not far from her body. It was becoming evident that Ada Hughes was brutally beaten and likely raped. Carl, and the two neighbor men, gently carried Ada into the house to wait for the ambulance to arrive.
The police arrived on the scene ahead of the ambulance and went to work securing the scene and evidence. When the ambulance got there, they wasted no time and immediately loaded the unconscious Ada into the back of the vehicle and took her to Somerset Hospital for emergency care. Police officers spread out and began questioning everyone in the vicinity. At this point, things didn't look good for the poor widow Hughes.
Chief Norfleet was called to the scene by Patrolman Lawson and arrived as the ambulance was leaving with Mrs. Hughes. The Chief found Ada's dental plates in the yard with other pieces of the gun. In addition, there was a pool of blood and pieces of undergarments not far from where she had been found. He noted that a struggle had occurred by the looks of the grass in the yard. Patrolman Moor eventually found the gun barrel in the grass about 10 feet from the spot where Mrs. Hughes was found.
When the police questioned Sterly Phelps, the other neighbor helping with the search, he recalled hearing noises like "muffled" groans coming from the vicinity of Ada's house around 7:45 that same evening. He and Mr. Phelps walked outside and listened for several minutes to hear better and see if they could determine where the sounds were coming from and figure out what they were, but the sounds stopped, and they went back indoors. Henry Hall got to work on mapping the Hughes home and yard, pinpointing where the evidence and Mrs. Hughes' body were found.
Police wasted no time getting on the trail of a suspect, and three Somerset men with criminal records were hauled in for questioning. The first two to be interviewed gave proof of their whereabouts during the time in question and were released. The third man they went after, Luther Williams, was at his home on White Street when police located him. Luther was sitting on the bed with a clean white shirt on when they entered the residence. His sister told the officers that Luther had been burning another shirt just before they entered the house. The officers looked in the cookstove and found the buttons to the shirt.
At first, Luther denied having anything to do with the case and blamed another black Somerset resident; however, that man's alibi checked out. Finally, around 3:00 am, after a few hours of grueling interrogation and about seven hours after the attack, Luther Williams made his grisly confession. That confession was provided to the Commonwealth newspaper, published in the September 17, 1947, edition, and reads like this:
"The affiant, Luther Williams, states that he is 27 years of age and resides on White Street in Somerset, KY. He states that at about 8:30 pm, he went to the home of Mrs. Ada Hughes on Waddle Street, Somerset, KY. He stated that at that time, he had in passion a .22 caliber rifle. He states that he knocked on the door of Mrs. Hughes' home, and when Mrs. Hughes came to the door, the affiant threw his gun upon her and forced her out the back door, through the apple orchard, and into some bushes, and then raped her.
'When I raped Mrs. Hughes, she told me she would call the law; I struck her several times with the butt of the rifle I had. After I thought she was dead, I went back to her home and took her pocketbook. From the pocketbook, I took $8.00, and then I threw the pocketbook away. I later went to my home, where I burned my shirt, which was bloody, and when the officers came, this shirt had all burned except the buttons, which the officers recovered.
I have been twice convicted of felonies. Once for forgery and the second time for banding and confederating.
I have had this statement read to me, and it is all true. I make this statement without any coercion and of my own free will and accord without any promises or inducements being made to me.'"
The police lodged Luther, and so began the process of prosecution for the brutal rape and beating of Mrs. Ada Hughes. Unfortunately for Luther, Mrs. Ada succumbed to her injuries, and Luther's fate with death was more likely than not.
The beloved widow left behind her parents, her adult twin sons, Carl and Homer Hughes, four sisters, and three brothers. Luther's remaining family would surely also feel the pangs of loss senselessly perpetrated on two families and a community for a measly $8. This tragedy would eventually play out in the courts, and Luthor would meet his destiny and be the last "Legal Electrocution" death sentence handed down to a citizen of Somerset-Pulaski County, Kentucky.
The beating, rape, and robbery of Mrs. Hughes occurred on September 14; a confession was obtained only a few hours later on September 15, Mrs. Hughes died less than 24 hours after the attack, and a grand jury handed down an indictment hours after the confession and Luther was quickly prepped for transport.
Emotions were high in the community, and roughly 200 citizens were outside the courthouse. On Monday afternoon, September 15, Chief Norfleet, Sheriff Frank Beaty, and Patrolman Noble Massengale took Luther out of jail to transport him to Lexington in the Sheriff's car. The jail was then located at the courthouse on the third floor. Two FBI agents were at the courthouse when Williams was taken from his cell and followed the transport vehicle, fearing that someone would attempt to assassinate Luther and provide extra security. The evidence was sent to the FBI laboratory in Washington, D.C., where it would be processed before the trial date.
Luther was charged with wilful murder and rape, and a jury of Mercer Countians was convened in Pulaski County in October 1947. The media tagged the crime as "one of the most brutal assaults in the history of the county." The people of Pulaski County were outraged and wanted justice; even so, it proved impossible for a jury of Pulaski Countians to be seated. Finally, after an exhaustive effort, the attorneys for both sides agreed to go outside of the county to seat the jury. The hearing began at 1 pm on the afternoon of October 14, 1647. It started with the defendant entering a guilty plea; however, he changed his petition to not guilty, and the trial began. Officers were stationed outside the courthouse doors, and everyone who entered was thoroughly searched for weapons.
According to the October 15, 1947, edition of the Commonwealth newspaper:
"Twenty-seven witnesses for the Commonwealth took the stand that day, each with a damning testimony. The defense did not introduce any testimony, and by agreement, there was no argument offered by the attorneys."
The witnesses told of Luther carrying a rifle in Mrs. Hughes' neighborhood on the day of the murder. Williams' family members testified that he had the gun at the home of his father, Jim Williams, late that same afternoon and that he returned to his father's house later that night without the gun. The evidence sent to the lab showed that the blood and hair found on the rifle belonged to Mrs. Hughes.
Chester Ingram testified that the gun Williams used belonged to him and was stolen from his residence Sunday afternoon while he was gone to Bogletown. Ingram said he used the weapon to squirrel hunt on September 13, 1947, and after he was finished hunting, he placed it behind the door at his house on Murphy Avenue. He stated that he always left his doors unlocked, and Luther knew where he kept his gun. Ingram identified the pieces of the gun found at the crime scene as pieces of his gun.
Mrs. Carrie Howard, a neighbor of Mrs. Hughes, said she saw Luther twice on Sunday near her home, once around noon and again around 5:30 pm. When she saw him the second time, she witnessed him carrying a rifle; he was alone and wearing a white shirt.
Other neighbors in the area, white and black, testified that they saw Luther Williams in the neighborhood carrying the rifle all through the day on September 17, 1947. Luther's sister testified that after the time of the attack on Mrs. Hughes, he came into the house with blood on his shirt. She offered to wash the shirt for him, but he insisted on burning it. She told the court, "He said something had happened, and he was afraid it would be blamed on him." Even Luther's parents, Jim and Kate Williams had no choice but to take the stand and testify against their son to what their daughter had told them about the shirt.
A store owner, James Ritter, said that Luther came into his store between 6 and 7:00 pm wanting to pawn or sell a rifle for $4. Ritter said he knew the gun was stolen and threw him out of his store. Walter Lancaster said that he was near a home on Murphy Avenue, the road that Waddle Street turns off, and that around 7:00 pm that night, Luther said he would give him the rifle for a drink.
Finally, Mrs. Edward Burton, who lived very close to Mrs. Hughes, said that around 8:30 pm, she heard Mrs. Hughes scream and thought Mrs. Hughes called her name once. She also stated that around the same time, she saw someone wearing a white shirt run through her yard; however, she could not identify that person.
Astonishingly, the jury deliberated eight minutes before declaring Luther Williams guilty after only one day of testimony [some reports say less than three minutes]. His punishment was "fixed at death" by the court. As one would expect in such a trial the courtroom was full; however, the Circuit Judge, Edwin R. Denney, allowed no one to stand in the isles, only the seats were allowed to be filled and the audience was instructed to show no demonstration during the trial or when the verdict was delivered.
The Commonwealth reported that,
"Williams, who showed little emotion during the trial, flinched slightly when Patterson [Jury Foreman] read, 'we find the defendant guilty of the wilful murder and fix his punishment at death.' Jailer Teddy Decker and Patrolman Noble Massingale, who escorted Williams back to his cell in the county jail, said the prisoner had nothing to say."
In December of 1947, the Court of Appeals deemed that Luther Williams received a fair trial and held up the verdict, and he was formally sentenced to death by the electric chair in Eddyville. Luther was scheduled to die on Friday, February 27, 1948. The whole process took a little over five months after the brutal rape and murder occurred.
Two weeks before Luther would be electrocuted, his father, Jim Williams, died of a heart attack at his home in Somerset. Luther died on February 27, 1948, at 12:14 am by "Legal Electrocution" at Eddyville State Penitentiary.
As with all crimes, many were impacted by one person's actions. Unfortunately, this was not the last brutal crime to happen in Pulaski County, but we sincerely hope that we never see such a case again.
As always, we remain sensitive to the remaining family of both parties in this case and retell these events with the utmost respect for those left behind. We welcome community feedback and insight. If you have a connection, a correction, or more to add, please leave us a comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Unfortunately, in most cases, we have to rely on what the newspapers and other written historical resources tell us, but we all know that is only part of the story.
Have a story you want us to run down? Send us an email and let us know. We would love to hear from you!