The story of Pauline McCoy is a bothersome one. The young woman (aged 19 or 22, depending on the newspaper) died on the scaffold in Union Springs, Bullock County, Alabama, in 1888. At the time, it was extraordinarily rare for a woman to be executed, even a black woman in the deep South (as McCoy was). She was the first woman put to death in Alabama since the Civil War (1864) and that state would not execute another woman until 1930 -- and certainly not for want of murderesses. It was quite the interval, a couple of generations, that McCoy's execution interrupted.
The story of the murder she purportedly committed is also quite unusual. In February, 1887, a white girl from Montgomery named Annie Jordan, 14, wandered away from home. She was a "half-witted" girl, "demented," in the language of the times. A few days later, her unclothed body was found in a pine thicket. Someone had choked her to death.
The incomplete accounts available today suggest that "circumstances" led the authorities to question Pauline McCoy, who was allegedly discovered with the dead girl's clothes. Curiously -- very curiously --Pauline initially pointed the accusing finger at her own father. But it was Pauline who was convicted and sentenced to death. The governor was called on to intercede, but he refused.
McCoy was executed on October 12, 1888. By one account, the hanging was private and only the "necessary persons" were admitted. By another account, five thousand people of all races attended her hanging just outside the colored cemetery, and the sentence was "approved by all classes as just."
She was carried to the scene by a two-horse wagon, riding atop her own coffin. At the top of the wooden steps she gave her last statement: "Tell my mother not to mourn for me, for I will be skipping around in heaven in the morning." With that, she broke down completely and had to be held up as the rope descended. Her neck was broken in the drop.
The modern student of crime frowns at this one. What on earth was the motive for a young woman to kill a half-witted girl? Was Annie Jordan murdered solely for the dress she was wearing? It's possible but hardly seems probable. The available details of the crime seem to suggest a sexual murder: the unclothed victim, the manner of her death, the location of the body....
As a very general rule subject to occasional exception: young women do not go around choking young girls to death. To do so requires some degree of upper body strength -- some strength in the hands -- which young women generally lack. In addition the fact that the body was found in a thicket seems to suggest the killer may have brought the victim there... spent some time doing God knows what. It is also quite troubling that any woman accused of a terrible killing would point to her own father as the culprit.
But one is forced to concede that it is far too late to raise these sorts of questions if the powers-that-were in Alabama didn't think of them when it might have mattered.