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He Shot the Sheriff, But I Did the Time

by Amanda Smith

Based on a true story.
All names and locations have been changed to protect the innocent.

A woman rocks backs and forth on the last pew in a small Baptist church in rural Georgia, mumbling to herself, unintelligible murmurings that can be heard by others seated in the back of the church. "Who is that lady and why is she acting like that?" asks a small black boy about six years of age. "Shhh," says his mother. "That's that Haskell woman, she went crazy in the jail; don't pay her no mind."

This is a story of injustice and racism in rural, 1920's Georgia.

"My name is Betty Mae Haskell and I was 21 when my nightmare began. I wuz born in a small Georgia community in 1902 to a white man and his black maid. I'm what folks call 'red' and I can almost pass for white. I got long, straight black hair and green eyes. Lots of men folk have tried to get wit me but I've loved Amos Haskell since I wuz 13 years old and I married him when I wuz 16. Amos is six feet tall and very solid, wit muscles all over.

"In 1923, me and Amos lived on 'bout a acre a land near the railroad tracks out in the county. We worked as sharecroppers two miles down the dirt road pickin' cotton for Mr. Tompkins. We worked from before sunup til after sundown every day but Sunday. We had a small place, a shanty, they called it back then, on Mr. Tompkin's land. It wuz just two rooms, the livin' area and the sleepin' area, but I kept it nice and clean. All our food wuz provided by Mr. Tompkins as payment for us workin' his land. We ate a lot of sugar cane syrup, biscuits, fatback and cornpone, but we never could seem to get ahead.

"I remember one Sunday afternoon while me and Amos was sittin' out in the front yard under the oak tree. Mr. Tompkins rode up on his big grey horse and tole Amos we wuz to work for Mr. Clancy for the next two weeks, whose farm was a mile to the other side of his, on account a Mr. Clancy's main colored wuz down wit the 'numonia. Didn't make no never mind to Amos and me; we would get the same amount of cornmeal at the end of the week.

"Round 'bout Tuesday, me and Amos wuz pickin' cotton out in the back part of Mr. Clancy's field when along come dat shiftless Nat Lester. I had worked myself to 'bout 10 rows from Amos, 'long side the woods when Nat come up to me and started tryin' to talk mess to me. Nat had been tryin' to git wit me for some time; he would sneak and talk to me in town when Amos weren't lookin'. I couldn't stand him and din't wont nuthin' to do wit him. I told Nat 'when hell freezes over' but he just yanked me into the trees and threw me on the ground. Thank the Lawd Amos wuz watchin’, cuz he come runnin’ and jumped on Nat and beat him down real good. Nat couldn't even git up; it looked like he wuz hurt pretty bad. He started hollerin' real loud for Mr. Clancy to help him and me and Amos got real scared. Amos lit out towards home and I followed him, tryin' as best I could to keep up.

When we got to the house, Amos ran in the bedroom and sat on the bed, me right beside him. I said, 'what we gone do, Amos? Mr. Clancy gone be shore nuf mad at you!' Amos' hands wuz shakin' and he started pacin' back and forth 'cross the room. Amos said he thought he broke Nat's ribs cuz he heard 'em crack and he wuz scared Mr. Clancy wuz gonna come huntin' him down and now I got scared too. Sho 'nuf, 'bout 20 minutes later, we heard horses in the yard and me and Amos ran out to see who it wuz. It wuz Mr. Clancy and Sheriff Watkins and Sheriff tole Amos to stay right where he wuz. When Sheriff got down off his horse, he put cuffs on Amos right away then smacked him upside his head with a stick he wuz holdin' and tole him he wuz goin to jail cuz Nat weren't gone be able to work for weeks. Mr. Clancy stepped to Amos and hit him several times and cursed him for beatin' up Nat. Amos asked Sheriff could he go in and git his shoes on account a he wuz barefoot. We all went in the house and back to the bedroom and Amos reached under the bed for his shoes, but instead, he pulled out his shotgun and swung it 'round to face the Sheriff and just pulled the trigger 'for anybody could even move! Sheriff Watkins was knocked back 'gainst the wall wit a big hole in his chest and I knew right off he wuz dead. Mr. Clancy jest looked at Amos holdin' that shotgun, then he turned 'round and ran out the house, jumped on his horse and rode off, fast as anythin'. Amos went over and got the cuff key off Sheriff’s belt loop and took off the cuffs.

"I ain't never been so shocked and scared in my life! I could feel my heart poundin' in my chest and sweat wuz runnin' down the side of my face. 'What you go and do that for?' I asked Amos. 'Now what we gone do?' Amos jest looked at me like he ain't never seen me before, then all of a sudden, he started movin’ real fast like. He threw a couple pairs of pants and some shirts in a bag, long wit a bar of lye soap and a hair comb. I ask him 'where we goin?' and he tells me I ain't goin nowhere, cuz he need to move real fast. I started cryin' right away, cuz I wuz scared for his life. I jest knew a whole slew of white men wuz comin' back to kill him. I tole him to hurry up and git goin' and where wuz he goin to? He say he don't know, but he'll let me know later when he git dere. Amos grabbed his bag and his shotgun and rifle and hightailed it out the back way through the woods.

"That night, I cried like I ain't never cried before. I cried for Amos and for whatever wuz gonna happen to him, and I cried for me too -- I missed my husband. The next mornin', my eyes wuz all swollen and I looked and felt terrible. I din't know what to do, so I just did what I always do -- I cooked up a mess a greens and cleaned the house. Round 'bout noon, I heard horses in the front yard, a lot of 'em by the sound. When I went outdoors, there wuz 8 or 10 white men in the yard, one of 'em wuz Deputy Calhoun. He rode right up to the porch and when he got down, he tole me I was under arrest for the murder of Sheriff Watkins. I saw Mr. Clancy sittin' on his horse an I yelled at him, that he wuz standin' right there when Amos kilt that man. Mr. Clancy said me and Amos wuz in on it together -- that we planned it. I tried to turn around and run in the house, but Deputy Calhoun was too quick for me and he grabbed me by the hair, yankin' me down to the porch floor. He kicked me in my stomach and I gasped, tryin' to catch my breath. 'You gone pay for what yo man did to the Sheriff, girly-girl', he said. Then two other men grabbed my arms and forced 'em behind my back; I felt cuffs being closed on my wrists. Deputy Calhoun threw me over the back of his horse and got on behind me and we made our way outta the yard and up the dirt road toward town.

æ" I was really scared by now and I started crying and tryin' to explain that I dint have no idea Amos wuz gonna shoot Sheriff Watkins. Deputy Calhoun jest tole me to shut up and he kept pattin' my behind while the other men laughed.

"The ride to town wuz very uncomfortable and my ribs hurt by the time we got there. Deputy Calhoun rode his horse right up to the jailhouse and then got down and pulled me off his horse and walked me up the steps. I asked him, 'where you takin' me? I ain't dun nuthin!' He jest laughed and pushed me through the door. Once we got inside, he took off my cuffs and pushed me into the cell and slammed the door. 'You gone stay in there 'til you tell us where Amos went,' he said. I tried to tell him that I din't have no idea where he dun gone to, but they din’t believe me. I sat down on the metal cot that stuck out from the wall and cried silently. In my own mind, I decided I wouldn't tell 'em where Amos wuz, even if I knew.

"I spent a sleepless night, tossin' and turnin', wakin' up every hour or so, worried 'bout Amos and wonderin' what wuz gonna happen to me. The next day, neither of the deputies said anything to me; jest pushed my food through the slot at mealtimes. They wuz a piss pot in the corner of the cell and when I had to go, whoever wuz on duty would jest sit there and watch me go, smilin' like he knowed a secret or somethin'. I knew this couldn't last for much longer, so I din't complain, jest waited for 'em to let me go.

"The next day, I heard the men talkin' 'bout how Amos had gone to the general store on the side a the road at the top a the hill and bought a whole buncha ammo. When the posse got to the store and heard what Amos had did, none of 'em wanted to go after him anymore. I laughed secretly and prayed that Amos would be able to get far, far away.

"A day went by, then two, then three. I started askin' when they wuz gonna let me go, but din't nobody know. On my third day in jail, Deputy Calhoun came over to the bars and asked me wuz I ready to tell 'em where Amos dun went to. I tole him agin that I din't have no idea. He jest walked away and din't say nuthin else to me for days and days.

"After I dun been in the cell for 'bout two weeks, I started getting' worried. I din't feel well and the food they served me wuz terrible. How much longer could they keep me here? One of the deputies said he heard that Amos hoboed on a train to Detroit, but they wuz thinkin' he wuz gonna come back for me; I knew he wuz, it wuz jest a matter a time.

"The days turned into weeks and I gave up hope that they would jest let me go. I guess they figured if they din't have Amos, they would make me pay for his crime. I started havin' terrible thoughts 'bout being hanged or shot.

"When I had been in the cell for 'bout a month, Deputy Calhoun came in real late; had to be 2 or 3 in the mornin'. I wondered what he wuz doin' there that time a night. He got the keys out the drawer and opened the cell, then he came in and closed it behind him. "Come here, purty thang,' he said. 'My wife done started her monthlies and you gonna take care a my needs tonight'. A cold chill ran down my back -- I knowed what this man wuz fixin to do -- and I started backin' into the corner. He crossed the cell fast and grabbed my arm, throwin' me down on the cot. Then he ripped off my dress and got on top of me. He forced my legs apart wit his knee and then had his way wit me. I felt ill and thought I wuz gonna throw up when he wuz doin' it to me. I closed my eyes and went somewhere else in my head until he wuz done and got off me. When he pulled his pants up and buttoned 'em, he said he would see me agin tomorrow night. I din't answer; jest rolled away from him and faced the wall. I cursed Amos cuz he left me there to suffer the attentions of this stinkin', filthy white man.

"Deputy Calhoun's nighttime visits came regular, several times a month. I gave up all hope of ever seein' the light of day agin and jest tried to survive. I got real good at escapin' into my mind and I guess he liked that cuz I stopped fightin' him. Some nights, he brought a couple friend wit him and they had their way wit me too. I din’t care no more; I jest closed my eyes and my mind to it.

"One morning, I woke up real sick and threw up in the piss pot. I couldn't keep nuthin down all morning and I knew Calhoun had got me wit child. I din't want this baby -- I had already lost two babies by Amos and I hoped I would lose this one too. But I guess it weren’t to be. I grew fat over the next few months and I learnt to be thankful for dis baby cuz Calhoun stopped making his nighttime visits to my cell. I even started gettin’ more food at meal time -- not better, jest more. I ate everything they gave me.

"My time came in the middle of the night and the deputy workin' ran and got Calhoun. They brought a midwife and 'nother white woman in the cell and they brought hot water and a lot of cut-up linens wit 'em, 'long wit a pair a scissors and rubbin' alcohol. My labor wuz long and hard, but I finally had a beautiful baby girl. Right after the midwife cut the cord, she cleaned off my baby and wrapped her up. I reached out my arms to her, but the midwife handed her to the other white woman that wuz there and she left wit my new baby, tellin' me that my kinfolk would be notified to come and git her. I never even got to hold her and my dreams were of my baby's cries as they carried her away for months after.

"Months went by and I come to realize that I wuz doin' Amos' time. I gave up all hope of ever leavin’ my little cell and wuz jest glad they din't decide to hang me. I kept time by makin' scratches on the wall next to my cot wit the spoon they give me to eat wit'. After I had my baby, Calhoun's visits started up agin' and I knew that I would get wit' child agin and that he din't care. Him and his friends had their way wit me whenever they wanted. Shore nuf' I wuz pregnant agin the next year and this time, they tole me I had a boy. Agin, my baby wuz took from me right aways and I never got to hold him. After I had my second baby, Calhoun and his friends stopped comin' to see me; I guess the town folk looked down on it cuz they wuz makin' babies wit a colored. I din't care neither way; I had stopped caring a long time ago. Months turned into years and I done decided that I’m gonna die in dis here place and they ain’t nuthin I kin do 'bout it. Lawd, why don't you jest take me on home?"

Betty Mae Haskell spent 10 years, 2 months, and 16 days in the county jail for a crime she didn't commit. She was never tried or convicted; never received legal representation. After the birth and removal of her children, she became increasingly depressed and delusional. When it became too difficult for jailors to care for her, she was released to a mental institution in central Georgia for treatment and spent the following two years under the care of doctors who kept her heavily medicated. She was released in 1936 for a short time but had to be recommitted as she was unable to care for herself. Betty Mae passed away at the institution and was buried at a small, whitewashed church in the county where she was born.

Amos' mother died while Betty Mae was still in jail and law enforcement camped out at her home, hoping to spot Amos among the mourners, but he wasn’t there. Amos Haskell never returned to Twiggs County.

This story was recorded by Amanda Smith,
as told to her by residents of the county in which this occurred.

lula gilbert
Amanda Smith