If you’ve read The Eyes of Willie McGee, you know there was considerable mystery surrounding a woman named Rosalee McGee, who told McGee’s defense lawyers that she was his wife and the mother of his four children. She also presented herself, in a sworn statement, as a witness to the love affair that he said he’d had for years with the woman who accused him of rape, Willette Hawkins.
As I found out while reporting the book, Rosalee was an imposter. She was not married to McGee, nor was she the mother of his kids. His real wife, and the mother of the four, was a woman from Collins, Mississippi, named Eliza Jane Payton. Willie and Eliza Jane parted ways in 1942 and she divorced him in 1946, after his arrest.
So who was Rosalee? I was able to figure out what her real name was (Rosetta Saffold), where she came from (the area around Lexington, Miss., which is far from Laurel, where Willie McGee lived), and that she moved to New York after the case ended and kept an affiliation with the Civil Rights Congress, the Communist-backed group that paid for McGee’s defense. I think she met him in the late 1940s, through the bars of his jail cell in Jackson, Miss.—while visiting a cousin of hers who was on death row in the same jail. I also think she legitimately cared about him, and grew to care about the civil-rights and civil-liberties causes pushed by the CRC.
Recently the FBI released roughly four dozen pages from a file it kept on Rosalee McGee in the 1950s and 1960s. This file was created, pure and simple, because she had aligned herself with members of the Communist Party USA. She never did anything truly subversive and the government came to recognize that, letting the file peter out in the mid-1960s. The details in it match what I thought I knew but leave a couple mysteries still unsolved. Here’s a quick summary:
Rosalee was indeed born and raised in Lexington, Miss. At one point in the mid-1950s, the FBI contacted the Department of Vital Records in Mississippi and got her place of birth and birthdate. She was born ROSALEE SAFFOLD on April 1, 1919, at Emory in Holmes County, Mississippi. As I reported in my book, her parents were named Henry Saffold and Nancy Williams. (Emory is a country spot about 15 miles northeast of Lexington.)
As reported to me by her nephew, Jesse James Harris, she did move to New York after the McGee case ended. The FBI kept track of her for many years because, based on their observations, she appeared to be a Communist or close to it. She continued to take part in CRC activities, may have worked for the CRC at one point, and showed up at prominent Communist rallies in the 1950s. For example: She was listed as a speaker at a rally in Ossining, New York, in support of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Communists who were on death row for alleged atomic espionage.
Over time, the FBI realized that Rosalee wasn’t a threat to anybody and lost interest in her. The file was closed in 1965. At that point, she was still alive, so you can’t tell from this file when she died. Her nephew could only remember that her death came sometime in the late 1960s. He thought she remarried—the file doesn’t say. She obviously had serious health problems. One report talks about her being hospitalized for weeks after a heart attack in 1956; another, from 1963, said she had suffered three heart attacks in previous years.
The New York field office of the FBI—which compiled this file—didn’t seem to know at first that she wasn’t really Willie McGee’s wife, but they figured it out over time and seemed to find that interesting enough to keep investigating. Agents in Mississippi interviewed people in Holmes County who confirmed to them that McGee’s real wife (and the mother of his four children) was Eliza Jane Payton. They also figured out where Rosalee came from, and that her real last name was Saffold. They thought she’d been married at one point (before the McGee case started) to a man named Gilman. That was wrong, though—it was Gilmore, as I learned by finding the marriage license in Holmes County.
The FBI kept track of her as the years went by—making note of such things as the fact that she sent Christmas cards to Communist leaders who had been imprisoned under the auspices of the Smith Act—and she lived and worked at various Brooklyn addresses. She shows up at these:
1953: Apartment E6, 572 Greene Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, “in care of the Robert Powell family.” Meaning she was living with them as a guest. Interesting side note here: the FBI’s informant was the building superintendent. Fink!
She registered to vote in Brooklyn under the name Rosalie Etta McGee.
1954: She was working at the Community Food Center, 753 Marcy Avenue, Brooklyn, and living at 327 Madison Street in Brooklyn.
1955: She was living at 566 Greene Avenue, Apt. 26, Brooklyn. By then she was working as a clerk at a “confectionary store” on Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn.
Her nephew told me she remarried, but I don’t see strong evidence for or against that in here. In one report she was referred to as a “housewife,” but that’ s about it.
As readers may recall, I think she had kids of her own, and that the cash and clothing she collected from the CRC over time were used to take care of them when she was still in Jackson. There’s one passage in these papers that seems in tune with this idea. In 1954, Rosalee was part of a CRC group that went to Georgia to protest on behalf of Rose Ingram, who was on death row for allegedly killing a white man who she said tried to rape her. The report mentions this detail:
“The May 30, 1954, issue of The Daily Worker on page 7, Column 1, contained an article entitled ‘As We Were Riding Through Georgia,’ which article reflected, in part, that [Rosalie Saffold] has two children living with her mother-in-law in Jackson, Mississippi, another with a heart ailment resides with another relative and that her eldest daughter is married.”
Rosalee tended to pretend she had four kids, probably because she’d said often that she did and couldn’t afford to start altering her own story. My suspicion is that she had two, and that only the two referred to as living in Jackson were real. But I’m not sure about that. If she was separated from her own kids, it would have been because she couldn’t afford to keep them. That was not uncommon in those days.