Below is the complete first chapter of The Eyes of Willie McGee, with sections on the notoriety the case gained in the early 1950s, my reasons for taking an interest in it (thanks again, Jim Leeson), and my first exposure to an unsolved mystery at the heart of the story. I hope you enjoy it.
ON MAY 8, 1951, a thirty-five-year-old African-American named Willie McGee was electrocuted in Laurel, Mississippi, on a much-disputed charge that he raped a white housewife named Willette Hawkins. A few days later Eleanor Roosevelt, who was traveling in Europe, received a protest letter about the execution, sent by a Swiss citizen who identified himself as Mr. F. Aegerter.
Aegerter didn’t know Roosevelt and she didn’t know him. But he knew she was in Geneva for a meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, so he took a moment to sound off about the human rights of Willie McGee, a man whose death he deeply mourned. During a legal battle that lasted more than five years, McGee’s story had risen from obscurity to fame, and Aegerter, who probably read about McGee in French-language newspapers, felt certain he was innocent. As he knew, the former First Lady had avoided taking part in a widely publicized campaign to stop the execution. He wanted to know why.
Roosevelt didn’t apologize. Just the opposite, she pushed back. In a reply written on the 18th, she told Aegerter she was very familiar with the facts of the McGee saga—unlike him. “[Y]ou do not seem to have much understanding of the case about which you write,” she informed him coolly. “It is quite true that all of us oppose a law which is applied differently to white and colored and that happens to still be in effect in some southern states. . . .
“In the case of Willie McGee, while I regret there should be this discrimination in the law, I have to add that he was a bad character and so was the white woman, so there was very little that one could feel personally about.”
That sounded definite, like she had inside information. But the truth was that Roosevelt knew very little about McGee or “the white woman.” A lot of what she thought she knew—and this was true for Aegerter as well—was rumor mixed with fact, unproven allegations, or simply wrong, since the story produced more than its share of inaccurate reporting, lies, and colorful but useless folklore.
The “bad character” phrase makes it clear she’d heard about and believed the most explosive allegation of all: McGee’s claim that his sexual encounter with Willette wasn’t a rape but an act of consensual sex, part of a long-standing love affair that she had instigated. As for Roosevelt’s observation that the story lacked elements that could stir the soul, she couldn’t have been more off base, because Aegerter wasn’t the only person who cared. By 1951, hundreds of thousands of people knew McGee’s name and what it represented, and many had passionate opinions about what had happened to him inside Mississippi courtrooms. Continue reading