Ruth Thompson Dickins Hacked Her Mother to Death, and Tried to Blame a Black Man

On November 17, 1948, police were called to the home of social worker Idella Thompson on tony Deer Creek Drive in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. The house was quiet, but as they moved deeper inside, they discovered a grim scene.

Idella lay dead in her bathroom, which was “as bloodthirsty as possible,” Leland Police Chief Frank P. Aldridge said. Beside her lay a pair of pruning shears, kind gardeners everywhere use to cut roses and manicure their flower beds. It was a weapon that apparently caused over 150 small, bloody cuts on Idella’s body.

What happened next rocked the community, and has reverberated for generations. When Beverly Lowry began reporting on the murder that had colored her childhood in Greenville, Mississippifor her latest book Deer Creek Drive: Memory retrieval and murder in the Mississippi Delta, she sees a town that is still hesitant to talk about what happened even though more than 70 years have passed. But perhaps even more surprising than the murder is what the town did about it.

Earlier this week, a grand jury in Mississippi decided not to prosecute white woman responsible for the accusation leading to the departure of Emmett Till. But seven years before that gruesome murder took place, and just an hour away, very white and very out-of-power people in Leland, Mississippi, were investigating the death of a matrilineal model in the owner’s family. famous fill and came to a single conclusion: Ruth Thompson Dickins, daughter of Idella. , the sole witness, may have pointed the finger at a Black man, but that accusation is clearly untrue. Instead, they tried and convicted Ruth, a mother, socialite and respected member of society, for killing her biological mother.

“It’s both horrifying and exciting”

This is “the story that has been waiting for me to write for years,” says Lowery, 84. She was 10 years old when the murder happened and she remembers every beat of the investigation and trial in the local newspaper.

“We all knew it was the biggest thing that ever happened. And it’s both horrifying and exciting in the way that those things can happen, I think especially for girls that age,” Lowry told The Daily Beast. “You’re wondering, what’s out there, what is sex, and this comes out, and it’s horrifying.”

Since the time the police arrived on the scene, the investigation has been very messy, as can happen in a small town where everyone has a personal relationship with nearly all other people and many people. All relevant games are related. As word quickly spread of what had happened — thanks in no small part to blaring sirens and nosy switchboards — white members of Leland began to gather at the scene, which was unprotected. safe.

The door was wide open and too many people were allowed inside, watching the bloodstains around the house. Investigators listened to Ruth about what had happened and saw nothing wrong with allowing the messy crime scene cleanup immediately afterward. They also allowed Ruth to return home just a few doors down the road without questioning. It wasn’t until much later that they realized that it might be helpful to preserve her blood-stained clothes, now washed clean without a trace.

What Ruth told them before she went to bed was that a black man she didn’t recognize had entered the house and attacked her mother. Idella is known to be “truly tough” and is very protective of the pecans that grow in her backyard. Ruth says that maybe what happened was that Idella started attacking the man to pick her pecans, something that happens often. Perhaps Idella had grabbed the pruning shears Ruth had left earlier that day, and the man in an act of self-defense turned rage grabbed the “scissors” from her and arrested her. attack head.

There are no black people. It was someone in the family.

In her words, an army of whites on horseback had entered the Black part of town to try to find a man who matched Ruth’s description. Before the show ended, a few suspects were rounded up for questioning, but they were all released the next day. Apparently even then there wouldn’t be anyone who would match Ruth’s description. One woman remembers her father coming home from a search party and immediately says, “There are no Negroes. It was someone in the family. “

Given the time period and the way things are usually done in Jim Crow South“The catch of this story is that they don’t find someone, get rid of him, and the story ends, except for the family of the person who didn’t,” Lowry said.

Instead, less than two months later, a grand jury convicted Ruth of murder. On January 8, 1949, Ruth was taken into custody.

In the small towns, in the towns, the most prominent members “went there at the end of the 19th century, families built huge houses, and they [still] there now,” as Lowry says, it’s hard to completely bury a family secret. Although polite society may despise them for a while, rumors never really die.

Illustration by The Daily Beast / Getty / Public Domain

The Thompson family is one of the leading elements of Leland society, but their past is as colorful and quirky as any family. The whispers around them grew louder after Ruth’s arrest.

This is not the first mysterious death in the family. Idella’s husband had died nearly a decade earlier in a suicide that was covered up to avoid shame. But even after the suicide was brought up, the questions remained. Can a man really shoot himself in the head twice? Then there were rumors of the strange death of another husband in the family, possibly Ruth’s first husband? Lowry was never able to confirm that such a man existed, much less died, but that didn’t stop the town from talking.

Ruth’s eldest brother, Jimmie, was “disturbed – there was something about him” as Lowry described it. And then there was Ruth herself, a woman who refused to follow the convention. Undoubtedly, she was married at a very early age to a husband who was devoted to her, had two children and by all accounts – especially guardians – a perfect daughter.

But in other ways, she lived well beyond the norm. She didn’t want to be a wife and a mother, that’s why she took over the family land with one of her brothers after her father passed away. When the business started to fail, she borrowed money from several banks and friends around town, always asking not to notify her husband. And then there’s her appearance (when it’s not with the women who go against the convention). Much of the talk surrounding the trial revolved around her “masculine bob” hairstyle, and the fact that she was dressed in a practical rather than feminine manner.

I believe you can search the country and never find a person who can honestly say he saw me in a fit of rage.

Ruth Thompson

If the Thompsons thought the justice system would be easy for Ruth because of her prominence and her most sacred southern identities – a white mother – they were indeed surprised. From the very first day of jury selection, the trial was treated like a circus. The townspeople lined up early for a good seat, the vendors sold refreshments in and out of the courtroom, and the crowd was so enamored with the prosecutor that they clapped for him when he entered the room. trial. The overwhelming emotion was: Ruth was guilty.

“I know people are saying that. That is terrible and unfair. I believe you can search the country and never find a person who can honestly say he saw me in a bad temper,” Ruth said. Commercial appeal before her trial. “How could someone who loves her mother like me want to kill her?”

Despite her emphatic denial and her husband’s belief that she was innocent, Ruth was found guilty of first-degree murder. It was a harsh sentence – if she had killed her mother in a spontaneous outburst, possibly for money though the motive is still unclear – the more appropriate charge would be manslaughter. Instead, she received the lightest possible punishment for the crime: life in prison, not death in the electric chair.

Ruth would serve only six years, and through her husband’s relentless campaigning and political activism, she was finally not only out of prison, but pardoned. While many — though not all — in Leland would agree that she’s done her time and deserves to be home to her family, not a few people outside of her family actually question it. whether she committed a crime or not. Or if they do, the finger doesn’t move too far from the family tree.

Small towns love to tell stories about a local petty thief. In Leland, for many years the scammer was a woman.

Beverly Lowry

If Ruth hadn’t done that, the killer might have been Jimmie. This theory that Jimmie was the one who killed his mother in a sudden violent outburst, and that his sister Ruth, who had always taken care of him, covered it up, casts doubt on the assumption that a Mississippi court between century will be easy. on a prominent white woman. While there is some convincing evidence that this may have happened, Lowry makes a convincing argument that the suspect is more likely to be the person who did it at the time.

Deer Creek Drive is a rich and engaging book as Lowry deftly weaves the unraveling of her own family secrets with those of the Thompson-Dickens family after Idella’s murder, all taking place in the eve of Civil Rights Era in the Mississippi River Delta.

Lowry writes, “Small towns love to tell stories about a local petty thief. In Leland, the boogeyman was, for many years, a woman. “

But for her part, she couldn’t help but admire Ruth.

“I just think of her as a special character. Really smart. Lowry said. “I have known a number of women like that from an era before my time. And I think when you look at Ruth lying – well, not lying but saying, ‘Don’t tell John’ [about her debts]—She wants to be in charge. She wants to have a life of her own.”

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