John Hailman’s From Midnight to Guntown: George of the Swamp

{E6DEFE01-EA61-4BE0-8C90-6B1C32E68B47}Img100As a federal prosecutor in Mississippi for over thirty years, John Hailman worked with federal agents, lawyers, judges, and criminals of every stripe. In From Midnight to Guntown, he recounts amazing trials and bad guy antics from the darkly humorous to the needlessly tragic.

In addition to bank robbers–generally the dumbest criminals–Hailman describes scam artists, hit men, protected witnesses, colorful informants, corrupt officials, bad guys with funny nicknames, over-the-top investigators, and those defendants who had a certain roguish charm. Several of his defendants and victims have since had whole books written about them: Dickie Scruggs, Emmett Till, Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort, and Paddy Mitchell, leader of the most successful bank robbery gang of the twentieth century. But Hailman delivers the inside story no one else can. He also recounts his scary experiences after 9/11 when he prosecuted terrorism cases.

John Hailman was a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Oxford for thirty-three years, was an inaugural Overby Fellow in journalism, and is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Thomas Jefferson on Wine from University Press of Mississippi.

Here is the fourth installment of Midnight to Guntown by John Hailman: A Running Robber: George of the Swamp

If I had to name my favorite homegrown north Mississippi bank robber, it might be George House, Jr.   A stocky man of low intellect but much experience, House robbed many banks.  I first learned of him from retired Greenville police captain Buddy Wilkinson, the bodyguard or “Court Crier” for Judge Keady.  In theory a court crier’s duty is to “open court” by announcing the entry of the judge in the loud, time-honored cry:  “Hear Ye, Hear Ye,  United States District Court is now open according to law. Chief Judge Keady presiding.  God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”  A Marshal at the U.S. Supreme Court, miffed by the Court’s liberal, pro-defendant rulings under Chief Justice Earl Warren, once re-phrased the cry to “God save the United States From This Honorable Court.”

Federal courts are big on ritual.  The judge enters in his black robe, ascends the bench, and invariably states, “Be seated, please.”  Another ritual takes place just before “Hear Ye” when the crier suddenly yells out “All rise!” and the spectators are required to stand. After some of the heated trials I’ve seen, this intimidating ritual is a pretty good way for judges to enforce order before things get disputatious. The phrase is memorable enough that Judge Keady entitled his book of memoirs All Rise.

Buddy often told me the tale of how he chased George House on foot through the streets of Greenville after one of his bank robberies.  When Buddy crawled up under a shotgun house after him, House emptied an entire handgun at him but missed, and Buddy got his man.  Before I arrived as a prosecutor, AUSA Al Moreton had already tried House for robbing the tiny branch bank at Stoneville, a sleepy town near Greenville.  Having no car, House paid a guy to drive him there.  The driver later testified he figured House planned to rob the bank – there was not much else to do in Stoneville except work at the agricultural experiment station where they studied boll weevils, and House had little interest in them.  The driver said he was too scared of House to say no, but after he dropped House off and promised to pick him up in five minutes, the driver headed straight back to Greenville.  He testified that although he was too scared to refuse to take him, he was even more scared of getting caught in a gun battle during the getaway and figured George would be caught and in prison and unable to get back at him anyway.

It was a hot, quiet morning in the Delta when House entered the bank.  He approached the one teller cage, which was empty.  He yelled for service.  No answer.  He went back outside and saw a man tending rose bushes in front of the bank.  “Can I get some service here?”  House asked.  “Alright,” said the man reluctantly, laying down his hoe, putting on his jacket and adjusting his tie.  When the teller assumed his position behind the cage, House produced a pistol and announced it was a holdup.  The teller calmly gave him the money and House rushed out to find he had no getaway driver.  Being a practical man and an extremely healthy one, House started running the 5 or 6 miles back to Greenville.  As he reached the city limits, a sheriff’s car pulled up and arrested the breathless House without incident.

The first time I saw House was in the federal courtroom in Oxford where I was to try him for robbing another federally-insured bank.  Al Moreton had told me to consult the state D.A. at Greenville, Frank Carlton, on what to ask him on cross-examination if he took the stand.  Frank regaled me with George House stories.  One was about his training regimen.  While in the pen, House always kept in shape, running wind sprints in the prison yard.  On one occasion, when confined behind a fence as punishment, he got a heavy cane pole and began practicing pole-vaulting over fences, which was otherwise unnecessary at Parchman, a plantation prison farm so remote there were no other fences, just open land with swamps so impenetrable it was said no one had ever escaped from there, though many had tried.  One exception, a trusty, was given too many privileges, and fled to Massachusetts.  When asked if the prison was getting too lax, gaffe-prone Governor Ross Barnett explained:  “If you can’t trust a trusty, who can you trust?”

As in the prison in the movie Cool Hand Luke, which to me closely resembles Parchman, officers on horseback using bloodhounds could easily catch up to fleeing inmates before they ever got off the vast plantation.  Frank Carlton’s favorite story about George involved one of his more successful escape attempts.  Somehow avoiding a head count, House made it through the swamps overnight all the way to Ruleville (home of civil rights pioneer Fannie Lou Hamer) some eight miles south, where he went straight to the town’s only drive-in.  Hunkering on the ground beneath the drive-through ledge, House ordered five cheeseburgers, five fries and five milkshakes.  The waitress, seeing he was alone and on foot and covered with mud and that his face was swollen with mosquito bites, figured he was an escaped inmate.  To keep him from leaving, she gave him his order and called the sheriff.  By the time the sheriff got there House had finished most of the meal, and was too tired to run.  “We got you now George,” a deputy said.  Bold as ever, House said through a mouthful of cheeseburger, “You boys didn’t catch me.  You rescued me.”

My own experience with George House was much tamer.  Released once again, he robbed a bank in the Delta and fled into a swamp known as the Bogue Phalia [pronounced fuh-lie-uh] near Marks, where the famous Poor People’s March on Washington began in 1968.  FBI agent Wayne Tichenor called me at home to tell me the famous bank robber was on the run and asked if I wanted to go along for the chase. DOJ rules discourage prosecutors from being on crime scenes for fear they will end up being witnesses and disqualified from trying the cases.  But this case was special.  Parchman was sending its best tracking dogs, bloodhounds to track on the ground and German Shepherds to “wind” or sniff him out in the air above the swamp.  The search leader was to be none other than Quitman County Sheriff Jack Harrison, whom Wayne and I had just unsuccessfully prosecuted for beating up an inmate, a story told in detail in the chapter on Civil Rights.

The search was exciting with horses and dogs running everywhere.  A mosquito-bitten and exhausted House meekly surrendered around noon the next day.  The trial was pretty quiet except for the moment when I learned that the inmate dog trainer, who had been paroled and had absconded, was not available to testify.  Harrison sarcastically asked me if I planned to call the dog to the stand.  I refrained from saying the dog had a better criminal record than he did.  We were, after all, brothers in law enforcement.

The main drama in the trial was the last day.  Throughout the trial George had worn those heavy boots that the guards, who were political incorrectness personified, called “re-tard” shoes.  On the last day George persuaded the Marshals to let him wear prison-issue tennis shoes.  As Frank Carlton had warned me, tennis shoes were the sign George was going to make a run for it.  In those more naïve days, tenderness for the rights of defendants required that all defendants, however violent, had to appear in court unrestrained, lest the jury be prejudiced against them.  Even back then, however, George’s reputation prevailed.  The judge ordered him shackled hands and feet to a heavy chair behind a blanket over counsel table, out of sight of the jurors, who were taken in and out of the courtroom and never saw him restrained.  That avenue closed, George remained in court for the verdict, was sentenced to a long term in a federal pen, and I never saw or heard of him again.

Click on the firstsecond or third installment of John Hailman’s From Midnight to Guntown to read.

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