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William Wilson

In 1915, William “Bill” Wilson was convicted in Blount County, Alabama, of the murder of his ex-wife, Jennie Wilson, and their young child. He was pardoned in 1918 when Jennie and their child were proven to be alive.

In 1911, Dolphus Tidwell and his son were fishing along the Warrior River in Blount County, Alabama, when they discovered what appeared to be the human bones of an adult and child protruding from a bluff. As word of the discovery spread, people began visiting the area in the hopes of finding Native American relics.

When no relics were found, a farm worker named Jim House began speculating that the remains were not those of Native Americans, but of his neighbor, Jennie Wilson, and her nineteen-month-old child. Jennie had separated from her husband, Bill Wilson, several years prior in 1908, with Bill taking their two older children and Jennie taking the youngest. House claimed that he had seen Jennie enter her former in-laws’ home with a child in her arms a short time after the separation. House said that the next day, he had noticed footprints leading from the Wilson home towards the nearby river and that he had also found what he described as a “child’s cloth” and blood on a rock.

In addition to House’s testimony, other witnesses came forward and claimed that Bill had been abusive towards Jennie and had threatened to kill her on more than one occasion. Their stories confirmed that after years of alleged abuse, Jennie and Bill had separated in 1908 – each returning to their respective parents’ homes – and Jennie seemingly disappeared shortly thereafter.

On the testimony of House, Blount County Solicitor James Embry obtained a grand jury indictment and charged Wilson with the murder of Jennie and the child. After he was arrested, Bill Wilson encountered a man in jail named Mack Holcomb. Holcomb added to the case against Wilson by claiming that he had overheard him say to a relative during a visit, “If you tell anything I will tend to you when I get out.”

The case against Wilson, however, was weak and circumstantial. The prosecution’s medical expert, Dr. Marvin Denton, acknowledged that it was unlikely that the remains from the bluff could have deteriorated to the extent they had in just a few years. Dr. Denton also said that skull of the child had second teeth, which usually do not develop until age four. A defense medical expert, Dr. J.E. Hancock, also testified that the teeth of the adult that had been found were those of an elderly person and agreed with Dr. Denton in the assessment that a nineteen-month-old child could not have second teeth.

The defense called six witnesses, including Jennie’s sister. All testified that they had seen Jennie at various times several months after she should have been dead according to House’s testimony. Four relatives of Wilson and Wilson himself also denied that Jennie had ever come to the home of Wilson’s parents after the separation. Despite the strong evidence that Wilson hadn't committed the crime, on January 14, 1915 the jury found him guilty of Jennie’s murder, and Judge J.E. Blackwood sentenced Wilson to life in prison. The Supreme Court of Alabama affirmed the conviction.
 
William Woodard, a neighbor of Bill Wilson, strongly believed Jennie Wilson was alive and became involved in the case, trying various avenues to prove she was still living. In August 1916, Woodard sent the bones to Dr. Alex Hrdlicka, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Dr. Hrdlicka examined the bones and found it was evident they came from fairly old burials. He also reported that they appeared to come from the skeletons of four or five different individuals.
 
Wilson’s attorney, also convinced that Jennie and the child were still alive, ran notices in various newspapers across the country seeking information on their whereabouts. In 1918, these efforts paid off. Jennie Wilson, who was alive and well in Vincennes, Indiana, read one of the notices. She had, in fact, left her parents’ home in 1908 with the little money she had and moved north to Illinois where worked as a waitress. She remarried a man named John Wilson (no relation) and settled in the small town of Vincennes, Indiana.
 
After learning of Bill Wilson’s murder conviction, Jennie and her child traveled back to Blount County to prove that they were alive. They arrived by train on July 7, 1918 and were greeted by a crowd of over nine hundred interested onlookers. On July 8, 1918, Bill Wilson was granted a full pardon by Governor Henderson and released from prison after serving more than three years.
 
In 1919, the Alabama legislature granted Bill Wilson a special appropriation in the amount of $3,500 for “services rendered state while serving in prison.”

– Researched by Liz Schuering
State:AL
County:Blount
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1908
Convicted:1915
Exonerated:1918
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:38
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation