Miami’s gallows: In 1906, Miami hanged him for the brutal murder of a white woman ... but was he guilty?

 

Before Florida’s “Old Sparky,’’ capital punishment in Miami was meted out with a hangman’s noose. Miami’s gallows were set up on scaffold outside the jail next to the Dade County Courthouse on Flagler Street. More than 100 years ago this week, Edward “Caddy” Brown, a black man, died there for allegedly raping and killing a white woman. Between 1901 and 1917, eight other men met similar fates. But Brown may have been innocent, according to an investigation by retired Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Scott Silverman. A yet-to-be published book, Miami's Gallows, written by Silverman with local historian Paul George and writer Siobhan Morrissey, examines the crime and Brown’s trial and hanging for the murder of Dora Suggs. The Miami Herald Editorial Board is publishing an excerpt of the book’s chapter on Brown on the 108th anniversary of Brown’s hanging.

THE CRIME

A hundred and eight years ago this week, on June 5, 1906, Edward “Caddy” Brown, a black man, became the sixth man to be hanged in Miami’s gallows. Convicted of the gruesome murder of Dora Suggs, 33, a white woman, Brown maintained his innocence — but also confessed. Yet, there’s ample reason to believe that Brown was lying or that because of his diminished mental capacities he didn’t fully understand his predicament.

After all, he became the prime suspect based on the accusations of a white man taking part in an emotionally-charged posse. In court, his attorney’s actions were suspect and the judge who sentenced him to Miami’s gallows refused to accept new evidence that could have helped clear him.

And the all-white, all-male jury’s verdict may have been based more on the public’s thirst for vengeance than on the evidence. In segregated Miami, the mere allegation of a black man harming a white woman would draw the immediate ire of its white community. There could be no greater crime.

So was Brown wrongly convicted and hanged for the murder of Dora Suggs?

THE VICTIM

A Georgia native, Suggs, 33, and her husband, David, moved to Coconut Grove in the early 1900 with their two sons. Like many others they came from northern Florida to find a better life in the newly incorporated Miami.

Those who knew her said she was a woman devoted to her family, an active member of the Congregational Church and Young Peoples Christian Endeavor Society of Coconut Grove. She attended frequently, not just on Sundays.

A week before Christmas 1905, Dora Suggs drove her light wagon and mule into the city to trade and buy supplies.

It was late afternoon when she started back along the trail. Accompanying her was her nephew, Walker J. Perry, 23, who lived near the Suggs’ home. With the carriage laden with staples and supplies, the two made their way southwest toward Coconut Grove. When they reached Walker’s residence, he leaped out and made his way home. Dora was now alone.

She continued on a road today located somewhere near the intersection of Blue Road and Granada in Coral Gables. At 5:05 p.m., a farmer named Irving E. Potter, 46, saw Dora cross the railroad tracks just as darkness fell. Following closely behind her was a man on foot whom Potter assumed was her husband. Potter recalled her singing as she passed out of sight. In retrospect, at trial, he said she was probably calling out for help.

What happened next is based upon the observations, speculations and articles from newspapers like the Miami Metropolis, Miami Evening Record and the Tropical Sun, which covered what they called one of the most brutal murders in the city's early history.

As Dora was attacked, she ran into the woods, but was knocked to the ground near a wire fence approximately 120 feet from the trail. She would die there trying to make it back to the wagon.

THE ARREST

It was nightfall when Suggs’ riderless mule and wagon returned to her home, its reins dragging across the ground. Her husband set out to find her, enlisting the help of his neighbors. A posse was organized.

At 10:30 p.m. nearly five hours after Potter last saw her alive, Dora Suggs’ body was found in the darkness.

The Miami Metropolis wrote, “The sight was horrible and sickening. Strong hearted men stood around… awe stricken and dumbfounded.”

Dora was partially nude, her clothes in tatters. Crime scene evidence revealed she fought with her attacker who pummeled her head with a rock, leaving her barely recognizable. The left side of her forehead caved in, and both her upper and lower jaws were broken. Pieces of crushed bone protruded from her mangled skull. Her chin was mutilated. Blood splattered several feet. At some point, the attacker viciously choked her, leaving the unmistakable imprint of hands squeezing her neck. Many believed she had been raped.

Deputies stood guard over the two-year-old Avenue D Bridge to prevent any suspicious people from entering the city from the south. Today, the bridge crosses the Miami River at South Miami Avenue.

The killer did not leave behind any direct evidence, but there were minor clues.

The lawmen and posse found footprints. The shoes were a size 8, and their imprint left a distinct impression in the soft earth. The posse followed the prints for two miles until they reached a rock ridge on Glade Road. The space between the footsteps indicated to the posse the suspect was both running and walking.

Since the murder caused blood to splatter in all directions, it would be nearly impossible for any of it not to have gotten onto the killer. And, Irving Potter mistook the man following Dora’s wagon for David Suggs, implying that the person was white.

Could it have been her husband who killed her? Suspicion never fell on him although the brutality of the murder hinted it was a crime of passion. Dora’s friends insisted that in her struggle to survive, she would have injured the attacker. The search for a suspect with bruises was on.

The day after the murder, a posse of 150-armed men took to the woods searching for the killer – dead or alive. The safety and virtue of all of Dade’s women remained at risk until he was caught and executed.

After the murder, all the bridges leading from the south across the Miami River were under guard. Armed posses conducted searches of the woods at a fevered and frenzied pitch. Suspicious men were arrested and taken to jail questioned and released.

Two days after the murder as Christmas approached, a Coconut Grove posse member, George L. McDonald, armed with a shotgun, escorted two black prisoners into the Dade County Courthouse.

One was Edward “Caddy” Brown; the other was identified as a witness to Brown’s wrongdoing — a man whose identity or motivation was never questioned.

McDonald told Sheriff John Frohock that he arrested Brown at McCrimmon’s mill. The reason? He had been told Brown was in close proximity to the scene of the crime. Brown, he said, “camped and built a fire on the edge of the road near where Mrs. Suggs was murdered.” That was the evidence against Brown, who had no marks or scratches on his body.

After listening to McDonald’s report and Brown’s adamant denials about having any knowledge of the murder, the sheriff jailed Brown. Frohock now had his prime suspect.

Three months after the murder, the Dade County Grand Jury indicted Brown, charging him with first-degree murder. The grand jury asked Judge Minor S. Jones for a speedy trial.

At 9 a.m. on Monday, March 19, 1906, the trial of the State of Florida vs. Edward Brown, alias Caddy Brown, began. It would last a week, an exceptionally long time for that era.

Prosecuting the case were Assistant State Attorneys Adam A. Boggs and George Ambrose Worley. Worley already had a reputation in Dade County as a top-notch prosecutor.

Brown didn’t have money to retain his own attorney, so Judge Jones appointed Redmond B. Gautier as his defense counsel. Gautier, 27, was outclassed by the more experienced prosecution team. Later in life, he would serve as a Dade County Court Judge and county commissioner.

The prosecution would call nearly 40 witnesses. The defense: three.

After several hours of deliberations, the jury found Brown guilty.

The verdict was unsealed, unfolded, and read in court: “We the Jury,” it said, “find the defendant guilty of murder in the first-degree, as charged in the indictment.” Notably missing from the verdict form was a jury recommendation for mercy. That meant Brown would surely die in the gallows. Brown remained calm and composed. Did he realize what had just happened?

On the day of sentencing, Judge Jones called the defendant to the bench. Brown stood with his head bowed. Looking at the convicted murderer, Judge Jones asked Brown if he wanted to speak:

“I have nothing to say, but I would like enough time to repent for my crime before my execution,” Brown said. Judge Jones was taken aback. Had Brown just confessed?

The judge then sentenced him to die.

But as Brown sat in jail awaiting his execution, he again claimed his innocence.

Surprisingly within a week of his conviction, his attorney announced that he would not appeal Brown’s sentence, concluding that he had done everything “required of him under the law and by the court.”

The Daily Miami Metropolis noted Gautier’s unusual decision in an editorial written on April 2, 1906: “Brown will go on record as one of the few men, either black or white, convicted in Florida in recent years that a determined and persistent fight was not made to save his life.”

Gov. Napoleon Broward signed Brown’s death warrant.

Then on May 30, 1906, just six days before Brown was to die, the Daily Miami Metropolis reported about the efforts undertaken by an anonymous “prominent” Miami attorney to stay Brown’s execution and seek a new trial. The attorney learned that a black woman would provide Brown with an alibi saying, under oath, that “she was with Brown in a secluded part of the woods” at the time of the murder.

Judge Jones was unimpressed. “A stay of execution would do no good and might even do some harm...’’ he said. These injustices, certainly by today’s legal and procedural standards, are glaringly evident. Brown’s execution was a fait accompli.

The Hanging

On June 1, 1906, just four days before Brown’s execution, carpenters were hard at work erecting Miami’s newest gallows, dismantled after every death. Itt was located in a jail yard’s enclosure next to the 73 West Flagler St. courthouse of today. There was nothing to obstruct the public’s clear view of the hanging on the northwest corner.

Members of Miami’s Merchant Association were uncomfortable. They met with Sheriff Frohock and encouraged him that the better element of the city would prefer that he erect a physical barrier around the gallows. A fence was built.

The day before he died, eight black preachers visited Brown. Together they sang and prayed in the jail’s corridor.

The next day, Sheriff Frohock brought Brown in front of two newspapermen and two preachers. They all tried to impress on Brown that he had a short time to live, hoping for a last-minute confession, Sheriff Frohock said: “If you have anything to say, this is the time to say it.”

Once again, Brown said: “No sir, I am not guilty. Somebody is guilty and somebody must suffer for it,” he replied.

A handcuffed Brown was walked down the corridor, out through the jail’s west door and into the open-air enclosure where the gallows waited.

Spectators squeezed themselves within the limited space enclosing the gallows. Others stood on the second floor of the courthouse and peered down into the enclosure. Just west of the jail, others climbed on idle freight cars hoping to catch a glimpse of the execution. Brown, who was the center of attention, appeared unaffected.

Frohock wanted Brown to make a gallows confession and time was running out.

“It would be as great or greater sin to die with a lie on your lips than it is to commit the crime with which you are charged and for which you must die in a few minutes,” Frohock said. Dade’s sheriff asked one last time, “If you did kill Mrs. Suggs, then this is your last opportunity to say so.”

Brown asked that Sheriff Frohock have his deputies step aside so that they could not hear what he was about to say.

Brown, who was just moments away from his death, responded, “You tell them from me….” “Tell them what?” asked Frohock. The sheriff pushed, “That you are guilty?” Brown responded in a barely audible voice, “Yes.” Frohock turned, looked out on the crowd, and projected, “Gentlemen, Caddy wishes me to say that he is guilty. Is that right, Caddy?” “Yes, sir,” Brown answered.

The crowd responded in hushed silence. Frohock had his confession. But had it been coerced?

Brown’s head was then covered with a black cap. The hangman’s noose was adjusted around his neck. Sheriff Frohock took an axe and suddenly cut the rope supporting the trap door. At 10:01 a.m., on June 6, 1906, Brown was dead.

That night in the Miami Evening Record, the newspaper stated, “The right man was hung and the wisdom of the courts has been vindicated.”

Do you think Brown was innocent or guilty? Let us know at HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

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