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Jersey Justice

The Story of the Trenton Six

Cathy D. Knepper

Publication Year: 2011

The case of the Trenton Six attracted international attention in its time (1948–1952) and was once known as the “northern Scottsboro Boys case.” Yet, there is no memory of it. The shame of racism evident in the case has been nearly erased from the public record. Now, historian Cathy D. Knepper takes us back to the courtroom to make us aware of this shocking chapter in American history.

Jersey Justice: The Story of the Trenton Six begins in 1948 when William Horner, an elderly junk dealer, was murdered in his downtown Trenton shop. Over a two-week period, six local African American men were arrested and charged with collectively killing Horner. Violating every rule in the book, the Trenton police held the six men in incommunicado detention, without warrants, and threatened them until they confessed. At the end of the trial the all-white jury sentenced the six men to die in the electric chair.

That might have been the end of the story were it not for the tireless efforts of Bessie Mitchell, the sister of one of the accused men. Undaunted by the refusal of the NAACP and the ACLU to help appeal the conviction of the Trenton Six, Mitchell enlisted the aid of the Civil Rights Congress, ultimately taking the case as far as the New Jersey Supreme Court. Along the way, the Trenton Six garnered the attention and involvement of many prominent activists, politicians, and artists, including Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, Eleanor Roosevelt, Pete Seeger, Arthur Miller, and Albert Einstein. Jersey Justice brings to light a shameful moment in our nation’s history, but it also tells the story of a personal battle for social justice that changed America.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

As I was beginning my study of the Trenton Six, Ross Knepper and Jenae Lowe provided a much-needed boost. Ross also gave technical assistance above and beyond the call of duty. The staff of the Law Library of the New Jersey State Library always addressed my requests cheerfully and quickly ...

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1. The Crime and the Trenton Six

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pp. 1-22

On January 27, 1948, the front-page above-the-fold headline in the Trenton Evening Times trumpeted “Elderly Couple Beaten in Holdup by 3 Thugs at Second-Hand Store.” A sidebar proclaimed “Man and Wife Brutally Attacked by Robbers.” Elizabeth Horner told police that two men had asked to see a mattress ...

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2. The Trial, Prosecution

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pp. 23-51

The process of jury selection took place with Judge Charles P. Hutchinson presiding. The twelve-person jury, with two alternates, eventually consisted of nine women, all housewives, and three businessmen. The group was white and middle class. The defendants noted the obvious absence of any blacks, laborers, ...

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3. The Trial, Defense

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pp. 52-80

After a month of stifling days in court listening to Prosecutor Volpe, Chief Detective Frank Naples, and Police Clerk Henry Miller, the time finally came for the Trenton Six to tell their stories, both about their actions on January 27 and about their questioning at the Chancery Lane First Precinct police station. ...

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4. Bessie Mitchell Finds Help

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pp. 81-118

Letters became a lifeline to the six men newly installed in New Jersey’s Death House at the Trenton State Prison. Their communication with the outside world was made more difficult by the fact that most could not read or write, but they managed. Horace Wilson received letters from his sister Sallie Porter, ...

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5. Second Trial, Prosecution

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pp. 119-154

The withdrawal of the Civil Rights Congress left a vacuum soon filled by Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and future U.S. Supreme Court justice. On December 15, 1950, he appeared before Judge Ralph J. Smalley, ...

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6. Second Trial, Defense

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pp. 155-188

Two years and ten months after presenting their defense the first time, the Trenton Six began to do so again. Raymond Alexander began by calling Horace Wilson to the witness stand. First, Alexander made clear to Wilson that if he did not understand any question, he was to say so, telling the lawyer or the judge. ...

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7. Two Men Left

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pp. 189-209

The fight for Collis English and Ralph Cooper commenced immediately. Bessie Mitchell announced, “American justice is still on trial, and until that injustice against my people stops, we have just begun to fight.” The Civil Rights Congress demanded that Governor Alfred Driscoll ...

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pp. 210-214

I would love to conclude that the tale of the Trenton Six is merely a manifestation of the nation’s evolving justice system in the middle of the twentieth century and could not happen today. However, history has seemingly repeated itself in the Clinton-Bush-Obama era in the case of the Norfolk Four.1 ...

List of Principals

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pp. 215-222


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pp. 223-240


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pp. 241-249

E-ISBN-13: 9780813552071
E-ISBN-10: 0813552079

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 13 photographs
Publication Year: 2011