- Poor White
Dinnertime was story time when we were kids, and we always begged my father to tell the story of the two boys from his tiny east Texas hometown (a town once known as Twin Groceries but since renamed Saltillo) who robbed a local bank while the traveling rodeo was passing through. Billy Rex and Jerry Max Pickett. How we howled at the names. The story went that Dad brought magazines to Billy Rex at the county jail after the young man's arrest, and if the names were the set-up, the punch line was what Billy said to my father, which Dad learned to save until we'd caught our collective breath.
"Bobby," Billy Rex told my father, "they done ree-voked mah peeroll." We'd explode again.
At first, the names couldn't have been funny to my father, who had known so many like them in Old Saltillo: his cousins Greenberry Griffith and Marvel Wardrup and Welcome Gene Barnett, his Uncle Happy and his Aunt Moley, his grade school sweetheart Ellouine Goswick. He was eventually a good sport about our laughter, though I recall him saying to my mother once as he left the table, "these children don't respect me." I'm afraid he was right. When I was in junior high I respected my handsome [End Page 123] young football Rick Wilson and practically no one else. My father seemed impossibly old to me, from a remote world dusty and sepia-toned.
My mother's suppertime stories were usually cautionary, easy to interpret. My father's—about the boy who killed a rival at a school dance over a girl's locket, or the gay school teacher run out of town in the night, or this one about the rodeo robbery—were more opaque, gothic. They captivate me now, and I see there was more to the story of the Pickett boys than we could have understood as children.
Former Weakley County Sheriff 's Deputy Wayne Pendergrass claims to have been the first lawman on the scene that September afternoon off Bean Switch Road in Greenfield. "I still have nightmares about it," he says. He'd been ordered by Sheriff Marlind Gallimore to protect the integrity of the crime scene, literally a patch of weeds, and in the early days of Coe's incarceration, as the accused appeared for arraignment and grand jury hearings, it was Pendergrass who brought Coe to the courthouse in Dresden. "I hauled him back and forth to Fort Pillow [State Prison]," Pendergrass explains. "He delighted in telling me what he done. I advised him of his rights and told him not to talk about it. He said, 'I don't care, I done it.' Like he was proud of it."
Though he was to grow agitated and even surly before judges as his execution approached, most newspaper accounts of Coe's early days in court refer to his flat, emotionless affect. He appeared at his arraignment in the same clothes he'd been arrested in, the blue jeans and football jersey, and told the judge simply, "No," when asked if he could afford an attorney. Still, Mike Wilson, another former sheriff 's deputy who later became Weakley County sheriff, says that he knew when he looked into Coe's eyes that he'd seen the face of a killer.
Robert Glen Coe was born on April 15, 1956, in Hickman County, Kentucky, in the far southwest corner of the state, to angry, hard-drinking sharecropper Willie Coe and his wife Annabelle. Hickman County had [End Page 124] originally been Louisiana Purchase territory and remains the most sparsely populated and among the poorest counties in the commonwealth. Like Carl Perkins, who grew up just below the Kentucky border in an unincorporated town in Lake County, Tennessee, or Johnny Cash, born down on the delta in Arkansas, Coe was born to impoverished folk who worked farms along the little rivers that drained west into the Mississippi, the Obion and the Deer and the Bayou de Chien. Coe's parents moved the family—older sister Bonnie, older brothers Roger and Jimmy (born deaf), Robert and Billie Jean...