Can’t Hear Nobody Pray

The body of W.J. Trotter being removed from his shop by police. Collection of the author.

Shortly before 8 a.m. on the morning of February 2, 1948, Ples McWilliams discovered the body of William Jonas Trotter, a 59-year-old white man, lying in a pool of blood on the floor behind the counter of his snack shop. Trotter had been shot in the head.

McWilliams, a Black man, lived in a rented house behind the shop, which was located at 940 18th Street in Birmingham, Alabama. He notified the police.

According to a Birmingham News article published the day the body was discovered:

Mr. Trotter was struck by three bullets, officers said. One bullet struck him in the left temple and went through his head. Another entered the back of his head and came out through his mouth. The third struck him in the shoulder, where it lodged.

Two half full bottles of chocolate milk were on the counter, along with a partly consumed box of crackers and a paper that had held a fried pie. The first shot was fired while Trotter was opening a can of sardines—the can was still attached to the wall-mounted opener and a chunk of plaster was missing from the wall above the opener. Because Trotter turned his back on the person at the counter, the police speculated that he knew and trusted his killer.

According to Trotter’s wife Lois, he had $100 in his wallet when he left for work at 7:15 a.m. Lois Trotter said her husband planned to deposit the money in the bank later that day. His wallet and the cash were missing, however two cigar boxes sitting on a rear counter that contained cash, checks and receipts had not been disturbed.

Trotter’s body was released for burial later that day.

The Police had two theories of how the crime unfolded. Trotter might have been having breakfast with a friend when they got into an argument that culminated in the friend shooting him. The other possibility was that two customers were having a meal at the counter and one of them decided to rob Trotter. The robbery got out of hand and Trotter ended up dead.

Detectives announced that they had obtained “a few good fingerprints.”

Two days later, after what The Birmingham News described as a “whirlwind” investigation, the police had two suspects in custody: 25-year-old Perry Lee Haygood and Jack Sims, a 24-year-old taxi driver. Both were men Black.

After being interrogated for hours, Sims turned state’s evidence. He claimed that Haygood planned the robbery and asked him to assist. He said they wanted cash to “go to New York.” He said he took a bus to the area and met Haygood on a street corner near the shop. They entered the shop together. But instead of immediately getting to the robbery, they sat down at the counter and ordered crackers, sardines, and milk. Haygood opened one can of sardines with his pocketknife. He asked for a second can of sardines, which Trotter opened with the can opener on the wall. When Trotter’s back was turned, Sims said that Haygood pulled out his gun and announced, “This is a stickup.” He said Trotter turned quickly to the right “like he was going after a gun,” so Haygood shot him “in the back of the head.”

Birmingham police officers looking at the confession of Jack Sims. The Birmingham News, February 4, 1948.

Sims’ description of the murder raises several questions. If the intention was only robbery, why order food and give Trotter time to study their faces? Why did Trotter open the second can of sardines at the can opener on the wall but not the first? How was Haygood able to shoot Trotter in the back of the head if he was was turned towards the right? How did a second bullet go into his left temple if he was looking towards his right?

Two witnesses, one of whom was a young boy, testified that they’d seen Haygood and Sims in the vicinity of the Trotter shop on the morning of the murder. Haygood admitted he’d been by the store early that morning to buy some food but said that he’d only stayed a couple of minutes and Trotter was alive when he left.

Some background on Haygood: On the night of November 10, 1947, he interrupted two men who had broken into a cleaner’s shop across from his home. The men were in the process of stealing clothes. He yelled at the men to stop and, when they refused, he shot at them with his 38-caliber gun, wounding one man. The other man ran but Haygood chased him, tackled him, and brought him back to his house. He called the police and both men were arrested.

That doesn’t exactly sound like the behavior of a future robber and murderer.

Perry Haygood’s trial took place in June. The state’s star witness was Sims. The police claimed that Perry Haygood’s fingerprints matched some of the prints they found at the scene. It didn’t help his case that when he was arrested, Haygood had $69 in his pocket, and he’d made a down payment of $50 on a suit at a store not far from Trotter’s shop on the morning of the murder.

The police claimed they’d located Haygood’s gun at a pawnshop after he was arrested. This gun was presented at the trial as the weapon used to kill Trotter. Sims also owned a pistol, but the police claimed it was dirty and looked like it hadn’t been fired recently. Sims testified that after he ran out of the shop, he drove home in his cab and buried his pistol under his house. He claimed he later dug up and hid it in the home of a relative.  

Maintaining his innocence throughout the trial, Haygood insisted he had not made any deal with Jack Sims to rob Trotter. He said the money he had when he was arrested, he’d made gambling.

Perry Haygood was convicted of the murder of William Trotter. “I ain’t guilty,” he said after the verdict was read. Sims was also convicted of first-degree murder, but he received a life sentence. He would be paroled in April 1966 and pardoned in 1972.

The state requested the death penalty for Haygood, and they got it. These were not the days of endless appeals. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the verdict and death penalty. At the clemency hearing, Lois Trotter asked the governor not to commute Haygood’s sentence to life; the governor obliged.

“Photo of “Yellow Mama,” AL.com.

On March 18, 1949, Perry Haygood was strapped into “Yellow Mama,” the electric chair located at Kilby Prison in Montgomery County, Alabama. The chair was so-named because it was painted with highway-line paint that was readily available at the nearby Alabama Highway Department. On his way to the chair, Haygood sang a spiritual, “Can’t Hear Nobody Pray.” (Click to hear a 1952 recording of the song).

8 thoughts on “Can’t Hear Nobody Pray

  1. I wonder what Haygood’s version of events was. Did he implicate Sims in the murder? Did he acknowledge that they went into Trotter’s store together? I suspect the answer to both questions was no, because they probably weren’t involved in the killing at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As far as I can tell he did not implicate Sims. The state did not do any ballistics testing on either man’s gun and my guess is that the autopsy was very cursory. The state’s argument seemed to be that one or the other of the two men shot Trotter and it didn’t really matter which one did it. You can read more about the case, including some of the testimony, here: https://cite.case.law/ala/252/3/5202319/

      Liked by 1 person

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