One of my favorite local Georgia historians is Hugh Harrington. He specializes in Milledgeville history among many other things. I highly recommend his books Civil War Milledgeville and More Milledgeville Memories. One of the most interesting stories in More Milledgeville Memories is the story of Michael Shaw, a man hanged in Milledgeville on July 12, 1878 for the murder of his wife, Ordeoro. The murder took place on April 30, 1877. Mrs. Shaw was 24 years old.
According to Harrington, Michael Shaw left home the morning of the murder to chop firewood. Some time later, he heard a gunshot, prompting him to return to the house where he found his wife lying on the floor in a pool of blood with her brains bashed out and skull fractured. Beside her on the floor was her four year old daughter. It was also discovered that a lightwood knot was used to kill her and her arm was bruised and broken in places, obviously from an attempt to shield herself from the blows. It was also discovered that Mrs. Shaw had been shot in the head by Michael Shaw's gun, a gun that was nonetheless missing.
The four year old daughter claimed that two black men had killed her mother. Michael Shaw took the child and rushed her to the home of Sarah Moore, Ordeoro Shaw's mother. Soon after, a manhunt took place for the two black men who were said to have committed the murder. Dogs were used to pick up the scent. Two men were brought in who were unable to account for their whereabouts.
It was not long after that the murder case began to take on a very different nature. Now it appeared that Michael Shaw would be the prime suspect. This turn of events was the result of the four year old daughter changing her story. She now said that her father had killed her mother. Sarah Moore, the deceased's mother, believed her granddaughter. It was also brought up that Michael Shaw was not of the most upright reputation. Some time before this incident, he had been accused of killing a black man, as well as being part of the Ku Klux Klan. In addition, a man who lived with the Shaws, David Butler, testified that he had been out plowing the morning of the murder and saw Michael Shaw beat his wife with a log and then drag her in to the house where he then heard gunfire. Previously, Butler had testified that Shaw had been out cutting firewood when they both heard gunfire from the house. He said Shaw called out to him and then ran to the house. His new story was much different and made Shaw look guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt.
A detective from Atlanta, E.C. Murphy, was sent to Milledgeville to investigate the case. The district attorney felt that the evidence against Shaw was mainly circumstantial, and he wanted something more concrete. Rumors began to circulate that Shaw abused his wife and was considered a terror to the black community where he was thought to have been responsible for the deaths of a few black citizens. An anonymous letter was sent to a local police official saying that Shaw had murdered a black man and then thrown the body in his well. The letter encouraged police to search the well to find the skeleton. They did, and a skeleton turned up. Harrington ponders who sent the letter in his retelling of the story in More Milledgeville Memories. There was also a rumor that Shaw was part of a group of desparados called the Georgia Tigers. Harrington says in his book that there was never any evidence connecting him with any of these claims, but that this did not stop the local rumor mill. Nevertheless, it was after Murphy came to Milledgeville and opened his investigation that David Butler changed his story.
Shaw was convicted of the murder of his wife, and he was sentenced to hang. His execution was carried out on July 12, 1878, in a private hanging on a gallow constructed near the Oconee River. An eighteen foot fence was constructed around the gallows to shield it from public view. When Shaw's body was examined, it was reported that he died from strangulation. His neck did not break.
Was Michael Shaw guilty, or was he the victim of a duplicitous scheme? Why did David Butler change his story? And why did his little girl say that black men had killed her mother at first only to change her story later? And who sent that anonymous letter to local police alerting them that there was a skeleton in Shaw's well? After the murder, many people in the local area maintained that Shaw was innocent. He never admitted guilt while on the gallows, but he also never claimed to be innocent at the gallows that day. He claimed that he never received a fair trial. He said over and over again while he was awaiting his execution that David Butler had told lies in his testimony. It is true that David Butler was not the most reliable of witnesses. One Georgia Supreme Court justice wrote that David Butler was less than credible, not simply because he changed his original testimony, but that when asked, he did not know in what state he lived, how many days were in a week, nor how many months were in a year. Furthermore, he did not know how to count to ten, and he swore he had never tried to count that high. In my opinion, this makes his testimony highly dubious.
It may never be known if Michael Shaw was guilty or not. As a matter of fact, the whereabouts of his grave are unknown. His wife is buried in West-Neal Cemetery off County Line Road in Baldwin County near Milledgeville. However, as Harrington reports, that cemetery is overgrown with weeds and brush. Her grave is marked, however. To me, this sounds a bit like the case of Tom Woolfolk, who as you know from a post I wrote about him on this blog, was accused and hanged for murdering his entire family in Macon in the late 1880s. Macon is just a 45 minute drive from Milledgeville.