Original newspaper accounts of America’s most prolific murderers.
This episode, we’re looking at the legend of a Kansas family that killed at least 11 visitors to their roadhouse in the early 1870s. They aroused suspicion by choosing as a victim a well-known physician, whose family soon pulled out all stops in a search until they uncovered his body, along with 10 missing travelers, on the Bender property. The Bender Family was nowhere to be found, and never were. Sightings and even arrests were regular for many years, even into the next century, but the second act of this episode purports to tell the true story of what happened to the mass murdering hostelers.
Frantic screams in the night shatter the pastoral calm of the Bibb County, Georgia, countryside. By the time neighbors arrive, nine members of the family of Captain Richard Woolfolk lay in deadly repose, brutally slain by the savage blows of an ax. The only survivor, 27-year-old son Thomas Woolfolk, the black sheep of the family and perennial loser, says that he escaped the carnage by jumping through a bedroom window and running into the woods. Suspicious eyes immediately imagine a noose around the young man’s neck. Will the truth come out? Will young Woolfolk pay the ultimate price for a crime he did not commit?
Timeline of the Woolfolk Case
June 18, 1860
Thomas George Woolfolk is born in the Woolfolk family farmhouse west of Macon, in Bibb county, the third child and only son of Richard F. Woolfolk, of Macon, and Susan Moore Woolfolk, of Athens in Clarke county. Shortly after his birth Tom Woolfolk’s mother dies and is buried under a holly bush planted less than a hundred feet from the Woolfolk farmhouse.
Tom Woolfolk resides in Athens, being raised in the care and custody of his deceased mother’s sister, aunt Fannie Moore Crane, who appears to have lived on either Pulaski St. or Prince Ave. In 1867, on the remarriage of his father, Tom Woolfolk moves back to live with his father and new stepmother in the Woolfolk family farmhouse in Bibb county.
Tom Woolfolk pays the last of his many visits to Athens, staying with his Aunt Fannie. His bizarre, insane behavior attracts attention.
August 6, 1887
In the early morning hours of this Saturday nine persons are slain with an ax in the Woolfolk family farmhouse near Macon. The only inhabitant of the house not slain is Tom Woolfolk, who seeks help from a neighbor and claims to have struggled with unknown intruders and to have escaped alive only by jumping through a window.
The nine victims are: Richard F. Woolfolk, 54, Tom Woolfolk’s father; Mattie Woolfolk, 41, Richard’s wife and Tom Woolfolk’s stepmother; their six children (2 boys, 4 girls)–Richard, Jr., 20; Pearl, 17; Annie, 10; Rosebud, 7; Charlie, 5; and baby Mattie, 18 months old; and 84-year old Mrs. Temperance West, an aunt of Mrs. Woolfolk paying a visit.
The murder weapon, a short handled ax, smeared with hair and blood, is found in one of the rooms of the house. Witnesses say they saw Tom Woolfolk making baskets with it the previous day.
An inquest is held at the scene of the crime.
Tom Woolfolk is arrested for murder and taken to the county jail in Macon.
August 7, 1887
The nine victims are buried in two rows (their graves later topped by red brick overlays) in Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon. Sometime during this day the Woolfolk farmhouse well is dragged by the sheriff, and a bloody shirt and pair of drawers belonging to Tom Woolfolk are found.
Indicted on nine counts of murder, Tom Woolfolk goes on trial for the murder of his father in Macon in the Superior Court of Bibb county. His lead attorney is an Athens lawyer, John C. Rutherford.
February 10, 1888
After 12 minutes of deliberation, Tom Woolfolk is found guilty by the trial jury, and he is then sentenced to death by the judge.
February 11, 1889
The Georgia Supreme Court reverses Tom Woolfolk’s murder conviction and death sentence, giving as reasons: (1) the trial court had allowed the introduction of certain inadmissible incriminating evidence, and (2) certain courtroom spectators, referring to Tom Woolfolk, had angrily cried out, “Hang him! Hang him! Hang him!” during the prosecutor’s closing arguments, and the trial judge had done nothing.
June 3, 1889
Tom Woolfolk’s retrial for the murder of his father begins in the Superior Court of Houston county in Perry.
June 25, 1889
After 45 minutes of deliberation, the trial jury convicts Tom Woolfolk of murder, and he is again sentenced to death.
July 28, 1890
The Georgia Supreme Court affirms Tom Woolfolk’s murder conviction and death sentence.
October 29, 1890
At 1:30 p.m. on this Wednesday Tom Woolfolk is hanged in front of a crowd of 10,000 spectators in Perry. The same day Tom’s body is buried in Orange Hill Cemetery in Hawkinsville in Pulaski county.
Simon Cooper, son of London and Luana Cooper, black farmworkers who lived nearby, left Bibb County shortly after the Woolfolk Massacre. In 1898, Simon was lynched in Sommerville, South Carolina. On his body was found a notebook with the following lines: “Tom Woolfolk was mighty slick but I fixed him. I would have killed him with the rest of the damn family, but he was not at home.”