JACKSON — Homer Edgeworth, whose long life took him from a run-in with gangster George “Machine Gun” Kelly in 1932 to a judgeship in a case involving the man who integrated the University of Mississippi decades later, has died. He was 102.
Daughter Cecilia Baker said Edgeworth died Monday at a hospice in Ridgeland.
Edgeworth was born in Shannon in 1907 and graduated from the Tupelo Military Institute. He wore many hats during his lifetime — arson investigator, state Parole Board member, judge and election commissioner.
He was most known as the bank teller robbed by Kelly and his gang. He never tired of telling his harrowing story about Kelly and had recounted the bank robbery just weeks ago to historical crime novelist Ace Atkins, who was working on a book based on Kelly’s exploits.
“He told the story down to the gnat’s eyebrow — exactly what people had on, where they were placed in the bank, what kind of pistols they carried and each thing that was said,” Baker said Tuesday. “It was like he was seeing it on television.”
Edgeworth’s brush with the notorious bandit came Nov. 30, 1932, when Kelly and his accomplices, including another gangster named Albert Bates, robbed the Citizens State Bank at Tupelo, Miss. Edgeworth was chief teller.
The thieves got away with $38,000 in cash — quite a score in those days — as well as bonds and travelers checks. They left behind only one $2 bill, Baker said, though Kelly carried a .38 caliber pistol instead of his trademark machine gun.
Describing Kelly after the robbery, Edgeworth was famously quoted as saying at the time: “He was the kind of guy that, if you looked at him, you would never have thought he was a bank robber.”
FBI agents later took Edgeworth to Oklahoma to identify Kelly after he was captured in the kidnapping of a wealthy Oklahoma City oil magnate.
Kelly became indignant during the line up and exchanged words with Edgeworth.
“I could tell Homer, even all these decades later, took a lot of pride that he was able to look down a gangster and tell him off about robbing his bank,” said Atkins, who lives in Oxford.
Kelly and his second wife, Kathryn, a Mississippi native often considered the brains of the operation, were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1933. Kelly spent time in Alcatraz, the famous prison that housed criminals like Al Capone, and died of a heart attack at the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., July 17, 1954.
Edgeworth was a Hinds County justice of the peace in June 1962 when he convicted James Meredith of lying about his residency on a voter registration form. Newspaper reports and government records do not show that Meredith served any time on the conviction. In September of that year, two people were killed and dozens injured during a riot on Meredith’s first day of school at Ole Miss. It was considered by many a pivotal moment in the civil rights struggle.
Services for Edgeworth will be Thursday at 1:30 p.m. at Wright and Ferguson Funeral Home in Jackson with burial to follow at Lakewood Memorial Cemetery. Other survivors include a son; four grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
“He had a very eventful life,” Baker said. “He was one of those kind of people who instilled respect. It was not intimidation, they just adored him.”
Atkins, whose novels like “Devil’s Garden” and “Wicked City,” are based on historical crimes, said his upcoming book on Kelly, “Infamous,” is due out in April 2010.
Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press