By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Truth can be stranger than fiction, they say. Certainly that bespeaks the bizarre true story of the life – and survival – of Eddie Noel, a sharp-shooting 28-year-old black World War II veteran.
In January 1954, Noel, given a mental discharge from the Army nine years earlier, gunned down three white men in Holmes County and then eluded death at the hands of a lynch mob. Never put on trial for the murders, Noel somehow escaped the state’s electric chair when a trial judge without a hearing committed him for examination at Whitfield state mental hospital.
A 400-man posse of armed white men, many soused with moonshine whiskey, for 18 days combed the rural countryside in western Holmes County with bloodhounds and airplanes, but failed to catch the short, light-skinned Noel. If they had, Noel, with his .22 caliber rifle and long hollow point cartridges close at hand certainly would have been lynched by the mob. Only when the soft-spoken man voluntarily surrendered to a uniformed state livestock inspector was he put behind bars in Jackson. But the story still had more twists.
Neither Hollywood nor a fiction writer could have concocted the many bizarre factors that converged in how a black man could have survived in the dark era of Jim Crow Mississippi after killing three white men. Bizarre factor No. l is that Eddie Noel (formally Edmond Noel) is a descendant of white Edmund Faver Noel, Mississippi’s governor from 1909 to 1913 and Holmes County’s most distinguished former citizen. Actually, Eddie Noel was named for the one-time governor, with a different first name spelling.
Al Povall, a native Holmes Countian, who was 12 years old when Noel went on his 1954 shooting spree, was always fascinated by Noel’s seemingly charmed life. After he retired from a law career, he spent the last 10 years digging through court documents, newspaper accounts and dozens of interviews with people who had some role in the 1954 case. Now Povall has written “The Time of Eddie Noel,” a highly readable first book, published by Comfort Publishing of North Carolina.
Southwest Holmes County where Noel lived was a veritable cesspool of corruption. Despite state prohibition laws moonshine and bonded whiskey flowed freely in honky-tonks by paying off law enforcement.
Interracial sex was not uncommon. In fact, it was Noel’s suspicion that his wife was having an affair with white store-owner Willie Ramon Dickard that sparked the black veteran’s shooting spree, and made Dickard his first victim. After Noel had gone to the store to fetch his wife, Lu Ethel, Dickard forced Noel out the store’s front door and gave him a beating. The slight black man retrieved his rifle from his car, and firing rapidly, put two bullets into the white man’s chest. Noel next went to a store to stock up on more ammunition for the manhunt he knew was coming.
Searchers would head for his small house, Noel knew, so he left his car on a gravel road and disappeared into the darkness. Carloads of armed men, and then Sheriff Richard Byrd in his blue-lighted squad car, accompanied by 69-year-old deputy John Pat Malone parked in the road. Out of the darkness a shot rang out from Noel’s .22 rifle and shattered the sheriff’s blue light and two more shots plied into Malone’s chest. Two white men had died from a black man’s gun: something unthinkable in Holmes County. In the sub-freezing days that followed, hundreds of armed white men would join the search and once, when they came close to their quarry, one more died and three were wounded.
My dear late friend, Lexington editor Hazel Brannon Smith, would lead a delegation to meet with respected black educator Dr. Arenia Mallory to send word through the black community urging Noel to give himself up. It worked.
While incarcerated in Jackson, Noel readily confessed to the killings but told newspaper interviewers he didn’t know why. Moved to the Holmes County jail, Noel was assigned young attorney David Williams to defend him. Certain that a Holmes County jury of 12 white men would waste little time sending Noel to the electric chair, Williams decided to petition Judge Arthur Jordan for a mental evaluation of his client. To Williams’ amazement, Jordan granted the order, even without a hearing. At Whitfield, Dr. W. L. Jaquith put a team of psychiatrists on the case and they soon declared Noel mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Through some unknown outside influence, Povall points out that Jaquith bypassed normal procedure to give the criminally insane a lobotomy and confinement in the brutal building 43 at Whitfield. When Robert Clark in 1968 became the state’s first black legislator since Reconstruction, he visited Noel and in 1970 interceded for his release. By this time, the Holmes County Court had sent the Noel case to an inactive file. He was released to in-laws in Fort Wayne, Ind., where he lived out the rest of his life a free man.
What had saved Noel’s life? Was it his genealogy? We’ll never know.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.