The Harris family, four children, a baby and the parents, Thomas and Mary Ella, were still asleep in their four-room shack in Newport community of Attala County.
Leon Turner, regarded as the meanest, most troublesome white man in the county, had broken out of a Kosciusko jail a week before. Crazed with moonshine, lust and hate, he stomped up the steps of the black Harris family's modest abode. He'd been there just 10 days before on another sinister break-in mission. With the butt of his .38 cal. pistol, the burly Turner smashed a glass pane to reach the ceiling light's cord and unlatch the front door
Once inside, Turner drew his pistol looking about for anyone who stirred. Boxes of Christmas gifts brought by Thomas to the kids a few days before were still tucked under their little beds. With hardly a word, Turner went on a shooting rampage that became the most horrendous racial crime in pre-civil rights Mississippi.
When Turner's shots stopped, three Harris children, aged six to 12, were dead, shot at close range; a fourth badly wounded, and Thomas left near-death. He would die four months later but not before testifying from a gurney at Turner's trial. Outrage over the brutal murders came from the national press, and even some segregationist Mississippi newspapers called for the death sentence when Turner was tried two months later.
A dozen newspapermen, including this reporter for The (N.O.) Times-Picayune, covered the trial. For the first time ever in Mississippi, newspaper cameras (television hadn't arrived) were permitted to photograph the trial. Of note, favorable news coverage of the trial gave Judge J. P. Coleman statewide and national exposure that helped eventually send him to the state governorship.
An all-white male jury seemed deadlocked, but returned a guilty verdict with a mandatory life sentence. That Turner's life was spared brought mixed reviews, including a published letter by William Faulkner moderately praising Mississippi for breaking custom of never punishing white men who took the life of African-Americans.
That also was the feeling among reporters who covered the trial.
Kosciusko Star-Herald photographer Billy McMillan made photos throughout the case that became nationally-acclaimed. They, along with a notebook filled with clippings from many newspapers about the entire tragic case kept by his wife was handed down to his then 9-year-old son, Stokes McMillan.
Though not a polished writer (he's an engineer) Stokes McMillan in "One Night of Madness" recounts in chilling coherent detail the entire story of the senseless slayings, from events leading up to that night of horror, as well as the trials and convictions of Turner and his reluctant accomplices, Windol and Malcolm Whitt.
You learn in McMillan's book that Turner satisfied his voracious sexual appetite by going with both black and white women.
He had planned to rape Mary Ella, the mother, and 14-year-old daughter Verlene on his previous break-in of the Harris house but was thwarted by the sudden arrival of tipped-off Sheriff Roy Braswell. That break-in landed Turner in jail on charges filed by Thomas Harris.
Of the characters who play a role in the story, the most colorful is Hogjaw Mullen, the legendary Parchman Penitentiary dog-handling trusty who tracked down Turner after the Harris killing spree. After exchanging gunfire, Hogjaw got Leon to surrender. (Turner died in prison after serving 18 years.)
This was the exchange between the two, as retold by McMillan: "Leon, this is Hogjaw Mullen, you know I'm badder than you. Come on out." Hollywood couldn't write a better script than that.
Bill Minor, a nationally honored journalist, has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at PO Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.