Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Homicidal Irony That Shadowed Jesse Hill Ford

Inspired by a Humboldt Mystery

A troubling incident in Humboldt caught Jesse's attention. In 1955, the same year he had moved there, a wealthy black undertaker named James Claybrook was murdered. The murder was unsolved. Jesse heard that many people believed James's much younger wife, Dorothy Claybrook, had been having an affair with a white policeman and that the undertaker intended to name the officer as co-respondent in his divorce suit. The story continued that the cop had murdered the undertaker - and that racist officials in the town covered up the crime.


Jesse Hill Ford's best selling novel.
Jesse Hill Ford's best selling novel.
Inspired by this story, Jesse wrote The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones. Published in 1965, it became a best seller. It was widely praised for the sensitive way it dealt with racial relations. He was described as a budding William Faulkner.


Although the novel was set in a fictional town called Summerton, many in Humboldt saw it as an attack. Jesse received threatening phone calls and garbage was thrown at his lawn.


Black Humboldt residents viewed The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones more favorably. However, there were aspects of the novel some blacks found disturbing. In a Life magazine article called The Continuing Trial of Jesse Hill Ford, Marshall Frady quotes a black educator as commenting, "In Lord Byron Jones he was saying, 'World, look what little southern towns are doing to black people,' and for that, I could pat him on the back. But what he also did in that book was really low-rate blacks. The way he portrayed that undertaker's wife, that was insulting to black women."


The success of The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones dramatically improved the economic circumstances of the Ford family. Their finances were given another boost when the novel was made into a movie called The Liberation of L. B. Jones in 1970. Jesse spent time in Hollywood collaborating with Stirling Silliphant on the screenplay.


The film adaptation of Ford's book.
The film adaptation of Ford's book.
According to the documentary Imprisoned in Irony, Jesse began drinking heavily and using methamphetamines during this period. He also had affairs. Sally learned of them and their marriage was placed under strain.


Jesse bought a 27-acre property outside Humboldt. Frady described the estate called Canterfield as "modestly baronial" and reported that Jesse had a large, two-story brick home built on it. On Canterfield, Jesse and his family grew crops and tended livestock, living out the Agrarian lifestyle that had beguiled him during his college years.


In 1969, he published The Feast of Saint Barnabas, a book examining a Florida race riot from various perspectives.


It was also during this period that the Humboldt school system became racially integrated. Long a critic of Jim Crow, Jesse welcomed such progress. However, it led to difficulty for his 17-year-old son Charles, the captain of his school's football team. Like the school, the team was initially racially integrated. But black players, regardless of their skill, did not get the desirable positions they had held on the all-black team. Then, some sort of suspicious mix-up occurred that led all black players to miss a practice. They were cut from the team.


Many blacks were outraged. Threatening calls were made to the Ford home that targeted Charles.


Being the victim of harassment, first from one race and then another, took its toll on Jesse, who had long had a tendency to view the world as conspiring against him. "I've been paranoid all my life," Ford admitted.


Jesse suffered nightmares. "Somebody was chasing me through the kitchen, through that back hallway that leads to the door," he told Frady. "I didn't know who it was but they were trying to kill me, I knew that. Then, as my hand grabbed the doorknob, there was this incredible explosion in my head. I had been shot in the head. I knew this in that split second before I died, and then of a sudden I was awake."


On Friday, November 13, 1970, when Charles was riding in a homecoming parade through downtown Humboldt, a group of blacks threw stones at the car.


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