Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mississippi Madness: The Story of Emmett Till

Emmett's Fate

Early Sunday morning, Moses Wright reported to the local sheriff that his nephew had been abducted by two white men. The same day, Deputy Sheriff John Ed Cothran picked up Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for questioning. They admitted that they took the "Chicago boy" from the preacher's home, but said they later released him unharmed. The sheriff's office, assisted by hundreds of citizens began to look through every part of Leflore County. The following day, the incident appeared in local newspapers and soon, the national press picked up on the story.

In Chicago, Mamie Till waited. "He has his faults like most boys," she told reporters from the Chicago Defender, "but he is very mannerable. People like for their children to associate with him. Bo was liked by everybody." Being familiar with traditions in the delta, however, Mamie was aware of the terrible possibilities. She knew that blacks could pay a horrendous price for even the most trivial of insults to a white person.

Three days later, on August 31, a young white boy, named Robert Hodges, was fishing in the Tallahatchie River near a spot called Pecan Point. It was a slow day for fish and the boy idled away the hours in the summer heat. He noticed a strange object floating in the river that had caught some low hanging tree branches. "I saw two knees sticking out of the water," he later testified, "the body was hung on a snag." When he approached it, the boy saw a human corpse. He ran home and told his father what he had found.

Soon, the local police responded. They took several boats out into the Tallahatchie and located the human remains by Pecan Point. It was obvious that the body had been severely beaten. One eye was hanging out of its socket and the left side of the head was horribly smashed. The tongue was grotesquely swollen and some teeth were apparently knocked out of the jaw. Decomposition was in an advanced state. A large fan, which weighed nearly 80 pounds, was attached to the victim's neck by a length of barbed wire. There was a single bullet hole in the skull above the right ear. The effects of being in the water for nearly 72 hours had bloated the corpse in a horrible way. There was a ring on the middle finger of his left hand. It had the initials "L.T." plainly inscribed on its face.

After the body was examined by the coroner, Tallahatchie Sheriff Harold Clarence Strider decided that the remains should be immediately buried. But news of the discovery had already reached Chicago. Mamie Till Bradley insisted that the body be shipped back home at once. Sheriff Strider, who weighed nearly 300 pounds and was the most powerful law enforcement agent in the county, ordered that the casket be sealed and placed on a northbound train. On the morning of September 2, Till's remains arrived at the Illinois Central terminal. The coffin was opened while it was still at the station. When Mamie first laid eyes on the mutilated body, she fainted.

"Have you ever sent a loved son on vacation," she later said to the press, "and had him returned to you in a pine box, so horribly battered and water-logged that someone needs to tell you this sickening sight is your son, lynched?"

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