The story of the murder of a priest in 1920s Alabama, and the sensational trial that followed.
On Aug. 11, 1921, Edwin Stephenson, a Methodist minister in Birmingham, Alabama, gunned down James Coyle, a Catholic priest. The reason? The priest had married his 18-year-old daughter, Ruth, to a Puerto Rican migrant named Pedro Gussman. Stephenson was quickly arrested, and the trial, with its racial and religious overtones, made national headlines. Davies (Law/Ohio State Univ.) attempts to rescue the episode from obscurity. At its heart, the story is about the sad consequences of religious intolerance. Anti-Catholic feeling was common in America at the time, particularly in the deep South, where such prejudice was a hallmark of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Stephenson was a longtime member of the Klan, and his daughter’s conversion to Catholicism and marriage to a Catholic Puerto Rican drove him to murder. Stephenson’s defense attorney, the future U.S. senator and Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, clearly counted on jurors’ antipathy toward Catholics as part of his legal strategy, to make them sympathize with his client’s weak temporary-insanity defense. Davies digs up some interesting moments—as when Stephenson implores a reporter to “say some little nice things” about him. Unfortunately, the book suffers from a heavy reliance on trial transcripts, and the author’s attempts at dramatization are questionable. Though the story is indeed tragic, the takeaway for the reader—that prejudice in the 1920s South led to miscarriages of justice—is hardly a revelation.
A diligent but dry attempt to revivify a forgotten legal case.