"He prophesied that his innocence would be proven, for after his death, a strong oak tree would grow from his grave, and everyone would know that when they saw this tree he spoke the truth, and they would have to live with the knowledge that they killed an innocent man."
As the rope was put around Charles Boyington’s neck, he proclaimed his innocence to the thousands watching, all awaiting in anticipation of his gruesome execution. As the mob screamed for his sentence to be fulfilled, he made the people a promise. He foretold that his innocence would be shown, for after his death, a powerful oak tree would grow from his heart, buried deep in the grave. Everyone would know that when they saw this tree he had spoken the truth, and they would have to live with the knowledge that they put to death an innocent man. Travel to downtown Mobile, behind a stone wall dating to the 1830’s, and you will witness the most peculiar sight. Vines run up wrought iron fences that surround crypts carved out of stone, standing silently under the live oaks, stretching upward to the heavens, like the hands of deceased pulling themselves out of their graves. Just outside the stone wall that surrounds this cemetery, which has been closed since 1898, grows a huge live oak, reaching its arms upward in attempts at freedom. This oak grows out of a lone grave site, the cemetery plot of Charles R.S. Boyington.
Charles R.S. Boyington arrived in Mobile from Connecticut in 1833 at the age of 23. With the rapid growth in Mobile, young working class men like Boyington were arriving in large numbers in Mobile, causing the cost of living to sky rocket and crime to run rampant. Prior to a central penitentiary being built in 1834, and the first police chief being appointed in the 1820’s, Mobile had been policed only by volunteer patrols. A full time citizen watch was established in 1821, and all free male citizens 16 and older were responsible for duty. Crime began to revolve around houses of prostitution, with murder, burglaries and assaults being painfully common.(1) Large amounts of Mobile’s new population were living in boarding houses, including Boyington. Gambling was widespread, and said to be one of things that attracted Boyington to the area. His roommate was Nathanial Frost, a thin and sickly man, but for good reason. He suffered from tuberculosis, a disease ravaging through the population at the time. Both Boyington and Frost were printers, which didn’t provide the pay that would have allowed them to mix with Mobile’s upper class. Stories say that Boyington tried to blend in by going to dances and events. At one he met a woman named Rose, and somehow he won her attention. In an almost storybook way, Boyington and Rose fell in love. With the aid of one of her father’s staff, Lydia, they communicated via notes she would quietly pass between them. Rose’s father didn’t approve of Boyington, primarily because he felt that his income was not enough to properly provide for Rose. So, just as the movies go, her father forbade them from seeing each other.
Boyington’s love became an infatuation that consumed him, to the point that he stopped attending social events to write poetry for Rose. Before long, his hopeless romantic daydreaming cost him his printing job. With a new reputation for poor work and musing, Boyington found himself unable to find another job, and with no income, having no chance to ever receive approval from Rose’s father. His lofty dreams of marriage to Rose were slipping through his fingers. He became a broken, desperate man.
Seeing Boyington broke and pained, Frost felt sympathy for his friend. Thinking he could help, he offered to pay for Boyington’s room and board until his could get back on his feet. Boyington’s pride was hurt, and as a result, he lashed out at Frost. After calming Boyington down, Frost knew he had to change directions to help his friend. He had to try to build up his pride, to help his look good to his beloved. Frost went into detail about his ability to carve beautiful pieces of art out of wood, which inspired Boyington to learn from Frost how to carve a heart of wood for his last chance to ultimately win her father over and be with Rose. Frost agreed to meet Boyington in their usually haunt, The Church Street Graveyard (founded in 1819 at the height of yellow fever epidemics), to teach Boyington about carving. Boyington did learn two things that day, his friend’s ability to whittle beautiful images out of wood, and the stash of money and valuables Frost had hidden in a trunk in their room. Frost, sickly and thin, was hiding everything Boyington would need to win Rose. Could Boyington have viewed Frost as expendable to obtain his dreams? Could they have ever dreamed that they would soon be resting in the same cemetery?
Boyington returned to the boarding house that night under peculiar circumstances: he was alone. Frost was no where in sight, but according to his landlord, he reassured them that Frost just wanted to spend some time alone in the cemetery. According to the landlord, Boyington handed her a package to be given to Rose, and proceeded to buy a ticket for the James Monroe which was leaving the port at Mobile that night for Montgomery. He was going to find work in Montgomery, and win back the hand of his prized love.
By the next morning Frost had still not returned to the boarding house, and the landlord grew suspicious. She contacted the Sheriff, expressing her distrust of Boyington. Nathaniel Frost’s body was discovered later that day, in the friends old haunt, The Church Street Cemetery. Frost had been stabbed multiple times, suspected to be by his own carving knife, which was no where to be found. Frost body was discovered May 11, 1834. His pocket watch and money had been stolen. Authorities decided there were no other leads, so they concluded that it was obvious only one person could have committed such a crime, Charles Boyington.
A few years earlier Mobile had changed from a citizen watch to having a sheriff and police force. The new police force operated on it’s own terms. In one instance, the force was accused of claiming a need for “a little lynch discipline” to being used when four free black men came through the area, causing a fear of abolitionists to spread like wildfire. Mob mentalities became completely commonplace. This was the backdrop Charles Boyington was up against. On May 12, 1834, the town paper printed an article, written by Mayor John Stocking Jr., claiming that Boyington was suspected of murdering Nathaniel Frost, and offering a $250 award for his capture. Local news reports also declared that Boyington had “cultivated” Frost with “acts of kindness and attention” eventually killing him “for the sake of plunder.” The race was on to find Boyington.
By Thursday May 15th, Charles Boyington had been apprehended while aboard the James Monroe. He was taken away in shackles, and brought back to a Mobile jail, declaring his innocence until the last day he lived. Boyington was greeted by huge crowds, screaming at the man they believed committed the most “diabolical act of atrocity.” Even Rev. William Hamilton, who visited Boyington in an attempt at death bed conversion, called him “the archest hypocrite, the vilest villain for hardihood, the sun ever shone upon.”(2) He had a very short trial in November of 1834, with the jury only deliberating for an hour and 15 minutes, which delivered to him quickly a gruesome fate. Charles was to be hung in February of 1835.
Days passed quickly, and Boyington spent them proclaiming his innocence, never changing his story. He even went so far as appealing to the Alabama Supreme Court, on the grounds that one juror was British, having foreign citizenship, and another saying that they would hang Boyington himself if given the opportunity. The high court ruled against him, stating that he waited too long to appeal. Interestingly enough, two years later the court reversed the precedent on a similar issue. Some say that Rose visited him in jail, wearing the carved heart he had made for her around her neck. Rose never believed that her Charles would commit such a murder, and continued seeing him all she could. Once her father found out, he kept her under 24-hour surveillance, forbidding her visits. Boyington wrote to her, sending her poetry and songs, but she was allowed no contact. In a way, she was imprisoned alongside her love. Boyington never cracked on his claims, nor would he cease, creating a dramatic scheme that would prove to the world his innocence.
Could Charles Boyington have been telling the truth? Was an innocent man convicted and put to death? Is the story of Charles Boyington just one in an unfortunately long line of narratives about unjust convictions? As far back as 1863, almost 30 years after Boyington was trying to appeal his case, there was the case of Chipita Rodriguez. Rodriquez was convicted of murdering a horse trader, and promptly executed in San Patricio County, Texas. Texas Legislature passed a resolution 122 years later exonerating her.(5) Case after case can be found, even popular culture has been inspired time and time again by these scenes. Everyone can think of a song or film dealing with the matter. Dr. Richard Kimble anyone?
We all remember the classic 1993 film “The Fugitive”, with Harrison Ford spending 90 minutes yelling “I didn’t kill my wife!” while fleeing Tommy Lee Jones. The true story of the film is about Dr. Sam Sheppard, with whom the character of Richard Kimble was based on. Sheppard was convicted in 1954 of the brutal murder of his pregnant wife, and was found guilty despite evidence proving he didn’t commit the crime. According to reports, very much like the movie and television series, the investigating police completely overlooked obvious evidence, primarily because they believed Sheppard was the killer—and they needed a conviction. Blood was also found in the home which did not match that of Sheppard, his wife, or their kids. Sheppard was eventually exonerated in 1966, but the case had taken an colossal toll on him and he was to meet his end four years later of liver disease, almost completely ruined both financially and emotionally.9
On June 17th, 1966, police arrested Rubin Carter, a professional boxer and his friend John Artis for a triple-homicide committed in the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey. Police stopped Carter's car and brought him and Artis, also in the car, to the scene of the crime. Upon searching the car, the police found ammunition that fit the weapons used in the murder. Police took no fingerprints at the crime scene and lacked the facilities to conduct proper tests on the gunshot residue. Carter and Artis were tried and convicted twice (1967 and 1976) for the murders, but after the second conviction was overturned in 1985, prosecutors chose not to pursue the case for a third time. Carter served as the inspiration for the 1975 Bob Dylan song “Hurricane”, one that garnered major popularity and attention to Carter’s cause.(7)
“Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world. “
“Hurricane” by Bob Dylan
Most prisoners that appeal a wrongful conviction will not be as fortunate as Carter to live to see their exoneration. Many of these prisoners are arrested because of political motives, accused of crimes many believe they didn’t commit, in order to further a political agenda. Mumia Abu Jamal is the most prominent political prisoner in the US. In 1981, in a Cointelpro style investigation, he was arrested and sentenced to death in an what many believe was an unjust trial for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman. Mumia was an organizer and campaigner against police abuses in the African-American community, and was the President of the Association of Black Journalists. After his conviction and sub sequential imprisonment, he continued writing and has published several books and other commentaries. Mumia’s writing is dealing in the topics of wrongful convictions, and other human rights mistreatments. most notable is his book Live From Death Row, which was released in 1995. Mumia has many incredibly vocal supporters. The front man of the popular musical activist group, Rage Against the Machine, Zack De Le Rocha, has spoken to Congress, condemning the U.S. government's treatment of him. To see for yourself and to learn more visit freemumia.org.
Thankfully some exonerations do come in the innocent detainee’s lifetime, but not always in the form deserved. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin were convicted in 1994 for the deaths of three local boys. The prosecution alleged it was part of a satanic ritual. This was part of a string of cases that had been known as “The Satanic Panic,” for which many people were later exonerated, like the employees at the Fells Acres Day School, on the basis of groundless and untrue accusations. A mass hysteria swept the country, creating a cloud of accusations of “satanic ritual abuse” and murders.(8) Unfortunately, the West Memphis Three, which Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were known as, got swept into this hysteria. The case was documented in the film “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hills”, as well as two sequels which garnered the accused a large following, including many celebrities, who believed in the innocence of the defendants. In 2011, they entered Alford pleas in exchange for having their sentences reduced to time served. While their convictions stand legally, they are widely considered to have been wrongfully convicted. Justice for the three is still sought to this day, along with an attempt to find the real murderer.(7) Learn more about this case at www.wm3.org.
These are just a few examples of the victims of unjust imprisonments, you can find a list of exonerated death row inmates here.
Charles Boyington stood looking out at the thousands gathered to watch him die. In the his last minutes of his short life, as he stood with a noose around his neck, Boyington made a declaration. From his now damned and condemned mouth spilled forth a prophecy that could only become mythical lore. He proclaimed that a great oak tree would grow from his innocent heart, buried deep in the grave, pushing and breaking out, reaching to the heavens. With every inch the tree grows, those who convicted him would be forced to remember their anger that killed an innocent young man. Their guilt will also grow, until they are consumed by the arms of the oak.
Months after Charles Boyington’s execution, the city of Mobile had begun to forget all about Boyington and his murdered friend Nathaniel Frost. Stories say that Rose even met a suitor her father approved of, eventually packing her carved heart away into a box, so she could be free to love again. One day a peculiar thing was spotted in the cemetery. A small sprout had began to grow from a grave in Potter’s Field (where the poor or unknown were buried), only sixty yards from where Nathaniel Frost’s body was found. From the grave of Charles Boyington, that sprout grew into a powerful oak tree. Boyington Oak now stands tall, outside the walls of the Church Street Graveyard, on the edge of a parking lot, near a playground, declaring his innocence. With the tree being enough of a grave marker and reminder now, his actual gravestone has long since been removed. The branches now outstretched, the tree takes on the appearance of a person, pulling itself out of the deep catacombs. It’s said that on those dark nights, when the warm southern wind howls in the branches, you can hear Charles Boyington’s voice, proclaiming his innocence, reminding a world quick to judgement that an innocent man died that day.
In an article written in 1847 in the Albany (New York) Evening Journal entitled, “The Wrong Man Hung”, Boyington’s innocence was proclaimed by its authors, who had researched the evidence from the aging case. The journal purported a death bed confession, one from their landlord. The landlord knew about Frost’s hidden valuables, and was the one to report Frost missing. Boyington had now become an example of the perils of capital punishment. Walt Whitman even refers to the cases as “the story of the Boyington mistake” in his essay “What the Defenders of the Gallows Say and an Answer Thereto”.(9) Whether or not his innocence was a definitive reality, obvious questions now exist in Boyington’s case, along with thousands of other cases, and now the American Justice System as a whole. In October 2013, the incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world, at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world's population, it houses around 22 percent of the world's prisoners. Corrections (which includes prisons, jails, probation, and parole) cost around $74 billion in 2007 according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. American prisons are filling up, huge percentages of the country are under the poverty line, and our country has more money than any other country on earth dedicated to it’s military (at $619 billion a year).(10) What do these statistics reflect in our society, in us as a people?
The late comedian/educator Bill Hicks said,
“The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it's real because that's how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it's very brightly colored, and it's very loud, and it's fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, "Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?" And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, "Hey, don't worry; don't be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride." And we … kill those people.
"Shut him up! I've got a lot invested in this ride, shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real." It's just a ride. But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok … But it doesn't matter, because it's just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It's only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here's what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.”
The Southern Alabama Gulf Coast has an environment that eventually dwells deep within every living being that inhabits this swamp. The air is thick and dense, as fog rolls over our feet, we lie in the cradle created by the gigantic aging oaks that surround us. One of these trees lies in a plot of land dedicated to the souls that roamed before us. This oak, The Boyington Oak, grows from the heart of innocence, growing outward, to be hidden no longer. As we look on at the massive tree, we are reminded of the lives lost because of an unjust system, one that we are responsible to transform. As we look at the large, outstretched branches, we realize that we could be the crowded masses, the ones who condemned Boyington, and living through the eyes of fear drove us to it. No longer can our lives be dictated by the visions that hold us hostage. Our time to exonerate is now. For we are the serpents of Bienville.
- “Down the Years”, Paul M. Pruitt Jr, and Robert Bond Higgins
- Hamilton, William T., and Ala Mobile. The Last Hours of Charles R.S. Boyington,: Who Was Executed at Mobile, Alabama, for the Murder of Nathaniel Frost. Perpetrated May 10, 1834. Mobile [Ala.]:: Printed at the Commercial Register Office., 1835. Print.
- Bingham, Joan, and Dolores Riccio. More Haunted Houses. New York: Pocket, 1991. Print.
- Pruitt, Paul M.; Higgins, Robert Bond (1963). "Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Mobile: The Long Story of Charles R. S. Boyington". Gulf Coast Historical Review 11 (Spring 1996): 6–40.
- "Wrongful Execution." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.
- "10 People Who Were Wrongfully Accused of Heinous Crimes - Listverse." Listverse. 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.
- "10 People Who Were Wrongfully Accused of Heinous Crimes - Listverse." Listverse. 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.
- "Fell Acres Day Care Center Preschool Trial." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.
- Whitman, Walt, and Cleveland Rodgers. The Gathering of the Forces,. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1920. Print.
- "United States Incarceration Rate." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.