The unexplained, a phenomenon which can take on a life of its own! We crave it, we’re fascinated by it, we chase it, and sometimes when we catch it we’re disappointed, and wish we hadn’t. And like fine wine, the unexplained gets better with age.
In November of 1971, sky-jacker D.B. Cooper boarded Northwest Orient flight 305, at Portland, Oregon, and then later parachuted into history. No one has seen hide nor hair of Cooper since. In 1975, labor boss Jimmy Hoffa disappeared. Almost four decades later the circumstances of his disappearance remain unexplained. Yet the mysteries surrounding Cooper and Hoffa still intrigue us today. Why? Probably because of our natural yearning for the unexplained! While gaining worldwide attention, the stories of Cooper and Hoffa pale in comparison to the mystery of Mississippi’s Luther Musselwhite. Better known simply as “Musselwhite,” the Man with no First Name!
The mystery of Musselwhite contains all the ingredients for a folktale, a legend and even a myth. Take your pick. But somewhere in the mix lies the genuine saga of a brutal murder, a date with the electric chair, and a man who vanished into history.
The very name Musselwhite seemed to evoke a certain amount of mystic. Perhaps that is because the name is not common to this neck of the woods. Had Luther’s last name been one which we heard every day, he might not have become the mysterious on-the-run escapee, but rather, just another garden variety criminal trying to outrun the law, devoid of all the celebrity status. Musselwhite was the subject of one of the most intense manhunts in Mississippi history. It all started in Marion County, Mississippi on August 13, 1950, four years before the former Marine led dozens of law enforcement officers from Whitfield to Meridian.
“We had a tremendous search for him. Highway patrol, national guardsmen, sheriffs and deputies. It went all the way to Meridian, and there they lost him,” Dr. Thomas Jaquith, Director of Mississippi State Hospital during the time of Musselwhite’s escape.
According to articles in the Columbia Progress newspaper, court records in Marion County, and Mississippi Supreme Court records, thirty-one-year old Luther Musselwhite, mauled sixty-five year-old Virgil Price to death with his bare fists at a beer joint called Breakfield’s Fishing Camp near Columbia, Mississippi.
The fight, as well as the mystery, began after Musselwhite and Price emerged from a storage room where it is believed they engaged in a friendly conversation. After returning to the bar, everything appeared to be normal between the two men. As Price was filling the beer cooler, Musselwhite struck him in the face with his fists, without warning or provocation. Not a single witness offered any motive for Musselwhite’s assault on Price. One witness testified that he never heard Price threaten Musselwhite. According to witnesses’ account, Musselwhite’s attack on his victim was vicious and without mercy. Price never had a chance against the man thirty four years his junior.
As one onlooker tried to stop the fight, the five-feet four inched tall, but stocky built Musselwhite, slammed him against the wall with the force of a charging bull. That was the first and last effort to stop the beating. Musselwhite’s buddy, Luther Turnage, pulled a revolver, waved it on the crowd, and demanded they stay out of it, sealing the fate of the defenseless Price.
One blow from Musselwhite was so great that it catapulted Price through the front door, and out of the building where he landed on the bumper of a car. He begged for mercy. But Musselwhite replied, “Don’t you know I’m a Marine, and I like to fight,” and then knocked Price to the ground. Virgil Price never stood on his feet again. But Musselwhite was far from finished.
He continued beating his victim, off and on, for more than an hour, his fists crushing the bones of Price’s face and shattering his teeth. More than once, Musselwhite knocked Price unconscious, revived him with a cold wet towel, and then resumed his battering.
Inside the beer joint, his buddy, Luther Turnage, continued to hold his gun on the horrified crowd to ensure no one called the sheriff. The brutality ended only when Musselwhite broke his right hand from delivering repeated blows to Price’s head.
Musselwhite tried again to revive Price, but he was apparently dead. Turnage told the crowd, to call a doctor, but not to call the law, but evidently someone defied Turnage’s order and called the sheriff in spite of his threats.
Musselwhite fled into the woods, but surrendered an hour later when a deputy sheriff persuaded him to come out, and then arrested him for murder. The deputy transported him to the Marion County jail where he was held without bond pending grand jury proceedings.
After a Marion County grand jury indicted Musselwhite for the crime of capital murder, Governor Fielding Wright appointed Circuit Judge Sebe Dale from another judicial district to hear the case. Judge Dale summoned and examined 262 potential jurors before seating twelve men to hear the case. After the usual pretrial motions, including a denied motion for change of venue, the trial proceeded without incident.
Musselwhite, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie sat calmly throughout the trial, never showed any sign of emotion or nervousness. The evidence against him was damning and overwhelming. He was convicted of capital murder, and sentenced to death in the electric chair, (affectionately known as Ole Sparky) by the resolute judge and jury.
Musselwhite appealed his conviction and death sentence to the Mississippi Supreme Court, claiming self-defense. But the high court was equally resolute as the judge and jury in Marion County. It rejected his self-defense claims and upheld his conviction and sentence. A defiant Musselwhite vowed that the state would never have the pleasure of putting him to death.
While awaiting his execution date in the Marion County Jail, Musselwhite refused to eat or drink, and eventually lapsed into a coma from a dehydration and lack of nourishment. Marion County Sheriff J.V. Polk said he didn’t want him to die in his jail that way, and transported him to the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield. While at Whitfield, he was subjected to one of law’s most bizarre ironies as he was force fed in order to keep him alive for his execution.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story continues next week