True Opelika crime story

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How a murdered on the run was brought to justice

By Edna Ward
Opelika Observer

A missing woman, a concerned family and skeletal remains, all tangled in a web of crime, lies and intrigue. While that sounds like a plot straight off the silver screen – it was a well-documented Lee and Macon County crime of 1914. The 28 newspaper articles capturing the details provided the sources for this story.
Photographs of Pomp Dickerson showed he was a handsome man, the son of Squire and Emma Dickerson. According to the 1920 U. S. Census, this family’s race was listed as Mulatto. Contacts with descendants revealed Emma was Native-American while Squire was African-American.
As an adult, Pomp worked for the railroad in Philadelphia, Penn.  He met and married Bessie. The couple came to Alabama to visit the Dickerson family in the little Texas community of Macon County near the southwest Lee County line. After a time, Pomp returned alone to Philadelphia, telling his family that Bessie had returned earlier. Bessie was never seen alive again.
After a time, Bessie’s family became concerned about her disappearance and contacted Alabama authorities. Today it would be called a missing person report. Griffin Butler was Lee County Sheriff when the investigation started. John Moon was Sheriff when it ended.
This was a time when public resources were scarce. Education for law enforcement did not exist.  Officials just did the best they could in conducting criminal investigations.
As the investigation continued, witnesses revealed they saw the couple walking near the family home; Pomp was carrying a gun.  A gunshot was heard. The skeletal remains of a female were soon found. Clothing matching the description of Mrs. Dickerson’s was found with the remains.
Pomp was arrested in Philadelphia and extradited to Lee County. Deputy Sheriff W. A. “Tobe” Betts brought the suspect back to Opelika.
The Opelika Daily News of Dec. 2, 1914 documented Pomp’s trial, which reportedly attracted the largest crowd ever seen here. The jury was charged at 11:30 a.m. and returned a verdict of guilty at 2 p.m. Death on the gallows was the sentence. Judge Duke set the execution date for Jan. 29, 1915.
On Dec. 3, a follow-up article provided more details of the trial. A letter written by Dickerson, while in jail, to a friend in Philadelphia was intercepted by authorities.  Dickerson requested his friend write a letter to the sheriff saying she was alive and to sign it “Bessie Dickerson.”  “The defendant never lost his composure,” even though the state dumped Bessie’s bones out of a sack before the court. Case closed?  No. There was much more to come.
The Jan. 29 execution date was suspended because this case was appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, but that court upheld the lower court’s decision.  Dickerson’s execution was rescheduled for June 25, 1915.
On May 18, Pomp claimed that his father, Squire Dickerson, fired the shot that killed Bessie. Squire Dickerson was arrested and jailed.  A subsequent hearing found no basis for Pomp’s claim and Squire was released.
With only four more days to live, Pomp Dickerson escaped from the Lee County Jail. He had carved a wooden key with his pocket knife from a slat of a straight chair and opened the cell door with it.
Promptly, a wanted notice with a reward of $200 from Governor Henderson and a $200 reward from Sheriff Moon for the arrest of Pomp Dickerson was posted.
To satisfy doubters of the wooden key story, a second wooden key was quickly carved by a second person. The cell door was opened with this key, before witnesses.
Pomp was recaptured within a few days in a corn crib five miles from town toward Gold Hill. He was armed and shots were fired. Dickerson was hit in the arm but taken into custody. Mitchell Merchant, who was married to Dickerson’s cousin, was arrested for harboring the fugitive.
Dickerson was returned to the county jail, put in a cell on the second floor, shackled and chained to the wall with a guard outside the door.  Dickerson, suffering from the gunshot wound, was treated.
July 26, 1915, Judge Duke re-sentenced Pomp Dickerson “to be hanged by the neck until you are dead on August 27, 1915 – and God be your helper.”  Pomp was ordered taken to Montgomery since the Lee County Jail was “unsafe for the confinement of a prisoner under the sentence of death.”
Dickerson’s conviction was upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court.
In early August, Pomp was again in the news as prison authorities reported a suicide attempt. The local paper reprinted an article from the Montgomery Advertiser claiming that Pomp’s mother brought him a basket of poisoned food.  The jailer put out the word if Pomp died from the poison his mother would be sentenced to death.   After that confrontation the mother grabbed the basket and “rushed for the door.”  The food was listed as fried chicken, a cake, pies and biscuit.
At some point before the date of execution, Pomp Dickerson was returned to Opelika where he was to be hung. He also confessed to the murder for the first time, before a number of people including Dr. and Mrs. J. W. Darden, Rev. W. T. Paulk, pastor of the A. M. E. Zion Church, Deputy Tobe Betts and Deputy Percy Griffin, and asked that the written confession be given to the local paper.
The lengthy confession was printed in the Daily News. It described an unhappy and troubled marriage. As to the murder, he said,  “At that time a quick passion went all over me and before I could think, I shot her for she kept me in trouble and worried me all of the time.  She had me almost crazy half of the time … .”   The date of the murder was given as July 22, 1914.
An Aug. 27, 1915, headline read: “Pomp executed for murder at eleven fifteen today.” After Deputy Betts adjusted the noose, Dickerson was asked if he had anything to say.  He made a lengthy reply which included, “I want to let you all who have gathered here to see me and all the world to know I am receiving my just reward. I am paying, with my life, the just penalty for the crime I committed. I have made peace with my maker and I am going to my death without the least of fear…”
Fifteen minutes after the trap was sprung, Dickerson was pronounced dead. His remains were released to the parents and interment took place in the Little Texas community in Macon County.
Was that the end?  Not entirely. In 2003, one of Pomp’s sisters was still living. She was 105-years-old. A gentleman had contacted her concerning “lynchings” in the south.  He was referred to Edna Ward who provided him copies of the Dickerson newspaper articles and assured him that Dickerson was legally executed following a jury trial which was reviewed and upheld by higher courts.
Although over one hundred years have passed since this murder, we offer it as  excellent example of law enforcement at a time when resources and education for law enforcement were limited.

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