MY GEORGIA ROOTS: The Story of Eli “Bo” Griffin, Sentenced to Death By Electrocution for the Stabbing Death of A White Man

Photo of Eli “Bo” Griffin

While researching the details of my Griffin family that originated from Putnam County, Georgia during the years of slavery and where many of them remain to this day, I came across my great grandfather, Richard Griffin’s first cousin, Eli “Bo” Griffin who had great nieces and nephews that I knew since childhood growing up in Newark, New Jersey.  My cousins in New Jersey, never heard of their uncle, but some of my cousins who still reside in Putnam County has heard of him, referring to him as Bo, but they didn’t know much about him accept for how he died.  I even recently met his grandson who read an article I wrote in which his grandfather, Eli “Bo” Griffin was briefly mentioned in it.  Eli’s grandson has never met or heard much about his own grandfather except for an over-the-top causal mention of how his grandfather met his end, which he really didn’t believe until it was confirmed for him after reading my article.   

Eli “Bo” Griffin was born on 20 August 1909 in Eatonton, Putnam County, Georgia, where he was recorded on the federal census in his father’s household in 1910 when he was 6 months old.  He was the son of John “Wesley” Griffin, a brother of my 2 times great grandfather, Warren Griffin and Hettie Jane Green Griffin whose family married into both my Griffin and my Maddox families and who’s family can be traced back to the same plantations as my Griffin’s and Maddox’s ancestors during the years of slavery.

As a child, Eli grew up on his family’s farms in Eatonton and in Thompkins, Putnam County and in adjacent, Morgan County, Georgia in a town called Durdin.  Like my great grandfather, Eli more than likely had to leave school to work as a laborer on his family’s farm.

On 13 Dec 1930, he married Eva Julia Butts in Putnam County, Georgia, but in 1934, he apparently had a child with a woman named Patience Cole, the 17-year-old daughter of Sam Cole (1879–1968) and Hattie Walker Cole (1893–).  In 1936, Eli and Patience apparently had another son together. The cousin who reached out to me recently was his son.

Marriage Certificate of Eli Griffin and Eva Julia Butts [Putnam County Marriages, Vol M, page 215]

Eli left Putnam County before 1940 and was recorded in his older brother, William Henry Griffin’s household in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on the 1940 federal census. William Henry Griffin was the father of Eli’s nephew who had moved to Newark from Putnam County to live with his mother and who would eventually have a family there. Eli was unemployed and looking for work as a laborer in construction. He reported that he didn’t work in 1939. He earned no income that year and that he was unemployed for 104 weeks prior to 30 Mar 1940.  Meanwhile, Patience Cole had began a common law relationship with Wille Jeff Greene, who’s father Major Greene was a brother of Eli’s mother Hettie, making Willie Jeff Greene and Eli Bo Griffin, first cousins.  Willie Jeff Greene was actually Eli’s “little cousin” as Eli was a decade older than Willie. Eli’s two sons with Patience Cole were recorded as Willie Jeff Greene’s sons and they were recorded on the 1940 census with his “Green/Greene” surname but in 1950, Patience and her 2 sons with Eli would be recorded on the federal census in Eatonton, without Willie J. Greene and with the 3 of them using the “Griffin” surname.

First page of Eli Griffin’s 1940 WWII Draft Card [U.S., World War II Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947]
Second page of Eli Griffin’s 1940 WWII Draft Card [U.S., World War II Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947]

Six months after being recorded on the 1940 federal census in his brother’s house, on 16 October 1940, Eli was residing in Hammonton, Atlantic County, New Jersey when he registered for the WWII draft there.  He was 31 years old, and his birth date and birthplace were respectively recorded as 20 Aug 1909 and Eatonton, Georgia. His height was recorded as 5’ 8”; his weight, recorded as 160lbs, his complexion, hair and eye color all recorded as “black”, and it was noted that he had a scar on his left hand, 3rd knuckle. He worked for Angelo Jacobs on First Road in Hammonton.  His listed his next of kin as Mrs Katie Griffin, his wife.

Alabama, U.S., Convict Records, 1941 (Showing Eli Griffin)

The following year, Eli was in Calhoun County, Alabama when he was arrested for assault and battery with a weapon on 19 April 1941. He had a paternal aunt, Mariah Griffin Williams who moved there when he was a child and died there in 1927. She had a husband, his uncle, and she had offspring his age and older, still residing in the area in 1941.  Most of their surnames were Peters and Goodman. Additionally, a couple of first cousins from his paternal uncle also named Eli Griffin had moved there in the 1920s. One of them had married his maternal first cousin who was a Green. Even though some family members had left the area and moved to Detroit prior to his arrival, he had plenty of family still residing in Calhoun County at that time.  But something happened and it resulted in an episode of violence.  As of now, I have not learned any of the pertinent details, specifically who the violence was acted upon but I wonder if was against one or more of his family members?  Eli was sentenced to 60 days on 19 April 1941 for his “assault and battery with a weapon” charge and had to pay a fine of $50 or serve an additional 20 days pushing a release date out to 8 July 1941. There was also $21.80 in court charges to be paid or serve an additional 43 days. He apparently could not pay the fine or the court fees, nor did any of his family members pay them for him because instead of him being released in June, he was released on 20 Aug 1941 but into the custody of Montgomery County Sheriff. [Calhoun County Alabama Convict Records Volume 10: 1940-1941].

Georgia, Central Register of Convicts, 1946 (Showing Bo Griffin’s case)

I speculate that he, after having exhausted the patience and good graces of his family in first Pennsylvania, New Jersey and now Alabama, Eli probably contemplated moving to Detroit, where he had other cousins who left Calhoun County between 1935 and 1940 but they may have gotten word about the trouble that came with Eli and not encourage his travel.   He eventually returned to his place of origins, Putnam County, Georgia which I imagined did not make him happy. When he left Putnam, he may have felt that he “escaped” and moved on from there like several of his family members did, but instead, he was back in Putnam where the bulk of his family still resided, including his mother and where in 1946, he was arrested. Although his arrest was considered a misdemeanor, this time, his violence appears to have escalated. He was called “Bo Griffin” and was sentenced on 18 September 1946 to serve 9 months for “assault with intent to murder”. [Georgia, Central Register of Convicts, 1946].

Georgia, U.S., Central Register of Convicts, 1949 (showing Eli Griffin’s case)

In 1949, Eli Griffin’s escalation of violence episodes appear to have continued.   That year, he was arrested in Putnam County for a felony and on 22 Sep 1949 he was sentence to serve time in jail for 2 counts of “assault to murder” charges. The 1st charge was to be served between 1 and 4 years and the other was for 6 months to be served after the 1st. [Georgia, Central Register of Convicts, 1949].

Book Cover for the Reported Cases of the Supreme Court of Georgia (April & Sep 1851 & Jan 1852)

Sadly in 1951, Eli Griffin’s violent pattern escalated for the worse.  This time a man was killed and even worse for Eli Griffin, this man was white.   WD Elder was a white man in Walton County of good standing in both Putnam County and in his home community of Walton County, Georgia. [Walton Tribune, Page13, 1951-10-03] According to Atlanta Journal published on 21 August 1951, Eli was on parole in 1951 for shooting an Eatonton police officer which likely occured in 1949.

Based on the newspaper articles and the testimonies of the witnesses and of Eli himself documented in the Reported Cases of the Supreme Court of Georgia (April & Sep 1851 & Jan 1852), on 21 Aug 1951, Eli and another black man named Eddy Monday arrived at the Ingrams Planning Mill to pick up lumber for their employer. They had a difficult time loading the lumber into their truck so the deceased, WD Elder who worked at the mill tried to assist them with the help of another white man who also worked at the mill name J. C. Dorster. Apparently while struggling to hold the gate of the truck open, Dorster “snapped” at Eli who was either sitting in the truck or standing next to it, asking Eli to help open the gate. Apparently, Eli felt that he was cursed at by Dorster and now Eli was offended. Eli looked as if he was going to help but walked away instead, saying that he “don’t get spoken to that way”. According to another witness who heard Eli tell WD Elder, the victim that Mr. Dorster “cursed” him. The deceased replied saying that Dorster didn’t curse him, and Eli responded, “He ain’t got no business cursing me. What business he got cursing me? I ain’t scared of nobody here.” The witness walked away but turned around moments later when he heard the “tussling”. Eli and Elder were down on the floor rolling on it in the tussle and when Dorster hit Eli with a plank of wood to stop him, Eli chased him with the blooded knife he had in his hand. With Eli out of the vacinity, other workers who had come to help had a chance to notice that Elder had a stab womb on his jaw exposing his bone. Just minutes later, they arrived at the hospital with Elder who was unconscious by then. It was at that time that they saw that Elder was also “sliced” in his right thigh. Minutes after arriving at the hospital, the men were informed by the hospital that Elder died on the way there due to him bleeding to death. [Reported Cases of the Supreme Court of Georgia (April & Sep 1951 & Jan 1952), Eatonton Messenger, Page1, 1951-09-20, ] Eli had fled the scene and hid in a home where he found by the sherrif. That night, Eli was whisked away by police for his own safe keeping as a crowd of at least 100 people gathered in front of the jail. [Marietta Journal, Wednesday August 22, 1951, page 1]

Order Granting New Trial

On 19 Sep 1951, Eli was indicted for murder and plead not guilty. His lawyer argued that the trial was set less than 30 days after the incident, and he had no time to prepare having only met Eli twice within 6 days prior to the day of the trial. The judge offered no mercy and sentenced Eli to die on 30 Oct 1951.[Eatonton Messenger, Page1, 1951-09-20] Meanwhile another murder trial was occurring in Putnam County during the same time, also involving another black man who’s named was Clifford McDaniel and who was accused of murdering C. G. Dennis also black but on Friday, 21 Sep 1951, only 2 days after Eli were sentenced to death, McDaniels was acquitted. [Eatonton Messenger, Page1, 1951-09-27] Although Eli’s fate at this time seemed certain, news of the McDaniels case may have given Eli, his mother Hettie and anyone who loved him some hope to hold on to as his attorney worked to change the status of his case by plotting new and promising strategies.  Apparently their hope paid off.  On 20 October 1951, just 10 days before Eli was set to die by electrocution, Eli’s case was stayed and a new trial was granted based on the new medical evidence submitted. In this new trial, new and expert testimony was to be provided in hopes to explain Eli’s behavior and to change the original outcome of the case and the sentencing.

In a January 1952 hearing, testimony was given by Eli and by his doctor over the years who stated that he has been treating him with drugs for epilepsy since 1939.  A psychiatrist testified that the disease called “epilepsy” was known to lead to burst of rage and eventually into total insanity.  

This medical issue may have been an unknown factor for the “recorded” violent events attributed to him which seems to have started in 1941, two years after his diagnosis, plus the charges and severity of each arrest, subsequent to the last one, seems to have escalated. Also, his medical illness may have been factors in him leaving his relationships in Putnam County, in him leaving Pennsylvania where his older brother lived and in him leaving New Jersey where he had a relationship just month before being arrested in Alabama.

Eli’s lawyer introduced similar cases to the courts that happened prior to Eli’s case.  Those cases were thought to have set a precedent and were used in Eli’s defense. I can imagine that the fact that he had a new trial granted to him just in a “nick of time” in October, and weeks after McDaniels was acquitted gave him and his mother Hettie hope that he might also be spared and now these expert testimonies probably offered them both even more it.  

Eatonton Messenger, Page1, 1952-02-28

On 13 Feb 1952, the Superior Court decided to uphold the September 1951 verdict and death sentence which was now rescheduled to happen in March 1952.  It appeared in that moment that Eli now had about a month to live.

The_Atlanta_Constitution_Fri__Mar_14__1952_
Eatonton Messenger, Page1, 1952-03-20

In March 1952, just in a “nick of time”, the Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended to the governor that his case be heard before them, and he was given a 15 day stay.  This was more hope for Eli and his family.  They likely thought this might be the end of this drama for them.  There were probably a lot of prayers and a lot of bible reading.  However, at the beginning of April 1952, the board denied his request and Eli was scheduled to die on 17 April 1952 at Reidsville, Georgia State Prison, in Reidsville, Tattnall County, Georgia.

Eatonton Messenger, Page1, 1952-04-17

It’s understandable how Eli might still hold on to hope even after hearing his recent fate from the courts and after hearing that his request to have his sentence commuted to life was denied by the board.  Twice, he was scheduled to have died by way of electrocution but both times, he was given news at the last minute that he had been spared from death and given more time.  I am sure that he hoped that this time would be no different.   

Eatonton Messenger, Page1, 1952-04-24

Eli’s grasp for hope lasted until the night before his execution, when he asked his warden to call his attorney to see if there was any “hope” left for him which the warden did but only for them both to learn that all legal steps had been exhausted. The warden advised Eli to “prepare to die the following morning”.   The next morning, the prison’s chaplain spoke with Eli but could not get him to say much.  “I told my story”, he said, “but the 12 men in Eatonton wouldn’t believe me.  I don’t see any reason to tell it to a preacher.”  Later on that morning, one hour before he was scheduled to die, Eli’s family came to visit him one last time in his prison cell.  The warden, who wouldn’t witness any of the electrocutions witnessed all of the families last goodbyes.  He described the last visits of condemned men as one of the most touching features of executions.  Eli was said to have remained his “usual silent self” while he was being prepared for “the chair” and while he was being escorted to it from his cell through a short corridor that was nicknamed “the last mile” where condemned men were able to look through a large window for one last view of “the great outdoors”.  Even while being strapped to the chair, Eli remained silent and at 11:10 am, that Thursday morning, on 17 April 1952, lethel charges of electricity was shot through his body killing him. His death left a sadness in the death ward as the remaining condemn fated men counted the few days they themselves had left to live.  [Eatonton Messenger, Page1 & 5, 1952-04-24]

Eli Griffin was one of 218 executed by the state of Georgia between 1941 and 1964. Each of them electrocuted. One of them was a 44 year old Black woman. The rest were 46 white men between 18 and 54 years old and 171 Black males between the ages 16 and 72. [DeathPenaltyUSA, Index by State – GEORGIA – 1941-1964]

Eli Bo Griffin’s 2 teenage sons with Patience Cole, were left to deal with the grief of their father’s death and how and why his death occured. Just a few short years later, his sons who were then adults left Putnam County. According to Eli’s grandson, one son moved to Detroit where he started a family and had a sucessfull career working at Ford Motors, while the other son had a sucessfull military career and started his family while living abroad.

For more historic information about Eli “Bo” Griffin’s family see: https://raymonthawkinsfamily.com/2019/04/02/my-georgia-roots-in-putnam-county-the-origins-of-my-griffin-ancestors/

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