By Raymont Hawkins – Jones
On the morning of Monday, January 13, 1969, at 5:45 a.m., Putnam County, Georgia, Sheriff, Willie G. Jones received a call that there had been a shooting at the Sumerlin home. He and Deputy Sheriff, Ray Blizzard responded to the call.
When the sheriff and his deputy arrived in the area, they saw Pearl Sumerlin walking up and down in front of Shelton Daniels’ home. Sherriff Jones asked her where the shooting had occurred and Pearl responded, “down the street at 212 Pond Street”. Pearl stated that she shot her husband, Frank Sumerlin.
Peal Summerlin was born Pearl/Pearla Griffin to my 2 times great grandfather’s brother, John Wesley Griffin and his wife Hettie Jane Green Griffin on 30 Aug 1921 in Morgan County, Georgia where her parents were recorded on the 1920 census residing. Pearl was recorded as their 10th and youngest child together. Her father had 3 older children from his first marriage, which was with his late older brother’s widow. Pearl, called “Dolly” by her family, was raised in Putnam County, specifically in the Tompkins area near Eatonton. In 1930, she was recorded as 9 years old on the census living in her parents’ household in Tompkins living on the “Road from Eatonton to Reids Cross Road”. In 1940, she was recorded as 19 years old on the federal census living in Tompkins, Putnam County in her brother’s household with their widowed mother, their sister Essie Bell, and Essie’s 3 children. She and her mother worked as “wash woman” and between 24 Mar 1940 and 30 Mar 1940, Pearl worked 20 hours. The year before in 1939, she earned $50 for the 52 weeks she worked that year. ‘
On 15 March 1941, at age 19 Pearl married 22-year-old, George Washington Johnson in Putnam County. He was the son of John L Johnson and Josephine Eubanks Johnson and was also from Putnam County.
When George Johnson registered for the draft of World War II in Fort Valley, Peach County, Georgia, less than one month before his marriage to Pearl on 18 February 1941, he was described as 5 feet, 10 inches tall, 157 pounds, black hair and black eye color and dark brown complexion. He listed his father as his next of kin and was employed at Fort Valley Oil Company. [Ancestry.com, “U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1898-1929”]
Pearl’s marriage to George W. Johnson lasted for less than 8 years. According to a U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007, in Apr 1947 Pearl name was listed as Pearl Griffin Johnson. By 1949, she married a man named Steve H. Thomas, likely by common law as she may not have legally divorced her first husband, George Johnson who eventually moved to Menands, Albany County, New York and apparently had at least 3 children. [Ancestry.com, “Menands, New York, Albany Rural Cemetery Burial Cards, 1791-2011”] She was 28 at the time and he was about 26 years old. Steve Thomas was the son of single mother, Winnie Thomas. He was born in Lumpkin, Stewart County, Georgia where his mother was recorded with her childhood family on every census between 1900 and 1920 and in 1930 and 1940 with her own family including Steve who was called William H. Thomas on the 1930 federal census. His mother Winnie and his sister Ethel moved to Bozeman and Columbus, Muscogee County, Georgia where his mother passed away in 1951.
In 1950, Steve Thomas and Pearl were recorded on the federal census as husband and wife. She was a housewife and he worked in the Logging Industry as a log cutter and worked 40 hours the week before the census was recorded. In Dec 1953, Pearl’s name was listed as Pearl Griffin T[h]omas in U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007. Pearl marriage to Steve Thomas lasted for about 16 years until he died on 6 Apr 1965 at Baldwin County Hospital in Milledgeville, Baldwin County, Georgia. His funeral was held in Columbus, Georgia on 11 April 1965. [Ancestry.com, “Georgia Deaths, 1919-98”; Ancestry.com, “Social Security Death Index”; Page 8 of Eatonton Messenger,published in Eatonton, Georgia on Thursday, April 15th, 1965]
Later that year or early the following year, Pearl would begin a common law marriage in Putnam County with Eddie Frank Sumerlin.
Eddie “Frank” Sumerlin also known as “Skeete” was from Coweta County, Georgia. Born in 1929, to Josiah Sumerlin and to Leola Orr Summerlin, he was several years younger than Pearl. He had at least one child, a daughter who was born around 1950. On 11 Sep 1961, Eddie Frank Sumerlin was convicted in Coweta County, Georgia on 3 counts of misdemeanor forgery. He was set to serve 3 to 5 years in the Georgia State Prison and on 28 July 1965, at age 32, he was released on conditions. He eventually moved to Putnam County, probably immediately after he was released from state prison where he would meet and began a common law marriage with Pearl who was a widow at the time and who within 4 years would end his life with her pistol.
At the time of his death, Frank Summerlin was employed by Mr. J. D. Hallman, and he rented 212 Pond Street from Mr. H. B. Hearn [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.]. Frank Sumerlin, age 39, was married to Pearl Sumerlin, age 46, by common law. They lived together for over three years [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.].
On January 13, 1969, when the sheriff and his deputy arrived at 212 Pond Street, responding to a call, and directed there by Pearl Summerlin, they saw Frank Sumerlin lying on the front porch with his head partly hanging off. Frank Sumerlin never moved. His body was close to a stack of firewood and was lifeless. Sheriff Jones, realizing that Summerlin was dead, immediately told everyone not to move the body and called Robert Lee Reid at the Funeral Home to carry Frank’s body to the hospital. The sheriff did a light examination of the scene and noticed that the bullet had entered Summerlin’s head above his left ear. He also noticed a gun and immediately connected it to the murder. The gun used was a .22 caliber revolver that belonged to Pearl Sumerlin. Pearl told the sheriff that she did not mean to shoot him, and she only meant to scare him. [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.]
Frank Summerlin’s body was taken to Putnam General Hospital and Dr. Levya pronounced him dead on arrival with the cause of death presumed by gun shot. X rays showed bullet inside right skull disintegrated almost directly opposite or a little above point of entry. [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.]
On 13 Jan 1969, state warrant 3-69 was issued for Pearl Summerlin’s arrest for the “murder of one Frank Sumerlin, gun shot wound to the head at 212 Pond Street…” [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.]
A grand jury, consisting of 23 people decided that there is adequate basis for bringing a criminal charge of murder against Pearl Summerlin. Grand jury proceedings are usually held in private so Pearl was not likely present at the proceeding. The grand jury typically acts as an investigative body, acting independently of either prosecuting attorney or judge. The criminal prosecutors who were likely the sherriff and his deputy, presented the case to the grand jury. Their goal was to establish probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been committed by Pearl. [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.]
On 14 Jan 1969, testimonies were given in a commitment trial (seems to be a hearing) which included testimonies from, Pearl herself, Sherriff Willie G. Jones, Deputy Sheriff Ray Blizzard, a woman named Mrs. Josephine Bullock who employed Pearl as a maid and Frank Summerlin’s 19-year-old daughter.
The testimonies of the arresting officer, Willie G. Jones described the details of the gruesome crime scene outside the front door of Pearl’s home and identified the murder weapon as a .22 caliber. He noted the date and time of the call which was 13 January 1969 at 5:45am. He testified that he saw Pearl walking up and down in front of Shelton Daniels’ home that morning and that she directed him to 212 Pond Street, where she said she shot her husband, trying to scare him but not trying to hurt him. He described how Frank was transported to the hospital and what Frank’s medical X-rays revealed. The Deputy Sheriff Ray Blizzard testimony was noted to “substantiated the sheriff’s statements adding no facts”. [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.]
Pearl Sumerlin, after being appraised of her civil rights, made the following sworn statement at her trial: “Frank and I had no children of our own, but he had one child and three grandchildren. The grandchildren, Lawanda, Maurice, and Casandra Sumerlin lived with Frank and me. I stayed home and looked after the children. Frank came up on the front porch on the morning of January 13, 1969, and I came to the door and asked him why had he stayed out all night. Frank looked as if he was mad. He looked at the stack of firewood on the front porch. Frank never said anything to me. I got my pistol from under the bed mattress and tried to scare him away. As I was going after the gun Frank had put his hands in his pockets. I knew if he got me in the house, he would have hurt me. I am scared of him. Frank did drink some, but he only had a can of beer in his hand and I don’t know whether he was drunk or not. Frank always carried a knife but never had threatened me with it. I bought the gun at Bishop Bay Station, in Eatonton, Georgia just for protection not to shoot Frank. I have had the gun for about two years.” [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.]
Frank Summerlin daughter, Beneta Sumerlin, was 19 at the time of her father’s death and lived at 108 Pine Lane, in Eatonton and worked for H.C. Welch as a maid. By this time, she had lived in Putnam County for two years after living in Chattanooga Tennessee. Beneta Sumerlin made the following sworn statement on 14 Janauary 1969 at her stepmother’s trial: “I wasn’t at the murder, but I know my father. I was scared of him. He threatened me several times. My father and Pearl fought before I came here to live but they have not fought since. Pearl has been like a mother to me and my children.and my father. Pearl never was in any trouble. I have no ill will against her.” [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.]
Mrs. Josephine Bullock made the following statement on 14 January 1969 in court after being sworn in: “Pearl Sumerlin has worked for me for three to four years and I find that she is honest and a good hard worker and minds her own business. I think she is a person you can believe everything she says is the truth. I never say any family quarrels as Frank was never at home when I picked Pearl up or took her home. Frank never helped with the children.” [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.]
After hearing the evidence on the case, Judge William A. Rice, J.P. made the following statement: “I find that there is no evidence of malice aforethought. However, I do find sufficient facts to warrant a finding of negligence homicide and I reduced the charge to manslaughter and set the bond at One Thousand Dollars ($1,000.00). This 14th day of January 1969.” [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.]
Pearl’s bond of $1,000 was paid by Mrs. Josephine Bullock on 14 Jan 1969. Her trial and sentencing in Superior Court for the reduced charge of manslaughter was to be held in March 1969. [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.]
Domestic violence was a common throughout history. During the 1960s, the issue of domestic violence was brought to national attention through civil rights protests.
Before the 1960’s violence between family members was believed to be rare and only committed by the mentally ill or by disturbed and defective individuals. In the 1960s, wife-beatings were an accepted part of marriage in many cultures. There was a battered women movement during the 1960’s which helped provide shelters for women who were getting abused. Like most women Pearl who worked as maid may have relied on Frank’s income to help support her.
Pearl Summerlin’s trial in the Putnam County Superior Court began on Monday, 17 March 1969. Sherriff Willie G. Jones, Deputy Ray Blizzard, neighbor Shelton Daniels and a person called of C.A. Johnson were witnesses for the state. [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.] During her trial, it is possible that she may have feared that she would receive the same fate as her brother Eli “Bo” Griffin who in 1952, was executed by the state of Georgia by electrocution. See story here: https://raymonthawkinsfamily.com/2022/04/24/my-georgia-roots-the-story-of-eli-bo-griffin-sentenced-to-death-by-electrocution-for-the-stabbing-death-of-a-white-man/
On 20 Mar 1969, Pearl was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 2 years in the state penitentiary at the Georgia Rehabilitation Center for Women in Hardwick, Baldwin County, Georgia. [Source: Georgia Central Register of Convicts, 1968-1970; Felonies], [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District.].
After serving 11 months of her 2-year sentence at the Georgia Rehabilitation Center for Women in Hardwick, Baldwin County, Georgia, Pearl Summerlin was released and paroled on 23 February 1970. [Source: Georgia Central Register of Convicts, 1968-1970; Felonies]
In her “Convict’s Personal History Sheet” Pearl Summerlin was described as 47 years old, 5 feet 4 inches, 150 pounds brown eyes, black hair, with a scar on right arm and listed her brother Emmitt Griffin of Eatonton, Putnam County as her next of kin. [Putnam County J.P. Court, 368th District, G.M.]
According to family members, Pearl maintained her relationship with Frank Summerlin’s daughter and grandchildren as if they were her own. She remained in Putnam County until about 1995 until she moved to Macon, Bibb County to live with Frank’s daughter.
She was living in Chattooga County, Georgia or Chattanooga, Tennessee, when she died on 26 Feb 1998 in Macon, Bibb County, Georgia. She was called Pearl G. Thomas when she passed away and was buried at East Eatonton Cemetery in Eatonton.
According to family, a running joke developed from this story within her immediate family. “….tip your hat in the door before entering..” Or something like that.
For more information about Pearl Griffin Thomas’s family, see https://raymonthawkinsfamily.com/2019/04/02/my-georgia-roots-in-putnam-county-the-origins-of-my-griffin-ancestors/