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Razor Girl

A Halloween tale from another time

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What rural policeman R.W. Goforth found at the home in the Camp Green section off of what now is Freedom Drive sent shockwaves through Mecklenburg County.

The corpse of Alton Freeman, 23, lay on the blood-soaked kitchen floor in his hysterical mother's arms, Goforth told the Charlotte Observer, his head almost completely severed "except for a small portion of skin and flesh in the back of the neck."

It was the evening of May 22, 1926. Calmly waiting for police was the slayer, his 19-year-old wife of five months.

Nellie Green Freeman often smiled, police officers would later tell the court, as she nonchalantly told the tale of how she slit her husband's throat with a razor. He'd been chasing other women and he had refused to work, taking from her most of the $15 a week she earned from working 10-hour days at the silk factory. Worse yet, Alton, a convicted auto thief, had planned to leave her. He knew where some whisky was, he told her earlier that day, and planned to steal it and sell it to fund his trip.

As Alton packed his bags to leave that evening at his parents' home, where the two lived, his mother and Nellie begged him not to go. When they were alone together, Nellie gave him one last chance. "Don't you love me, honey?" she asked, wrapping her arms around his neck, the razor hidden in her right hand.

"Hell no," she claimed he told her. So she cut him.

She didn't realize how sharp the razor was, and only meant to hurt him to teach him a lesson, she claimed.

"If other wives would give their husbands the same dose I gave mine, they'd have less trouble," she told stunned police officers.

And so began what the Observer described as the biggest show trial the county had ever seen.

Nellie's utter lack of concern about her crime or the punishment that might result from it fascinated the public. In the days that followed the murder, the Charlotte News reported, she seemed to enjoy all the attention, laughing and joking with newspapermen and her prominent legal team, who had competed with others for the right to represent her pro bono in her fight for her life.

Today, most people would probably follow the story with morbid fascination and condemnation for the accused. But back then, Nellie, like most white women who killed violently, quickly became a star.

"Public sentiment was not aroused in indignation, but rather took the turn of a sympathetic wonder at what the girl would do in an effort to relieve the situation," a News reporter wrote two days after the killing. "None condoned her act as justified. But, her petite frame and audacity stood her in good stead, as far as the man on the street was concerned."

Both newspapers conducted what can only be described as a campaign on her behalf, referring to her as "pretty little Nellie Freeman," "the childlike murderess," and "the poor, helpless waif."

While the South was known for its unforgiving law-and-order mentality during the period, there was also a commonly held belief that executing women, particularly white women, was barbaric and utterly uncivilized, no matter how bloody the crimes they committed. The smaller and more pathetic the woman, the greater the public sentiment in her favor would be, particularly if she were pretty. At the time, it was still believed that women's minds were weak and often underdeveloped, predisposing them to fits of insanity that they could not control and for which they could not be held responsible. Small stature was also considered to be an indicator of mental underdevelopment. This clearly wasn't lost on Nellie, whose first words to police officers at the scene were: "I'm 19 years old and I weigh less than 90 pounds."

A few months before, one street over from where Nellie lived, Mrs. George Franklin had hacked her husband into pieces with an axe after an argument. Though no one had known George to beat his wife, she claimed she killed him in self defense because he'd threatened to kill her and her father. The public rallied behind her and the murder charges against her were quickly dropped.

Prosecutor Frank R. McNinch, a former Charlotte mayor, grew tired of these audacious women. He didn't buy their claims of feeblemindedness and wanted to be the first prosecutor to send a woman to death row in North Carolina. He not only charged Nellie with first degree murder but announced he would try her for her life.

"North Carolina has seen enough of this prurient sentimentality when murder has been done by a woman," he told the News.

While society women started a fund for Nellie's support should she go free and visitors trying to finagle a meeting with her mobbed the jail, McNinch fine-tuned his case.

But by the time jury selection began, Nellie had become the modern equivalent of a rock star. The News described her as "the crowd's diminutive idol" and every detail of her fashion choices was scrutinized in the papers.

From "bejeweled matrons" to mill workers, the public so packed the courtroom that potential jurors couldn't reach their seats. A carnival atmosphere ensued, with society women "showing out" in the latest fashions and courthouse vendors hawking commemorative replica razors with Nellie's name emblazoned on them. Those who couldn't worm their way into the courtroom scaled the courthouse walls and peered through second-story windows.

When a potential member of the jury answered that he didn't believe in capital punishment for women, the crowd murmured approvingly -- and jeered at those who thought otherwise.

It would be that way throughout the trial, so much so that McNinch, fearing a backlash in public opinion, decided to cancel testimony from witnesses about Nellie's deficient character.

It also didn't hurt that Nellie's story about Alton's bigamy turned out to be true. She'd told police she'd recently learned that he hadn't divorced his previous wife, as he had claimed. As it turns out, he hadn't divorced the wife before that one, either.

Doctors brought in to study Nellie declared that she was temporarily insane at the time of the murder and that she had the mind of a six-year-old and could barely understand what she read. That claim didn't exactly jibe with other evidence, like the grammatically perfect, beautifully phrased love letters the defense presented as evidence of Nellie's all-consuming love for Alton. But details mattered little in the trial. In fact, Nellie's psychopathic coldness, which was taken as evidence of her feeble mind, actually helped her. While most of the courtroom, including several jurors, teared up as Alton's anguished mother described the agony of her son dying in her arms, Nellie read a newspaper and occasionally powdered her face.

After two days of deliberation in which three jurors held out for a manslaughter charge, the jury, after studying Bible teachings about forgiveness, came back with a unanimous verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. Several jurors rushed to shake hands with the girl and wish her well. Before she left the courtroom, Nellie had just one request for the judge, which he granted. She wanted to keep the razor and her bloody dress as mementos.

McNinch, it turned out, was a man way ahead of his time. The state wouldn't execute a woman until 1943, when it sent Rosanna L. Phillips, who was black, to the gas chamber for murder. The state executed its first white woman in 1984, when Velma Barfield was put to death by lethal injection.

As Nellie left the courthouse, crowds mobbed her, shaking her hand and pressing dollar bills into it. Several days of celebrity followed. And then, Nellie appears to vanish from the local record. In the 1930 census, a Nellie G. Freeman with the same birth year is listed as living with an aunt and uncle in Kentucky. After that, she exists no more in the historical record, with no marriage, birth or death records bearing her name.

But she left her mark on Charlotte -- and on her husband, whose body still rests in an overgrown grave in Elmwood Cemetery.

Got a story idea? E-mail Tara at [email protected].

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