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Two to the Grave, Three to the Gallows

Two to the Grave, Three to the Gallows

By Sherwood Owl Williford Publisher: Self-PublishedISBN: 978-1-66784-398-8Genre: True CrimePrice: $29.95
Available from: Amazon

On a cold February night in 1878, James Worley and his wife met their fate at the hands of three former slaves, Noah Cherry, Harris Atkinson and Robert Thompson.

A Goldsboro, N.C. newspaper reported: “Again, it is our painful duty to chronicle another most horrible outrage, perpetrated in Fork Township, and this time a double murder ‒ James Worley and his wife, leaving behind three little helpless children, the oldest five years, the next three and the youngest a nursing babe.

“There were pools of blood around the lifeless bodies, presenting one of the most heart-rending spectacles we ever witnessed in North Carolina.”

The tragedy garnered national attention. From a leading New York publication: “There have been more murders committed in Wayne County since the war (Civil War) than in any dozen other counties in the state, but this murder is the most appalling ever committed in North Carolina.”

Robbery was not the purpose for the killings. The Worleys were financially destitute. The primary motive was far more sinister. Allegedly, all three of the accused raped Mrs. Worley before choking and axing her to death.

The three accused were hanged for the murder, but a legitimate question might be asked. Were they guilty? Evidence presented at the trial was weak and almost non-existent. Nevertheless, the jury voted unanimously for the death sentence.

The guilty verdict was more likely based on other factors: (1) A well-known and seasoned lawyer-prosecutor by the name of William T. Dortch, former Confederate Senator, was extremely persuasive in his arguments. (2) A fourth black man, Jerry Cox, claimed to have witnessed the slayings but was very persuasive in convincing others that he actually took no part in it. He turned state’s evidence. As a result his “friends” were hanged, while his neck was spared. However, public opinion soon turned against Cox. There was a collective feeling that he was as guilty as the others. After the trial he was harshly reprimanded by the sheriff and told to leave North Carolina never to return. (3) With the exception of a black lawyer, George T. Wassom, all legal heads associated with the trial had been pro-slavery.
Four years later Jerry Cox again made headline news. Though ordered to get out of state, he had retreated no farther than Rocky Mount, North Carolina where he ran into serious trouble with the law. His fate is well documented in a closing chapter of Two To The Grave.

Sherwood Williford was born into a sharecropper family near Bentonville, Johnston County, North Carolina. As a young child he and his family moved to adjoining Wayne County where he attended rural Grantham School for twelve years. As a senior he was named “Mr. Grantham” by vote of the student body. He served two years in the Army National Guard, followed by eight years active duty with the Air Force. While stationed at Robins AFB, Georgia he was twice selected base-wide Airman of the Quarter. At the conclusion of his Non-commissioned Officers’ Preparatory School he was named honor graduate. Upon discharge, he received the Air Force Commendation Medal, highest peacetime award offered by the U. S. Military. With studies at both the University of Georgia and Brigham Young University, Williford earned a B. S. degree in Communications with an emphasis in advertising and public relations. For more than seven years he was a featured columnist for his hometown newspaper, The Goldsboro News-Argus, writing under the byline “From my Perch” by Sherwood Owl Williford.

Williford has published two books, Grantham High School, the 1950s and a “southern language” book of humor, Hanging Out in Corbett Hill. He has written two screenplays. The first, Phoebe of the Neuse, is based on tales handed down for generations about Phoebe Flowers, also known as the “witch woman.” His second screenplay, Leona’s boy, is a fictionalized story based on life’s uncertainties that faced Leona’s illegitimate son.
This latest work, Two to the Grave, Three to the Gallows, details a shocking “local” crime that garnered national interest.

Williford is an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He holds membership in the Golden K Kiwanis Club and serves as chaplain in the Grantham Grange organization.He and his wife, Jane, reside in Wayne County. They have four children and ten grandchildren.


This is the story that first piqued my interest in genealogy. As a teenager I had heard stories about my great great grandparents being murdered here in Wayne County in 1878. A small book written at the time of the murders including the arrests, trial and execution of three former slaves was passed around the family and that set off a lifelong interest in researching my family history. Local author and former Goldsboro News Argus contributor Sherwood Owl Williford has just released a book “Two to the Grave-Three to the Gallows” which greatly expands on the murders. It includes a lot of local history and features many prominent and not so prominent Wayne County families. It is a fascinating look at race relations and what local life was like during and after the Civil War. His book is actually two books in one as it includes the entire book written in 1878. Mr. Williford has held three book signings here in Goldsboro and probably will have more soon. His book is also available to order online. Over the years many people on various local FB groups have expressed keen interest in learning more about this infamous crime so here is your chance to purchase the book and learn more about the story. In honor and in memory of my great great grandparents Apsilla (Appie) Jane Snipes Worley and James Patrick Worley; and the three daughters they left behind.

Goldsboro, NC - History, Tales, Legends, Jeff Howell

This is a book that anyone from Wayne County would find interesting. So much history included. I have gained so much family history from reading it and I have also gained a great friend ? Thank you again Sherwood Williford for all your hours of labor on this project.

Phyllis Howell Parrish