Lena Baker was an African-American woman convicted of killing her white employer Ernest Knight by the State of Georgia in 1944 at the age of 44. The only woman executed in Georgia’s electric chair, Baker was sentenced to death by an all-white, all-male jury after a trial that lasted just one day.
At her trial in August 1944, Baker told the court that 67-year-old Knight, a man she had been hired to care for, had held her against her will in a grist mill and threatened to shoot her if she tried to leave, whereupon she took his gun and shot him.
Baker said as she sat in the electric chair on March 5, 1945, “I am ready to meet my God.”
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“What I [did], I did in self-defense or I would have been killed myself. Where I was, I could not overcome it,” she told the court moments earlier.
Baker’s last words along with her picture, are reportedly displayed near the now-retired electric chair at a museum at Georgia state prison in Reidsville.
Born at the turn of the century in Randolph County, Georgia, Baker as a child worked for a farmer named J.A. Cox chopping cotton with her family. Underpaid and wallowing in abject poverty, Baker joined with a friend to seek an alternative source of income.
They decided to “entertain gentlemen” for cash, according to accounts. She was 20 then. When the Randolph County sheriff got to the activities of the two as their clientele were white and interracial relationships were frowned up and made illegal in Georgia, Baker and her friend were arrested. They spent months in a workhouse, according to one account.
Stigmatized by the black community, Baker resorted to drinking for succor, and then in 1941 Knight hired her to care for him after a fall broke his leg. Knight was 23 years Baker’s senior.
It wasn’t long before a sexual relationship developed between Knight and Baker, who well known in Cuthbert as a heavy drinker and who often carried a pistol strapped to his shoulder, another account noted. It was reported when Baker attempted to free herself from this relationship, Knight locked her in his gristmill for several days at a time, and as a nearby newspaper reported after her execution, kept her there as his “slave woman”.
The night of April 30, 1944, Baker went to Cox who was now the town coroner and informed him of her murder of Knight. Cox reportedly told Baker to go to the sheriff, while he would go to gristmill where Baker said Knight’s body was. According to accounts, Baker instead went home instead only for her to picked up by the sheriff later that night.
In a writeup titled, The Lena Baker Story, author Lela Bond Phillips recalled that Baker at her trial when asked who pulled the trigger, replied, “I don’t know.” She also stated the Knight was brandishing an iron bar that was used to secure the door to the gristmill and that she was afraid for her life.
“Under the jurisdiction of Judge Charles William “Two Gun” Worrill, who presided at court with two pistols on the bench, the trial didn’t last even a full court day, taking a little over four hours. A former “lawman” out West, Worrill boasted of gunfights with twelve men, seven of whom died. Later he was appointed to the Georgia State Supreme Court by Governor Herman Talmadge, who later became a vehemently segregationist senator. The jury consisted of twelve white men (not unusual for 1944), but many of the jurors were good friends who attended the same small churches, socialized with each other’s families at card parties and shared morning coffee at a local café,” Phillips wrote.
Phillips continued: “In less than one-half hour the jury came back with a guilty verdict and Worrill sentenced Baker to death in Georgia’s electric chair, nicknamed “Old Sparky.” Her lawyer immediately asked for a new trial to be scheduled because “the verdict was contrary to the evidence and without evidence to support it … and the verdict was contrary to law and the principles of justice and equity.”
Baker was granted a 60-day reprieve by then Governor Arnall, but the Board of Pardons and Parole denied clemency when they heard the case. “With her execution date was scheduled for March 5, 1945, on February 23 Baker was signed into one of the worst prisons in the United States, Reidsville State Prison, where she was housed in the men’s section until just a few days before her execution when she was moved to a solitary cell just a few feet from the execution chamber itself,” Phillips recalled.
In August 2005 the Georgia courts agreed to grant Baker a posthumous pardon, only the second in the state’s history. (The first was in 1986 for Leo Frank, lynched in 1915). Baker’s grandnephew, Roosevelt Curry, who has led the family’s efforts to clear her name, reacted to the agreement saying: “Now we can all cry tears of joy.”
“She had nothing and no one stood by her. It’s late but it’s on time. This case was passed to me. I can pass this on to my family,” he the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Baker’s body was buried in an unmarked grave behind a small church near Cuthbert, where she had been a choir member.