The Murder of a Notoriously Dangerous, Bad Character

mule wagon

Mule wagon from the Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards

It was the morning of September 10, 1890 and the summer was going stale as Sowell “Si” Whitley and his son Robert drove a wagon on the Wilson and Tarboro Road carrying a tub of  hog that had been cooking over a pit of white coals  all night to sell in Wilson. Not long after the sun started burning off the cool morning and the Whitleys were about three miles from town, the roadside cover revealed a posse of men, men whose names they knew, unhesitating men with  shotguns firing a  deafening fusillade of buckshot into them point blank.  Sowell fell back dead as dirt into the tub of pork and the terrified mule took off with the wagon, racing about two miles before coming to a halt, roaring foam.  Sowell still lay unliving in the tub with “at least sixteen shot pierced his body,” his blood mixing with the pig.  Robert was blasted off the wagon at the ambush and still lived, barely.  The first people on the scene took Robert to the Whitley homestead where he up and died almost immediately, his life draining out the six or seven holes violating his body,  thus ending the bad ballad of Sowell and Robert Whitley.

The September 11, 1890 edition of the Wilson Advance called the murderers cowards and thought that the the good people of Wilson should demand the assassins be found and brought to justice.  But they never were.  In one breath the paper called for justice but in the next it said:

Whitley was a notoriously dangerous, bad character, and had many enemies. At nearly every term of the court here he has appeared on the criminal side of the docket.  He was a terror to the community in which he lived…  there are no regrets expressed at his death…

Why would men risk their life and livelihood to kill a father and son minding their own business going to town with pork to sell?  It was because Sowell and his son were predators, not for ‘possum, ‘coon and coney but for the women of their corner of the county.  You would call them serial rapists today.  I’ve been told that if Sowell saw a lone woman walking in a field, whomever she was, he would go and grab her,  take her off to the wood, and rape her. In the 1870 census he is shown living with his wife Martha and  five legitimate children and also a  servant girl, orphaned at a young age,  named Nancy.  Sowell would have eight children by Nancy while she was his hostage.  And supposedly his son Robert had started taking after his father in his sociopathy. The men who murdered Sowell and Robert probably had daughters, nieces and sisters who may have been assaulted by the Whitleys and saw that he was only getting dragged into court for minor violations.  So they slaughtered him and got away with it in a lightly populated part of the county where probably everybody knew who the trigger men were yet never told the authorities.

Supposedly, Sowell’s wife Martha was the one who found the mule wagon with her husband’s mouldering body in the barbecue tub.  And according to legend she just pulled him out of his ridiculous casket and and let him drop to the ground and finished the journey into town, selling the the pork that was now marinated with Sowell’s malignant juices. No one knows where Sowell Whitley was buried, but my volunteer thinks they just threw him into a ditch with the rest of the snakes.


“A Cowardly Murder.” Wilson Advance [Wilson, NC] 11 Sept. 1890: Electronic. “The Latest News from North Carolina.” Asheville Daily Citizen [Asheville, NC] 23 Sept. 1890: Electronic.
Interview with Monk Moore.