On the morning of February 17, 1947, the body of a young Black man was found mutilated, beaten, stabbed and shot in the woods off Bramlett Road in Greenville.
Before the day’s end, many in the city knew what had happened. The dead man, 24-year-old Willie Earle, had been allegedly lynched by a mob of taxi drivers who were out for revenge over the murder of one of their own.
It was likely South Carolina’s last known lynching, and for many who grew up in Greenville in that era, it was a story few ever heard.
“Growing up in Greenville, I’d never heard of Willie Earle,” writes Greenville author Paulette Alden in the introduction to her new novel, “The Empty Cell.”
The book tells the story of Earle’s killing and its aftermath, including the acquittal of all the men who took part in the lynching. Even the dialogue of those in the trial is taken directly from court records, giving readers a rare glimpse into the gritty details of the Jim Crow justice system.
“I was shocked and faceted by what had occurred in my hometown,” Alden writes. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
On Thursday, July 15, at 5:30 p.m., Alden will be participating in an “In Conversation” event inside M.Judson Booksellers, which now occupies the very courthouse where the trial and acquittal took place.
For Alden, the process of writing “The Empty Cell” was a process of diving deeper into her hometown. Through years of research, she peeled back the decorative layers of the area’s history, unearthing the stories and perspectives that were unknown to her and others who grew up in what Alden called a “completely segregated Greenville.”
“The novel was a deeply personal project,” she said.
“The Empty Cell” tells the story of four people whose lives are upended by Willie Earle’s killing. While the characters are fictional, the bulk of the novel is historically accurate. Locations and names will be familiar to Greenville natives and and new residents alike, even if the culture and societal constraints may be entirely unfamiliar.
Alden said it was important not to turn away from what she called “the really bad stuff,” but she also wanted to make sure the progress the city has made is not ignored.
“It was also deeply important to me to end on a note of hope,” Alden said.
“In Conversation” with Paulette Alden and local author Deb Richardson Moore will be held at M Judson Thursday, July 15, at 5:30 p.m.