E. R. Stephenson

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Reverend Edwin Roscoe Stephenson (March 8, 1870 – August 4, 1956) was a minister of the now defunct Methodist Episcopal Church, South and a member of the Ku Klux Klan.[1] He shot and killed Catholic priest James Coyle August 11, 1921, in Birmingham, Jefferson County, Alabama, but was acquitted of the murder. His main lawyer was future U.S. Supreme Court Justice and future U.S. Senator, Hugo Black.[1]


Stephenson was a son of William Franklin Stephenson and his wife Mary Jane Gillespie Stephenson. Born in Georgia, he had moved with his family to Alabama in 1882.[2] He and his wife, Mary Etta Thompson Stephenson, had one child who survived infancy, a daughter, Mary Ruth Stephenson.[3] A side-line clergyman, Stephenson worked as a barber and married people, for a fee, in the Jefferson County Court House.

Murdering James Coyle[edit]

In 1921, six months after his father died, his only child, Ruth, converted to Catholicism.[4] A known member of the Ku Klux Klan, he murdered Coyle one hour after 18-year-old Ruth married a Catholic, 44-year-old Pedro Gussman, whose Spanish parents lived in Puerto Rico. The marriage ceremony had been performed by Father Coyle. On the afternoon of August 11, 1921, the enraged Stephenson fired three shots at Father Coyle on the porch of St. Paul's rectory. There were many witnesses who heard but did not see the actual shooting.[1]

Stephenson turned himself in to the authorities a block away.[5] He requested that Hugo Black, a future member of the U.S. Supreme Court who at that time held anti-Catholic views, be his attorney (Black would himself join the Klan in 1923).[6][7] The Ku Klux Klan paid for his defense by a powerful group of attorneys.[6]

Stephenson's preliminary hearing was held August 24, 1921. His daughter testified that he had often made threats against Coyle's life. Coyle's sister and housekeeper testified that there had been no raised voices or scuffling prior to the shooting, contradicting Stephenson's claim that he had fired in self-defense after the priest threatened and assaulted him.[8]

The trial started on October 17, 1921. The defense entered a dual plea of "not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity", arguing that Stephenson had acted both in self-defense and had been temporarily insane at the time.[9][10][11] The defense played on fears of racial miscegnation by trying to claim that Gussman was an African-American man, and made anti-Catholic arguments.[12] His daughter Ruth was not called to testify as a witness during the trial.

Stephenson was acquitted and released.


Stephenson died on October 3, 1956, at the age of 86.[13]


  • John Beecher published a poem, "Alter Christus", about Coyle's murder.[6]
  • A novelized account of the murder, by Joe Schrantz, was published by Infinity in 2004 as The Reverend's Revenge.
  • A historical study by Sharon Davies was published by Oxford University Press in 2010 with the title Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America.[14]


  1. ^ a b c Sharon Davies, "Tragedy in Birmingham", Columbia Magazine, vol. 90, no. 3 (March 2010), p. 31.
  2. ^ "[1][permanent dead link]","http://www.usgwarchives.net/al/alfiles.htm File contributed for use in USGenWeb Archives by:Linda S. Ayres http://ww.genrecords.net/emailregistry/vols/00031.html#0007674 August 2006 Abstracted by Linda Hutchens, http://files.usgwarchives.net/al/cleburne/vitals/deaths/deaths-heflin-cem.txt Probate Death Records"
  3. ^ Davies, Sharon L. (2010). "Prologue". Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199794454. OCLC 367418436.
  4. ^ US Census 1920, Birmingham, Jefferson Co., Alabama, Supervisor's District 9, Emunerator's district 106, Sheet 2A
  5. ^ "Methodist Parson Killed Catholic Priest in South", The Montreal Gazette, 12 Aug 1921. Accessed 7 May 2010.
  6. ^ a b c Smith, Angela J. (2017-10-03). Here I Stand: The Life and Legacy of John Beecher. University of Alabama Press. pp. 43–45. ISBN 9780817319540.
  7. ^ Franco, Massimo (2009-01-20). Parallel Empires: The Vatican and the United States--Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict. Crown Publishing Group. p. 49. ISBN 9780385521833.
  8. ^ "Stephenson is Bound Over to Grand Jury after Preliminary", The Miami News, 24 Aug. 1921. Accessed 7 May 2010.
  9. ^ Sharon Davies, Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 215.
  10. ^ "Insanity May Be Plea of Slayer of a Priest", The Miami News, 18 Oct. 1921. Accessed 7 May 2010.
  11. ^ New York Times, "Free Stephenson of Priest's Murder," October 22, 1921.
  12. ^ Remillard, Arthur (2011-12-01). Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era. University of Georgia Press. pp. 156–157. ISBN 9780820341330.
  13. ^ Davies, Rising Road, p. 284.
  14. ^ Review by Mike Curtin, "Professor explores bigotry behind 1921 murder of priest", The Columbus Dispatch, April 11, 2010. Accessed 7 May 2010.