James Coyle

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James Coyle
Born James Edwin Coyle
(1873-03-23)March 23, 1873
Drum, County Roscommon, Ireland
Died August 11, 1921(1921-08-11) (aged 48)
Birmingham, Alabama, United States
Education Mungret College, Limerick
Pontifical North American College
Church Roman Catholic Church
Ordained May 30, 1896

James Edwin Coyle (March 23, 1873 – August 11, 1921) was a Roman Catholic priest who was murdered in Birmingham, Alabama.

Early life[edit]

James Coyle was born in Drum, County Roscommon, Ireland to Owen Coyle and his wife Margaret Durney.[1] He attended Mungret College in Limerick and the Pontifical North American College in Rome, and was ordained a priest at age 23 on May 30, 1896.

Later that year, he sailed with another priest, Father Michael Henry, to Mobile, Alabama, in the United States, and served under Bishop Edward Patrick Allen. He became an instructor, and later rector, of the McGill Institute for Boys. In 1904 Bishop Allen appointed Coyle to succeed Patrick O'Reilly as pastor of the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Birmingham, where he was well received and loved by the congregation.[2] Father Coyle was the Knights of Columbus chaplain of Birmingham, Alabama Council 666.[2]


On August 11, 1921, Father Coyle was shot in the head on the porch of St. Paul's Rectory by E. R. Stephenson, a Southern Methodist Episcopal minister and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. There were many witnesses.[3] The murder occurred just hours after Coyle had performed a secret wedding between Stephenson's daughter, Ruth, and Pedro Gussman, a Puerto Rican she had met while he was working on Stephenson's house five years earlier. Gussman had also been a customer of Stephenson's barber shop. Several months before the wedding, Ruth had converted to Roman Catholicism.

Father Coyle was buried in Birmingham's Elmwood Cemetery.

Trial and aftermath[edit]

Stephenson was charged with Father Coyle's murder. The Ku Klux Klan paid for the defense; of the five lawyers, four were Klan members. The case was assigned to the Alabama courtroom of Judge William E. Fort, a Klansman. Hugo Black, a future Justice of the Supreme Court and future Klansman, defended Stephenson.

The defense team took the unusual step of entering a dual plea of "not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity", essentially arguing both that the shooting was in self-defense, and that at the time of the shooting Stephenson had been suffering from "temporary insanity".[4] Stephenson was acquitted by one vote of the jury. One of Stephenson's attorneys responded to the prosecution's assertion that Gussman was of "proud Castilian descent" by saying "he has descended a long way".[5]

The outcome of the murder trial for Father Coyle's assassin had a chilling impact on Catholics, who found themselves the target of Klan violence for many years to come.[citation needed] Nevertheless, by 1941 a Catholic writer in Birmingham would write that "the death of Father Coyle was the climax of the anti-Catholic feeling in Alabama. After the trial there followed such revulsion of feeling among the right-minded who before had been bogged down in blindness and indifference that slowly and almost unnoticeably the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk began to lose favor among the people".[6]

On February 22, 2012, Bishop William H. Willimon of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church presided over a service of reconciliation and forgiveness at Highlands United Methodist Church in Birmingham.


  1. ^ Community of Drum 2010.
  2. ^ a b Davies 2010b, p. 31.
  3. ^ Sharon Davies, "Tragedy in Birmingham", Columbia Magazine, vol. 90, no. 3 (March 2010), p. 31.
  4. ^ Davies 2010a, p. 215.
  5. ^ Davies 2010a, p. 275.
  6. ^ McGough 1941, p. [page needed].
Works cited
  • Davies, Sharon (2010). Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-537979-9. 
  • Davies, Sharon (March 2010). "Tragedy in Birmingham". Columbia Magazine. 90 (3). 
  • "Fr James Coyle". Community of Drum. 20 March 2010. Archived from the original on 10 October 2010. Retrieved 20 July 2010. 
  • McGough, Helen (1 August 1941). "Things I Remember about Father Coyle, His Death, Twenty Years Afterwards". Catholic Weekly. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Beecher, L. T. (September 1921). "The Passing of Father Coyle". Catholic Monthly. 12. 
  • Davies, Sharon (2010). Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-537979-9. 
  • Garrison, Greg (20 August 2006). "Burial site set for priest Klansman killed in '21". The Birmingham News. 
  • Remillard, Arthur (2011). Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0-8203-4139-8. 

External links[edit]