Thomas Woolfolk was tried and executed for the murder of nine members of his family. The largest mass murder in Georgia history left Bibb County residents in shock. A decade after the murders, a confession would stir up a debate that’s lingered for more than 130 years. Was Thomas Woolfolk a cold blooded killer or an innocent man executed for a crime he did not commit?
Rose Hill Cemetery opened in Macon, Georgia in 1840. The scenic cemetery, situated along the Ocmulgee River, was designed as a park where residents enjoyed picnics and long walks with family and friends.
Rose Hill became the final resting place for Macon and Bibb County residents, including nine members of the Woolfork family. They’re buried in the Forest Hill section of the cemetery.
You’d never know by looking at the family plot, that more than two thousand people lined up along the grounds on a hot August morning in 1887 to pay their final respects. The Woolfolks had been brutally murdered in their home on August 6th. The nature of the murders shocked Macon and news of the largest mass murder Georgia history spread quickly across the country.
The graveside memorial was offered by Rev. I. R. Branham who stood near the nine coffins, and paused for a moment, waiting for the large crowd to quiet before he prayed for the victims
54 year old Captain Richard F. Woolfolk, his 41 year old wife Mattie and her 84 year old Aunt Temperance West. Richard and Mattie’s six children were also murdered.
20 year old Richard Jr., 17 year old Pearl, 10 year old Annie, 7 year old Rosebud, 5 year old Charlie and 18 month old baby Mattie
Reverend Branham spoke of the uncertainty of life. How he felt ill equipped to make sense of what had happened to the Woolfolks. Tried to offer some sense of comfort to the community that had been shattered by this loss.
The reverend then offered up a prayer for the one member of the family who was in prison, praying “whatever may be his destiny, O Lord, prepare him for it.”
The prisoner was 27 year old Tom Woolfolk, the son of the slain Captain Richard Woolfolk and the Captain’s first wife, Susan.
Captain Richard Woolfolk was from a well loved family in Macon. The Woolfolks migrated to Georgia from North Carolina in the early 19th century. They bought 100 acres of land along the Ocmulgee River and built a family home and cotton plantation about 13 miles west of Macon.
The single story Woolfolk home was constructed on a hill surrounded by Woolfolk farmland and tenant homes where the plantation’s sharecroppers lived.
Here in this home, on June 18th 1860, Tom Woolfolk was born. His parents, Richard and Susan had met in Athens, Georgia when Richard was attending the University of Georgia. They married in 1852 and within three years would welcome their three children. Two daughters, Flo and Lillie, followed by their son Tom.
Tragically, Susan Woolfolk died when Tom was just five years old. Richard Woolfolk was devastated by the loss of his wife and felt his children would be better off with their aunt in Athens, Georgia.
Tom’s Aunt Fannie Moore Crane, became a mother figure and kept her sister’s memory alive by telling the children stories about her. Tom’s connection with his Fannie and admiration for her would continue throughout his life.
During the years Tom lived in Athens, the Civil War had come to an end and his father was trying to navigate a changing south as the long road to reconstruction began. Richard Woolfolk had served as a confederate captain of a militia unit and worked hard to begin a new life after the war, eventually operating a hardware business known as Woolfolk and Company.
The company was initially successful but in time the Captain was forced to borrow money to keep the business afloat. His collateral for loans would be his family’s property. That decision caused financial strain for Captain Woolfolk, until the day he died.
In 1867 the Captain married, Mattie Howard, who was from a wealthy family in Macon. The Howards went above and beyond to help the captain save portions of his family’s property he had lost to the bank when he was unable to repay loans.
Over the course of their marriage, Richard and Mattie would have six children. Their first child, Richard Jr, was born within a year of their marriage. Later they would welcome Pearl, Annie, Rosebud and Charlie. Their sixth and final child, Baby Mattie, was born in 1886.
Mattie Howard wanted the whole family together in Macon and suggested that Tom and his sisters return to their father’s home. This decision led to tension in the home.
Tom Woolfolk who was not fond of his stepmother and as each of his half siblings were born, he felt threatened and openly shared with anyone who would listen that he disliked them all. Unlike his sisters, Tom could never accept Mattie as a member of his family. Tom felt he was being pushed away from the home and the family inheritance he felt he and his sisters were entitled to.
Tom left home for a time, trying to make his own way and prove himself to his father, but his unstable and erratic behavior led to failure after failure. Tom would eventually be forced to return to the family home in Macon where tension was higher than ever.
Mattie Woolfolk’s father, Benjamin Howard, knew of the tension. His daughter visited him days before she was murdered to seek his advice as to how to move forward with Tom in the house again. Mattie told Mr. Howard that she didn’t feel safe with Tom because of his bad temper. She mentioned her step son has threatened some of his siblings and had threatened to kill her and send her straight to hell.
In the early morning hours of August 6, 1887, Tom Woolfolk ran to the home of a plantation sharecropper and claimed an intruder had killed his family and he had barely made it out alive.
Tom asked the sharecropper, Green Lockett to come back to the house with him but Green proceeded cautiously. He went to get more help before going to the Woolfolk home.
Tom returned to the house ahead of Green. He was there when authorities arrived and would tell them that he had been inside to confirm that his family was dead. He mentioned that when he went in, he heard the killers leave by way of the back gate.
Tom also mentioned he had moved a couple of the bodies onto the bed when he was checking to see if they were dead. This disturbed those who walked into the Woolfolk home that day and saw what Tom had just seen…one of the most horrific crime scenes in Georgia history.
That it was the scene of his family’s murder, and he seemed so nonchalant in letting people know his family was dead, led to immediate suspicion that Tom was the only member of the family who had survived because he was person who murdered them.
The coroner would carry out an inquiry in which a significant amount of circumstantial evidence was found at the scene that pointed to Tom Woolfolk. Tom would be tried several times before he was executed for the murders in 1890.
Hearing Tom’s story makes you believe this man was the male equivalent of Lizzie Borden. His name has been invoked in a children’s song, just as Lizzie.
Woolfolk, Woolfolk, look what you’ve done
You killed your family and didn’t fire a gun.
But, did he? Tom Woolfolk was believed to be mentally unstable but many believe he was not the man who murdered nine members of his family.
Some believe it was a man named Simon Cooper.
Woolfolk Murder Case by Donald Wilkes Jr. New Georgia Encyclopedia. 30 August 2013
Largest mass murder in Ga. history still puzzling historians. 13 WMAZ. 14 February 2018
Bloody Woolfolk. Murder by Gaslight. 14 February 2010.
January 8, 1897: Simon Cooper. Strange Fruit and Spanish Moss. 8 January 2015
Woolfolk v. State, 81 Ga. 551, 8 S.E. 724 (1889).
Woolfolk v. State, 85 Ga. 69, 11 S.E. 814 (1890).
Coulter, E. Merton. “The Woolfolk Murder.” Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol.49, No. 2 (June 1965).
A Remarkable Funeral: Burial of the Victims of the Woolfolk Tragedy. Rose Hill Cemetery; Macon, Georgia. 23 October 2010.
Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Panthernburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use
Falling from Grace, Meditation Impromptu 1, Organic Meditations 3, Virtues Instrumenti, Long Road Ahead, Tranquility Base, Dark Times, Dark Fog, Falling Rain by Kevin MacLeod; There’s Probably No Time by Chris Zabriske Licensed under Creative Commons. Burial Grounds by Ross Gentry Special Thanks for Permission for Use