In late 1964, FBI agent Billy Bob Williams was so disturbed about the gruesome method of murder he believed the Ku Klux Klan used on a black Vidalia motel employee that he contacted a Natchez physician.
"Doctor," Williams asked, "Can you skin a man alive?"
The physician answered that it was possible but said it would take a man skilled with a knife.
"He also said," Williams recalled recently, "that there would be a tremendous amount of blood."
But something horrified Williams even more than reports that the employee, Joseph "JoeEd" Edwards, was tortured: Evidence that other blacks were disposed the same way.
During the time that Williams was an FBI agent in Natchez — from July 1964, the month Edwards went missing, until April 1966 — the FBI found a "Klan torture chamber" inside an abandoned farm house.
"I recall that the information came to light when someone advised that a white couple had been beaten in the house," said Williams. "The couple was punished because one or the other was married to someone else. In short, these pious Klan members were offended by adultery. Most all of the Klan klaverns had an ordained minister as their chaplain. Some of these individuals were the most brutal as they went about God's work."
Williams recalled that a rack had been constructed in the torture chamber so that captives could be tied "in a prone position." The rack, he said, was "covered in blood."
In the corner of the torture room, agents found a number of "bean stakes," all about three-quarter inches thick in diameter, "very limber" and covered in blood. Referred to locally as bean sticks, or bean poles, these are cut from small saplings and commonly placed beside a growing bean vine, which clings to the stick and grows up the pole.
But in the Klan arsenal, FBI agents learned, the bean stakes had another use, as whips.
In May 1964, before the bodies of two 19-year-old black men, Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore were discovered in an offshoot of the Mississippi River, a Klansman who was an FBI informant told investigators the men had been kidnapped by Klansmen in Meadville, Miss., whipped with bean poles in the Homochitto National Forest, tied up and thrown alive in the river, where they drowned.
In that case, an FBI and Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol (MHSP) investigation led to arrests but no prosecution — until 2007 — when revelations by a newspaper reporter and a television documentary filmmaker led the FBI and federal prosecutors to arrest, try and win the conviction of Klansman James Ford Seale.
During Seale's trial last year, former Klansman Charles Marcus Edwards testified that bean poles were used to beat the two men. Edwards said he participated in the beating but when he left the scene the two teenagers were still alive.
While the remains of Dee and Moore were discovered more than two months after their abduction, the body of JoeEd Edwards has never been found. In fact, Edwards went missing the same day Moore's remains were found in Tensas Parish in the old Mississippi River seven miles south of Parker's Landing by a Tallulah fisherman and his wife. Part of Dee's remains were found the next day, July 13, 1964.
Because Edwards was reported missing in Louisiana, FBI agents operating out of the New Orleans' division handled the federal investigation into his disappearance.
The extent of the FBI's investigation in 1964 is unclear, although references to Edwards' disappearance appear in bureau documents in the investigation of Frank Morris, who died four days after the arson of his shoe shop in Ferriday in December 1964. That case was reopened by the U.S. Department of Justice in March 2007 and remains an open investigation.
In three of the 500-plus pages of redacted FBI files on the Morris investigation obtained by The Sentinel through the Freedom of Information Act, a former Shamrock clerk described a black male employee who worked at the motel in 1964. The black male fit the description of JoeEd Edwards.
Interviewed in 1967, three years after she quit her job at the Shamrock, the woman told FBI agents that a state trooper with MHSP visited her home in Natchez to question her about activities occurring at the motel in 1964. She told agents that she once observed the black male employee enter the room of a white woman.
She also told agents that the MHSP trooper told her that "the black man" at the Shamrock "had been killed and thrown in the river."
Billy Bob Williams, now 72, retired, and living in Portland, Ore., has some vivid memories of his limited involvement in Edwards' case. Williams was the first FBI agent to talk with Edwards' mother, Bernice Conner of Natchez, after the 25-year-old motel porter went missing on July 12, 1964.
"One day she walked into our office in Natchez and said the Klan had got her boy. This was a good while after he went missing," recalled Williams. "She was crying."
Conner had been told, said Williams, that when her son's car was found that it was by the side of the highway, that the driver's door was open and the engine running.
She kept thinking her son would turn up, according to Edwards' half-sister, Julia Dobbins of Bridge City, La., who was 18-years-old at the time.
"Every time the phone rang she would think it was Joe and every time she saw somebody, she would ask, 'Have you seen Joe?'" Dobbins told The Sentinel in July.
It was from FBI agents in Louisiana, Williams recalled, that agents in Mississippi heard that the Klan had taken Edwards to a barn in a remote rural area, "hung him up and skinned him alive," and later "disposed of his body."
Edwards, who Dobbins said often visited their mother in Natchez, lived most of the time with his grandparents, Jake and Mary King, on Hwy. 900, also known locally as Red Gum Road, which connects Clayton to the old pecan grove on Lake Concordia.
While still in school, Edwards rode Rev. Robert Lee's parish school bus and years later, shortly before Edwards turned up missing, he asked Lee a question.
"He wanted to know if I would marry him and his girlfriend," said the 95-year-old Lee. "I said I would. I liked JoeEd. Nice kid."
Before the ceremony took place, Edwards' 1958 Buick was found abandoned behind the bowling alley on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. Blood was found inside the car, according to Rev. Lee.
Shortly after it was discovered, Cecil Beatty, who owned the Gulf Oil Station in Ferriday, was asked by Concordia Parish Sheriff's Deputy Frank Delaughter to tow the car to the station. Dobbins, who last saw her step-brother on Independence Day 44 years ago, recalled going with her mother to see her brother's vehicle.
"I just remember going," she said. "I don't remember much about the car."
A black kitchen employee at the Shamrock Motel cafe in Vidalia may have been the last person to see Edwards alive, according to an MHSP report signed by Investigator Gwin Cole. Cole and two other investigators -- H.T. Richardson of MHSP and FBI special agent H. Warren Tool -- interviewed Edwards' mother in October 1964.
FBI agent Williams said the Shamrock, in addition to being a hotel, was also a "brothel, a good sized operation."
A relative of Edwards, who asked not to be identified, said one of Edwards' responsibilities as an employee at the Shamrock was to transport prostitutes from Nellie Jackson's, a legendary Natchez brothel, to clients at the motel.
Williams said that Jackson had both white and black prostitutes at her establishment in Natchez, but she forbade black men from the premises.
On one occasion, Williams said a child who had been swimming alone in the Shamrock pool drowned.
"My recollection is that the mother was filling a trick and left the little girl unattended," said Williams. "JoeEd saw the child and got her out of the pool. The story then went around that he had been with the white prostitute at the time of the drowning and the Klan had gotten him on his way to work."
Williams added that he felt certain the information on Edwards' fate came "from an informant who had been promised confidentiality."
Edwards' first cousin, Carl Ray Thompson, now a Clayton aldermen, told The Sentinel last year that Edwards told him he was seeing white women at the motel and that he had been threatened because of it.
"He was a porter and had a key to the rooms," said Thompson, adding that Edwards once told him that he had been caught with a white woman by "some white men" who didn't harm him at the time because the woman "said she would tell if they hurt him."
Thompson said he "begged" Edwards to "quit that job" because of the potential danger.
Robert Lee III of Clayton said he and others cautioned Edwards about the danger of his relationship with white women.
"We told him he was playing with fire," said Lee III.
What made Edwards' personal life even more dangerous was the fact that it was at the Shamrock in 1964 that the Silver Dollar Group, a violent Klan splinter group, was formed.
In 1970, author Don Whitehead published a well-received book called Attack on Terror: The FBI vs. the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. In this book, the existence of the Silver Dollar Group was reported for the first time and Whitehead linked it to the murders of Frank Morris in December 1964 and Wharlest Jackson in February 1967. Jackson was a recently-promoted employee of Armstrong Tire & Rubber Company of Natchez and secretary of the Natchez NAACP.
Whitehead also reported that the Silver Dollar Group was responsible for the car bomb that seriously injured George Metcalfe in August 1965. Metcalfe, a good friend of Jackson's, was also employed at Armstrong and served as president of the Natchez NAACP.
Whitehead, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Korean Conflict for the Associated Press, was given almost unlimited access to FBI agents and bureau files for his book on the Klan.