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The arrest and trial of William Sorsby

By City Historian Dr. Walter G. Howell

William SorsbyThere were witnesses to William Sorsby’s shooting of Charles Fitzgerald on September 29, 1908. John Fox, the railroad agent, and John Johnson, Mississippi College professor, came to the assistance of Fitzgerald, smothering the flames on his coat. While they were trying to comfort the dying man, Alexander Sorsby drove up in his automobile looking for his brother. Fox asked him to take Fitzgerald to the Jackson hospital, but Alexander Sorsby refused and drove off in search of his brother.
Fox and others placed Fitzgerald in a train car that carried him to Jackson, where his wife awaited his arrival. Mrs. Fitzgerald was unaware of the shooting in Clinton. Fitzgerald died later that evening at the Jackson hospital.
Testimony at the Sorsby trial described Sorsby’s actions after the shooting. He walked down Jefferson Street to Violet Banks, where he mounted the horse awaiting him and rode away towards Jackson. His brother caught up with him in the car and followed Sorsby into Jackson, where the horse was left to confuse any pursuers. Sorsby rode back to Clinton in his brother’s car and went into hiding in the attic of Robert Johnston’s house.
The Hinds County sheriff’s office launched a manhunt for Sorsby, starting in Jackson where the horse was found. Newspapers reported sightings of the fugitive and hinted that Sorsby’s family was attempting to negotiate his surrender. Other reports said he had fled the state. Sorsby was hiding in the attic of Robert Johnston’s home the entire time.

William Sorsby

Sorsby hid in the attic for two months at Johnston House, owned by Robert Johnston.

Two months later, suspicious neighbors alerted Clinton’s town marshal to strange activities at Johnston’s home. The marshal contacted the sheriff’s office. Deputies arrived and started a search of the premises. They found William Sorsby hiding in the attic of Johnston’s home. Sorsby asked to be allowed to bathe and shave before he was taken to the county jail.
Judge Henry Potter presided over what was called “the greatest murder trial ever held in Hinds County.” R. N. Milner of Hazlehurst was the lead prosecutor for the state, and the Sorsby family hired C.W. Williamson, a noted Jackson attorney, to defend William Sorsby. Williamson tried unsuccessfully to have the trial moved to another county.
The trial began in Jackson on April 2, 1909, and lasted two weeks. Sorsby entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. He played the role of the insane throughout the trial, staring at the ceiling of the court room and being unresponsive to the proceedings taking place. His wife and family members sat behind the defendant’s table throughout the trial. Fitzgerald’s widow and daughter sat behind the prosecution.
Clinton’s leading citizens appeared as witnesses: Captain William Lewis, John Fox, John Johnson, bank teller Anderson. Dr. William Lowrey and Dr. William Provine, both of Mississippi College, were called by the prosecution to verify Sorsby’s sanity. Many other credible witnesses testified that he was sane.
The defense had witnesses, mostly family members, to testify that insanity ran in the family and that William Sorsby showed characteristics of an insane man. The jurors, six from Jackson and six from the county, found Sorsby guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison.
The Weekly Clarion Ledger reported: “Every eye was on the prisoner; but, if any scene was expected, there was disappointment. Sorsby heard his doom pronounced with dogged stoicism. His expression was that of a man who had lost hope and made up his mind to suffer the consequences of his own rash act, no matter what they might happen to be.”

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of three pieces by Dr. Walter Howell regarding the murder of Charles Fitzgerald by William Sorsby at the Clinton railroad depot.

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