By City Historian Walter Howell
When the verdict in the Sorsby murder trial was announced on April 13, 1909, the courtroom was nearly deserted. Crowds had filled the courtroom ev-ery day of the trial, and few expected the jury to reach a decision within an hour of deliberations. The verdict: “We, the jury, find the defendant guilty and fix his punishment at life imprisonment in the penitentiary.”
The Weekly Clarion captured the moment: “Every eye was on the prisoner, but if any scene was expected, there was disappointment. Sorsby heard his doom pronounced with dogged stoicism. He sat leaning back in his chair, his stare fixed on the high ceiling, apparently unconscious of what was going on around him, just as he had done since the trial began on the second day of April.”
Despite the testimony of family and friends that he was insane, the jury disagreed. Six Jackson residents, three from Utica and one each from Cayuga, Terry and Learned decided Sorsby’s fate. Seven were farmers, two worked for the railroad, and the remaining three were printer, merchant, and manufacturer.
County newspapers were unanimous in their judgment of the trial. The Is-sue, owned by former governor James Vardaman, referred to Sorsby as the “mad assassin” throughout the trial and thought he should be hanged. The Hinds County Gazette agreed: “Sorsby should have been given the death penalty.” The Weekly Clarion reported: “outside the plea of insanity, which was not taken seriously, he had nothing whatever to rest his case on.”
Sorsby began his life sentence at Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary in Sunflower County, opened in 1901. Originally a prison for black convicts, unit B was added for white convicts in 1909. Sorsby worked as a farm laborer on the plantation-style prison.
Mrs. Sorsby remained in Clinton for a year after the trial and then moved to Jackson to live with her son, Everett. Margaret Sorsby, twenty years of age, quietly divorced her imprisoned husband and moved from Clinton. Her mother, Mrs. Margaret Cabaniss, continued living at “Violet Banks” until her death in 1930. She was buried near her husband in the Odd Fellows cemetery in Clinton.
William Sorsby served ten years of his life sentence before receiving a pardon from Governor Theodore Bilbo. Family members admitted that “Miss Annie,” Will’s mother, gave Bilbo a large sum of money to get her son out of prison.
Sorsby became a free man in 1920, and, with the help of his brother, Everett, took a job with the Illinois Central Railroad as a telegraph operator. He worked at several stations on the railroad line. Sorsby married again and set-tled in Wesson, Mississippi, where he and his wife operated a grocery store. Will Sorsby died in January 1953 and was buried in the Rockport cemetery outside Wesson.
Later generations of Sorsbys knew that “Uncle Will” had killed a man and gone to prison, but it wasn’t talk-ed about among family. Eventually, the story evolved that “Uncle Will” shot and killed a man who was romancing his first wife, Margaret. Killing someone under those circumstances was tolerable and even honorable.
When the city of Clinton celebrated the sesquicentennial of the Civil War in 2013, this writer met a member of the Sorsby family while leading a tour of Provine Chapel on the Mississippi College campus. She introduced herself as the great-grandaughter of Dr. F. D. Sorsby, who is buried in the Clinton cemetery.
When I responded that the Sorsby name was wellknown in Clinton’s his-tory, she wanted to know why. I related the written accounts of the murder, the trial and the conviction of William Sorsby, who was her great uncle. Her daughter said, “Mother, he’s talking about Uncle Will.” This led to a visit to her home, where she shared photographs of “Uncle Will” and his obituary clipping.
The murder of Charles Fitzgerald, postal inspector, by William Sorsby and the later trial and conviction of Sorsby is one of the most intriguing stories in the history of Clinton.