By City Historian Dr. Walter Howell
Will Sorsby was twenty-four years of age when the state supreme court denied his appeal. Facing life in prison, his only hope was a pardon from the governor or escape. The nature of his heinous crime, shooting a postal inspector without warning, should have eliminated any chance of a pardon. Sorsby was moved to Parchman farm in 1914.
Sorsby’s family started a petition for a pardon in the summer of 1915, the last year of Governor Earl Brewer’s term in office. E. A. Fitzgerald, brother of the victim and business manager of the Vicksburg Herald started a counter petition opposing any pardon, and, in October 1915, the governor’s office announced there would be no pardon for Sorsby.
The notorious Theodore Bilbo followed Brewer in the governor’s office in 1916; and the family, according to a Sorsby grand-niece, made repeated bribes to Bilbo to secure a pardon, only to have Bilbo ask for more money. Bilbo was no help.
Sorsby was a model prisoner with extra privileges for the next three years. He gained trustee status and worked in the prison office. Sorsby requested and was granted leave in December 1918 to visit his family at Christmas. The Jackson Daily News reported on January 2, 1919: “It was at first believed that Sorsby had merely taken French leave in order to visit his mother in Clinton, but it is now evident that he had made a clean getaway.”
The U.S. postal service joined in the search for Sorsby, who still faced embezzlement charges from the post office department. For the next eighteen months, Sorsby eluded his pursuers. Postal inspectors finally captured Sorsby in Wichita, Kansas, where he was living under an assumed name. He was returned to Parchman in October 1920.
The Sorsby family renewed efforts to secure a pardon from Governor Lee Russell, Bilbo’s successor in January 1921. Prison officials recommended a pardon based on a report that Sorsby had thwarted an attempt to blow up a cage at the Oakley convict farm, saving the lives of thirty prisoners. Russell doubted the story and rejected the recommendation.
Governor Henry Whitfield, who followed Russell in 1924, granted Sorsby his pardon on Christmas Day 1925. The governor reasoned: “This pardon is granted because, when the crime was committed, Will Sorsby had hardly reached man’s estate, and consequently did not possess that experience that would cause him to realize the enormity of the crime he was committing… and the further fact that he has already served a longer term of service than is usual for life prisoners.”
Sorsby’s pardon drew criticism from Fitzgerald people and those who supported law and order. The Enterprise-Tocsin questioned: “How governors can condemn lynching while granted such unmerited pardon is a mystery to us…We are in doubt as to which is the greatest blot on our state’s fair name: the lynching of the negro in Clarksdale or the pardoning of Sorsby by Gov. Whitfield.”
Governors have the power of pardoning those convicted of crimes against the State. Though Sorsby was now free, he still faced embezzlement charges from the postal service, a federal offense.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth of a series of articles by Dr. Howell about the Sorsby and Cabaniss families.