Minnie and Winnie (and Gordon Makes Three)

Minnie and Winnie were unlucky in love.
But Gordon was the unluckiest of all.

In 1941 Winnie had married Hall Bryan Ray. But matrimony quickly turned to acrimony: Four times over the next six years H. B. filed for divorce from Winnie, and four times he changed his mind. Finally, in 1947 the fifth try was the charm.

Fast-forward to June 1952. Winnie remarried. Gordon and Winnie Alford lived on Ellis Avenue near the stockyards. Gordon was a butcher at a Wyatt’s supermarket in River Oaks.

During their first year of marriage, Mr. and Mrs. each filed for divorce against the other. But no divorce was granted, so apparently the Alfords had reached a truce.

Or not.

After 11 p.m. on April 7, 1954 taxi driver O. B. Burks picked up a passenger on North Main Street.

“Take me to a cafe at 3509 McCart,” the passenger said. “I’m going to kill my husband.”

Burks turned and looked at his passenger.

Across the lap of Mrs. Winnie Alford lay a 410 shotgun.

O. B. Burks was a cab driver by night, but by day he was a ministerial student at Baptist Bible Seminary. As he drove that night he glanced nervously in his mirror at his passenger and tried to summon the wisdom of Solomon.

“What will you accomplish by shooting him?” Burks asked Winnie Alford. “You know it’s wrong.”

“It’s too late now,” Winnie said. “I warned him I would kill him if he went back to that cafe and saw that woman.”

Burks invoked prayers he had learned at the seminary. He prayed that his passenger would not commit murder.

Again he implored Mrs. Alford: “Isn’t there anything I can say to stop you? You know it’s wrong to murder.”

“There’s nothing you or anybody else can do now. I have to kill him.”

The trip from the North Side to the McCart Street address on the South Side was at least eight miles and fifteen minutes. But when the cab pulled up in front of the café shortly after midnight, April 8, Mrs. Alford had not changed her mind.

Burks turned in his seat.

“Please listen to me a minute. . . . Won’t you let God settle this instead of you?”

“It’s too late now,” Winnie said. “Wait for me here.”

Mrs. Alford loaded a shell into the shotgun, got out of the cab, and walked into the cafe.

Burks radioed his dispatcher to ask that police be notified.

Then he prayed again.

But before he got to “amen” he heard a shot. As he watched, Mrs. Alford backed out the front door of the cafe. A man stumbled behind her and fell at her feet.

Mrs. Alford was crying as she got back into the cab. She searched the back seat for another shotgun shell.

“I did it. I killed him. If I had had another shell I would have killed her, too.”

She looked at Burks.

“Please pray for me.”

Burks asked God to “forgive this woman” and “forgive that man.”

To which the widow Alford replied: “Maybe God will forgive me.”

She then sat quietly until police arrived and took her to jail, where she signed a confession. Mrs. Alford was forty years old, the mother of three and grandmother of three.

Who was the “that woman” and the “her” to whom Winnie Alford referred?

“That woman” was Minnie Alford, the owner of Minnie’s Café, where Winnie Alford had just shot Gordon Alford.

The Star-Telegram on April 9 wrote that Minnie Alford, age fifty, was the ex-wife of Gordon Alford.

Maybe so, maybe no.

In fact, when Gordon Alford had married Winnie in 1952, he gave his home address as 3509 McCart—the address of Minnie’s Cafe. Minnie also lived on the café premises.

On April 9 Winnie and her late husband shared the front page with news that WBAP-TV had broadcast the state’s first full-color, thirty-minute network program (Ding Dong School).

Lewis Gordon Alford was forty-four years old. He was buried in Laurel Land Memorial Park.

Winnie Alford was charged with murder. During jury selection prosecutors qualified jurors on the death penalty.

As Winnie Alford went on trial her attorneys said her defense would be the “unwritten law.”

What was the “unwritten law”?

According to the Buffalo Law Review, the unwritten law was an uncodified constraint that protected “those who killed to defend the honor of women. . . . a husband, brother, or father could justifiably kill any man who had a sexual relationship outside of marriage with the killer’s wife, daughter, sister, or mother.”

The Review adds: “Criminal defendants who could convince a jury that they killed in defense of the sanctity of their home, and the virtue of their women, were almost certain to be acquitted.”

The Star-Telegram wrote of Winnie’s proposed defense: “The unwritten law has been used successfully many times by defense lawyers in murder trials where husbands slew ‘the other man.’”

Indeed, earlier in the twentieth century a defense of the unwritten law had been successful for at least four local men: Dee Estes, John Beal Sneed, Reverend C. C. Reneau, and William A. Jobe.

Winnie’s defense attorney said, “A woman also is entitled to use the unwritten law as a defense.”

But wait! Winnie had not killed “the other woman.” She had killed her husband.

Ah, but Lawrence M. Friedman in Crime Without Punishment writes: “An important variant of the unwritten law acted to protect women who were on trial for murdering a husband or lover. . . . judges and juries, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were deeply sympathetic to women who did away with abusive husbands.”

And that’s just what Winnie claimed during her trial. In fact, her defense was two-pronged: She claimed (1) that her husband had physically abused her and (2) that Minnie Alford, as “the other woman” in a love triangle, had broken up Winnie’s marriage, causing Winnie to kill her unfaithful husband.

As trial testimony began, Winnie’s attorneys sought to establish her husband’s infidelity. Mrs. Etta Lewis, a former café employee, testified that she had seen Gordon Alford in an embrace with a “shadowy figure” known as “the Squaw.” Mrs. Lewis said “the Squaw” was a habitue of Minnie’s Cafe.

“How does she make her living?” Winnie’s defense attorney asked Mrs. Lewis.

Mrs. Lewis replied: “She didn’t work—she made dates.”

Ahem.

Winnie’s attorneys contended that Minnie was the “other woman” who broke up Winnie’s marriage.

Conversely, Minnie, taking the witness stand, claimed that Winnie was “the other woman” who broke up her marriage.

Wha?

See, since 1949 Minnie had been Gordon Alford’s common-law wife. When Gordon married Winnie in 1952, an assistant district attorney advised Minnie that her common-law marriage was legally binding and that she would have to divorce Gordon before he married Winnie.

But Minnie did not divorce Gordon. Further, Minnie testified that she did not contest his marriage to Winnie because she didn’t want him to get in trouble with the law. And yet by not divorcing Gordon she allowed him to technically become a bigamist!

Minnie also admitted that she went to movies with Alford and had dinner with him after he married Winnie. But Minnie refused to say whether she had been intimate with him.

As to Gordon’s abuse of Winnie, Winnie testified that her husband’s attacks on her had begun two weeks after their wedding and occurred every three or four weeks thereafter. She testified that his attacks always occurred after he had been drinking or had been “over to Minnie’s.” Minnie’s Café had been Gordon’s home away from home.

“The rest of the time he was nice to me. When he was sober he was all right.”

In fact, Winnie insisted that she loved her husband, even though he had slapped, beaten and stomped her, and knocked out several of her teeth.

She testified that she had been in fear of her life on the night she killed Gordon Alford.

She testified that on April 7 Alford left home about 3:30 p.m. after they “fussed.” Late that night after Winnie learned that Alford was at Minnie’s Café Winnie went there by cab to try to “talk him back home” but took along the shotgun because he had threatened to kill her if she interfered with him and Minnie.

Winnie testified that as she entered the cafe Alford arose from a table and “started running for me and reaching for me. I knew not to let him get ahold of me. I threw the gun up to my hip and fired,” she said.

Several defense witnesses corroborated Winnie’s claim of abuse by her husband. For example, Mrs. Etta Lewis testified that she had seen Alford hit Winnie until Winnie was black and blue.

Winnie Mae Alford may have been unlucky in love, but she was lucky at homicide: After deliberating four hours the jury found her guilty of murder but sentenced her to only a five-year suspended sentence. She would serve no prison time.

In fact, there was one local woman who, had she been on the jury, might have voted not only to acquit Winnie but also to pay her a bounty.

After the trial Assistant District Attorney George Cochran received this note:

“. . . it bee a good thing if 90 per cent of the wives get license to shoot husbands. Just to say the truth there should be an oppen ceson on them. I am for Winnie Mae.”

The letter was signed “just another wife.”

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