Murder For Money and Hides: The Death of Abraham Levine

The Sunday of December 5th, 1926 looked to be promising for Abraham Levine.  He had been told that a Mexican living  out from Lula had hides for sale. All he had to do was meet the middle man of the deal, who knew where to take him.  Mr. Levine had traveled halfway around the world to wind up in Clarksdale on that morning and he was a shrewd businessman.  Friends referred to him as well liked, respectful, sober and industrious.  Although his wife and children were in Greenwood, Abraham had a brother named Isadore who lived in Clarksdale.  Isadore was a dry goods merchant and knew Coahoma County and the area around Lula.

The Levines had immigrated from Russian controlled Minsk to America around the turn of the century.  Once in America, Abraham married Rose Segalowitz and started a family. They first made their home in Worcester, Massachusetts where they operated an underwear shop.  Abraham was listed as head of house hold with his wife Rose and children Charles, Max and Ida.  Isadore and another brother named Israel were living with them as well. After Israel’s death the family moved to the Mississippi Delta and joined a growing Jewish community along the river. Other members of the family remained in the North.

On the 1920 U.S. Census, Abraham and his son Max were listed as dry goods merchants living in Greenwood. He had signed up for the draft during World War I and listed his birth as July 3, 1879.  The family was living at their place of business located at 705 Howard Street in Greenwood. Abraham was described as short, medium build, with brown eyes and black hair.

Abraham Levine and family taken from Ancestry.com

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The Mississippi Delta was a land of virgin forest in the early 20th century where animals such as bear, deer and others roamed in large numbers. Many of it’s residents made a living trapping and selling furs in addition to farming. Abraham Levine got involved in this lucrative fur and hide business. Thats what led him to Clarksdale in December 1926 where he stayed with the Rappaport family. He bade farewell to his friends and family and headed north toward Lula. “Money and Hides” were his trade after all.

As he sped along, Abraham must have been feeling good about his life so far.  He was driving a brand new 1927 Ford touring car and had about $500 in his pocket. Yes, money and hides were his business.  Levine was a proud member of the Knights of Pythias Club of Clarksdale and even had a pet raccoon that went everywhere with him. Turning onto the dusty Front Street of Lula in his car caught the attention of a number of people who remembered seeing this flashy merchant pass by on the way to meet a potential customer. That would be the last time anyone saw Abraham Levine alive, except the person or persons who killed him.

When Abraham didn’t come home that night, his family contacted the Coahoma County Sheriff’s Department. On Monday a search party made up of volunteers and sheriff’s deputies searched around Lula to no avail. Jewish citizens around the delta were so concerned that they offered a reward and hired a detective to help in the search.  Sheriff S. W. Glass of Coahoma County and his deputies needed a break if they were gonna find Levine, who they didn’t know was alive or dead.  Had he disappeared over “money and hides?”

The break in the case happened when a person living in nearby Sledge remembered seeing the new Ford touring car. A man by the name of John Haley was driving it. Haley, who was originally from Chickasaw County, had been working in southern Tunica county for a farmer named Shelby Wilson.  Learning from Wilson that Haley may be back in Chickasaw County, Sheriff Glass sent word to northeast Mississippi on who he was looking for. John Haley was picked up and deputies were dispatched to bring him back for questioning. When Haley was taken at Okolona, he had Abraham Levine’s car and all of his possessions including the coon with him.  Yes “money and hides.”

Deputy Hunter Scott returned to Clarksdale with John Haley in custody.  Without much prodding, Haley started talking about what happened to Abraham Levine.  He claimed that he left Lula with Levine on December 5th for Memphis.  They purchased a gallon of whiskey near Dundee and took their last drink at the viaduct leading into Memphis. Haley then said the pair separated. Levine told him he was going to visit Hughes, Arkansas by train and then return to Memphis. He wanted Haley to take his car and pick him back up when he returned.  Haley then said he drove to Chickasaw County to meet his wife and didn’t know what happened to Levine.  He had kept possession of the hides and other things for Levine to get later. Leary of this story, the sheriff asked about the lodge charm he had in his pocket which everyone knew Levine carried.  Haley said he had found the watch near Dundee.  He was then put back in jail as they began their investigation. “Mystery over money and hides.”

The first crack came in Haley’s story when Deputy Hunter visited Sledge and found out that the suspect had never travelled to Memphis, but came straight to that town on the day Levine disappeared.  He had plenty of money and people saw the hides packed in back of the car. With that new found evidence, the police interviewed Haley again. His story changed.

John Haley now claimed that two Mexicans had killed Abraham Levine. He and Levine , both drinking, had started to Memphis from Lula on December 5th.  They had picked up two Mexicans along the road who wanted a ride.  One of the Mexicans pulled a knife and took Haley’s gun.  While one of the robbers held Haley with the knife, the other robbed Levine and shot him five times.  They then threw the empty revolver in the car and forced him to drive to Memphis.  Being afraid they were gonna kill him, Haley decided not to tell the police and drove back to Sledge that same day.  He had planned on coming back to Clarksdale and telling everyone what happened, but was afraid that he would be blamed for the murder. All because of “money and hides.” Haley also volunteered to carry the sheriff to where Levine’s body was.

Sheriff S.W. Glass and deputies Hunter Scott and Haywood Moore took their suspect north to where he said the body could be found.  About seven miles from Dundee in Tunica County Haley told them to stop the car. Haley walked them a short distance from a cornfield to the edge of some woods. Levine’s body was laying face down with a log and leaves covering him. Only his feet were visible. He had been shot and beaten.  Levine’s cap was a few feet away hanging on a weed.  The cap had several holes in it which meant that he was wearing it when killed. Instead of being depressed the sheriffs noticed Haley was actually joking about being able to find Levine and stating he didn’t know the Mexicans who killed him.  Haley only had about $65 on him when caught and he said that he had been able to hide the money from the Mexicans when they killed Levine.  The murderers didn’t want the hides.  Just the money.

Believing they had their man because he kept changing stories, John Haley was arrested for the murder of Abraham Levine.  Because the murder took place in Tunica County, Haley was turned over to Sheriff James William Nichols and booked into the Tunica County jail.

Abraham Levine was buried at Beth Israel Cemetery in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  The funeral was handled by McCroy Funeral Home and the service was well attended. Rose and Abraham’s children were living in Greenville in 1930.  Sometime after, they moved back north.  Rose would pass away in Connecticut in 1952 and be buried there. She wanted nothing else to do with “money and hides.”

Tombstone of Abraham Levine at Beth Israel Cemetery: courtesy of Findagrave.com

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John Haley was ordered to be held in the Tunica County jail without bond.  However he would not stay locked up long.  At 6:30 pm on the night of December 27th Haley was able to escape. The prisoner was confined on the second floor of the jail, but somehow was able to take the lock off his cell.  Making his way to the rear of the jail he used a metal bar to break out several bricks from the wall. Through the hole he escaped and was gone from the scene.  Haley had only been officially charged with murder on December 15th.

A large manhunt was ordered to capture the escaped murderer and hundreds of men and sheriffs roamed the fields and roads of Tunica.  Many people felt that Haley would make a successful escape, but he remained in the county instead.  John Haley was captured on December 31st near Flower Lake on the plantation of J.F. Norfleet, when dogs from a posse cornered him.  Jokingly, he turned himself in and told the deputies that they would never have captured him in the swamps near the river.

The Grand Jury took up his case on January 17, 1927 in the Tunica County Court House. Haley pled “Not Guilty” and stated he had no attorney.  He also continued to blame two Mexicans for murdering Levine. As the trial moved along, the two sides came to an agreement.  John Haley pled “Guilty” in the murder of Abraham Levine and was sentenced to life in prison. He had robbed and killed Levine for his “money and hides.” On the 1930 U.S. Census John A. Haley was identified as an inmate in Parchman State Penitentiary.  He had been born in 1892 in Mississippi.  That was the last record of John Haley.  Whether he died in prison or was released is not known.  With that last lone census record in 1930, the case of  “Murder for Money and Hides” ends. Another Delta Story.

References:

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 12 December 1926, Sunday Page 1.

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 1 January 1927, Saturday Page 2.

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 21 January 1927, Friday Page 10.

“The Clarksdale Press Register” Clarksdale, MS. 28, December 1926, Tuesday Page 1.

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 15 December 1926. Wednesday Page 2.

“The Clarksdale Press Register” Clarksdale, MS. 15 December 1926 Page1.

“The Clarksdale Press Register” Clarksdale, MS. 9 December 1926 Page1.

U.S. World War I Draft Registry Cards, 1917-1918. Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com

Findagrave.com

 

 

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