My grandmother did not mince words when it came to her aunt’s husband. William James “Bill Bailey” Murdock was “trashy.” “We couldn’t stand him,” she said. “He did everything illegal and got away with it.” I laughed, and thought, “Oh, Grandma. Really?”
He was born William Bailey in Iredell County, the son of Lela Bailey, black, and John T. Murdock, white, both teenagers. His stepfather was Floyd Murdock, and he eventually adopted the surname, but he was known as “Bill Bailey” all his infamous life. His mother was a cook, and it is likely that he gained his culinary skills at her side. In 1920, he lived on Washington Street in Statesville’s Rabbit Town section with Lela and his first wife Hattie, biding his time as a flour mill laborer.
Two years later, Bill and his roadhouse merited their first in a long line of write-ups in the local newspaper:
Statesville Landmark, 27 November 1922.
Three months later, in March 1923, Ethel Wallace was arrested for shooting her husband — and the husband of her husband’s girlfriend — at Bill Bailey’s Emporium. Before this matter was even tried, Bill himself was arraigned on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon against Howard Houston. It didn’t stick. In February 1924, however, Bill plead guilty to bootlegging, was fined $50 and given two years’ probation. In January 1926, he was arrested for bootlegging again.
In December 1927, Bill was acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon in the shooting of “a colored girl” named Veola Knox and of transporting and possessing liquor, but fined $50 for assaulting Jim Moore. Two years later, on the day after Christmas, someone “severely carved up” Alfred Hough, slashed his jugular, outside Bill Bailey’s.
In July 1931, Bill was charged with manufacturing and possessing “home brew” — a barrel and 18 cases worth — on his premises just beyond the southern Statesville city limits. In November 1932, Crawford Scott was shot in the shoulder just passing by the place. In 1934, three men were arrested for liquor possession at Bill Bailey’s, and 1936 brought this:
Statesville Landmark, 1 October 1936.
Nothing stuck. As the Depression wound down and the War picked up, Bill Bailey’s reputation shifted from gutbucket to speakeasy to wholesome purveyor of steaks and libations to Statesville’s white middle class. Shootings and cuttings disappeared from the pages of the Landmark to be replaced by jovial accounts of “delightful fried chicken suppers” at Bill’s “popular resort,” enjoyed by society ladies, sportsmen, company men, and civic boosters alike.
The bonhomie slammed to a halt on the night of March 28, 1944, when Bertha Hart “Aunt Bert” Murdock shot James Warren, a white serviceman out to celebrate leave with a juicy steak. My mother’s cousin N. asserts that Bill and Bert thought that their clientele, not to mention his father’s relatives — who’d kept Bill out of prison during Prohibition and rewarded his good cooking with steady patronage — would stand by them. It did not happen. The place shut down, and just over a year after wife’s conviction, Bill Bailey was dead.