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Bill Bailey’s life and times.

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?”

Well, yes.

Consider this:

bill bailey youth 7 14 03 Statesville Landmark, 14 July 1903.

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:

11 27 1922 Roadhouse

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:

10 1 36 Liquor

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.

Murdock died 12 6 1945 LandmarkStatesville Landmark, 6 December 1945.

Births Deaths Marriages, Maternal Kin, Newspaper Articles, North Carolina, Oral History

Aunt Bert, as reported.

So, the conversation started with talk of Bill Bailey’s barbecue joint. Which was also a dance hall.  Which, though it was right up the road, was, as my grandmother put it, “strictly off-limits” to her and her sisters. “We couldn’t stand him,” she said, because “he did everything illegal and got away with it.” He had a great big stomach and was “trashy,” but his steaks pulled the best of Iredell County’s partying white folks.  And he was married to my grandmother’s Aunt Bert.

Me:  Now, she wound up … She shot somebody, or something, didn’t she?

My grandmother:  Yeah, she shot somebody.  She shot a white man.

My mother’s first cousin, N.:  What he do?  Slap her?  What did he do?  He did something to her.

My grandmother:  I don’t know what he did to her.  But maybe … seems like to me he kicked her.

N:  And she shot him.

My grandmother:  And she shot him.

N.: They had to take his leg off.


Me:  Oh.  Well, good for Bert.

When I wrote about this before, I was looking for newspaper coverage of the incident, thinking that a black woman shooting a white man in North Carolina in 1944 had to have galvanized the public. Well, sure enough, the Statesville Record & Landmark covered every step of ensuing criminal trial, though in a considerably less salacious manner than I might have expected.  The headlines pretty much tell the tale:

James Warren, Merchant Marine Home on Leave, Seriously Shot. Mae Bailey, Colored, Held in County Jail Charged with Shooting. 29 March.

Warren Shot 3 29 44Warren shot contd

Warren Holding Own, But Will Not Be Out of Danger For Week.  30 March.

James Warren’s Leg Amputated.  3 April.

James L. Warren Is Better But Not Yet Out of Danger.  6 Apr.

Mae Bailey Freed from Jail Today, Hearing May 8th.  11 April.

May Postpone Murdock Trial.  29 April.

Warren Removed to the Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, Va.  1 May.

M. Murdock Trial Postponed Until Monday, June 12.  8 May.

James Warren Starts Civil Action Against Murdocks for $25,000.  11 May.

Murdock Civil Action 11 May 44 R and L

Mae Murdock Case Continued to August.  25 May.

Judge Bobbitt to Superior Court Preside August, Case of Mae (Bailey) Murdock Will Not Be Tried At This Term.  29 July 1944.

Murdock Trial Definitely Set For November 6, Warren is Able to Leave Hospital.  6 September.

Prosecuting Witness May Not Visit Scene of Shooting. 9 October.

Mae Murdock is Bound to Court Under $5000 Bond. 16 October.

Case Hinges on Warren’s Action Before Shooting, Testimony Rapidly Nearing Completion.  9 November.

Murdock Woman is Convicted. 13 November.

Conviction 13 Nov 1944

Murdock Case to Go to State Supreme Court.  14 November.

$25,000 Law Suit Against Murdock Woman Continued.  14 November.

Aunt Bert served her time at the state women’s prison in Raleigh and returned to Statesville after to pass her few remaining years.  She had  possessed considerable wealth after her father’s death in 1929, but lost much of it while she was away. My family maintains that William “Bill Bailey” Murdock had entrusted whites to help hide his shady assets, and they betrayed him after Bert shot one of their own.

Bert died in 1955. The Landmark ran her death notice without comment or reference to the incident for which she had been infamous just ten years earlier.

Bert Murdock Obit 26 May 1955 Record and Landmark


Interview of Margaret C. Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.


Maternal Kin, Newspaper Articles, North Carolina, Oral History

Aunt Bert shot a white man.

Damage Suit Asks $25,000

Suit for $25,000 personal damages has been filed by James L. Warren against Odessa Waddell Williams, executrix of the estate of the late Bertha Mae Murdock, in Iredell Superior Court.

Warren contends in his company that he suffered the damages when Bertha Mae Murdock allegedly shot him in a restaurant near here March 28, 1944, prior to her death.

According to Warren’s complaint, she allegedly shot him while he was visiting at Bill Bailey’s Barbecue Stand four miles west of here. He claims she was a co-partner in that firm at the time.

Warren says that, as result of the alleged shooting, his leg had to be amputated.

Statesville Record & Landmark, 16 December 1955.



I’ve been looking for an article like this for years, and I don’t know how I missed this one. Still, I’m hoping to find something from 1944, the year Bertha Mae Hart Murdock, daughter of Harriet Nicholson Hart, shot James Warren.

Here’s the version of events my family tells: Aunt Bert married a scandalous man who ran a roadhouse out in the country catering to white folks looking for a little liquor with their barbecue. A patron said something to her one day, and maybe got fresh, and she pulled a pistol and shot him. (There was no “allegedly” about it.) She was convicted and sent to the state women’s prison in Raleigh, where she served as cook for the governor before her release.

Photo of Bertha M. Murdock in collection of Lisa Y. Henderson.