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Canoe murder leads to sensational Brewton trial

By Kevin McKinnley, All Things  Southern

The lives of some are destined for tragedy. Sometimes the people who come into a person’s life have unintended consequences which last for eternity. So was the case between Fredrick Hancock, Jesse Troutman and Ellie Winfied Weaver.

Hancock married Ellie Weaver’s older sister, Elizabeth in 1901. The couple lived in Brewton, and Hancock was a successful horse dealer. Ellie, also called “Winnie,” came to live with the couple.

While living in Brewton, Winnie eventually met Jesse Troutman through some happenstance of social interactions. Professor Jesse Troutman was attracted to Winnie and sought to court her affections.

At the time of their meeting, Jesse lived in Pollard. Troutman had moved to Pollard from Canoe with his parents when he was a small child. The young man suffered a debilitating illness at the age of 19, perhaps polio, although the record is silent, which resulted in him being permanently crippled as well as suffering some paralysis.

Yet the young Troutman did not let his disability become a crutch for his life. The diligent lad pursued a college education and became a school teacher at Pollard. He even went so far as to run for county treasurer. During the campaign, he traversed the county, campaigning from the seat of his wagon. Even though he lost the 1904 race by a mere 20 votes, Troutman did not let the loss dampen his spirits in that the race had given him great notoriety and made him a household name throughout the county.

His fortunes stayed on the rise when he was soon named as principal at the Appleton School but he resigned to take the principal position at the Canoe, Alabama school instead.

Yet during this time of upward mobility, Troutman pined for the affections of Winnie. Winnie descended from a well-respected family in Conecuh County who opposed the relationship. Hancock, Winnie’s brother-in-law, and Troutman had words over the matter, and the die was cast for tragedy.

Apparently, the breaking point was when Troutman proposed marriage to Winnie.

On New Year’s Day 1905, the Troutman family was celebrating the holiday at their ancestral abode in the Canoe area. At 10:30 a.m., Hancock and his brother-in-law, Boland Weaver, boarded the L&N No. 5 in Brewton and headed to Canoe. After arriving, the two men made their way to the Troutman residence and had a polite and normal conversation with Troutman and his brothers. Upon leaving, the two men asked Jesse if he would accompany them to the station.

Troutman followed them in his buggy but soon returned to the home, saying that one of the men had slapped him. Troutman sought assistance from his brothers but for some reason he returned alone to meet the two men again.

After returning to the scene of the earlier confrontation, it was alleged that Hancock shot Troutman three times while he was seated in the buggy. A witness by the name of Mr. Horn stated that death came quickly to the frail, 70-pound occupant of the wagon. Other startled onlookers saw the bullet riddled buggy slowly begin to list down the road as its master lay dead inside. Hancock was alleged to have fled into the swamp at this point, and Weaver was taken into custody near the train depot in Canoe. Weaver is said to have insisted that he had no knowledge that Hancock had intended to shoot Troutman.

Sherriff Raley soon dispatched a team of bloodhounds to hunt Hancock. Yet the bloodhounds were unable to find the trail. Hancock turned himself in the next morning and stated that he felt justified in the murder.

Meanwhile, Troutman was buried on Jan. 2, 1905, at a massive funeral which brought family, friends and almost assuredly, spectators from afar.

The Pine Belt News reported that all three families were well-known and well-liked in the county and that the events had created quite a stir.

On Fri., Jan. 6, 1905, a preliminary hearing was held before Justice McConnell in Brewton. It was eventually decided that Weaver had no a role in the killing and that he was unaware of any intentions Hancock may or may not have had as to the events and was therefore released from custody and the charges dismissed.

Things would not be so easy for Hancock Within a matter of months, Hancock was indicted for firsts-degree murder. He retained the services of Jesse Stallings, an ex-Congressman, to represent him. Apparently, due to the prominence of the families involved, the prosecutors, in those days called solicitors, were carefully selected. Charles R. Bricken led the case for the State, and he was assisted by John D. Leigh. The defense sought a change of venue due to pre-trial publicity but this was denied by Judge Brewer.

The April 1905 trial drew onlookers from around the county and around the state. Jesse Troutman’s brothers, huge men who farmed and were by no means given to displays of emotion, wept uncontrollably as they listened to testimony as they sat next to the solicitors.

Newspaper accounts held that Fred Hancock sat with his wife and two boys during the trial and displayed a “debonair” attitude during the hearing believing he would not be convicted.

The first trial went on for two days, and the jury deliberated four days before becoming hopelessly deadlocked with the result being a mistrial in Judge Brewer’s court. While awaiting another trial, Hancock escaped from the jail by taking a saw, which was smuggled into the jail, and sawing through several bars in a jailhouse door. He escaped to Missouri where he began to trade horses.

Hancock changed his appearance while in Kansas City, and eventually found a way to bring his wife and children to the area.

While working at his horse trading business in Kansas City, Hancock was approached by local law enforcement. Surely a cold sweat broke across his brow as the young man bolted through the alleyways of brick and mortar in a desperate attempt to flee his would-be captors.

After being cornered in a busy store, Hancock is said to have told his pursuers something along the lines of, “I know why you are here. I am Fred Hancock. I killed a man in Alabama.” As it turned out, Hancock had fit the description of a horse thief, he was completely innocent of the crime but with that admission, the local authorities had remembered seeing a wanted poster for Hancock which had only recently came to their office.

Hancock returned to Brewton on July 6, 1906. He had a large cut on his foot, perhaps from an escape attempt while being transported back to Brewton, and asked for some carbolic acid to use in water to bathe the wound. On July 8, he drank the contents of the bottle in a desperate suicide attempt.

The Monroe Journal ran an article on July 12, 1906 titled, “Fred Hancock Commits Suicide.” The article reported that a note was found in the cell which read: “I am going to a place where I can receive a just trial, where on the truth is told and where I will not be tried by prejudiced people.”

Thus ended the story of Jesse Troutman and Fred Hancock, meanwhile the lives of their respected families were shaken to the core. For more on this story see The History of Escambia County by Annie C. Waters, the Escambia County Historical Society and the Evergreen Alabama Public Library.

If you have a local history story of interest please email me at mckinley2971@gmail.com.