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Collection on the Murder of Father Coyle

Identifier: W-0094

Scope and Contents

Contains nine documents, including a newspaper clipping, an affidavit completed by a witness, and the research notes compiled by lawyer John C. Morrow during the 1921 trial of Edwin Stephenson. Stephenson, a Methodist minister and Klansman, murdered Father James Coyle, a Catholic priest, shortly after Coyle officiated the marriage of Stephenson's daughter against her father's wishes. Morrow served as a prosecuting lawyer on the case, and his notes document the prosecution's rebuttal of the insanity plea presented by the defense and highlight the role that religion played in the case.

Notable documents include a notarized witness statement signed by Douglas White, which was not used during the trial. White was not allowed to testify during the trial, but his notarized statement was published after the trial in the Catholic newspaper the Daily American Tribune. In the statement, White attested that Stephenson shot Coyle without provocation.

Another notable document is a draft of Morrow's closing argument, in which the lawyer states that the "world is watching Birmingham" and appeals to the jury to look beyond their anti-Catholic prejudices.


  • 1921


Conditions Governing Access


Biographical / Historical

Father James Edwin Coyle was born on March 23, 1873, in Drum, Ireland. He attended Mungret College in Limerick, graduating in 1893, and entered the priesthood. Coyle was ordained in Rome on May 26, 1896.

In 1898, Coyle and his childhood friend and fellow priest Father Michael Henry arrived in Mobile, Alabama. Three years later, Coyle was appointed the director of McGill Institute, a Catholic boy's school in the city.

In 1904, Coyle was appointed to lead the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham, Alabama. In Birmingham, Coyle became an outspoken defender of the Catholic faith, writing letters to local newspapers in order to dispel misconceptions about Catholic beliefs.

On August 11, 1921, Coyle officiated the marriage of Ruth Stephenson and Pedro Gussman,a Puerto Rican laborer. Ruth was the daughter of a Methodist minister and Klansman, Edwin Stephenson. Her father disapproved of the marriage and confronted Coyle on the evening of August 11th. After a heated exchange, Stephenson shot Coyle on the porch of St. Paul's Rectory; Coyle died a short time later.

The subsequent murder trial was beset with racial and religious tensions. Klan members established a fund to pay for Stephenson's defense, and hired a legal team headed by future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. The defense team filed dual self-defense and temporary insanity pleas. The defense attempted to discredit witnesses called to the stand by noting their Catholic affiliations. In addition, the defense cast doubts on the validity of the marriage by suggesting that Gussman was black. The prosecuting attorneys Joe Tate, John McCoy, and John Morrow were unable to overcome the racial and religious prejudices introduced by the defense. The jury acquitted Stephenson on October 21, 1921.

Source: Sharon Davies, Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.


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Language of Materials



Contains an affidavit, newspaper clipping and the research notes compiled by lawyer John C. Morrow related to the 1921 murder of Birmingham priest Father James Coyle and the subsequent trial of Edwin Stephenson.

Physical Location

The A. S. Williams III Americana Collection, Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library, The University of Alabama


Gift of A. S. Williams III, 2010


Title on Spine: Papers Relating to the Murder of Father Coyle Birmingham, 1921

Processed by

Haley Aaron, 2013



Guide to the Collection on the Murder of Father Coyle
October 2013
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Part of the The University of Alabama Libraries Special Collections Repository

Box 870266
Tuscaloosa AL 35487-0266