Hidden History

The Swift and Merciless Execution of Corrine Sykes

When a wealthy white woman turned up dead in 1944, Philadelphia wasted no time sending her black maid to the electric chair. But did anyone care about the truth?

The Swift and Merciless Execution of Corrine Sykes

The car pulled away from the curb, gliding through the narrow cobbled streets. A few gas lights were starting to come on, illuminating the listing row houses huddled together. On the barren streets, patches of dirty snow remained. As they drove north, the streets became wider and leafier, leaving Philadelphia’s crowded city center behind.

“Thanks for taking me,” Corrine Sykes murmured as she straightened her skirt over her legs. She was starting her first day of work as a maid and was surprised to have gotten the job. As the youngest child in a family of three daughters, with overworked and underpaid parents who came north during the Great Migration looking for a better life only to be sorely disappointed, Sykes never thought she’d amount to anything. At 20 years old, she had been told her whole life that she was a simpleton, a truant, a good-for-nothing.

“You looking nice, baby,” her 39-year-old bootlegger boyfriend, Jaycee Kelly, said, according to court-ordered psychiatric interviews with Sykes, as he took in the tailored uniform she wore. Sykes watched out the window as they rounded the corner to 6305 North Camac Street, where she would be working as a maid. She clenched and unclenched her hands.

“I’ll let you out here,” Kelly said, stopping a hundred yards before the large white-columned house, according to an attorney interview with Sykes.

“I don’t want to go,” she said. He reached over and caressed her hair before opening the passenger door.

“It’s not forever. It’s just until we get the money for the farm,” Kelly called, as he watched her walk up the stone steps.

To Sykes, working at the beautiful house was paradise, even if she had to be there under an assumed identity: Kelly had insisted she take the job using false identification that gave her name as Heloise Parker. For the first two days, the job was normal. She cleaned, took the dog for a walk — anything her employer, Freda Wodlinger, required. But on Thursday, Freda’s husband, Harry, stopped at the house on his way to play golf, according to court records, intending to drop off some meat he had purchased for dinner. He found the front door slightly ajar, according to court transcripts.

He pushed the door open and walked inside. He heard their dog, a Sealyham, barking furiously from the cellar, according to an article in The Evening Bulletin.

“Freda?” he called. There was no answer.

Wodlinger pushed the bathroom door open and saw his wife lying in a pool of blood. She was lying on her right side, on the delicate white tiles with hand-painted wild rose borders, which she had picked out so happily a few years before, her feet partly curled up. The bathroom shower curtain had been ripped to shreds, evidence of a vicious fight. Blood was splattered everywhere; there were four stab wounds on the left side of her chest and a deep cut through the center of her chest that ran through her ribs.

So deep, the knife must have twisted through her heart.

Her fingers were cut through. One was almost completely severed, where she must have tried to grab the attacker’s knife, detailed the coroner report. It was hanging by a sinew. Through the blood, Harry could see the white glint of bone. Her wedding rings, a narrow gold band and small diamond-chip engagement ring, were missing from her fingers. One hundred dollars was gone from the bureau drawer.

Freda’s eyes were open, rolled into the back of her head. Wodlinger knelt and touched her hand. It was still warm.

But she was dead.

Weeks later, Sykes would be at the center of the most sensational murder trial Philadelphia had seen in decades. On October 14, 1946, Sykes was executed by electric chair after a rushed capital case trial that lasted just three days in the common courts of Philadelphia. The trial took place in March, three months after her arrest, and two months after Sykes was assigned a lawyer. The police work was shoddy at best, and evidence that they claimed they had and leaked to the press, such as a soiled uniform, was never presented in court. The violence of the crime was so noteworthy that newspapers reported every single bloody detail, but police never seriously questioned whether a 20-year-old girl could have done this alone. Law enforcement had their suspect, and the story was too salacious for it to be attributed to anyone else. As a poor black woman accused of killing a wealthy white woman, Sykes was about to find that the criminal justice system was designed for her to fail.

The killing of an employer by a maid struck fear in the hearts of all housewives, and the public was hungry for blood. In the 1940s, many homes employed black domestics to scrub laundry, wipe snot off their children’s noses, clean dishes, and polish silver. To rupture these relationships would be unthinkable.

But what America’s housewives didn’t want to accept was that the landscape was rapidly changing. Men had gone to fight overseas in World War II — almost 1 million of them black Americans, according to a Veterans Affairs report on minorities in the military. New work opportunities opened up for those left behind. Black women were leaving their demeaning, exploitative service work to take spots vacated by the men in factories or stores. As their horizons began to expand, they wanted more, but the more they reached for, the harder the system pushed back. In the 1940s, twice as many black inmates entered the criminal justice system than had 20 years earlier, starting a trend that set the stage for the stark discrepancies in the prison population of today.

The day of the murder, neighbors stuck their heads out of their doors as sirens shattered the peaceful afternoon on Camac Street, according to news reports. The Wodlingers and their teenage daughter, Fane, lived in a squat but generously sized house of more than 2,000 square feet, just north of the crowded city, in a leafy green neighborhood populated mostly by Jewish families who were too prosperous to need to live in the city but still ethnic enough not to have access to Philadelphia’s more established neighborhoods. Steep stone stairs led to a columned white porch that overlooked a postage-stamp-sized green lawn and a mammoth weeping willow tree.

Neighbor Mrs. Benjamin Ginn stood out front, available for any questions from curious journalists or police. Hours earlier she’d told local news reporters she had seen Sykes walk briskly down the street, crisp in her brand-new uniform, until she reached the corner of Olney Avenue. There was a taxi stand on the corner, and for a few minutes, she said, Sykes waited, her dark hand held alight in an effort to flag down a yellow cab. But the driver didn’t slow, and Sykes walked to catch the trolley at the Broad Street station instead.

“It must have been the maid,” she said, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. “She’s a small wisp of a thing. I saw her leaving this morning.”

For Sykes, according to the prosecution, there was nowhere else to go but Kelly’s. The trolley spit Sykes out at the stop just a few blocks from his house, and she hurried back to its familiar comforts. After opening the door to her attic apartment, she shoved her hands into her pockets. No one else was in the small room, so Sykes quickly stripped down and changed her clothes. She balled up the uniform and shoved it into the back of her closet.

This wasn’t the life Sykes envisioned when she met her boyfriend. Kelly was a legendary bootlegger, and when he saw her standing on that street corner on that glorious summer day, she caught his eye. Sykes was built like a ruler — all flat with no curves — and barely stood 5 feet tall. Above her lip was a small whitish birthmark, but not white enough for her mother, Almena, who disdained her youngest child’s dark skin. Her best feature, Sykes was told by others, were her eyes. They were large and brown, framed with thick lashes.

Almena had tried to give her children a better childhood than the one she’d had in the South, but the opportunities she found in Philadelphia were not what she had expected. Her husband worked as a porter, Almena washed clothes, and life unfolded in a familiar grind that only became more difficult when her husband died. Her children were trouble, and Sykes, her youngest, had proven to be the most trouble of them all. She had been kicked out of one school, then a few months later was kicked out of another and sent to a third. She was persnickety and tough. Her parents struggled to keep their daughter focused on her education, but they also signed her out for days at a time to work sweeping floors at a local candy shop. The list of complaints against her was long: She didn’t listen, she fought with other girls, she could barely read or write.

But it was Kelly, Almena would tell anyone who asked, who was her undoing, according to case notes from Sykes’s lawyer.

There was no mistaking his power. His light brown skin was as smooth as a baby’s bottom, his hair was slick, pomaded to the side. A pinky ring sparkled on his right hand. Even in the sticky heat, he wore a shiny gray sharkskin zoot suit, with its distinctive wide lapels, narrow waist and pleated pants. Tucked into the lapel was a printed handkerchief, and on his head, a brimmed hat banded with a red leather strap. It was no small thing to wear a zoot suit during the war, as wool was to be preserved for wartime needs, not men’s flashy suits. A tailor in New York made Kelly’s custom-ordered zoot suits. He wore them as he cruised around in a maroon Cadillac finished with tan and gold interiors. Rumor had it that the car had originally belonged to a rival gangster whose body had been fished out of the river earlier in March, according to a news report in the Evening Bulletin.

He had swept Sykes off her feet when she met him on a neighborhood corner just a few weeks after her father had died. Kelly had a restaurant that he billed as a BBQ joint selling fried chicken and ribs. “I make a mean barbeque,” he said around town, but in reality the storefront was a neighborhood speakeasy where he charged for cups of moonshine left over from his frequent whiskey hauls. Some nights, Kelly put on the gramophone and played records for the crowd. Two or three girls who lived upstairs milled around serving drinks and food. Kelly promised Sykes $25 a week to work for him, plus $10 more for her mother.

But most importantly, Sykes said in psychiatric interviews, he promised her love. She’d never really had that from a boy before. And Kelly was a man. A real man. Even her mother’s disapproval couldn’t persuade her to walk away.

“He told me that he loved me, and he’d take care of me because he felt sorry for me,” Sykes said.

Soon after moving into the attic room above his restaurant, Sykes found that the heyday of the speakeasy was long past. Business was poor, and Kelly had problems unloading his moonshine. They had alcohol, but it took weeks to sell, netting Kelly less money than he expected. There was tension in his shoulders and in the house; all of the girls were on edge.

He told his newest girl, “We have to think of something else.”

Philadelphia detectives sat at Wodlinger’s round kitchen table as the crime scene upstairs was being cleaned. They had photographed the scene, collected samples, and bound up the body in a thick black bag for patrolmen to hoist onto a stretcher. Four policemen in long dark-blue wool overcoats and stiff patrol hats, their shiny gold shields glinting, presented a somber scene as they carried Freda’s body down the front steps through the waiting crowds, according to photos from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Rumors flew as reporters went up and down the street asking neighbors what had happened.

Outside of Kelly’s house, on 23rd Street, three detectives, Daniel Maloney, Samuel Steinberg and John Walsh, stood shivering in the early morning of December 8. It had been less than 24 hours since fingerprints had led them to the door of this broken-down brick speakeasy. The fingerprints matched those of Sykes, who had been released from the county jail on May 22 after serving 11 months for shoplifting, according to news reports.

They found her sitting, alone, in Kelly’s house. She was arrested without a fight.

At a press conference following Sykes’s arrest, Philadelphia’s mayor congratulated the police detectives for “the greatest piece of police work [he had] seen in recent years.” They moved her to Moyamensing Prison, a castle-like structure with thick stone walls and turreted tops visible all over the city. It stood a few miles away from the center of Philadelphia. No bail was set. Lonely and bereft, Sykes wrote to her mother, Kelly and her sisters, begging them to visit her.

“I did not kill that woman,” Sykes told the police detectives who interrogated her for two weeks after her capture.

“Can you tell me who did?” the police asked.

She clamped her mouth shut and folded her arms. She wasn’t going to tell them anything, according to police records. Kelly was brought down to the police station. It was only when she thought Kelly might be in danger that she decided to sign a four-page statement saying she had killed Freda Wodlinger.

“I did it all alone,” the confession said. “I took the job for the sole purpose of a robbery.”

Kelly was released. Police typed the detailed pages, and on the last of them, Sykes signed her name in wobbly script.

Confession in hand, the prosecutors called for her death by electric chair.

Across town, attorney Raymond Pace Alexander was walking the floor of a hospital waiting room. While hanging ornaments to decorate their Christmas tree, his wife, Sadie, a pioneering lawyer, had fallen and had broken her spine in several places. Amid this personal chaos, Alexander had other pressing matters on his mind. He’d been approached by black community leaders to represent Sykes. They cajoled him, saying that he was the only one who could possibly save her from a death sentence. But Alexander thought it was extremely unlikely that Sykes would face the chair.

Women were rarely executed in the United States. In the prior hundred years, just 40 had been executed, compared to more than 1,000 men. In every previous death penalty case involving a woman in Pennsylvania, except for Irene Schroeder, who killed a police officer, the sentences were commuted to life. Still, Alexander thought, what would happen if he lost?

He’d started his civil rights law practice a few years earlier after graduating from Harvard Law School, although his current stock-in-trade was representing people injured in car accidents and bar fights. He’d clerked under trailblazing NAACP civil rights leader Charles Houston in Washington, D.C., before heading home to marry his childhood sweetheart and open his own practice. Things in the North were stirring, and if the civil rights movement was coming, he wanted to be part of it. Saving Sykes could propel him to fame as a crusader, according to journals found in his personal archives. Then he received a letter from Sykes, written in her childish curling script: “Please come see me here. I am alone so alone and scared. I didn’t do this. I have information to give you on who did.”

He decided to take the case.

Judge Vincent Carroll demanded Alexander and prosecutors be ready to start proceedings within 90 days. Three different doctors examined her, according to psychiatric interviews, and deemed her fit to be tried; they said she was sane. She went before the judge wearing a schoolgirl-style light-blue coat with large brass buttons and folded-down bobby socks. In a thundering voice, Judge Carroll asked if she was ready to stand trial. “Yes,” she whispered.

Three months after Sykes’ arrest, on the morning of March 12, 1945, the trial opened.

Alexander dropped his previous plan of launching an insanity defense and instead worked toward trying to save Sykes’ life by presenting her as a simpleton. In the quest to clear Sykes’ name — or at least help her dodge a death sentence — Alexander hunted down teachers, employers, friends and others who could testify to the turmoil of her life. He told the jury how Sykes was kicked out of five schools and could barely read or write. She’d served nearly a year for shoplifting, and had never had a job more impressive than sweeping the floor at the candy shop.

“Don’t let Corrine’s lawyer try and soften you up, and try and save this girl’s life from the electric chair, so other housemaids can go out and do the same thing,” said the prosecutor, Ephraim Lipschutz, in his opening statement.

Spectators packed the room and a media scrum lined the corridors outside, scrambling for photos of the baby-faced murderer and her distinguished-looking attorney. Sykes’ confession loomed large throughout the trial, and it stymied other suspects from getting thoroughly investigated.

The trial concluded in three days. The husband’s story was never questioned, nor were other reports from that day. Kelly took the stand and testified that he didn’t kill Woldinger, and that he didn’t support or take care of Sykes. He also denied dropping Sykes off that morning, as well as knowing her, living with and working with her. Sykes was devastated, but she disputed nothing her former lover said.

During Sykes’ cross-examination, Lipschutz asked: “Did you kill Mrs. Woldinger?

“I don’t know,” said Sykes.

“What?”

“I don’t know, sir. I don’t believe it,” said Sykes, according to court transcripts, bending over the court railing in such hysterics that the judge had to call a recess and order her to leave the stand.

When the jury returned after just five hours of deliberation, Alexander had a sinking feeling. Court officers marched Sykes into the courtroom, her head downcast. It was as if she already knew her fate.

Jury forewoman Adeline C. Hyde, a white suburban housewife and mother of two small children, stood before the packed courtroom and said, “Guilty in the first degree, with death as the penalty.”

Sykes was transferred to Rockview Prison in central Pennsylvania. There, as a safeguard against any potential suicide attempt, the guards took her shoelaces, belt and even the silky rose-colored scarf her mother had given her.

Stripped of her possessions and her humanity, she waited to die.

Alexander filed motion after motion to stop her execution, without receiving payment from the Sykes family, according to his personal archives.

“Your daughters’ have fine clothes, fur coats and jewelry,” Alexander scrawled in angry letters to Sykes’ mother. “I have put up hundreds of dollars in costs out of my pocket and I have spent thousands of dollars in costs out of my pocket and I have not received one penny for any of my services.”

Alexander wrote to his mentor, Charles Houston, the famed civil rights attorney, asking for help in taking the case to the Supreme Court. Houston obliged and helped draft a brief to file in the land’s highest court, while Alexander scrounged money to cover the fees to file the case.

During the next year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the state’s governor thrice denied the request for a stay of execution. The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the case. On the evening of October 13, 1946, in a telegram, Governor Edward Martin had the final say: “I’m sorry to advise you that I do not feel warranted in granting a further reprieve.”

Sykes wrote her mother: “Mama, don’t worry. I will be a brave girl when I go to the chair.” She had become close with a prison priest, Rev. Meeley, and he would accompany her on her dying day. Because Sykes was female, they wanted her to have the dignity of dying with her hair intact, so prison administrators agreed to shave just a small spot at the back of her head for attaching the electrodes. Sykes searched for friendly faces among the newspaper reporters, attorneys and members of the victim’s family who would witness her execution, but neither her mother nor her sisters came.

“I want to remember my daughter as alive,” Almena said. Kelly was nowhere to be found. Later, he would be convicted of robbery for receiving stolen goods from the crime scene. He spent most of the rest of his life in and out of prison.

The witnesses sat in a separate room behind a glass window. Sykes was strapped into the electric chair, which was plainly carved of hardwood and rigged with clunky black leather straps. Her head was swallowed up by a black hood, her body dwarfed by the great big chair; she looked like a child, the priest later said. She was 22 years old.

According to news reports, 3,000 onlookers lined the streets of Philadelphia as Sykes’s coffin, in a flower-bedecked hearse, made its way for her last rites. They stared into her face as she lay, during her wake, in an open coffin — in a pale blue, lace-trimmed negligee. Her embalmed hands were frozen around three pink roses and five tulips. Some wept at the sight of Sykes, dead and finally at peace.