The Story of Haywood Patterson

Violence is a repeated theme throughout the world’s recorded history, but people have drawn strength to endure from many sources, including good luck horseshoes. Here is one man’s story.

Haywood Patterson with lucky horseshoe

Haywood Patterson carrying a good luck horseshoe with him in court:


Scottsboro Boys
The Scottsboro Boys

Scottsboro Boys

No accusation in American history produced as many trials, convictions, and reversals as the case of the “Scottsboro Boys.” During the Great Depression of the 1930s, hoboing was a way of survival, hitching rides on freight trains in search of bread lines, jobs, and hope. Women rode, too, often dressed in men’s clothing. Haywood Patterson started riding the rails when he was 14, looking for work, but his life changed when a group of white hobos attempted to bully him and some other black teenagers off the train. One of them stepped on his hand as he clung to the side of a railroad car. The black youths successfully drove most of them off, although Patterson actually saved one boy’s life at the last minute by pulling him back onto the speeding train, preventing him from being crushed between the railroad cars. The white hobos lied to the stationmaster, claiming that a gang of blacks assaulted them.

Haywood Patterson
The two white female hobos

Immoral behavior

To avoid charges of prostitution, two white female hobos falsely accused the black teenagers of rape. The train was stopped at the next town, and nine black teenagers including Patterson were captured by an armed mob. Had the governor not called for troops, the boys would have been lynched that night. In the town of Scottsboro they went to trial in groups, and all but a 12-year-old were sentenced to death. Retrials followed, and after six years of imprisonment, the four youngest were freed since their situation was drawing increasing protest and involvement of the Communist Party. Details of the incompetence and corruption were well-documented. One of the women later denied her story, stating that there had been no rape and that her companion told her "to frame up a story" to avoid charges of immoral behavior.

Haywood Patterson
Haywood Patterson in a jail cell as other Scottsboro Boys stand by

Six-by-nine-foot cells

In Alabama, the boys lived in six-by-nine-foot cells near the execution room where they saw and heard the electrocutions. Guards and prisoners were described as “murderous,” and homosexual rape was common. Many inmates carried knives. One of the prisons was rat-infested, regarded as “unfit for white” people. Poisonous snakes abounded.

Being outspoken, Haywood Patterson attracted the most attention. He was photographed carrying a good luck horseshoe with him in court. Tried four times, he was sentenced to death three times. One of his jobs was carrying dead inmates out of the electrocution chamber. He endured whippings, stabbing, solitary confinement, and days without food.

Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (2000)

The power of the good luck horseshoe

In 1948 he escaped to his sister’s home in Detroit, Michigan. He dated women and tasted his first beer. With journalist Earl Conrad he wrote his autobiography, Scottsboro Boy. Although the FBI found him, Michigan’s governor refused to send him back to Alabama due to public outcry. A few months later, he killed a man in a bar fight, claiming self-defense. Convicted of manslaughter, his sentence was cut short when he died of lung cancer.

The other Scottsboro boys tried to go on with their lives, relocating, some changing their names, one writing his own autobiography. All of their convictions were posthumously overturned. Their suffering inspired books, films, song, poetry, and even a musical stage play. What became of Patterson’s horseshoe is unknown, but his belief in the power of the good luck horseshoe perhaps gave him the strength to help change the future for others.

Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes

Poet Langston Hughes wrote:

I dream a world where man

No other man will scorn,

Where love will bless the earth

And peace its paths adorn

I dream a world where all

Will know sweet freedom’s way,

Where greed no longer saps the soul

Nor avarice blights our day.

A world I dream where black or white,

Whatever race you be,

Will share the bounties of the earth

And every man is free,

Where wretchedness will hang its head

And joy, like a pearl,

Attends the needs of all mankind --

Of such I dream, my world!