Carolina Skeletons: The Award-Winning Mystery Based on a Real-Life Murder Case and Wrongful Conviction

Read an excerpt from the Edgar Award-winning novel.

carolina skeletons

Linus first spots the girls riding their bicycles through his neighborhood. As a black person in segregated South Carolina, Linus knows the dangers of even looking at the pair. But something compels him to follow. Warily, he sets out into the woods in hopes of meeting up with the girls. Instead, he stumbles upon a murder scene. 

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Forty years later, one of Linus’ nephews returns to the small South Carolina town to launch his own investigation into the murder. When he digs into this tragic chapter in the town’s history, he discovers that there was a fourth person present in the clearing on that day. In hopes of clearing his ancestor's name, Linus’ nephew will stop at nothing to find the truth, even if he has to reopen some old wounds in the process.

carolina skeletons david stout george stinney jr
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Stout's award-winning narrative is powerful—and made all the more impactful by the fact that it's based on a real-life murder case and wrongful conviction. In March of 1944, the bodies of two white girls, 11-year-old Betty June Binnicker and 7-year-old Mary Emma Thames, were discovered in the town of Alcolu, South Carolina. George Stinney, Jr., a fourteen-year-old African American, was arrested and charged with the crime. Police stated that Stinney confessed, though no documentation of the confession now exists. The teenager was tried by an all-white jury, convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to death in a trial that lasted mere hours. 

No appeals were filed, and no stays of execution were requested by Stinney's legal counsel. On June 16, 1944, less than three months after his arrest, fourteen-year-old George Stinney, Jr. was put to death by electric chair, making him the youngest person to be executed in 20th century America. 

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The execution devastated the Stinney family, especially George's sister Aime who claimed she was with George the entire day of the murder. In 2004, local historian George Frierson launched his own examination of the Stinney case and soon caught the attention of attorneys. Legal proceedings were set in motion and the case moved through the courts. In 2014, a South Carolina judge vacated Stinney's 1944 conviction, ruling that he was denied due process. 

Hailed by The New York Times as "sensitive, well-written, [and] full of compassion and understanding," David Stout's Carolina Skeletons shines a sobering light on America's dark past, exploring the long-lasting repercussions of violence and prejudice and revealing how history's skeletons rarely stay buried forever. 

In the excerpt below, Linus is walking with his family cow Blossom when he crosses paths with Cindy Lou and Sue Ellen. The chance encounter sets off a chain of tragic events that will echo through the years. 

Read an excerpt from Carolina Skeletons below, then download the book!

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Carolina Skeletons

By David Stout

Spring rode on the gentle breeze that licked his face. The birds felt it too; they sang in the trees when the breeze went by them.

Linus was startled when he heard the voices and laughter. He pulled his hand out of his coveralls. More voices, girls’ voices, and the rattle of a bicycle. Now he saw them, off to his left, a white girl a few years younger than he pedaling a smaller girl. The older girl’s hair was blonde and trailed behind her in the breeze. The older girl’s dress blew up for a moment, showing Linus milk-white thighs and a glimpse, almost faster than he could see, of white underpants.

What he saw made Linus gasp. But it frightened him, too, and made his face burn, because of what his mama had told him once. You don’t even look at white girls, she had said. You sit far away if you see them playing, because you don’t want any habits that get you in big trouble later, when you closer to being a man.

What you mean? Linus had asked.

Tell you plain, his mama had said. You even look at a white girl like you might like her, some white boy, white man, gonna come after you eventually. You see them little white girls playing, jumping around, you walk the other way, far away. ’Course it should be up to their mamas to keep them acting proper, but that don’t matter none, far as you’re concerned.

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You even look at a white girl like you might like her, some white boy or white man gonna cut your thing. And once you’re older and look at a white woman, God help you. You really gonna get cut then. Cut so bad, ain’t nobody gonna be able to sew you up.

Linus was embarrassed and frightened when his mama told him that, and it didn’t help much when she saw how bad he felt and laughed and cuffed him behind the head, playfully, to make him feel better. He had never forgotten what she said.

Now, he had just looked at a white girl’s underpants. He wondered if anyone had seen him.

Linus felt the magic start up in him.  

Cindy Lou saw the boy holding the cow, saw by his face that he was a few years older than she, although not much bigger. She was not afraid, for her parents had told her how to talk to colored people. They are creatures of God, too; just speak up, firmly but kindly, so there’s no misunderstanding, like you know your place. They’ll almost surely know theirs, assuming they’re the good colored, her parents had said. And there’s nothing wrong with being extra kind, extra friendly to them once in a while, so long as there’s no misunderstanding.

Cindy Lou was tired from the pedaling and braking, and so she stopped near the colored boy.

“That’s a pretty cow you have,” Cindy Lou said. “What’s her name?”

“Blossom,” the boy said, just loud enough for Cindy Lou to hear.

“I’ll bet she gives a lot of milk for your family,” Cindy Lou said.

“Yessum,” the boy mumbled. Cindy Lou thought he looked very shy. His eyes were large and maroon.

Cindy Lou’s legs were spread as she straddled the bicycle bar. The breeze came by again, lifting her dress slightly, and she smoothed it down with her hand.

“We’re going to pick flowers now,” she said. “Take good care of Blossom, and she’ll give good milk for years. Watch she doesn’t eat any strong weeds.”

“This be clover here,” the boy said.

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“Bye, now,” Cindy Lou said, pedaling off again.”

The older girl had made Linus feel the magic more strongly than he had ever felt it before. He saw again, in his mind, how the breeze had lifted her dress. But Linus was afraid; he had looked at what his mama had told him he should never look at. Slowly, trying not to let his face show anything, Linus looked around him. There was a breeze on his face and birds singing and Blossom grunted. He was alone.

Linus wanted to see the flash of white again. Maybe, when they stopped to pick flowers, the breeze would come by and lift up the dress.…

Linus tied Blossom loosely to an old fence post. Just tying her up made him afraid, because his mama had told him that if he ever left Blossom alone, and she found out about it, she would whip him real bad. But Linus wanted to see. He could hear the blood rushing in his ears, the sound right alongside the sweet calls of birds, as he set off in the direction the girls had taken.

Though he tried to shove the picture out of his head, he could not help but see himself putting his hand there, in there, where he had seen the flash of white underpants. The picture made him dizzy, and afraid.

If he could not put his hand there, he might at least see …

He had walked only a few minutes when saw the bicycle on its stand just to the side of the tracks in a flat, clear area. Linus knew where he was, knew the flat, clear area soon sloped down to a little field, hardly bigger than the yard around his family’s shack. In that little field, bordered by a patch of woods and by a ditch, the grass was especially rich and green, the flowers as colorful as a watercolor box.

Linus’s ears were filled with the sound of his own heart beating. No, no … something else? The slow clop, clop, clop of a horse, the sucking sound of a horse pulling its hooves from mud. The clop, clop, clop went away, and Linus wasn’t sure if he had really heard it or imagined it.

Linus heard the girls laughing. He stopped, listened and looked around (he was still alone), then walked toward the sounds.

The first moment Cindy Lou realized they were not alone was when she saw the fear in Sue Ellen’s eyes. Sue Ellen was kneeling on the grass, just a few feet away, and clutching a bunch of flowers so tightly that the stems were turning to green paste in her hand.

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Cindy Lou turned to look in the direction that Sue Ellen’s terror-bright eyes were staring. And there he was, standing still. It was like a dream. For a long time he stood, and Cindy Lou stared at him, unable to take her eyes away, even though the look in his eyes was one she had not seen before. It was a look that terrified her.

The birds sang and darted in and out of the sun and shadows of the trees, oblivious.

And then he started toward them, the look on his face hardening, his eyes wide. The breeze lifted Cindy Lou’s dress a little, and she smoothed it down with a trembling hand.

[...]

Linus had heard the girls with the bicycle talking and giggling. Then their voices had gone real high, only it did not sound like on the playground. Now, as he came near the clearing, Linus heard nothing. He did not understand, because he thought the girls were nearby. He stopped, trying not to make any noise, but he stepped on a branch. Linus listened as hard as he could, but he heard only his own heart and breathing. Then he thought he heard a horse’s hooves, like before, but he was not sure.

He tiptoed, listening as hard as he could for the girls, but there was no girl sounds. Then he was standing at the edge of the clearing, looking at the girls lying on the ground. They were playing a game, looking up at the sky to see who could be still the longest.

Then Linus saw their heads, saw the red. It was not a game.

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One time, when he was little, Linus had peeked through a crack in the shed wall and watched his daddy kill a pig. Linus had never forgotten the squeal and the gush of blood. It made him dizzy, made his knees weak to remember.

Linus had cried then, cried because of the squeal, cried because the pig was dead.

This was worse. He wondered if he was dreaming. No. His knees were so weak, his ears so full of the sound of his own heart, that it could not be a dream.

Linus stood still. He heard his heart and his breathing, then he thought he heard the horse sound again. Then nothing.

He remembered tying Blossom to the fence post, remembered the magic feeling, remembered walking toward the sounds, remembered looking—

The girls lay still. The older one’s eyes were open, but they were shiny-dead. Hair flat against the head, held there by blood, the breeze stirring little hairs near her neck.

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Linus could not believe how much blood there was. It was worse than the day of the pig.

Linus was afraid. Should he go tell?

He was sorry he had looked at the girls. He had not meant to look, the breeze had done it. Picked up her dress and let him see…

He touched his face, felt it covered with sweat, felt his shirt sticking to his back. He would go tell.

Just then something hit Linus in the back, hard enough to hurt real bad, and suddenly he was looking right at the ground, so close he could see the dirt real close, smell it. Something big stuck in his back, then something was across his neck and his head was being pulled up, up, off the ground and he could hardly breathe. He was more afraid than he had ever been.

One time, when he was little, Linus had peeked through a crack in the shed wall and watched his daddy kill a pig. Linus had never forgotten the squeal and the gush of blood. It made him dizzy, made his knees weak to remember.

Linus had cried then, cried because of the squeal, cried because the pig was dead.

This was worse. He wondered if he was dreaming. No. His knees were so weak, his ears so full of the sound of his own heart, that it could not be a dream.

Linus stood still. He heard his heart and his breathing, then he thought he heard the horse sound again. Then nothing.

He remembered tying Blossom to the fence post, remembered the magic feeling, remembered walking toward the sounds, remembered looking—

The girls lay still. The older one’s eyes were open, but they were shiny-dead. Hair flat against the head, held there by blood, the breeze stirring little hairs near her neck.

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Linus could not believe how much blood there was. It was worse than the day of the pig.

Linus was afraid. Should he go tell? He was sorry he had looked at the girls. He had not meant to look, the breeze had done it. Picked up her dress and let him see…He touched his face, felt it covered with sweat, felt his shirt sticking to his back. He would go tell.

Just then something hit Linus in the back, hard enough to hurt real bad, and suddenly he was looking right at the ground, so close he could see the dirt real close, smell it. Something big stuck in his back, then something was across his neck and his head was being pulled up, up, off the ground and he could hardly breathe. He was more afraid than he had ever been.

Want to keep reading? Download Carolina Skeletons today.

Stout's celebrated mystery, inspired by the real-life case of George Stinney, Jr., is sure to leave you stunned. Vividly rendered and thoughtfully told, Carolina Skeletons examines the violence of our past and the long-lasting wounds of prejudice and injustice in Jim Crow-era America. It is an absolute must-read for mystery fans. 

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Published on 17 Jan 2020