Thorn McIntyre III, who at eighty describes himself as “kind of a gun nut,” is a straightforward and unaffected man. He doesn’t flinch when asked about his dual role in one of the most heinous crimes of the civil rights era—the assassination of activist Medgar Evers, which McIntyre unwittingly enabled, then helped solve, in both cases with his own former gun.
McIntyre has told the tale countless times: How he traded his 1917 Enfield rifle to Greenwood, Mississippi, fertilizer salesman Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist who used it to assassinate Evers at his Jackson home in June 1963. McIntyre first told the story to police investigators soon after the murder, then repeated it in testimony during Beckwith’s three subsequent trials, spanning thirty years, and in media interviews long after.
With so many iterations, he could be forgiven if he found the story too tiresome to revisit today, yet he readily agrees during a phone call from his Alabama home. In the months after he tipped off police to the Beckwith trade, he says he received his share of both criticism and support, but adds that it is untrue, as has sometimes been said, that he was driven out of Mississippi by resulting hostility. “I moved to Alabama to take a job,” he explains.
Even over the phone it is obvious that McIntyre’s memory is sharp, and he sounds significantly younger than he is. There is no need to help him navigate hazy memories or to gently nudge the conversation back on track. McIntyre knows what he knows. All of which matters because the Enfield’s long and complicated history is riddled with apparitions, misrepresentations, factual errors, lies, subterfuge, reversals, and other curious twists. In addition to its most notorious episode, its story includes moments of nobility and courage.
When McIntyre bought the Enfield by mail order in 1959 after seeing it advertised in a gun magazine, it was already forty-one years old; he says he had no particular purpose for it in mind, aside from possibly using it for hunting. He kept it for a year or two, during which he fired it only a few times, he says, then traded it to Beckwith, who sold him fertilizer for his farm. Had history taken a different turn, he says, he might not even remember the Enfield today. Instead, he is inextricably linked to it.
In the years since the Evers murder, McIntyre has ruminated over the significance of the rifle, which has recently been put on display in a state museum. He says he is reminded of the 1953 Western Shane, about a laconic gunfighter who happens upon a feud. In the movie, he recalls, “This little boy Joey wants Shane to show him to shoot. So he gets his guns out and says, ‘Joey, a gun is a tool no different than an axe or shovel, and it’s no better or worse than the man that uses it.’” McIntyre pauses for a moment before adding, of the Enfield, “This one was used for both noble and evil purposes.”
The Model 1917 Enfield .30-06, based upon a British precursor, was designed for use by Allied soldiers during World War I and mass produced at three private U.S. arsenals. During the height of production, more than ten thousand people worked at Eddystone arsenal on the outskirts of Philadelphia, part of a sprawling complex that manufactured guns and ammunition for the Allied forces, including two-thirds of the rifles used by U.S. soldiers, two million of them Enfields.
The Eddystone guns were in fact born in violence; during their manufacture, one hundred thirty-nine workers died in an explosion at the plant believed to have been the result of sabotage. A later federal inquiry pointed to followers of Leon Trotsky who opposed the czar and Russian involvement in the war, which was facilitated by guns and ammunition from the arsenal. Others claimed it was the result of a German plot. The case was never fully resolved.
In the fall of 1918, the U.S. military began deploying the Enfields to the front, primarily to France, where they were outfitted with bayonets and became the American soldiers’ mainstay. The worst of that fighting took place between September and November 1918 in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a protracted battle that remains the largest in U.S. history, involving 1.2 million American soldiers. Meuse-Argonne was also the springboard to fame for Sgt. Alvin C. York, who carried an Enfield and was among the most highly decorated U.S. soldiers of the war. The sleekly modern rifle was popular with soldiers despite its occasional tendency to jam, and some historians credit its accuracy and range with turning the tide in the Allies’ favor.
Aside from serial numbers and shipments, the service records of individual weapons and the soldiers who used them have long since been destroyed. All that is known about the gun that eventually wound up in Mississippi—bearing the serial number 1052682—is that it was manufactured at Eddystone in September 1918 and shipped to France. After the war, most of the Enfields were decommissioned and sold as military surplus, though some saw additional service during World War II and in Vietnam. There was no effort to limit the distribution of decommissioned Enfields, but their sales were logged. This one was sold to International Firearms, an arms dealer in Montreal, Quebec.
Many crimes have been committed with decommissioned military weapons; civil wars have been started with modern castoffs such as AK-47s. International Firearms would itself become embroiled in several violent episodes that illustrate the dangerous arms trafficking environment the Enfield passed through. One theory surrounding the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy posits that a “twin” version of the Italian carbine rifle Lee Harvey Oswald used to kill the president originated at International Firearms. (Oswald ordered his carbine from Klein’s Sporting Goods in Chicago after seeing it advertised in a gun magazine.) Interviewed by the Warren Commission in 1964, International Firearms owner William Sucher claimed that he had bought “hundreds of thousands” of carbines “by the pound” and had not kept a record of them after the guns were sold, and noted that the various manufacturers sometimes used duplicate serial numbers. In 1964, members of a French separatist group attempted to rob the International Firearms headquarters, killing its vice president and another employee. Five years later, after its Montreal store was looted, the company moved to Florida.
When McIntyre ordered it, the Enfield had a reputation as a serviceable firearm and cost him around $28. He says he considered “sporterizing” it—altering the military configuration by shortening the barrel or stock to make it handier in the field—but never got around to it. Sometime later, it was reported that he used the Enfield to hunt deer, but he says that was not the case.
As McIntyre recalls, Beckwith saw the rifle during one of his sales calls and “showed great interest in the gun and wouldn’t quit calling me about it. So I traded it to him for another rifle and some other junk. I think he wanted it because he didn’t think it could be traced to him. There was no paper trail. It was just a trade. That’s just my opinion.” He says he didn’t ask Beckwith what he intended to use the Enfield for. Beckwith eventually outfitted the Enfield with a scope.
The next time McIntyre heard about the gun was in June 1963 in the Jackson Daily News. The Jackson police were circulating a photo of the rifle found at the Evers murder scene in hopes that someone would supply information about its owner. McIntyre noticed that it bore the imprint indicating its manufacture at Eddystone and believed it was his former gun, so he called the police and was put through to detective Ralph Hargrove.
McIntyre and Hargrove both ran counter to stereotypical white tolerance for civil rights– related crimes in Mississippi. McIntyre took an obvious risk in reporting what he suspected about the gun, and Hargrove aggressively pursued the case in an era when local and state government agencies were known to be lackadaisical in such investigations and in some cases to be directly involved in the crimes. McIntyre recalls that when he first spoke with Hargrove, “I told him I had owned a rifle similar to the one that was in the paper and asked him to verify some numbers, the place of manufacture and the date, which was September 1917 or 1918. I thought it was highly likely the same rifle. The next question was what did you do with it, and that’s what I told.”
In a black-and-white photo that Hargrove took, dated June 13, 1963, the day after the murder, a police detective uses a stick to fish the Enfield from a bramble of honeysuckle vines across from Evers’s home. Beckwith, whose identity was not yet known, had hidden in the brush and shot Evers in the back as he returned from a late-night civil rights meeting; he then left the rifle behind when he fled. Evers’s wife, Myrlie, and their children heard the shot as they watched television, propped on pillows on the couple’s bed. They had earlier watched Kennedy’s presidential address about rising racial tensions in the South, and the children had been allowed to stay up late to greet their father upon his return. The bullet passed through Evers’s chest, through a window and an interior wall in the house, and into the kitchen, where it ricocheted off the refrigerator and came to rest on the counter. He died while being transported to a hospital by neighbors, on a mattress in the back of a station wagon.
News of the killing—the first of a civil rights leader in the U.S.—resounded across the country and prompted a march in downtown Jackson that involved an estimated five thousand mourners and protesters, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Jackson police, with dogs and billy clubs, attempted to disperse the crowd, which responded by throwing bricks, bottles, and rocks. Serious violence was averted only after a U.S. Justice Department lawyer, John Doar, convinced the protesters to back down. Many historians point to Evers’s murder as President Kennedy’s inspiration for asking Congress for a civil rights bill, which would be signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson the next year, after Kennedy himself had been assassinated. Evers, an army veteran who had served in France during World War II, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Eleven days after the murder, armed with McIntyre’s tip and a fingerprint match from Beckwith’s military records, police arrested Beckwith, who had a cut by one eye from the kick of the gun, in the exact shape of its scope. He would carry the scar for the rest of his life and be proud of it, though he would regret having left the rifle behind. He would later testify that the gun had been stolen from him.
District Attorney Bill Waller (who was elected governor of Mississippi in 1971) diligently prosecuted the case in 1964, with McIntyre taking the stand. Two all-white juries failed to reach a verdict, owing to the difficulty in Mississippi of convicting a white man of murdering a black man. After the mistrials, the presiding judge took the Enfield home as a souvenir and later gave it to another judge, Russel Moore, who displayed it in his office and home like a trophy. At that point it disappeared from public view.
In the third issue of this magazine, published in the winter of 1993, I contributed an essay about Beckwith, Myrlie Evers, and my own experience coming of age in Jackson in the sixties and seventies. Among the fresh details in the case at the time was how, as I wrote then, “the missing Enfield rifle, which was essential to the prosecution, had been rediscovered in a storage room belonging to the father-in-law of Hinds County Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter.”
Though Beckwith denied murdering Evers, the evidence pointed overwhelmingly to his guilt. In addition to damning testimony from his previous trials, he had written a letter to the National Rifle Association five months before the murder, in which he predicted: “For the next 15 years we here in Mississippi are going to have to do a lot of shooting to protect our wives and children from bad niggers.” Witnesses from the night of the shooting reported seeing him and his car, a Plymouth Valiant, close to Evers’s house, and a Ku Klux Klan informant claimed that Beckwith had bragged about the murder. In 1973, Beckwith had been charged with having a time bomb in his car in New Orleans, which he had allegedly intended to use to blow up a Jewish man’s home (he was later acquitted of that crime).
At the time of the essay’s publication, I was awaiting Beckwith’s third trial for Evers’s murder, uncertain whether it would deliver justice in Mississippi or lead to further ambiguity and embarrassment. I wrote:
For more than three decades this maddening story of Evers’s murder and the question of Beckwith’s guilt or innocence has been told again and again, in conflicting voices and varying contexts, with no conclusion. Facts have been rearranged, deleted, added, interpreted differently. Yet one fact remains undisputed: the man responsible for one of the most notorious murders of the civil rights era remains free. Who is he? It is as if we are driving in rush hour traffic in a rusty Valiant with an expired tag. Alongside us sits an old and familiar white supremacist. We hear the ticking of a bomb in the back seat. The old man grins. Where is it we are going?
In 1985, as a reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, I had interviewed Myrlie Evers, who was in Jackson for the annual Medgar Evers Homecoming, an event staged by his brother Charles Evers, which that year included celebrity guests Kris Kristofferson and B. B. King (and, supposedly, Muhammad Ali, though there was no sign of him aside from his name on the side of a bus). Later in the day, when our conversation turned to the night Medgar Evers died, Myrlie Evers sank back into the cushions of a sofa in her hotel room. She said the two of them had discussed the chance that he would be killed. As field secretary for the state NAACP, he was an eloquent and forceful leader who had organized numerous protests and had been on the Ku Klux Klan’s radar for almost a decade. Still, she told me, she was unprepared for the shock of hearing her husband’s car pull into the carport followed by the sudden burst of gunfire. “The children hit the floor like their daddy had taught them to do,” she said. “I dashed for the door and there he was, lying there, his chest just torn apart, and his eyes already rolled back in his head. All I could do was scream.” As the children begged their daddy to get up, she said she felt “sheer horror, pain, agony and hatred”— feelings that would ultimately drive her to move her family to California. Even then, and after the two mistrials, she continued to push for justice.
Her efforts finally gained traction in the late 1980s. There was both support for and opposition to reopening the case, and District Attorney Ed Peters resisted taking action, giving the supposedly missing murder weapon as one of his reasons. It is unclear when DeLaughter, the county’s assistant district attorney—whose wife was Judge Russel Moore’s stepdaughter—learned of the Enfield’s whereabouts, and for how long he may have preserved the secret. His account of how and when he found the gun differs from that of Michael Rejebian, a Clarion-Ledger newspaper reporter who was researching the case with his colleague Jerry Mitchell. (In 2012, I coauthored a book with Rejebian on an unrelated topic.) Rejebian said Matthew Moore, the late Judge Moore’s son, told him that when he was a boy and asked about it, his father said, “That’s the gun that killed Medgar Evers.” Rejebian said Matthew Moore also told him that DeLaughter knew where the gun was.
When my essay about Beckwith ran, the official line was that DeLaughter had discovered the gun in the storeroom of his mother-in-law’s house, where it had been kept since her husband, Judge Moore, died. But according to Rejebian’s account, DeLaughter transferred the gun from his own home to the evidence room of the county courthouse. DeLaughter gave a different version of events in his 2001 memoir, Never Too Late. He quoted Ed Peters’s response to Myrlie Evers when she pushed for reopening the case: “Mrs. Evers, there is no case. We have no physical evidence at all from the 1964 trials: no gun, no bullet, no photographs. Lord knows where the witnesses have scattered to, if they are still alive.”
DeLaughter wrote that he had been searching for transcripts of the first trials as well as surviving witnesses, and once those began to surface the missing murder weapon consumed his thoughts. “Hadn’t I seen guns that looked like the one in the photos? I knew in the back of my mind that I had, but where? Plenty of family and friends had guns, but I couldn’t think of anybody offhand who had anything that old. Nobody but Russel.” Then, he wrote, “A long-forgotten memory slowly seeped from my subsconscious [sic]. I had once seen a rifle in Russel’s bathroom. He had used it as a prop to hold the door closed on the towel closet.” DeLaughter wrote that he recalled having once asked Judge Moore about the gun. “What was it he had said? It had been in an old civil rights case. That’s all he would say.”
In DeLaughter’s version, he called his brother-in-law, Matthew Moore, who he said told him he knew nothing about the gun, so he visited his mother-in-law’s house, the serial number of the murder weapon in hand, and found that the rifle in her storeroom was the lost Enfield. He took the gun home that night, but instead of logging it in at the Jackson police department the next day, he kept it. He wrote that he realized Beckwith would “clam up” if he knew the DA’s office had the gun, and decided, “It would stay hidden in my house, and if we turned up no further evidence or witnesses, then no one else would learn about the gun and the circumstances of its discovery. I would give the gun back to Carolyn [his mother-in-law] to do with as she pleased, with nobody getting embarrassed.” Peters, he wrote, approved of that plan, and they agreed not to inform Myrlie Evers because they expected she would tell Jerry Mitchell, with whom she was in close communication.
Once the DA’s office had the available evidence, including McIntyre’s original invoice from International Firearms and the earlier trial transcript, and had located surviving witnesses, the momentous announcement was made that the case would proceed to trial. The fact that the prosecutor personally possessed the ostensibly missing murder weapon was clearly unusual, yet few people questioned it. That was superseded by the bigger story, that the long-dormant civil rights murder case would be reopened. The media cheered DeLaughter’s efforts, and the Enfield went from being a potential albatross to another kind of trophy.
DeLaughter aggressively prosecuted Beckwith in 1994, and during the trial the rifle was used as courtroom evidence for the third time. McIntyre again testified, as did several other witnesses from the original trials. The courtroom was packed each day, with a large contingent of local, national, and international media. Some of the former witnesses had died, and most of those who testified, including detective Ralph Hargrove, were elderly. As had happened during the previous trials, the Enfield was again passed around the jury box, which drew mixed reactions from the jurors, mostly looks of bemusement. Beckwith sported a Confederate flag pin and remained defiant.
On the final day, everyone milled around in the courthouse halls, anxiously awaiting the verdict. It seemed likely that if the jury did not convict this time, the case would never be prosecuted again. Then the jury filed back into the courtroom and delivered its verdict: guilty. Beckwith was sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2001. The Enfield became a symbol of justice fulfilled, and was moved to the state Department of Archives and History vault as a historic artifact.
Despite its surprising turns, the case, often described as the longest-running murder trial in U.S. history, ultimately struck a positive note. The jury turned a despicable murder into a belated lesson in honor and justice, and the case became a PR boon for the state of Mississippi, thanks to the reappearance of the Enfield. (It also became the basis for the 1996 movie Ghosts of Mississippi, in which Alec Baldwin portrays DeLaughter as a hero.) Though DeLaughter himself was convicted of federal obstruction of justice in an unrelated case in 2009, he remains esteemed for this successful prosecution, which, along with Jerry Mitchell’s dogged continuing coverage, led to the reopening of numerous other unsolved civil rights murder cases.
During an Archives and History reception in 2013, on the fiftieth anniversary of Medgar Evers’s murder, the Enfield was put on brief display, which is when Myrlie Evers, who that year delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, saw it up close for the first time. In a USA Today interview, she said she immediately felt a wave of renewed anger upon seeing it: “I walked in there and there was that rifle, encased in the Plexiglas, and I stopped cold.” She first focused on the trigger, which in her mind embodied evil, then inspected the barrel, “where the fire came out that took Medgar’s life.” She said she was wary when told the gun would be featured in the planned Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the first state-funded museum of its kind in the U.S., because she was unsure if it would be properly interpreted. But at the museum’s official opening in Jackson, in December 2017, she said her concerns had been unfounded.
On opening day, the Enfield was unveiled on permanent public display in a theater where it is dramatically illuminated at key moments during a film about Evers and his assassination. At one point in the film, the startling sound of a shot rings out, and the lighting in the gun case turns red as President Kennedy describes what Evers fought and died for. Even in its display case, the gun has a vivid and provocative role to play; a hundred years after it was forged at Eddystone, it has been consigned to history. In all likelihood, it will never be fired again.
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