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Operated by town Mayor Chick Nelson, the Tutwiler Funeral Home played an essential role in the acquittal of the murderers and in the dissemination of a once-common myth that Till had not been killed.
During the Till trial of September 1955, Nelson’s embalmer Harry D. Malone was an important witness for the defense. He testified that the body was in such poor condition that it must have been in the Tallahatchie River for at least ten days. This, of course, meant that the body could not be Emmett Till and the defendants could not be guilty. Along with Sheriff Strider’s testimony, Malone’s narrative was a key factor in the jury’s official rationale for acquitting J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant.
However, in his closing remarks to the jury, prosecutor Robert Smith argued that Malone did not personally embalm the body and therefore was not in a position to judge either its condition or the amount of time it was in the river. Although Smith did not suggest an alternative, many believe that Till’s body was actually prepared by Malone’s black assistant Woodrow Jackson.
If it was Woodrow Jackson who embalmed the body in Tutwiler (and most historians now agree it was), this means that a key witness for the defense was lying on the stand. The acquittal was built on a false narrative.
Woodrow Jackson is an elusive figure in the history of the Till case. Not until the twenty-first century did he begin to appear in accounts of the murder. The reason he so rarely appeared in history is obvious: his presence in the Till story would undermine the supposed innocence of the murderers, whose acquittal required Malone as the primary embalmer instead of Jackson.
To right this wrong, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission has invested in the memory of Woodrow Jackson. When he passed in 2007, they issued a formal recognition of his role embalming the body. And when they commemorated the Tutwiler Funeral Home in 2008, their sign betrayed no hint of controversy: “On August 31, 1955, Woodrow Jackson prepared Emmett Till’s body here at the Tutwiler Funeral Home.”