Whether Claude Neal killed Lola Cannady may never be known. When the Committee of Six snatched him from his jail cell, they circumvented the legal system and left a wake of uncertainty for his family, historians and residents of Jackson County.
Here's what can be gleaned from the records that still exist:
Sheriff Flake Chambliss suspected two men: Claude Neal and a white man named Calvin Cross. Neal was arrested two hours after Lola's body was found. That afternoon, Chambliss tracked down Cross and absolved him, according to his notes. His notes don't say why.
The sheriff wrote that he found at the crime scene a piece of cloth that fit Neal's shirt and a metal ring that fit Neal's watch. The sheriff also reported that Neal's mother, Kitten Smith, admitted washing Neal's bloody clothes in the home she shared with his aunt.
Claude Neal confessed twice. The first time he implicated a relative named Herbert Smith. Neal was illiterate and signed the document with an X. According to the sheriff, when deputies brought Smith to confront Neal in jail, Neal recanted and said he acted alone. But others who knew the Neal family say the confessions were likely forced or forged.
The NAACP's investigator heard that Neal was set up. "The rumor was that a white man had murdered Lola Cannidy, had taken the bloody garments to Neal's home to have them washed and had later laid the murder on Neal," Howard "Buck" Kester wrote in 1934.
Kester also heard rumors that Lola and Claude were intimate — which the Cannady family strongly denies — and that Claude's friends had warned him to stop the affair. Two doctors examined Lola's body. Both found signs of recent sexual intercourse. One said it appeared she had been raped.
Kester fled town before he could investigate the rumors.
Lola Cannady's sister seemed dumbfounded by Neal's arrest. In an interview with the local paper, she said, "To think that Claude Neal, who has been raised with my sister and me and worked for us all his life could do such a thing — it is unbelievable."
Seven months after the lynching, Lola Cannady's father, George, was arrested for assault with attempt to kill his niece, a woman named Dora King. The St. Petersburg Times recently discovered a forgotten transcript of the trial that sheds new light on their dispute.
Cannady's lawyer asked King, in her 30s at the time, why her uncle shot at her.
"He had been mad with us ever since it happened," she said, referring to Lola Cannady's death. "He had a crazy spell in February or March and cursed us for everything and accused us of hiring the Negro to kill his daughter and said he was going to kill us . . . I suppose 50 people heard that he said that. . . .
"He cursed us, claimed my two brother-in-laws helped do it and that papa hired the Negroes to do it."
Cannady was sentenced to five years of hard labor at state prison. During sentencing, the judge told Cannady: "I don't believe you have too many brains."
Cannady replied: "Yes, judge, I'm plumb crazy."
The Cannady version
The story passed down in the Cannady family is a confusing one, but in it, Claude Neal was not Lola's killer. According to George W. Cannady's grandson, George Cannady Jr., the murder was the result of a long-running feud. It began when Claude Neal's father, Jeff Neal, got two Cannady boys drunk. The boys were arrested, and Cannady blamed Jeff Neal and wanted him to cover the legal cost. But Jeff Neal died, so George Cannady went after a milk cow belonging to Sallie Smith, Claude Neal's aunt.
At some point, Sallie Smith and Lola Cannady got into a fight, his story goes, and Smith killed Lola with a hammer. Later, Cannady claims, Claude Neal raped her body.
What about George W. Cannady's assault and attempted murder conviction? His grandson said there was nothing to the dispute, that Dora King misunderstood the old man's anger — he went crazy because the mob killed Neal before he had a chance to do it himself.
Claude Neal's daughter has always wondered whether her father killed Lola Cannady. She asked her mother once. She said she just didn't know.