James Harris and Samuel Toler worked as laborers and lived in the Hill District; Harris on Soho St. and Toler on Allequippa St. On Sunday evening, December 4, 1921, the two men got into an argument at Toler’s home that culminated with Harris shooting Toler in the abdomen. Toler died at the Homeopathic Hospital in Shadyside on December 6.
As with similar cases in this era, a murder involving poor and socially isolated black men received very little newspaper attention.
Harris, nicknamed “Poor Boy,’ was found guilty of first-degree murder on June 7, 1922. The limited newspaper coverage of the trial indicated that the men quarreled over 35 cents Toler owed Harris. There was also a suggestion that the dispute may have involved a woman – Jessie Wade – both men knew. Harris confessed to having shot Toler, but said he acted in self-defense after having been struck by Toler.
Harris’s motion for a new trial was heard before trial judge Ambrose Reid on November 1, 1922. His attorney, J. Welford Holmes, emphasized that Harris had acted in self-defense.
In a rare step, that motion was granted, meaning that the mandatory death penalty that accompanied a first-degree murder conviction at that time was never formally imposed. At retrial on March 28, 1923, Harris pleaded guilty to murdering Toler. When the District Attorney indicated his opposition to the death penalty in the case, Harris was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 14-16 years in Western Penitentiary.
Though Toler is identified in news accounts as 25 years old, his death certificate lists him as 56. He was born in Virginia in the final year of the Civil War. Harris, who was born in North Carolina, was 25 at the time of the killing.
Shortly after his release from prison, Harris killed another man under remarkably similar circumstances. On March 13, 1940, an argument between Harris and Columbus Baker, said to be over a woman, culminated with Harris stabbing Baker. Baker, a 48-year old South Carolina-born Hill District resident, died of complications related to his stab wounds on March 28.
On June 19, 1940, Harris pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 1-5 years in Western Penitentiary. The lesser charge and punishment likely resulted from the contributory role of medical malpractice in Baker’s death.