Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carlton Gary: The Columbus, Georgia Stocking Strangler

A Random Killing?

Georgia map with Columbus marked
Georgia map with Columbus marked
Columbus is the second largest city in Georgia (Atlanta the first). The population of the metropolitan area is a little less than 300,000. Located on the Chattahoochee River, along Georgia's southwestern boundary with Alabama. The Army base of Fort Benning adjoins Columbus.

Often called the "Fountain City" because so many homes and churches have fountains, Columbus boasts a national historic district in its downtown area that contains many historic homes from the 19th century.

A friendly, bustling, modern city, Columbus is known for having a high quality of life on several counts. One of them is that it has a relatively low crime rate for a city of its size.

That may have made it all the more shocking when a serial strangler terrorized the city.

Mary Willis
Mary Willis "Ferne" Jackson
Mary Willis "Ferne" Jackson was an attractive older white woman with a prominent forehead who wore her dark hair up and swept back from her brow. She worked as the director of the education division at the Columbus Health Department. She enjoyed a reputation as a reliable employee who was dedicated to helping the people of Georgia, especially the poor and racial minorities.

She resided alone in a brick home in the affluent Wynnton section of Columbus. She kept her home clean and tidy and had devoted care to furnishing it.

On the night of September 15, 1977, she awoke to find an intruder in her bedroom. He wrapped a nylon stocking around her neck and choked the life out of her.

The next day, Jackson's fellow employees at the Columbus Health Department were concerned. It was not like her to fail to show up and not even call. They phoned the police who went to her home and found her body. As well as the stocking around her neck, there was a pillow over the dead woman's face. The murderer had apparently gotten in through a window.

Jackson's home did not appear to have been burglarized. Columbus police detective Ronald Lynn was quoted in Murder in the Peach State as saying, "The only real sign that anything had been gone through was an open dresser drawer. We found it peculiar because there was a bank envelope containing money in the drawer that he would had to have seen." Lynn also found black hairs that did not belong to the victim. Their texture led him to believe they belonged to a black person.

The evidence pointing towards a black murderer was thin, so those working the case were told not to reveal much. The police did not want to risk antagonizing the black community with a premature assertion of the strangler's racial background.

Five days before the murder of Ferne Jackson, another white female senior citizen living in the same neighborhood had been attacked. That victim had survived but was so badly injured that she remained hospitalized almost a week later and was unable to speak to police.

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