James Edwin Coyle (March 23, 1873 – August 11, 1921) was born in Ireland. In 1896 he was ordained as a priest and moved to Mobile Alabama where he served under Bishop Edward Patrick Allen. In 1904 Coyle was appointed to the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Birmingham.
Edwin Roscoe Stephenson (March 8, 1870 – August 4, 1956) was born in Georgia and moved with his family to Alabama in 1882. Stephenson was a barber by trade and a part time minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He would also regularly officiate marriages inside of the Jefferson County Court House.
Shortly after his father’s death, his only daughter, Ruth, converted to Catholicism. If this wasn’t bad enough his 18-year-old daughter was also in love with Pedro Gussman, who was from Puerto Rico.
On August 11, 1921, just hours after Stephenson heard that Coyle had performed a secret wedding between Ruth and Pedro, he became furious. He found Coyle and shot him in the head on the wooden porch of St. Paul’s Rectory next door to the church.
The Ku Klux Klan rallied around Stephenson, who was a member, and paid for his defense. Four of his five lawyers were Klan members. The fifth, Hugo Black, would join the Klan 18 months later. The case was assigned to the Alabama courtroom of Judge William E. Fort, also a Klansman.
The defense entered a dual plea of “not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity”, essentially arguing both that the shooting was in self-defense, and that at the time of the shooting Stephenson had been suffering from “temporary insanity”. The defense argued that Stephenson could not restrain himself, and the jury agreed and he was acquitted.
Father Coyle was buried in Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery.
Ruth and Pedro later divorced.
Ruth moved to Chicago where she died of tuberculosis in 1931 at the young age of 28.
Pedro was killed on Valentine’s Day 1934 by a hit-and-run driver, just steps away from where Coyle was murdered, in front of the St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Hugo Black renounced his Klan ties years later, and became one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Stephenson continued officiating marriages at the Jefferson County Court House. He died on October 3, 1956, at the ripe old age of 86.