Louis Till was executed in Italy after a court-martial found him guilty of raping two women and murdering another while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, but it's long been debated whether he was truly guilty or unfairly targeted because of his race.
In 1945, a U.S. Army soldier named Louis Till was hanged for rape and murder while stationed in Italy. The young man had raped two Italian women and killed another during a home invasion the year prior.
Till had a history of violence. In fact, he had only enlisted in the Army because a judge had forced him to choose between the military and prison after his wife, Mamie, accused him of beating her.
Still, Army officials sent Till’s belongings home to Mamie, including a silver ring bearing his initials, “LT.” Mamie then passed the ring on to their young son, Emmett.
Ten years later, that very same ring would be used to identify Emmett’s battered body after two men lynched him for allegedly flirting with a white woman in a Mississippi grocery store.
This is the little-known story of Louis Till, the father of Emmett Till.
The Early Life Of Emmett Till’s Father
Born in Missouri on Feb. 7, 1922, Louis Till grew up as an orphan. When he was 17, he met his future wife, Mamie Carthan. Mamie’s parents disapproved of their relationship. They believed he was “too sophisticated” for their daughter. Louis and Mamie got married anyway on Oct. 14, 1940, and their only child, Emmett Louis Till, was born nine months later.
Despite their happy courtship, Louis and Mamie Till’s marriage soon devolved into violence. Mamie discovered that Louis had been unfaithful and determined to leave him not long after Emmett’s birth. Angered by her decision, Louis choked her until she was unconscious.
In response, Mamie threw boiling water on him and filed for a restraining order. The judge readily granted the order, but Louis violated it time and time again.
Fed up, the judge ordered Louis to make a choice: Either enlist in the military or go to prison.
By 1943, Louis Till was a U.S. Army soldier.
Why Louis Till Was Arrested For Murder
Serving in the Army’s Transportation Corps, Louis Till was stationed in Italy in the midst of World War II. The Army was still segregated at the time, and Till was assigned to the predominantly Black 370th Infantry Regiment.
According to Let the People See: The Story of Emmett Till by Elliott J. Gorn, Till was drinking with three other men on base on June 27, 1944, when they decided to raid a nearby home where several women lived.
One of the men, Private Fred McMurray, later testified that Till threatened to kill him if he didn’t go along with the plan, saying, “Everybody follow me: If anybody turns back I’ll blast him.” Till then raped two women, Benni Lucretzia and Frieda Mari, who were reportedly both pregnant.
McMurray stated that after attacking Lucretzia and Mari, Till decided to knock on the door of a nearby home for wine. The woman inside, Anna Zanchi, told Till that she had none, and Till grew angry and fired at least one shot through the closed door, killing her.
A court-martial found Till and McMurray guilty of rape and murder, and both men were hanged on July 2, 1945. Louis Till was 23 years old.
Was Louis Till Guilty Or A Victim Of Racial Profiling?
Although a court-martial convicted Till of rape and murder, some skeptics have questioned if he was targeted due to his race.
In an interview with NPR, writer John Edgar Wideman stated that Till “never had a chance. It was decided long before anybody even knew their names that some black soldiers are going to take the fall for these crimes.”
It is true that the rape victims were unable to identify their assailants, as they were wearing masks at the time of the attack. The women only knew that the men were Black because they could see their hands.
In 2005, Wideman sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Army archival center in search of documents relating to Louis Till’s trial. “Slowly but surely as I took the evidence apart and checked out dates,” Wideman said, “I found that there were very few connections, almost none, that… made it beyond any question of doubt that Till and McMurray had done these killings and rapings.”
U.S. Army Colonel French MacLean also looked into Till’s file and came to a very different conclusion: he was indeed guilty. In his own book about soldiers who were executed during World War II, MacLean wrote: “Fear was Till’s game. He terrorized his wife, terrorized his fellow soldiers, and terrorized local Italians who did not cooperate with him.”
But whether Emmett Till’s father was guilty or not, the crimes he was hanged for would come back to haunt his son a decade later.
How A Father’s Tarnished Past Affected His Son’s Future
Almost a decade after Louis Till’s execution, 14-year-old Emmett Till traveled to Mississippi to spend the summer with his family. On Aug. 28, 1955, Emmett Till was kidnapped and lynched for supposedly flirting with Carolyn Bryant, a plantation manager’s daughter, at her family’s grocery store.
The teen’s body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River. When his corpse was discovered three days later, it was so bloated from the water and disfigured from the beatings that Emmett was almost unrecognizable. Mamie decided to have an open casket funeral to let the nation see what Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam had done to her son.
Despite the overwhelming evidence against Bryant and Milam, an all-white jury acquitted them of any wrongdoing. After the initial trial, however, the federal government put pressure on Mississippi to at least punish the men for kidnapping Emmett. They had even admitted to doing so at their murder trial.
Only then did word about Emmett Till’s father’s crimes begin to leak to the public. Justice for Emmett lay in the hands of a grand jury whose views were muddled by Louis Till’s past. Ultimately, the jury decided not to indict Bryant and Milam.
Some Southern newspapers even suggested that Emmett Till’s father’s crimes proved that the boy was guilty of propositioning Carolyn Bryant — and that Emmett’s murder was justified.
Months after they evaded justice once again, Emmett’s murderers, protected by double-jeopardy laws, agreed to an interview with Look magazine. They confessed to beating Till with a gun, shooting him, and throwing his body into the river with a large metal fan tied to his neck with barbed wire to weigh him down.
While Emmett’s killers were never punished, the boy’s death inspired a surge of activism and resistance against racial injustice. Meanwhile, Louis Till’s name has gone down in history as a ruthless wartime criminal.
After learning about the life story of Emmett Till’s father, Louis Till, read about Lionel Dahmer, the father of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Then, discover the worst U.S. war crimes committed during World War II.