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Confessions of the Solely Lady on a Rock Star Tour Bus

Greater than 12 years after Jannie Duncan walked off the grounds of a psychological hospital and into a brand new identification, Debbie Carliner opened a newspaper and obtained the shock of her life. She was mendacity in mattress in her house in Washington, D.C., on a Sunday morning, thumbing by means of The Washington Put up. It was January 5, 1975. Carliner flipped to the Metro part, the place the highest story was headlined “Fugitive’s Buddies Name Her ‘Lovely Human.’”
Carliner’s eyes widened as she scanned the images accompanying the article.
“That’s Joan!” she screamed.
Her husband seemed over, confused. Carliner confirmed him the format, which included 5 snapshots of a middle-aged black lady wanting radiant in numerous settings. There she was smiling, surrounded by mates in a single picture, resplendent in a marriage robe within the subsequent.
The lady was Joan Davis, 54, a kindly and beloved former household worker. Within the 1960s, when Debbie Carliner was an adolescent and her mom determined to return to work, her dad and mom had employed Joan to make the beds and assist with the cleansing. Joan was a wonderful employee, and she or he was heat and unfailingly reliable — a lot in order that after they left on household journeys, the Carliners requested her to look at after their house in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Debbie’s mom had typically mentioned that Joan was extremely smart — “too good to be a maid” was how she put it. All of which made studying the story that rather more bewildering.
In a Washington Put up article, Jannie Duncan’s mates and colleagues got here to her protection following her stunning arrest. (Picture courtesy Washington Put up Archives)
The article reported that Joan’s actual identify was Jannie Duncan. And that was hardly the one revelation: In 1956, Jannie had been arrested for the homicide of her husband, Orell Duncan, whose savagely overwhelmed bare physique had been buried in a shallow grave close to Richmond, Virginia, the story mentioned. She stood trial, was discovered responsible of homicide, and sentenced to 15 years to life in jail. After just a few years, she was transferred to St. Elizabeths Hospital, a psychological establishment in Washington.
That’s when the story went from stunning to surreal. In November 1962, Jannie had walked off the hospital grounds and vanished for greater than 12 years. After she was lastly arrested once more, on January 2, 1975, the story that emerged was as simple because it was unbelievable: She appeared to have merely melted into the streets of Washington, mere miles from the hospital, taken on a brand new identify, and plunged into a brand new life.
Over greater than a decade, Jannie had populated her new existence with a bustling group of adoring mates and employers who have been oblivious to the appreciable baggage of her outdated life. Much more strikingly, when her secret was revealed, each one in all these acquaintances stood by her. The Put up story was crammed with the sorts of adulatory tributes normally reserved for retirement events. Buddies and former employers described her as a “high-class lady” and somebody “of the best character, essentially the most trustworthy particular person.” In an article within the Washington Night Star, former employer Lewis Stilson held nothing again: “She’s astute, clever, vivacious, honest, trustworthy, and unquestioningly loyal to her employers.”
Like everybody else, Debbie Carliner was incredulous. Neither she nor her dad and mom might think about that the girl they knew as Joan might homicide anybody. If she had, the Carliners figured there should have been a believable clarification. “We didn’t consider the story about Joan,” Debbie informed me this summer time. “We definitely believed he deserved it, assuming it occurred.”
I stumbled throughout the story of Joan/Jannie earlier this 12 months whereas researching politics within the 1970s. I used to be so fascinated that I spontaneously deserted what I used to be doing to search for different articles about her. The extra I discovered, the stranger and extra attention-grabbing the story grew to become. For instance, she informed authorities that she couldn’t keep in mind something of her life from earlier than she was Joan Davis — however she believed she had been kidnapped from the psychological hospital.
The extra I discovered about her within the weeks that adopted, the extra I grew to become consumed by a query: What was the reality about Jannie Duncan?
Her twin narratives diverged so sharply that there appeared to be solely two prospects: She’d been railroaded on a homicide cost and slipped freed from a punishment she didn’t deserve. Or she had killed her husband, escaped, and fooled everybody, cleverly concealing her standing as a fugitive who had engineered an amazing escape.
She was a mannequin citizen who had been wronged, or she was a con artist. I made a decision to search out out which.
* * *
The lady the Carliners knew as Joan Davis was born Jane Waller on February 9, 1920, in Gravel Hill, Virginia, a tiny unincorporated group outdoors of Richmond. Public data point out that she was the fourth of seven youngsters. She dropped out of highschool after the 11th grade, and, after turning 19, married Thomas Bowman, her hometown sweetheart.
The wedding was possible an act of heedless teenage ardour. She left her husband after just a few months, lighting out for Washington. There she labored as a clerk and maid through the day and plunged into town’s boisterous nightclub scene by evening, in response to the Put up. The divorce grew to become official just a few years later when Jane, whose mates referred to as her Jannie, married a comic named Telfair Washington in 1944. He died of a coronary heart assault in 1946.
“He was the love of my life,” Jannie informed Put up reporter Maggie Locke many years later. “I believe that’s when my issues began; after he died I used to be looking for a person along with his identical stunning qualities.”
Jannie took over Washington’s 17-room vacationer house (basically a boarding home) at 1622 seventh Road NW. In 1950, she married once more, this time to a gambler named James Terry. She divorced him about two years later, however the turbulence in her private life didn’t appear to inhibit her enterprise acumen. Inside just a few years, she employed a handful of individuals and owned a full-length mink coat and a 1955 powder-blue two-tone Cadillac Fleetwood.
In 1954, she met Orell Duncan, 37, a member of a playing syndicate run by kingpin Henry “Piggy” Leake. In 1952, Orell Duncan had been arrested and convicted of working a lottery and possession of quantity slips. Jannie married him in March 1955, however inside just a few months, they have been dwelling at totally different addresses.
There are conflicting accounts of what occurred whereas she was working on the boarding home on seventh Road through the early-morning hours of March 11, 1956. What’s clear from court docket data and newspaper reviews is that Orell turned up round 12:30 a.m. and a confrontation came about, and she or he pulled a gun on him. Orell disarmed her and once more started struggling together with her. Two of Jannie’s mates, Edward James and Calvin Simms, joined the fray on her behalf. Orell was later discovered useless from a number of contusions to the pinnacle.
Inside a span of three days, police in Virginia and Washington arrested Jannie Duncan, James and Simms, and launched a motive: Jannie’s estranged husband was snitching on her to the IRS. That element grew to become a staple in newspaper reviews concerning the killing.
She was charged with first-degree homicide, which carried a compulsory dying penalty. On the trial that autumn, the federal government’s star witness, 25-year-old Carl Winchester, a pal of one in all Jannie’s workers, testified that Jannie had pointed a gun at Orell and pulled the set off a number of instances, nevertheless it by no means fired.
The crux of the trial centered across the post-fight drive in Jannie’s Cadillac. The prosecution claimed that the three defendants completed him off within the automobile, whereas Jannie and the others testified that they have been speaking calmly when the lads started arguing and combating Orell, and he fell out of the automobile and died from his accidents.
After a full day of deliberation, the jury discovered Jannie and James responsible of second-degree homicide. Simms was convicted of manslaughter.
Her incarceration at Occoquan ladies’s jail initially handed with out incident. One then-inmate later informed the Put up that Jannie was quiet and tidy and stored to herself, finding out regulation books. After three and a half years, on November 14, 1960, Jannie was moved to St. Elizabeths. Nearly precisely two years later, she walked off the grounds and vanished.
* * *
Reconstructing a life from many years previous takes effort and time. To dig deeper than the newspaper tales went, I filed Freedom of Info Act requests with the police, St. Elizabeths and the FBI. I requested a relative who makes a speciality of genealogical analysis to dig into Jannie’s household historical past. I wrote letters and referred to as the folks linked to the story who have been nonetheless alive. (There weren’t many.)
Over time, I assembled the jigsaw puzzle that was her life. As soon as out of St. Elizabeths, Jannie started quietly reinventing herself. She replied to a categorised advert within the newspaper for a job as a home helper in Potomac, Maryland, then procured a driver’s license and Social Safety card underneath the identify Joan Davis. She spent about two years working for that household, in response to newspaper accounts.
After she proved herself a stable and dependable employee, she parlayed robust references into subsequent jobs with the Carliners and others. David Carliner, Debbie’s father, was a distinguished Washington legal professional whose work, in response to his New York Occasions obituary, “helped outline fashionable immigration regulation.” (He died in 2007.) He described Jannie within the Washington Night Star as “a beautiful, heat, accountable particular person.”
Jannie by no means left the Washington space, apart from the 12 months she spent in Detroit together with her new husband, Wilbert Lassiter, a Michigan native whom she married in 1972. Eight of her mates flew from Washington to attend the marriage. The Lassiters returned to the nation’s capital a 12 months later.
In September 1963, about 10 months after Jannie’s escape, the FBI, pissed off in its makes an attempt to search out her, had issued a wished poster: “Duncan is an escapee from a psychological establishment. participated in a vicious assault which resulted in sufferer’s dying. Thought-about harmful.” The doc exhibits all 10 of her fingerprints and her mugshot. Within the picture, her face is tilted simply to the correct, her mouth barely downturned; her hair is intently cropped and varieties a bit of wave on the correct facet of her head. She is listed as 5-foot-6 and 150 kilos.
The FBI wished poster and fingerprints that in the end led to Duncan’s arrest. (Picture courtesy the FBI)
Jannie made no try to go away the realm; quite, she doubled down on Washington, steadily constructing a group there. Irene Carroll described her pal within the Put up as fun-loving and beneficiant. “She was a lover of kids,” Carroll mentioned. “She would get us all collectively and take us on picnics to Lake Fairfax. She’d say, ‘Don’t deliver nothing. I’ll maintain the meals.’”
However cracks finally started to point out within the basis of her immaculately rebuilt life. She and Wilbert Lassiter separated round Might 1974. By December 1974, he had taken up with one other lady named Jannie — Jannie Dodd, in response to the Put up. That month, Dodd complained to the police that Joan Lassiter had made threatening telephone calls and left menacing messages at her home. One such notice, Dodd mentioned, learn: “Have a merry Christmas. This will probably be your final.” Dodd filed harassment fees.
Public data present that the Lassiters have been formally divorced practically a 12 months later, after Wilbert realized that his estranged spouse had been “convicted of an notorious offense previous to marriage with out information of defendant.”
That notorious offense got here to gentle in a exceptional approach. Police in Arlington, Virginia, arrested Joan Lassiter on the harassment cost on December 31, 1974. She was fingerprinted, processed, and despatched house. As her paperwork was being filed — the units of prints positioned amongst about 310,000 others — a clerk observed one thing stunning: The fingerprints of Joan Lassiter, housewife, completely matched the prints on the FBI wished poster for Jannie W. Duncan, escaped assassin.
On January 2, FBI agent Stanley Niemala drove to Magnolia Gardens, the condo complicated in Arlington the place Jannie Duncan lived. She was a convicted assassin on the lam, so he introduced alongside two different brokers as backup. They watched the constructing for some time, and when a light-weight popped on in her second-floor two-bedroom unit, they moved upstairs.
When Agent Niemala informed Jannie that she was underneath arrest, she “type of froze,” he says. He noticed astonishment in her expression; after 12 years of freedom, she clearly hadn’t anticipated to listen to the identify Jannie Duncan once more. “Whenever you’re out that lengthy and anyone abruptly steps up and places cuffs on you, it’s not straightforward,” he says.
She stood stiffly, eyes broad and clean, as Niemala handcuffed her. The now-retired agent describes her as “virtually catatonic.”
The opposite two brokers every took a shoulder, gently lifting her, for the stroll to the automobile. She was nonetheless so immobilized that after they reached the FBI workplace in Alexandria, Niemala introduced the fingerprinting gear to the automobile quite than haul her as much as the third ground the place she would usually have been processed.
Then Jannie Duncan was returned to St. Elizabeths Hospital. After about three weeks of analysis, officers there declared that she had no psychological points and shipped her again to jail.
* * *
Con women and men have been round for at the least so long as people have traded foreign money, and everybody who has obtained emails from a Nigerian prince promising a share of his just-out-of-reach fortune is aware of they’re nonetheless thriving. As I realized extra about Jannie, I started to view her exploits extra cynically. A number of parts of her story fed into this.
For starters, Jannie’s clarification of leaving the hospital sounded fantastical. She informed Margot Hornblower of the Put up that she had no reminiscence of something previous to her life as Joan Davis. She mentioned her thoughts was “like a clean.”
However throughout that very same interview with the Put up, she did recall that quite than having escaped from St. Elizabeths, she was really kidnapped by Orell’s kin, who have been intent on killing her. “I keep in mind being choked into unconsciousness by a heavyset, light-skinned man,” she informed Hornblower. “I keep in mind waking up and this girl informed me to name her ‘Mama.’ She mentioned I had been very sick and I didn’t know who or the place I used to be …. She mentioned, ‘I’ll discover out who you’re and all the pieces will probably be all proper.” (Hornblower, whose identify is now Margot Roosevelt, mentioned lately that she didn’t keep in mind any additional particulars concerning the interview.)
The threats leveled by Jannie in 1974 prompt that “Joan Davis” was invented to assist perpetuate her escape. These menacing notes provided proof of her outdated, true self leaking out.
Most vital was one other Put up article that centered on Jannie’s reference to Ernestine Delaney, an Occoquan inmate whom she met in 1958. Delaney (who’s deceased) relayed that she was considering attempting to flee, however Jannie talked her out if it, saying she would solely find yourself with an extended sentence. One passage close to the top stands out. “She largely listened to others and by no means talked about herself — besides her plans to get transferred to St. E’s,” Delaney is quoted as saying. Jannie “wished the switch to St. Elizabeths Hospital as a result of she thought it could be simpler to obtain a parole from the psychological establishment.”
Jannie Duncan sits on her dormitory mattress at St. Elizabeths on January 15, 1975. (Picture by Linda Wheeler/The Washington Put up through Getty Pictures)
After I contacted St. Elizabeths, a spokeswoman informed me she was permitted solely to substantiate the dates that Jannie entered and left the ability. The regulation prohibited her from discussing Jannie’s analysis or care.
However the Put up passage prompt the likelihood that Jannie had deliberate the entire thing: She had engineered the switch not as a result of it could be simpler to be paroled, however as a result of it could be simpler to flee.
* * *
I felt I had a agency deal with on Jannie’s exploits by the point I scored my most important analysis breakthrough. After calling the federal courthouse in Washington to ask about her homicide trial, I realized that the case file is saved within the Nationwide Archives. I drove to Washington to see what I would be taught.
Within the analysis room, I flipped open the primary field, which contained the primary few hundred pages of a 3,000-page trial transcript on skinny onion-skin-type paper. Although I might finally learn all the pieces, I jumped straight to Jannie’s testimony.
What I learn surprised me. It started with an outline of her life over the earlier 12 months — the complete period of her marriage to Orell. She mentioned that her husband drank virtually each day, and that when he did so, “he would act like a loopy particular person. He couldn’t keep in mind the issues that had occurred when he was ingesting.”
She testified {that a} month into their marriage, he got here house from an evening of partying and “began beating me and choosing me up and throwing me again down on the mattress and knocking me about,” she mentioned. “He lastly knocked me on a desk that was sitting beside the mattress and it minimize me up right here with my eye.” She fled to the lavatory and referred to as her mother-in-law, who took her to the hospital.
Quickly after that, she was at Russell’s Barber Store promoting tickets to a church occasion, when Orell “got here in and jumped on me and struck me concerning the head, picked me up and pushed me out of the store and pushed me into his automobile …. I had a knot on my head and bruises on my leg.”
Jannie quickly moved out however didn’t divorce Orell, and in Might 1955 they have been in a bar and he wished to go away simply after she’d put 1 / 4 in a jukebox. When she mentioned she wished to listen to the music, he started “putting her concerning the head.” She fled, however he jumped of their automobile simply after her, pushing her into the passenger seat. After driving a brief distance, he reached over, opened her door and pushed her out, then exited and started hitting her whereas she was on the bottom.
The violence escalated. In a single occasion, he believed that she’d put sugar in his gasoline tank. When she denied it, “he pulled his gun out and put his gun proper up right here and he pulled the hammer again on his gun and mentioned, ‘Nicely, sure, you probably did put sugar in my automobile.’”
She escaped that state of affairs, however one other time he threatened to stab her to dying. She made a number of hospital visits. At Freedmen’s Hospital, the workers closed a laceration on her left arm with eight stitches; at Farragut, she was handled for a one-inch laceration over the correct eye, abrasions on her legs, and a number of contusions to the pinnacle.
Then she took his gun one evening when he had handed out from ingesting, and on February 18, he got here into the boarding home at 2:30 a.m. and demanded it again. She mentioned she’d turned it in to the police; he punched and kicked her. This time the district legal professional put by means of an arrest warrant. “I’ve an open minimize on my left knee and bruises throughout my physique and I’m nonetheless in ache,” she was quoted as saying within the warrant. “Additionally my husband has phoned since and mentioned he was going to beat me to dying earlier than Monday morning.”
When Orell realized concerning the warrant, he threatened to have her killed if she didn’t have it withdrawn. She refused, however nonetheless, Orell was by no means as soon as arrested for any of the assaults. (The warrant and hospital reviews have been launched on the trial, and different witnesses testified to seeing Orell abuse Jannie.)
All of this culminated along with his arrival on the boarding home simply after midnight on March 11, 1956. Jannie had completed fixing up Room 7. “Duncan met me within the small little hallway, and he grabbed me by the throat and he began choking me,” she testified. “So he mentioned, ‘I might kill you proper now. Nobody is aware of I’m within the constructing.’”
Simply then the doorbell rang, and he pushed her again towards the resort’s entrance. Afterward, he sat her down on the eating room desk and mentioned, “I can come up right here any time I prepare. You’re nonetheless married to me.” He wished his gun again. When she mentioned she didn’t have it, he “hit me upside the pinnacle …. Then he kicked me, and I fell out of the chair. And after I obtained up, I pulled this gun on him. He mentioned, ‘Oh, so that you do have it.’”
She had gone to the bed room and retrieved the handgun she’d taken from him a month earlier. She held it on him as he walked into the kitchen, then she gave the gun to an worker whereas she referred to as Edward James. A couple of minutes later, James and Simms arrived.
Carl Winchester was the important thing witness in opposition to Jannie. In his testimony, he mentioned Orell reached for the gun and struck Jannie — “he lunged at her and virtually knocked her down” — when she pulled the set off. However the worker had eliminated the bullets when she referred to as James.
James and Simms started struggling with Orell, however finally they stopped. A number of bystanders broke up the altercation, and the 4 of them cooled down, settling into a short lived détente. Orell requested Jannie to present him a journey house, and she or he agreed on the situation that the 2 different males got here alongside. They headed outdoors and climbed into Jannie’s automobile, witnesses mentioned.
A postmortem toxicology report within the file confirmed that Orell was closely intoxicated. Given what a sloppy drunk he was, the defendants’ testimony about how he fell out of the automobile abruptly sounded extra believable: Simms testified that they have been arguing and scuffling within the again seat, and at one level Orell mentioned, “Nicely, I ain’t going to remain in right here.”
“And simply earlier than I observed it,” Simms testified, “the door was open and he was out.”
* * *
This was the 1950s, and the nation’s excessive tolerance for violence within the house at the moment has been effectively documented. Whereas some states started to criminalize home violence as early because the 1800s, these legal guidelines have been hardly ever enforced, and circumstances of bodily and sexual assault have been largely considered as marital points finest labored out inside the domicile. One research printed within the Archives of Basic Psychiatry as late as 1964 posited {that a} husband beating his spouse was a constructive improvement, as a result of it served as “violent, momentary remedy” that “served to launch him momentarily from his anxiousness about his ineffectiveness as a person.”
Jannie Duncan’s testimony about Orell’s abuse was vivid, detailed and substantiated by witnesses. But none of it appeared to register with anybody: not the decide nor the jury nor the reporters overlaying the drama. There was no point out of it in newspaper protection. At one level, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Lawyer Frederick Smithson, mentioned of Jannie: “I consider this lady to be that kind of person that … they name accident inclined.” He outlined that as somebody who “make[s] claims in opposition to her paramour or husband for the aim of harassment and to get numerous items of property from him.”
Smithson additionally questioned whether or not Orell was able to beating Jannie within the methods she described, noting that he solely weighed marginally extra. He wished the jury to disregard Orell’s apparent physiological benefits—and that in some circumstances he was wielding weapons.
I used to be additionally struck by one other facet of the transcript: It raised severe questions on Jannie’s purported motive for killing Orell. She clearly had points with the IRS; court docket data confirmed that she owed $26,369 in again taxes. However she testified that she’d been on the company’s radar for years, and her lawyer, James Laughlin, argued vehemently for permission to introduce proof that “would present an investigation was underway lengthy previous to her marriage or contact with Orell Duncan.” Laughlin, in actual fact, had represented her through the IRS proceedings.
Unbiased proof means that this was virtually definitely true. On April 4, 1956, just a few weeks after Orell’s dying, the IRS ran a categorised advert within the Night Star asserting an public sale for Jannie’s mink coat to recoup unpaid taxes. The IRS sometimes auctions off property solely after expending important effort, typically over the course of a number of years, to extract again taxes.
However Decide Joseph McGarraghy refused to permit testimony or proof about Jannie’s IRS historical past, and the jury apparently accepted the rivalry — launched by the police inside days of Orell’s dying, repeated regularly in newspapers, and superior by the prosecution — that Jannie was livid at Orell for snitching.
In gentle of all of this info, it was jarring to see her story so casually dismissed. It was as if the alleged abuse didn’t matter — prefer it couldn’t probably have been an element, even in against the law of ardour like Orell’s killing.
However even an informal studying of latest American historical past reveals that none of it’s significantly stunning. The concept a black lady’s model of occasions could be ignored in a trial within the 1950s, and that the phrase of the police and a white prosecutor would prevail: Of all the pieces about this unusual story, that was the shortest leap of all.
* * *
Seen by means of the lens of the trial transcript and the knowledge the jury by no means heard, all the pieces about Jannie’s story seems to be totally different. Orell died from a results of Jannie’s acts of self-defense throughout a sequence of drunken brawls. He might simply have killed her, and possibly would have finally.
Seemingly minor particulars abruptly tackle new significance, just like the bodily description on Jannie’s wished poster: “scar in proper eyebrow, small scar underneath left eye … scars on left arm, left shoulder, left facet of chest and on proper shoulder.” All of them correspond to accidents she described.
The switch from jail to St. Elizabeths? It might have been her scheming, however one doc among the many court docket papers exhibits that she was moved to St. Elizabeths after being identified with “extreme melancholy, catatonic withdrawal with auditory hallucinations.” Which might be comprehensible, given what she’d been by means of.
As for the reminiscence loss, that would doubtlessly be defined by dissociative amnesia. That’s a situation through which an individual blocks out sure info, typically related to a tense or traumatic occasion, leaving them unable to recollect vital private info. A 2007 research printed in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Regulation famous that the dysfunction “is related to crimes which might be dedicated in a state of maximum emotional arousal and through which the sufferer is thought intimately by the offender. Incessantly, the crime is unplanned and no motive is discernible.”
The alleged menace to kill Jannie Dodd in 1974? That cost was dismissed, and it appeared Dodd had exaggerated and even fabricated their interplay. U.S. Lawyer Earl J. Silbert, in responding to Jannie’s parole software, famous that due to the best way the cost was abruptly dropped, the incident “couldn’t have been significantly substantial.”
Then there was her public assist. Given the entire above, it abruptly appeared much more believable that she’d merely been a genuinely good particular person caught up in a horrible state of affairs who had navigated her approach out as finest she was in a position. In February 1975, a gaggle of 30-plus folks shaped the Jannie Duncan Freedom Committee, elevating cash and circulating a petition in search of her launch; they collected 5,000 signatures. Buddies recruited the assist of D.C. Councilwoman Willie Hardy and Walter Fauntroy, a distinguished politician, pastor and civil rights advocate. Greater than 20 mates and employers provided to offer character statements in court docket on Jannie’s behalf.
Silbert was the U.S. legal professional in Washington then, so he wasn’t essentially within the enterprise of letting folks out of jail early. His response to her parole request is a pitch-perfect coda to Jannie’s unusual odyssey. It’s apparent, studying between the traces, that he struggled to reconcile the particulars of her story, which he characterised as “a considerably singular case.” Her interactions in her jobs over her 12 years as Joan Davis “reveal somebody in whom these employers have full belief and confidence and much more — as an individual. As well as, this workplace has had contact with different members of the group who additionally exhibit an equally excessive regard for Ms. Duncan. These feedback can’t be flippantly ignored. On the contrary, they’re most persuasive.”
Jannie was launched in April 1977. The Put up confirmed as much as cowl her departure from jail, taking her image for a front-page story headlined “The Saga of Jannie.” The subhead is notable for its Martin Luther King Jr. echo: “‘Woman within the Darkish’ Is Free at Final.” She mentioned she hoped to at some point search a presidential pardon and write a guide about her ordeal. The pal who fetched her from jail prompt a title: “The Case that Rocked the Nation’s Capital.”
A Washington Put up article exhibiting Duncan leaving the detention heart together with her lawyer. (Picture courtesy Washington Put up Archives)
However after this temporary little bit of fanfare, she was by no means heard from publicly once more. It was as if she dissolved into her post-prison life with all of the anonymity and quasi-invisibility of her years as Joan Davis.
Her household is content material to let her story fade out of reminiscence. Jannie’s sole remaining shut relative, a daughter now in her 60s, at first denied that Jannie was her mom. Proven proof on the contrary, the girl replied that she most well-liked to not take part on this article. I subsequently despatched her a draft of this story. “All I can say is WOW! She had extra alias’ [sic] than ‘Mission Inconceivable,’” the daughter emailed again to me. “All this simply explains lots. I have to commend you on the good particulars you uncovered. Nevertheless this nonetheless doesn’t change my thoughts. I’d quite stay silent and never open up outdated wounds.”
However one pal stuffed in Jannie’s ultimate chapter. Lorraine Sterling, a pal from the Joan Davis years, stored in contact together with her by telephone after Sterling moved to North Carolina within the early 2000s. Sterling says Jannie lived quietly in Maryland after her launch from jail, working and spending time with mates. She evinced little interest in garnering additional consideration. “She was a really loving and giving particular person,” Sterling says. “She had mates, however she type of stayed to herself at instances too.”
When Jannie grew to become frail, her daughter moved her right into a nursing house. She died in Might 2009, at age 89, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her kin held a quiet ceremony at Scott’s Funeral Dwelling in Richmond on a heat Might afternoon, then wended their approach to the Washington Memorial Park and Mausoleums in Sandston, Virginia, close to her birthplace, for the burial. The circle of her life was full.
I perceive her daughter’s impulse to pat down the earth over this complicated story. However as I exhumed Jannie Duncan’s full narrative, two issues stood out. The primary was that preliminary assumptions about individuals are typically fallacious. Mine have been on this case — and in a time once we’re seemingly rising extra alienated from one another, I used to be reminded to look deeper for the complexities inside all of us, our shared humanity.
And second: Jannie’s story is extra related in 2018 than ever. She was a black lady who lacked energy or standing whereas dealing with a justice system dominated by white males aligned in opposition to her. She was straightforward to brush apart; her telling was straightforward to dismiss and warp.
There are some lingering questions which will by no means be absolutely answered, however this a lot is now clear: Jannie was a survivor. And we all know, after these final couple of years, that there are numerous survivors immediately dealing with the identical systemic hostility, the identical biases, the identical obstacles arrayed in opposition to them.
Lastly, then: That is the story of Jannie Duncan, survivor. For her sake, and the sake of others whose lives have been broken by what occurred one evening in March 1956, it’s tragic that nobody listened then, greater than six many years in the past. For the remainder of us, it’s not too late.