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The Family Annihilator Turned University Professor – James Gordon Wolcott

On the 5th of August, 1967, Southwestern University professor, Gordon B. Wolcott, his wife, Elizabeth Wolcott, and their 17-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, were found shot in their home in Georgetown, Texas.

They had all been shot with a .22 caliber rifle. Gordon was found in the living room with two shots to his chest. Elizabeth Sr. was found in her bed with two shots to the left side of her head. Elizabeth Jr. was found in her bed with one shot above her right eye and one shot to the heart.1 Gordon and Elizabeth were both pronounced dead at the scene but Elizabeth Sr. died shortly after arriving at the hospital.2

The murders stunned the community of just around 5,000. The Wolcott family were well-known around town and lived in a large white frame house near Southwestern University on College Street. Elizabeth was anticipated to become the valedictorian at  Georgetown High School. While the murders themselves were shocking, the revelation of who killed them was even more astounding to the tight-knit community. As the bodies were being taken to the mortuary, the Wolcott’s 15-year-old son, James Gordon Wolcott, was being arrested for their murders.

Following the murders, Wolcott had flagged down a passing car at around 4:30AM. He told the occupants of the car that his parents had been shot. He directed them to the house where they “started finding bodies all over the place.”3

Wolcott was an upstanding student at Georgetown High School where he received good grades. He had a high IQ, was a peace activist and was active in Methodist youth work. Almost as soon as he was arrested, he confessed to the murders. He calmly stated that he was tired of his mother’s loud chewing and his sisters “bad accent.” He said that he was annoyed at his father, who disproved of his anti-Vietnam pins and forbid him from travelling to Austin to attend anti-war, peace marches. According to court records, Wolcott felt as though his family was “conniving against him to drive him out of his mind.”

The funerals for the family were held in the First Methodist Church and Sheriff Henry Matysek said that Wolcott could leave his jail cell to attend the funerals. Wolcott declined, stating “for all concerned, it is best that I don’t attend.”

In 1968, Wolcott was the first juvenile to ever be tried as an adult in Williamson County. Psychiatrics for the court, the defence, and the prosecution all testified that Wolcott was paranoid and had delusions of persecution at the time of the murders. They also testified that Wolcott showed no remorse for his actions.4 They told the jury that Wolcott had contemplated suicide numerous times in the months running up to the slayings. They said that he had sniffed glue in a bid to get the courage to end his life and that on the night of the murders, Wolcott had been snuffing glue.

They all unanimously recommended that Wolcott be committed to a psychiatric hospital.5

Ultimately, the jury agreed and found Wolcott not guilty by reason of insanity. His defence lawyer, W.K. McClain thanked the jury for their verdict. When the verdict was read, James smiled. He later told reporters that the verdict pleased him.

He was sent to Rusk State Hospital where he remained until 1974. He was released after a court found him sane after just 15 minutes deliberation. Court officials declared that Wolcott would not have to stand trial for the murders because he was “insane” at the time of the offence. Wilson Nicar, the chief psychiatric social worker at Rusk Hospital described Wolcott as a “dependable, trustworthy and highly intelligent individual.”6  The same year, he enrolled in Stephen F. Austin University.7

Following his release, Wolcott kept to himself and faded into obscurity. That was until 2013, when it was reported in the media that Wolcott had changed his name to James St. James and had been a psychology professor at Millikin University in Illinois for the past 27 years.

Then 61-years-old, Wolcott was the chairman of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Millikin. When the revelation was reported in the media, the university issued a statement which said “given the traumatic experiences of Dr. James’ childhood, his efforts to rebuild his life and obtain a successful professional career have been remarkable.” It was reported that Wolcott had joined the faculty at the university in 1986 and in 1997, received Teaching Excellence and Leadership Award.

While a number of people called for Wolcott to be fired, administrators at the private Millikin University allowed him to keep his job. “It seems odd to me that he hated his father enough to kill him but then he’s living his father’s life,” said Williamson County District Attorney Jana Duty.8 The decision pleased Wolcott’s students, one of which published a letter on The Daily Beast:

“Dr. St. James has not willingly spoken to the media about his past, and I can’t blame him. But days before I wrote this piece, I sent a message to him offering him my support of the new life he has created. I didn’t expect a reply considering the amount of mail this news storm must have created. But whatever you may believe of Dr. St. James and his past, in his present, he is a teacher first and foremost. Despite the current news cycle, he remains responsive and available to students both past and present. He answered my e-mail with the same intelligence and willingness for discourse that I remember from his classroom years ago. As one who has had the privilege of teaching both high school and college students, I find great good in his commitment to his students as well as his dedication to the profession he has spent his adult life serving.

Does that negate the horror of what happened in 1967? No. Nothing can. But knowing that he has devoted his life to a purpose that might save other families the same terrible fate he visited upon his own? To me that is far more justice than most victims ever receive.

So maybe I’m naïve. Perhaps it is my fervent wish that people can be redeemed that makes me write these words. But I stand by Dr. James St. James and I am hopeful that since he demonstrated that there is a way out of the darkness that others can find it, too.”9

Footnotes:

  1. The Daily Register, 7 August, 1967 – “Juvenile Hearing Set in Slaying”
  2. Springfield Leader and Press, 5 August, 1967 – “Youth Held: Family Slain”
  3. Daily News, 6 August, 1967 – “Professor, Wife, Daughter Slain; Husky Son, 15, Jailed”
  4. Brownwood Bulletin, 2 February, 1968 – “Wolcott Acquitted by Jurors”
  5. Austin American-Statesman, 2 March, 1974 – “Suspect to get Sanity Hearing”
  6. Austin American-Statesman, 9 July, 1974 – “Jury Declares Wolcott Sane”
  7. Waco Tribune-Herald, 11 July, 1974 – “Murder Suspect to Enter College”
  8. Austin American-Statesman, 1 August, 2013 – “Family Killer Became Teacher”
  9. The Daily Beast, 8 September, 2013 – “My Professor the Killer”
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Alex
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Alex

This wasn’t in Missouri, but good try! 🙂

Beverley Potts
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Beverley Potts

This made me conflicted. I don’t know if I believe he was insane but he is clearly rehabilitated and wants to make a difference in the world now.

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