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Rapist rescued from lynching in Georgia, escapes to rape little girl

Sometimes it makes you wonder if they justice system is really fair or just
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The community of Montgomery on Whitefield Avenue was smaller than it is today. People knew one another from Shipyard Creek to Burnside and on to Strachan Avenue where the Boy Scout camp loomed over the now expensive waterfront property in the gated community that prevents outsiders from coming in.

Almost everyone walked to church and the store then. There was no bridge leading over to Skidaway Island, and most of the men in the neighborhood made their living hunting, trapping, building or selling moonshine out the back’s of old buildings, hiding the stills out in the woods and passing out glass bottles through backroom windows, even to the motorcycle cops who policed the area when it was unicorporated.

The Harrisons lived in a one story frame house on the corner of Whitefield and Glade. Joan English remembers being in church at the time when a group of men stormed in with riffles in their hands: Bertha Mehrtens had gone missing. It was a short church service that afternoon as Harrison remembers being led home by her father with a shotgun in his hands.

She was just a child at the time and said she felt important, but did not have a clue what was taking place just a half mile down the road from their home.

Harrison remembers Bertha Mehrtens as a big woman with an even bigger heart. She was not married and lived at home with her parents and was always quick to offer her help to those in need; sitting and ministering to the sick when no doctor was available.

It was September, that time of month in Savannah where the weather cannot decide to remain in sticky hot summer or move on to the coolness of fall. Here the leaves don’t change color that much and if they do, it is usually closer to December; probably one of the reasons why the town is considered “slow”, yet let someone threaten one of their own and everyone is quick to act.

It is 1946. Bertha is 38 years old. She is a well loved Sunday School teacher at Montgomery Presbyterian Church and lives her life the way the Lord commands. There is no one who would want to hurt her, or so the community thought, but they thought wrong.

Early on the first day of September, a man knocks on the door of the Mehrten’s house. Bertha’s father answers the knock.

It is a man known to the community as Pete Coleman who had a tendency to drink too much and talk too loudly.

He tells Mr. Mehrten that there is an emergency. Jack Harper, who lives just down the road was injured in an accident and was taken to the hospital. Harper’s wife is distraught and by herself at home and wants Bertha to come sit with her to provide comfort.

Bertha, being the big hearted person that she is, agrees to go, assuring her father that it will be okay and that Coleman will take good care of her, so there is no need for him to accompany them, besides, it is just down the road. It should not take long to get there.

Four hours later, after the sun has risen, Mr. Mehrten sets out to take care of chores and runs into none other than Jack Harper. He is surprised and asks Harper how he got out of the hospital so quickly and discovers that Harper was never injured and never in the hospital. Now they are both worried. What has happened to Bertha.

Within minutes they have gathered a group of people to help search for Bertha. It was dark when she left, so no one saw her passing by their homes.

A local police officer, DJ Counihan is called in to help. Coleman is now a suspect so the first thing he does is head to Coleman's uncle’s house where Coleman lives.

A local patron of the bar that Coleman visited was overheard saying that he wanted him a virgin girl, but they thought it was just the liquor talking. Now everyone was worried and the women and children were called home and kept behind locked doors while the men searched the neighborhoods frantically hoping the worst had not happened.

When the police officer arrives at Mr. Stephen’s house looking for Coleman, the uncle tells him he does not know where he is, but invites officers to come in and search in the hope they might find a clue as to where Coleman might be.

During the search, officer Counihan discover a piece of cloth sticking out from under the stairs and reaches under them to pull out a torn man’s shirt. It appears to be Coleman's and the police search his room again.

In the mean time a group of men are gathering outside of Stephen’s home. It seems that Bertha’s body had been discovered on a trail leading to the Pin Point community around 11 a.m. that morning. It appeared she had been choked. No mention was made if she had been raped, but it was implied and either way, Coleman was going to pay for his sins on earth rather than hell if the local gathering of men had anything to say about it.

This kind of thing did not go on in their neighborhood and they knew one sure fire way to make sure it would never happen again.

Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Stephens who feared for their lives, left the house with the police still inside searching for Coleman.

At some point, Stephens learned that Coleman had indeed come home and called police Chief Chapman who notified officer Counihan who found him hiding under the bed. Coleman was dragged out to the police car, but not before the mob, ready to lynch Coleman on the spot, began to fire rounds at the police car, blowing out the two back tires and riveting the car with bullet holes.

Witnesses said the police cruiser never stopped, spinning out the main drive of Old Whitefield on bare metal tire rims and onto the main stretch of the road sending sparks flying on the road behind him.

Coleman was taken to the county jail and sent to prison, but was later allowed out on a work detail where he escaped and presumably kidnapped and raped a young girl and was sent back to prison with no parole as far as community members recall.

One elderly community member said she almost regretted that Coleman was not lynched if it meant no one else would be hurt by him. “He was not a good man,” she said.

She said the police officer who took him away was only doing his duty, but that he nearly got killed trying to get Coleman out of there and said he had to be either very brave or very scared or both.

Moral of the story is, if you are going to be a criminal type, you might want to steer clear of country communities where everyone knows everyone else and sticks up for the rights of the innocent and still believe that the Old Testament is relative to today and that evil people need to be punished and prevented from doing more evil, especially when guilt is evident.

While no one really condones mob violence and revenge, if it meant protecting someone innocent from the infirmities of someone with no moral conscience, it somehow seems a greater tragedy that Coleman was rescued by police than if he was left to his own demise by an angry mob of locals protecting one of their own.

What would you do if your child was raped and murdered? Would you want the courts to be lenient or would you want to take matters into your own hands? It is not a pleasant thought either way and makes you wonder what drives one human being to harm another and what makes others so loving they would give up their own lives to help another.