Carolyn Bryant Donham: Emmett Till’s False Accuser Dies at 88 Without Ever Facing Prosecution

Carolyn Bryant Donham, a white woman whose false claims led to Emmett Till’s slaying in 1955 Mississippi, reportedly died Tuesday in Louisiana.

Chief investigator for the Calcasieu Parish coroner’s office, Megan LeBoeuf, confirmed Bryant’s death to Mississippi Today. Bryant, 88, was in hospice care for cancer at the time of her death. 

Bryant was never arrested or prosecuted for Till’s death — despite there being an unserved warrant which charged her with kidnapping. In Mississippi, there is no statute of limitations for kidnapping. The warrant, which was discovered in June 2022, was discovered in a courthouse; it sought to also charge her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, with kidnapping.

In August 2022, the Mississippi grand jury declined to prosecute Donham. The grand jury was considering charges of kidnapping and manslaughter, and they reviewed seven hours of testimony from people connected to the investigation since 2004.

In a memoir found in July 2022, Donham reportedly wrote that she did not know her claims that Till whistled at her and grabbed her would lead to his slaying. The title of her memoir was entitled, “I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle.”

The 99-page manuscript was obtained by professor and “Blood of Emmett Till” author Timothy Tyson, who claimed he got it while interviewing Donham in 2008.

Tyson initially agreed to archive it at the University of North Carolina, where it would remain private for decades, but he provided it to the FBI amid their investigation into Till’s case.

According to the Associated Press, Tyson eventually released Donham’s memoir to the public after news broke regarding the unserved arrest warrant.

FILE – In this Sept. 23, 1955, file photo, J.W. Milam, left, his wife, second from left, Roy Bryant, far right, and his wife, Carolyn Bryant, sit together in a courtroom in Sumner, Miss. Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who accused Black teenager Emmett Till of making improper advances before he was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 has died Tuesday night, April 25, in hospice care in Louisiana, according to a death report filed Thursday, April 27, 2023, in Calcasieu Parish Coroner’s Office in Louisiana. She was 88. (AP Photo/File)

In 1955, Till was visiting family in Money, Mississippi, when Donham, a 21-year-old cashier, accused him of whistling at her while he bought bubble gum.

Bryant and Milam tracked down Till before they shot and beat him to death. The 14-year-old was found in the river with a cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire.

An all-white, all-male jury acquitted Bryant and Milam for the gruesome crime in September 1955 after a mere hour of deliberation. Following their acquittal, the pair told Look magazine — for about $3,000 — about mutilating Till before sinking his body in a local river. Roy Bryant and Milam have since died.

A federal investigation was opened into the 14-year-old’s slaying in July 2018, a year after Tyson released “The Blood of Emmett Till.” In the 2017 book, Tyson alleged that Donham, then 72, told him in 2007 that she lied about crucial aspects of her testimony.

According to Tyson, Donham said she felt “tender sorrow” for Mamie Till-Mobley — the slain teen’s mother who died in 2003.

Emmett Till alongside his mother, Mamie Till Mobley [Image: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis]
The Justice Department opened its original investigation but closed it in 2007, finding nobody could face charges on the federal level due to the statute of limitations and available evidence. In December 2021, the agency closed its second investigation into the case.

Allegations revealed in Tyson’s book reportedly led federal investigators to question Donham again to determine whether she recanted her prior testimony and what information she could offer that could lead to charges for any other possible accomplices.

These 12 men were seated September 20, 1955 in the jury box to hear testimony and decide the fate of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, who are charged with slaying Emmett Louis Till. Left to right, in front row, are Gus Ramsey, James Toole, E.L. Price, J.A. Shaw, Jr., Ray Tribble, and Ed Devaney. Back row, Travis Thomas, George Holland, Jim Pennington, Davis Newton, Howard Armstrong, and Bishop Matthews. The alternate juror is not pictured. (AP Photo/stf)

During that meeting, Donham reportedly denied recanting her testimony to Tyson. According to reports, Donham’s comments to Tyson were not recorded or transcribed, and the author provided conflicting statements about whether a recording actually existed. Tyson allegedly took some notes about their conversation, but he failed to provide a solid timeline about when the confession occurred.

“When Carolyn herself [later] lost one of her sons, she thought about the grief that Mamie must have felt and grieved all the more,” Tyson told Vanity Fair in 2017.

Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral and allowed Jet magazine to publish photographs of her son’s disfigured and bloated corpse to call attention to what happened to her son. The unsettling photos are widely credited with sparking the American civil rights movement.

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[Featured image: Carolyn Bryant Donham/Facebook; Emmett Till/AP Photo, File]