Down through the decades, Carolyn Bryant Donham (she would divorce, then marry twice more) was a mystery woman. An attractive mother of two young boys, she had spent approximately one minute alone with Till before, in view of others, the alleged whistling had occurred. (He may not have whistled; he was said to have a lisp.) Carolyn then dropped out of sight, never speaking to the media about the incident. But she is hidden no more. In a new book, The Blood of Emmett Till (Simon & Schuster), Timothy Tyson, a Duke University senior research scholar, reveals that Carolyn—in 2007, at age 72—confessed that she had fabricated the most sensational part of her testimony. “That part’s not true,” she told Tyson, about her claim that Till had made verbal and physical advances on her. As for the rest of what happened that evening in the country store, she said she couldn’t remember. (Carolyn is now 82, and her current whereabouts have been kept secret by her family.)
Tyson’s book, to be published next week, was preceded by the definitive study of the case, Devery S. Anderson’s masterful Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, which was published in 2015 by the University Press of Mississippi. (Last week, John Edgar Wideman’s meditation on Till, Writing to Save a Life, was named a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.) Still, no author save Tyson has ever interviewed Carolyn Bryant Donham. (Her ex-husband and brother-in-law are both dead.) “That case went a long way toward ruining her life,” Tyson contends, explaining that she could never escape its notoriety. His compelling book is suffused with information that Donham, over coffee and pound cake, shared with him in what he calls a “confessional” spirit.