Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee
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Describe what happened to Tom Robinson at the end of chapter 24 in To Kill a Mockingbird. Where did it happen? What was the situation? Who did it?

In chapter 24 of To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson attempts to escape the prison where he is being held as he awaits execution for the rape of Mayella Ewell. He did not actually commit this rape, and he was wrongfully convicted by a racist jury. While he is fleeing the prison, he is shot in the back by guards seventeen times. He dies from his wounds.

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In chapter 24, Atticus interrupts his sister's missionary circle and breaks the news of Tom Robinson's tragic death to Calpurnia, Miss Maudie, Alexandria, and Scout in the privacy of the kitchen. Atticus tells the women that Tom Robinson tried to escape from the Enfield Prison Farm during an exercise period and was gunned down by the prison officers when he attempted to climb the fence. Atticus was told that Tom "broke into a blind raging charge" towards the fence and began climbing over as the officers instructed him to stop. Tragically, Tom did not heed their directives or stop when he heard their warning shots.

Tom continued to climb and would have possibly made it over if he had two good hands. Unfortunately, the prison officers shot him seventeen times, which Atticus finds excessive. After Atticus tells the story of Tom's tragic death, he mentions that he thought they had a reasonable chance to win their appeal and cannot believe that Tom would take such a risk. Despite Atticus's optimism, Tom was "tired of white men’s chances and preferred to take his own." Atticus then requests Cal to travel with him to Tom's home so he can break the news to Helen Robinson. After Atticus leaves, Aunt Alexandra expresses her concern for her brother's well-being, and Miss Maudie comforts her. Once Alexandra, Miss Maudie, and Scout regain their composure, they return to the living room and resume socializing with the local ladies without missing a beat.

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At the end of chapter 24, Atticus comes in during a Missionary Society meeting that Aunt Alexandra is hosting. He takes Alexandra and Calpurnia aside and tells them that Tom Robinson has been shot and killed trying to escape from prison. He wants Calpurnia to come with him and help him break the news to Robinson's wife.

Atticus explains that Tom had given up hope of obtaining justice through an appeal, so he tried to break out of the prison yard by running for the wall and attempting to scramble over it. He was fast, but his disabled arm slowed him down, giving the guards a chance to shoot him seventeen times.

This story is hearsay. Atticus didn't see what happened, but is reporting what he was told. Atticus has an authoritative voice in the novel, so we can generally assume that anything he says is true. However, the story does sound as if it could have been contrived, given that the novel has already established that white townspeople wanted to lynch Robinson earlier. The guards asserting that Robinson was trying to make a prison break almost too conveniently justifies shooting him. Atticus adds that he didn't need to be shot so many times. The number seventeen is associated with perfection in the Bible, so this is another symbol of Robinson's innocence.

Frustratingly, Alexandra makes this all about Atticus. As Scout watches, her aunt turns pale and puts her hands over her face. She then states,

It tears him to pieces. He doesn’t show it much, but it tears him to pieces. I’ve seen him when—what else do they want from him...?

It is ironic that while Tom Robinson has almost literally been torn to pieces with seventeen bullet wounds, Alexandra is more concerned about the metaphorical pain that Atticus experiences.

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In chapter 24, during Aunt Alexandra's women's missionary society meeting, it was reported that Tom Robinson was shot in jail.

According to this report, the police guards in the prison shot Tom Robinson during the time for exercise. The report stated Tom ran for the fence to escape in a frenzy. The report also stated that the police told him to stop and then they shot a few times into the air to warn him, but it was to no avail. 

The police also stated that he would have made it over the fence, if he had two good arms. Finally, they shot him seventeen times.

The question is whether this report is accurate or not. In an unjust society what is said might not actually be what happened. And the very fact that Tom was shot seventeen times is suspicious. 

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In chapter 24 of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson, improperly convicted of raping a white woman by a racist jury in this southern Alabama town, has been sent to the Enfield Prison Farm where he awaits the final disposition of his sentence. As Atticus points out to Jem, “You know rape’s a capital offense in Alabama,” clearly implying that Tom will be executed for a crime he didn't commit. Once at the prison farm, Tom apparently has had enough of the racism that has ruined what life he had and understandably has no confidence in a criminal justice system that has railroaded him on the basis of flimsy, contrived circumstantial evidence. Even though Atticus is confident that he can win an appeal of Tom's conviction, the framed inmate cannot conceptualize such an outcome and—according to the prison guards—decided to make a run for it. As Atticus describes the chain of events,

“They shot him,” said Atticus. “He was running. It was during their exercise
period. They said he just broke into a blind raving charge at the fence and started climbing over. Right in front of them—”

Tom was shot seventeen times by the guards and died.

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Tom Robinson is shot trying to escape from the prison.  The prisoner gaurd said they were out in the exercise yard and Tom took off running toward the fence.  The guards shot Tom 17 times in the back as he tried to climb over the fence.  The guard told Atticus that if Tom had two good arms, he would have made it. They yelled at Tom to stop and shot several warning shots before they killed him.   Atticus tells Calpurnia that he had tried to tell Tom that they had a good chance on apeal, but he guessed Tom had simply "gotten tired of the white man's" justice and tried to run away.

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One of the main conflicts in the novel concerns Atticus's defense of an innocent black man named Tom Robinson, who was falsely accused of assaulting and raping a white woman. Atticus recognizes that he has virtually no chance of winning the case but valiantly defends his client in front of a racist jury and audience. Although Atticus proves Tom's innocence and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Tom raped Mayella, he becomes the unfortunate victim of racial injustice when is he wrongly convicted in chapter 21. Following Tom's wrongful conviction, he is sent to Enfield Prison Farm, which is seventy miles away in Chester County.

While Tom is incarcerated at Enfield Prison Farm, Atticus immediately begins working on his appeal. Despite the outcome of the trial, Atticus believes he has a good chance of winning the appeal. In chapter 24, Atticus interrupts Aunt Alexandra's missionary circle and Scout listens as he tells his sister, Maudie, and Calpurnia that Tom Robinson was shot dead attempting to escape from the prison farm. According to Atticus, Tom took off running during an exercise period and attempted to climb the surrounding fence. The prison guards responded by shooting Tom seventeen times and killing him. After Atticus informs them of Tom's tragic death, Calpurnia agrees to go with him to break the news to Tom's wife, Helen Robinson. Helen Robinson is devastated by the sad news, and Mr. Underwood writes a moving editorial regarding Tom's death by comparing it to the "senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children."

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Tom Robinson is shot trying to escape while in prison.

The trial of Tom Robinson is the trial of the century for Maycomb, Alabama.  A black man accused of raping a white girl is big news.  The case is not so simple as black and white, however.  It threatens to tear apart several families in Maycomb.

The Ewells are a poor white family that lives near the town dump.  They are mostly illiterate because they never send their children to school for very long.  They do not have jobs.  Bob Ewell gets relief checks from the government and hunts to feed his family.  No one is even sure how many children there are.

Tom Robinson is a black man from a respectable family, but no one in Maycomb really respects anyone of color.  Tom Robinson felt sorry for young Mayella Ewell, the oldest Ewell, because she was responsible for taking care of the entire Ewell brood.  She seemed desperate and lonely, so he helped her when she needed it and she paid him a nickel for small chores.  One day she tried to kiss him.

Mayella was caught with Tom Robinson by her father, and he assumed the worst.  She accused Tom Robinson of rape, and he was arrested.  Judge Taylor assigned respected lawyer Atticus Finch to defend him.  Unlike most of Maycomb, Atticus was not willing to give up on his client just because he was black.  That did not mean, however, that he felt he could win the case.

During the trial, Atticus made a big deal out of the fact that Mayella was beat up on her right side by someone who had to be left-handed.  He also proved that Bob Ewell was left handed, and that he often beat Mayella.  He established that Mayella never saw a doctor, and there was no proof she was even raped.

The clincher for Atticus's case was that Tom Robinson was crippled.  He did not have use of his left hand at all because of a farming accident when he was young.  Despite this, as the prosecutor Mr. Gilmer demonstrated, Tom Robinson was incredibly strong.  Robinson also said that he felt sorry for Mayella, which was a big mistake.  A black man should not admit to feeling sorry for a white woman.

In his closing argument, Atticus reminded people that the case should be decided on facts and not on the preference for believing a white woman over a black man.

“… I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.” (Ch. 20)

The jury deliberated longer than anyone thought possible, but they still came back with a guilty verdict and Tom Robinson went to prison.  Atticus was dejected, but told his client that they had a chance on appeal.  It was too much for Tom Robinson. He had been locked up long enough, and the injustice of what happened finally got to him.

Tom Robinson tried to jump the fence of the prison, which was difficult with one hand.  He was shot trying to escape.  It was suicide.

“We had such a good chance,” he said. “I told him what I thought, but I couldn’t in truth say that we had more than a good chance. I guess Tom was tired of white men’s chances and preferred to take his own. …” (Ch. 24)

The death of Tom Robinson was not enough for Bob Ewell.  He had been humiliated by Atticus’s accusations at the trial, and spat in his face.  Ewell vowed to get Atticus, but Atticus did not take him seriously until Bob Ewell tried to attack his children.  The Finches’ reclusive neighbor Boo Radley defended them, killing Bob Ewell and putting an end to things.

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