1941: Maurice Bavaud, who couldn’t get a shot off 1569: Dirk Willems, for loving his enemy

1916: Jesse Washington lynched after conviction

May 15th, 2008 dogboy

Lynching is such a vile word. Likely taken from the name of Captain William Lynch of Virginia (circa 1780), the term for administering justice while dispensing with a trial had, by 1916, long since taken on its more common meaning of a white-on-black public killing.

But Jesse Washington‘s case defies this simple definition, straddling the line between state execution and an unrestrained populace. Washington’s brutal lynching at the hands of a white mob in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916, clearly fits the definition, and the particularly grisly details of his demise conjure all-too-familiar images of violent racism in the pre-Civil Rights South; but in another more disturbing way, Washington was effectively executed, his punishment carried out not by the state of Texas, but by the people themselves.

Jesse Washington’s charred corpse after the lynching.

Washington was born in 1899, a black farmhand who may or may not have been mentally retarded.* While his life is not well-documented, his death most certainly is. Washington was arrested on May 8 of that year for the rape and murder of Lucy Fryer, the 53-year old wife of a well-to-do cotton farmer. Fryer was found bludgeoned to death. Washington was spared for a week by the Waco sheriff, who successfully took him into custody before a pre-trial mob got their hands on him; Washington was then sent to Dallas for holding to prevent a local incident. To appease the mob, he was transferred back to Waco and tried for the crime just one week later.

It’s unclear whether Washington was guilty — evidence is scant and the trial lasted just one hour, but Washington appears to have had ample opportunity to perpetrate the act and is purported to have confessed — but his guilt or innocence in the matter was not on the mob’s mind. On May 15, the well-attended trial ended, and in four minutes, the jury reached its guilty verdict. Before the 17-year old could be sentenced, and with little or no resistance offered by any of the various legal entities in the courthouse, several hundred of the onlookers (some brandishing weapons) rushed Washington and carried him out the doors. Outside, a larger crowd waited to beat and castrate him. A chain was thrown around Washington’s neck, and he was dragged to the town square, where he met an immense crowd as well as the pile of dry goods boxes that was to be his end.

A Fred Gildersleeve image of the lynching of Jesse Washington.

By some estimates, up to 15,000 (mostly white, though not exclusively white) people watched the horrible events unfold; without question, Waco’s mayor as well as several other public officials watched from their second-story perch at town hall on one side of the square. Washington was tossed onto the boxes and coal oil was poured over him. The other end of the chain was thrown over what has become known as the Hanging Tree, and the fuel below Washington’s feet was set ablaze. Immersed in the flames, he attempted to climb the blisteringly hot chain multiple times, each time to be lowered back into the cauldron. It’s unclear how long Washington was alive, but the event lasted more than an hour, after which his fingers and teeth were claimed as souvenirs, his body parts were separated from the torso, and the remains of Washington were dumped in a bag so they might be dragged once more through the Waco streets.

Also watching from the mayor’s position was a cameraman who wanted to sell photographs of Washington’s charred corpse as postcards. Fred Gildersleeve snapped a series of images which would briefly make Waco the most shamefully famous city in the nation. Gildersleeve’s work paints a portrait of a town possessed by spite and uncontrolled rage: thousands of white spectators standing about the burning body of Washington from above, then hundreds of blacks gathered around his burned and brutalized remains from ground level. Others took pictures as well,
some more disturbing than others.

A complete and startlingly brutal account of this murder is given by Patricia Bernstein in her 2005 book The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP, which also tracks the increased viability of the NAACP in the wake of the slaying. What makes this case noteworthy for this column, though, is that Washington was found guilty prior to his lynching, and he would doubtless have received a state-supported death sentence. At the time, Texas law would have allowed for a public hanging; presumably, the spectacle surrounding Washington’s execution would have been just as significant (though not nearly as gruesome). Instead, vigilante justice was administered on the young farmhand, and his case because a linchpin for the Civil Rights movement. As with other lynchings of the time, no persons were charged in the incident, though it was obvious that there was significant planning involved and, from some of the images, that some form of self-appointed executioner actively participated in the deed.

Unlike a state-sponsored execution, though, Washington’s death raised the ire of the jury foreman, who harshly criticized the court for not protecting him. And because he was lynched, his cause was also taken up by several Northern papers, pushed into the national spotlight by NAACP secretary Royal Freeman Nash and Elisabeth Freeman.** Over 90 years later, the town of Waco is still dealing with the Waco Horror. The lynching has reared its head multiple times as many residents have pushed for a plaque to be erected on the site of the lynching, as one was for a distressingly large number of prior lynchings in Waco. Some in the town continue to resist, asserting that Washington’s guilt absolved the mob of responsibility for its act.

A postcard commemorating the lynching; written on the back: “This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe [Myers].”

Washington’s case raises two of the critical issues in the modern death penalty debate: culpability of the executioner (and witnesses), and cruelty of punishment. Nobody in the mob was prosecuted for the crime, and in the Waco of that day, it would have been unusual if someone had; today, we take little interest in the state executioner but would vociferously condemn such mob action. On a similar note, Washington’s death was barbaric and brutal, and few would argue that such an execution should be undertaken through legal channels, but recent Supreme Court cases have found it difficult to identify the meaning of “cruel and unusual punishment”. The debate continues in the United States, but these are two arguments, posed by Cesare Beccaria, that caused Leopold II to outlaw capital punishment in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1789, and cases like Washington’s suggest they should continue at the very least to give us pause today.

* Some accounts state simply that he was illiterate, and if this is the litmus test for mental retardation in the early 1900s, around 6 percent of the population fell into that category.

** Freeman worked tirelessly to drag information from Waco’s inhabitants, her actions likely sparking papers like the local Waco Times-Herald to quickly shut the door on the case; that paper officially apologized 90 years later for its and other newspapers’ roles in venerating the lynch mob.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mature Content,Murder,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,Torture,USA

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76 Responses to “1916: Jesse Washington lynched after conviction”

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  1. 51
    Rebecca Says:

    This makes me ashamed to be white

  2. 52
    Rachel Says:

    My heart cries too. This is so terrible just terrible….he could have been mentally unstable and unable to determine right from wrong. He was also only 17 not nearly mature enough fathom the consenquences of his actions. Mercy should had been implified. This is just pure concentrated, ficticously justified, evil. I pray for all those people involved and for forgiveness for poor Jesse. Had it been my mother…..seing this would only make me feel worse. Torturing a retarded teenage boy did not bring the woman back. I fear the lords anger for this brutal act.

  3. 53
    Rachel Says:

    We should all pray for God’s forgiveness for this unjustice…….lord please forgive us

  4. 54
    Rachel Says:

    My heart will not let me sleep with this injustice! I returned to this website because I felt persocuted by our lord and father to see what sheer brutality to innocence humans may display! Im sorry Jesse you poor creature that it took so many years for someone who loves you who is in a position they can help……but I am individually successful and I am reaching out. MORE PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW. Please help me help him my facebook is: facebook.com/ybagirl
    and my email is: rachelaibass@gmail.com

  5. 55
    Rachel Says:

    Dear lord please tell Jesse Washington I offer you love. Please stop haunting me. I promise I will do whatever it takes to honor his death. I jus don’t know where to begin but as a business major.
    I am ready to invest in absolving this indespeakable execution of cruel and unusual punishment which the 8th ammendment of the United States clearly states that the procedure of cruel and unusual puncishment was to be abolished in 1890!!!!!! This torture filled execution which went on with him grasping at the firey chains of his doom in a natural human defense to avoid pain/death carried on for more than an HOUR! The year was 1916. I encourage ANY KIN of Jesse Washington to pursue LEGAL COMPENSATION for this CRIMINAL IMMORAL EXECUTION. Legal advice will be offered at no charge from me. Please contact.

  6. 56
    George Dubya Says:

    That’s just the way things roll for da black man.

  7. 57
    SATAN Says:

    Sick, sociopathic, weak, cowardly, evil – the pure vileness of so many humans is not expressable by any single word – all those who were gratified by participating in this orgy of ultra-extreme sadism face judgement by the Universe/God – and it will be infinitely worse than what they did to this poor teenager. You reap what you sew and you will get yours. (Most are now dead and so already in that space. SUFFER – forever!)

  8. 58
    elley Says:

    If he can not read how did he sign a confession. The mentioning of the confession is irrelevant if he can not read he paper signed. The only evidence against this man was the signed paper he can not read. Furthermore it appeared that the husband killed her. What an evil people who could do so many inhumane acts and continue with spite. So awful.

  9. 59
    There’s a Little Klansman in Your Head « Able Archer 83 Says:

    [...] This is not strictly a political problem, it just becomes one when personal problems push it into the greater society. Zimmerman is probably¬†a racist. He fits the profile, and his actions speak pretty loudly. If he were doing this in 1919, nobody (southerners in particular) would’ve batted an eye. They’d probably throw a barbecue. [...]

  10. 60
    Melissa Says:

    My heart bleeds for Jesse. A child who became victim of such a vile crime. God bless you, i pray you are resting with the angels and free from pain.And to those who did this i pray you are forever suffering the same pain you forced upon Jess for all eternity. Shame on you all.

  11. 61
    ExecutedToday.com » 1928: William Edward Hickman, Randian superhero? Says:

    [...] largely to the sob-sister and the sentimentalist. At the other extreme stands the mob spirit and lynch law, equally destructive of the foundations of society. Criminals should be judged without passion, [...]

  12. 62
    Michael Rajczyk Says:

    my wife has an African American friend well versed in history. When I told her of the more than 10.000 Waco Texans watching it, and that there were also black Americans there , she was not surprised and told me that often in these lynchings the KKK ordered everyone in town–including the town’s black population , to attend (“or else”). So it appears that, besides the smiling retards in the front having there pictures taken, not all and maybe most of the people were there by coercion

  13. 63
    Dee Dee Says:

    This is a sad story.

  14. 64
    Truth Says:

    He had a bloody hammer, confessed to killing her and was found covered in blood. Look up the murder, he had necrophilia with the body as well. I’m not making it up, Wikipedia has this information as well. The article cherry picks making him sympathetic but he is most certainly guilty.

  15. 65
    spanner Says:

    what a pathetic outpouring of misguided pity from some of the commenters above – get a grip people – it was nothing to do with you or any of us ..as for the one who said; ‘it was ashamed to be white’ because of what happened, …..puuurrrlllease, what the hell is wrong with you. Grow up, and if you *must* take on the blame for the worlds problems go and work in a soup kitchen or animal sanctuary.

  16. 66
    Meaghan Says:

    Whether or not he was guilty is not really the point. The point is he was lynched by a mob and nobody did anything to stop it. That should not have happened.

  17. 67
    God Is Love Says:

    I wonder why God let this happen. Its all a lesson somehow.. Although things aren’t much better for us, we should join together in peace to over these tragedies.

  18. 68
    J Says:

    first of all, do not use God as an excuse! God did not let this happen, we did! we are all responsible for our actions – and in a way for other peoples actions.

    This is barbaric and horrible, and it chokes me to the very bone how people can be capable of such acts. It is beyond me how anyone can believe that anyone is inferior whether it is by colour or sexuality.

  19. 69
    Adem Says:

    The REALLY SAD PART is 95% of the present day White race would do it RIGHT NOW given the chance, & if they thought they could get away with it!!!. The average feelings & treatment of MOORS (cause there is NO BLACK race= black is a color not ethnic group) to this day HASN’T CHANGED, it has covertly gotten worse!!

  20. 70
    Suzanne sandmeier Says:

    Wow, This makes the Nazi look empathetic because @ least they used gas before the burning. It’s amazing to me how low man can go. I have to guess that no he was not well represented in his lawyer & I’m sure the evidence was @ best scant. Not hard to set up a autistic, unable to read young black man in 1916 Texas. Folks, this is why we need government & regulations & mandates because leave the people to govern themselves & it’s jaw dropping what they are capable of. Waco, you need to make this right, build a statue or plaque on site & state how wrong this is, apologize!!!

    Sooz

  21. 71
    Ayuel Akuien Says:

    The ancestors were very disordered and they did some evils in the history of the world. not washington who was killed like that alone but many africans have experienced barbaric kiling. people are still being killed like animals in Africa today leave alone the past.

  22. 72
    Suzanne Says:

    Ayuel Akuien, If we do not teach about the past or right wrongs of the past, the past has a way of repeating itself, that’s why history is so important. We do learn from prior mistakes, in our everyday life & our history, it’s repeating these mistakes that’s unacceptable. So Ayuel, do NOT leave alone the past!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  23. 73
    Olivia Says:

    I just cant stop Crying

  24. 74
    BlackPower Says:

    I wander what that poor women felt like while this vile animal was violating her and taking her life. U sympathizers make me sick. This type of incident deters this type of behavior! Look around. I guarantee violent crime against women is more prevalent now than it was back then. And so is crime perpetuated by blacks who know they can get away with it.

  25. 75
    Suzanne sandmeier Says:

    Black Power, Your a real gem, true asset to society………………………….NOT. Obviously your proof racism is alive & well here in present time, & actually you make me sick! I bet he didn’t even commit the crime BUT I’m sure one of your toothless, wife beating ancesters would be the first to accuse. Your name should read white power which I’m sure is what you represent under the guise black power. Hey, you are dumb enough to believe crimes against woman are worse now…………..with all the media access I’m sure they just weren’t reporting it then, your definitely a case of how far down the public school system has gone.Educate yourself & you won’t embarrass yourself the next time you make such a dumb comment genius. Woman weren’t even allowed to vote then more or less turning a man in to the law for beating her, no way. Your so stupid it’s scarey!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  26. 76
    Pollymint Says:

    Found this last night, via a friends Facebook post, its the cruellest, most disgusting assault and Murder! I have ever read, apart from the Nazi Camps, this lad must have suffered horrendously before he died, his poor mother? whether he killed the lady or not( and I doubt it) he was just handy! its a disgrace, and all those who took part, and helped in this young mans death I hope are all feeling their own flames in hell, absolute mockery of a society you had in USA then, as far as I can see there was no difference in Waco and Nazi Germany during the war, god forgive the lot of you who think this was OK.

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