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.

On this day..

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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95 thoughts on “1916: Jesse Washington lynched after conviction”

  1. Thomas says:

    I was doing some random research on the history of lynching & ran by this story. I am thoroughly mortified by these images what actually went down in Waco 95 years ago. After all the stuff we’re taught in school and what I thought to be the most horrific situation in Emmitt Till’s death, this tops it all. I cried. Like really cried. I’m a 19 year old African-American male and when brutality, torture & sheer cruelty come to mind, Mr. Jesse Washington’s execution will come to thought for me. Right now I’m only 2 yrs older than the young man was. I am speechless. I never even heard of this before today & my inner-being weeps for Jesse almost 100 yrs later. I hope he knew Jesus as his Saviour, and I hope he’s looking down on us from Heaven. May God Bless his soul. Peace

  2. Real Nigga 17 says:

    i just want to know how someone could just stand by and watch this type of shit go down….. how could no one try to stop that shit like wtf is wrong wid people. this shit still go on today but not on a global scale.. KKK still exist and niggas still go missing soo it is never over. the law is just stricter and having a black president doesnt change the fact at all.

  3. godfather says:

    god will bless u, crude american

  4. anonymous says:

    Maybe if he didn’t confess to brutally raping and killing someone, he himself would not have faced this brutality…

    LIke they say, ” don’t start none, won’t be none..”

  5. Ashleigh Anderson says:

    Reading all of your comments and opinions is of some what interesting. I am 15 years old i am white, and actually not at all proud. I took History as a GCSE and we have recently watched the film Malcom X, absolutely amazing film, take my hat of too the man! But on the other side the whole story made me feel ill, im so young and i wish i could take racism away i really do.
    After watching the film we were told about Lynching. They do teach us this in schools and so they should, id be f***king furious if they didnt! what are they trying to do hide away the evil past that we created? Well fortunately no we have been told about this awful part of history, and all i can say is i truly hope this will never happen again
    but also if he had raped and murderd this young woman execution would have been acceptable but if im honest i think it was easier to blame the black man instead of the white. fucking disgusting.

  6. diablo says:

    this is just fuck up but us as people have to lok at this as the pass and trie and move on we cant go around picking fights with whites or trying to kill them for what there dumb ancestors did and the same for us blacks we dint go true that so we need to stop acting like we had to suffer we are pretty much in a word now were is more equal and so on let the pass be history and lets created our future on now and not depend on the pass

    1. David says:

      Why does anybody care about this piece of shit you folks act like the just grabbed this kid off the street and tormented him just because he was black, Uh NO Jesse Washington Brutally raped that poor woman and then smashed her head in with a hammer repeatedly. when the police found him his clothes were soaked in blood he showed the police where the hammer was and he CONFESSED it doesn’t matter whether it was during Jim Crow time’s Rape is Still Rape and Murder is Still Murder there are Thousand’s of examples of lynching’s done on innocent people just to reinforce white supremacy BUT Jesse Washington is nither a Victim Nor was he lynched Just for being black he was Lynched for Savage and despicable crime he committed when he decided to rape Lucy fryer in the middle of the night then bludgeon her to death with a metal hammer

  7. jake reed says:

    i wish it was still like this today!!!!!!!!!!!!! 🙂

  8. Caitlin says:

    I’m from Waco, and I am truly embarrassed. I wish I could I go back in time to fix this, but damage done. I hope that young man is in a much, much better place. If I could apologize to that man, I would in a heartbeat.

  9. DC says:

    Remember, Hiltler burned millions of white people, and he was white. My point is simple, your skin color does not make you evil, but not knowing God and not understanding that we will all be judged one day for our actions is a dangerous ignorance some people must face. Evil is simply evil and it comes in all colors.

  10. scumset says:

    Jack
    You are an idiot. Do you think a saint or giving soul would what such an act committed in their name? I found this great site and it’s too bad an idiot like you decided to post here.

  11. James says:

    Well, If “D” actually read this he would have also have seen that there was a lack of evidence against him, “….evidence is scant and the trial lasted just one hour….” this endicates that he was poorly judged and did not have as fair of a trial as he should have had. So please do us all a favor, do not type unless you have proof of what you say.

  12. Monica says:

    Oh my god, that is absolutely horrendous! It has got to be one of the worst cases of torture and suffering that i have heard about. Nobody deserves that, guilty or not! and the question of his guilt is not even known for certain. Those people smiling and egging it all on, gleefully enjoying watching his suffering like that, are not human, in my opinion.

    D, I can’t believe you could think that anyone would deserve such a fate, and for all you know, he may not have even been guilty of the crime in the first place. Shocking!

  13. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    D…I think it is exceedingly interesting that you will not provide you full name.

  14. D says:

    Are you people out of your mind? What do you think was going through that poor woman’s mind while that savage was raping and beating her,now some of you idiots think that is ok. I think it is a shame that he was not tortured more, anything he got, he more than deserved

  15. Solo says:

    i stay in Waco Tx I’ve heard about this lynching but i never was told it was like this i agree they should put up a plaque to remind everyone what happened to that young man guilty or not that is no way to die or be killed he went through the court system and the athorities allowed this to happen thats not right it really hurts me to think that people can be so cruel

  16. Jack says:

    Yes, they went overboard with this execution. That’s some cold hearted retribution.
    Let me go where no other poster here has gone, however. The victim. Lucy Fryer, maybe the community loved this woman so much who was raped and killed, and were so outraged they really went to town on jesse washington, albeit an unnecessary extreme act. This woman who was killed and raped may have been a saint to the community, a giving soul, maybe that’s why she died. but we don’t know, hardly a mention of her name, it’s all about how jesse washington suffered.
    I don’t defend what happened, mobs are bad for society. my first thoughts are with the victim however.

  17. lifes a rolar coaster says:

    those days were horrible.that was so wrong. there was no reason just because they were a different color.I’m Jewish,germ-in,Indian,and white so does that mean i would be one to be lynched because I’m not one race. that’s not fare!!

  18. youthadvocate says:

    I work with youth at juvenile hall, i will be conducting a workshop on the history of youth and the justice system in america…this picture will be a part of the discussion. school’s don’t teach this part of history for a reason and it needs to be shared.

  19. Lil Nig says:

    Its cruel to inflict a painful execution, but if he was guilty he deserved execution. Many white people were lynched for their crimes in the past. Negroes lynch each other every day in Americas cities – and still expect special treatment

  20. CurseOfCurves says:

    I feel so bad for this guy..I mean for all we know the husband could’ve done it! I really doubt he was convicted on any type of evidence that would be allowed in our courts today.

  21. Marcus Xavier says:

    Evry wite person shud be strug up like this an kiled

  22. Benjamin2 says:

    Just goes to show how dumb a yokel can get

    Ben’s gay

  23. Benjamin says:

    This makes me sick. I feel like throwing up!
    Damn Rednecks. They should go die.

  24. Mark says:

    Most of the people that did it were democrats. To this day, the democrats expect the black man to serve the democrats on the party plantation and faithfully vote democrat every time without ever really getting anything back (remember, the civil rights bills would not have been passed if it hadn’t been for lopsided republican support).

  25. ALONE says:

    everyone has there opinoin on how they feel its not ike anything is going to change. Yes we have a black president but that dosen’t mean that were going too have world peace soon. it jst means yes America is trying to make up for the past my fellow blacks had to endure. that dosen’t mean that we have to hate all whites and danm them to hell?? we have all said one thing or another i cant stand whites or blacks or even mexicans. cause im guilty of it mysellf but does that me me rasist no. so wiyth everyone going back and forth about how we feel an how bad America is just stop and think at least were not a third war counrty and getting shot and people killed at least we can walk out thr front door and feel safe. so lets stop downing on our America and have some pride and at least say yess we have had some problems in the past but Damn It at least were tring to move past an move on and try yo make u a better country. ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for a country. we need to be as one people!

  26. emily crossman says:

    you are some sick individuals you need to burn in hell for this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! why would you be smiling about something like this….ewwwww!!!

  27. B reanna says:

    son of a bitches

  28. Onas says:

    If he was found guilty of rape and murder, then he got what he deserved.

  29. Jim says:

    Dear God how can human beings be so brutal. That poor boy did not deserve that hideous fate. I cannot fathom this happened in America. How can Waco not face its crime and atone for its collective sins. We tied and punished the leaders of Nazi Germany for crimes such as this and in America these murderers celebrated their evil doing. Shame on all of us for not demanding that Waco and Texas apologize for its criminal behaviours over the years.

  30. Smelk says:

    Racism still exist! We are not born racist; it is taught. Remember it!

    Preachers, Doctors, Teachers and many other so called “respectful” people participated in this William Lynch mob.
    What do you think they are capable of doing today?

    Learn your history! History is taught so that we don’t repeat our mistakes.

  31. ravensdottir says:

    Marc: As an addendum: I have been in a race riot (right after MLK was assassinated) in Richmond- had my tailbone broken by a bunch of angry black boys; I was 9 at the time. I have also been refused service in a mostly non-white restaurant- because of my color. And I have had my education limited- deliberately, by a Mexican-American school administrator who wanted to make white kids feel repressed & marginalized (his claim to his supervisor, in front of me). On other other hand, Singapore, China is no better. There they have infanticide, practice abortions after the 7th month, & harvest organs out of political prisoners. They also tend to execute corrupt business owners for embarrassing China, but do nothing to correct the system that allows tainted food & drugs to be produced.

  32. ravensdottir says:

    Marc: Since when has the US matured? Aside from a black president, we also have schoolchildren chanting “Assassinate Obama!” days after the general election. They weren’t stopped by the adults- after all, they were just children – in a very Republican state. We also have many individuals very fearful now of a non-white president (in CT, a town councilman was suspended without pay for comparing Obama to the Antichrist). Granted, the level of violence has dropped, but that is only from the enforcement of the laws. I happen to be white, could care less what color or race anyone is, so long as we can get along as individuals & I’m not forced to follow a religion or cultural code not my own. Much of the violence right now is from immigrants refusing to assimilate & insisting that they keep their cultural norms, such as female genital mutilation, honor killings, & forcing women to wear “coverings” for their modesty.

  33. Marc says:

    Singaporean…….This thing happened a long time ago. The USA has since matured. Incidents like that simply don’t happen here anymore.

  34. singaporean says:

    This incident seriously disgusts me and made abandon all dreams of going to America.How can humans be so ignorant and incorrigible?

  35. abama 08 says:

    to George and Dr. R Clavan I just want to say that both of ya’ll can go straight to hell and burn just like thoses innocent people of our past have. Race and religion are things that we are born into, and cannot control, im sure both of ya’ll are white and wouldn’t understand that concept though. Your ignorance makes people all over the world look bad, you should be ashamed, how about we burn you or your old ass mother?

  36. JNR says:

    All lynchings are First Degree Murders, and nothing less. There is no justification for murder (lynching) and it should condemed without exception or qualification.

  37. George says:

    Rae…if you are so ashamed to be human…. do something about it.
    Don’t be so dramatic. It was a sign of the times. What Ashley J said about how can people so this to another human being…its easy..they didn’t consider him to be a “Human being”. That is how come humans can and do continue to treat each other like this. Another thing..its over…if it disgusts you so much, do something about the atrocities going on now…like women in the middle east being half buried in the ground and stoned to death. Now thats sick!!!!!

  38. Rae says:

    Dr. R. Claven: “They should do the same with today’s muslims.”

    That is just as disgusting as what these people did to the blacks. It’s people like you who make me sick to my stomach. We have fought so hard for racial equality, and now you’re against spiritual/religious equality. Grow up. It’s things like this that make me ashamed to be human.

  39. Dr.R. Clavan says:

    They should do the same with today’s muslims.

  40. ashley j says:

    wow… i was always so interested in history and particularly lynching. It is vile, disgusting and a sad way to die, but i find that i am very interested in the whole subject. THese people were obviously sick and very very spiteful. To hate another human being like this! Maybe he did do it and maybe he didnt, but no one deserved to be set ablaze and dragged through the city streets as more than 10,000 awed onlookers watch on. As a young African American woman, this makes me think of why some African Americans just cannot forgive whites.. The horrendous tales of Lynching should be taught more in class. We never got this far into it in high school

  41. Conor Worley says:

    Those were some very sick and depraved people.

  42. edgar austin says:

    this sickning to see i ask that each and every case of a unjustified lyching in waco be investigated there is a story of lynching on the same day that the two deadly tornados almost destroyed waco

  43. Lacresha Lowery says:

    This makes me angry and sick to my stomach. How can a human beings be so hatefull and ignorant?

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