One hundred years ago today, Will James was lynched as a murderer in Cairo, Illinois.
“The Frog” or “The Froggie” was a black man implicated in the murder of a white girl, captured in nearby Belknap and
taken to the most prominent square in the city and strung up. The rope broke and the man was riddled with bullets. The body was then dragged by the rope for a mile to the scene of the crime and burned in the presence of at least 10,000 rejoicing persons. Many women were in the crowd, and some helped to hang the negro and to drag the body.
Part of the mob then sought other negroes. Another part, at 11:15 o’clock, after battering down a steel cell in the county jail, took out Henry Salzner, a white man charged with the murder of his wife last August, and lynched him.* (New York Times, Nov. 12, 1912)
Other pictures related to the Will James lynching are at the Without Sanctuary site here (images 41 through 47).
The grey lady’s dim view of this jubilant scene prompted a letter to the editor in defense — the author’s disclaimer notwithstanding — of the lynching, which paints a grim and striking portrait of the town where it occurred.
Former Resident Says They Are Spoiled by Coddling and Are a Menace.
As a former resident of Cairo, Ill., where I was the editor of a daily newspaper for three years, I crave a word, not in defense of the double lynching which occurred there a few days ago, but in explanation of it. Cairo, at the extreme southern point of Illinois, at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, is peculiarly located. Across one river is Missouri; across the other is Kentucky, and Tennessee is only fifty miles away. Cairo thus becomes a buffer between the North and the South. It is probably the only town in the North which has a true race problem to deal with. … Out of a population of 13,000 in 1900, 5,000 of the inhabitants of Cairo were negroes. Of the 100,000 negroes in the State of Illinois 5 per cent are massed in this one little town. Aside from this, the floating colored population is unusually large, and Cairo, at some time or other, harbors most of the “bad niggers” from St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans. It is these whom citizens fear the most, and for whom the police are constantly alert. Murders by negroes either of white men or negroes are alarmingly frequent, but the murderer usually escapes either to Kentucky or Missouri, and is never heard of again. Thus crime after crime is recorded against the name of Cairo, with no recompense in the name of the law. On the other hand, there is hardly a time when there are not forty or fifty Cairo negroes in the Southern Illinois Penitentiary, all convicted of theft or burglary.
The white people of Cairo have always dealt indulgently with the negro. For years it has been the policy to keep two negroes on the small police force, and there have been negro Justices of the Peace. A negro physician once came near being elected a member of the Board of Education. While they pay but little taxes, the negroes are provided with three public schools. The Sumner was the first colored High School ever established in the United States. Yet this negro population, coddled as it is, is a constant menace to the town. No white woman dare venture outside of the house at night alone for fear of assault. Many outrages of which the world has never heard have been attempted. This is why, as Mayor Parsons says, the effect of the recent lynching will be “salutary.”
Altogether it is not surprising that a lynching took place in Cairo. The only wonder is that one did not take place long ago.
New York, Nov. 14, 1909
That electric arch and celebratory mob are now long gone from Cairo: in the century since Will James was butchered, Cairo, Ill., has withered — striken in part by its own poisonous legacy of racism. (Also by flooding from the adjacent rivers, the routing of transportation corridors elsewhere, and the general deindustrialization of the heartland.)
During the civil rights struggle as played out in Cairo in the 1960’s and 1970’s (more in this pdf), the town’s white business owners made a name for themselves by refusing to integrate their workforces in response to black boycotts … preferring to go out of business and/or leave town.
* Salzner’s lynching occurred after midnight, according to the same article; hence, his absence from this article’s marquee.