“Not only the citizens of Aberdeen,” began the Feb. 23, 1900 Baltimore Sun, “but practically those of the whole of Harford county are wrought up to a high degree by the assault which was committed here upon Miss Jessie Bradford, the 15-year-old daughter of Mr. Edward Bradford, a well-to-do and respected farmer.”
A posse of mounted men was even then abroad hunting the suspect, a black shantytown dweller said to have assaulted the “prepossessing, well developed” girl with the “clear, wax-like complexion” as the latter returned on the train tracks to her uncle’s home. A conductor on a passing train had seen them struggling in the ditch and left a note (“Negro raping a white woman”) at the next stop; Miss Bradford, too, survived the trauma and gave an eyewitness description of her assailant that pointed at William Black.*
“The inhabitants of the county will spare no pains nor sacrifices to run down the miscreant,” the Sun concluded.
And we think we have a pretty good idea just what this running down would be liable to entail, since it was only days after Black’s capture that residents of a Harford county town went and lynched another African-American accused of attacking a white woman.
Black had managed to keep on the run for a week and get himself out of Harford County to Baltimore before he was arrested. He certainly owed his lease on the last few months of his life to eluding the outraged citizens.
Indeed, three months after the rape, the state’s attorney filed to handle the case in Baltimore rather than in Harford county on account of the continuing “probability of the negro being lynched had he been brought [to Harford county] for trial … it would only be the work of a few short minutes if he landed here.” (Sun, May 24, 1900) Passions had not cooled: to the contrary, it had since become known that Black had already been released from a previous prison term for a similar crime in neighboring Cecil County, and the law-and-order set was up in arms with the hempen fin de siecle version of a three strikes law.
Black’s professed relief at evading the rigors of lynch law was to be short-lived.
A steady drumbeat of coverage for the “Aberdeen Outrage,” the “Miss Bradford Assault”, or whatever other salacious description could be conjured, kept him in papers as public enemy number one; Jessie Bradford, so very young and so very white, tearfully testified against Black in a scene that cannot have failed to stir the three-judge tribunal. (Black sensibly opted against a jury trial.)
He would remain lodged in Baltimore right up until his hanging in Bel Air back in Harford county, as a precaution against the mob. He was there long enough to see another of his race precede him: one Amos Smith, who hanged in Baltimore City Jail on August 3, fraternally comforting his fellow-sufferer that “I am only going ahead of you a few days and will be in the other world to meet you when you come.”** (Sun, Aug. 3, 1900)
Actually getting Black across that Styx in the legally prescribed fashion would require some craft on the part of the lawmen.
Even though the sentence was sure, the good folk of Harford County were feared violently inclined to prefer personally administering the judgment. Harford Sheriff Andrew Kinhart, said the Sun (Sep. 1, 1900), “stole a march on the watchful public” anticipating its potential victim arriving on a 9:30 train by racing his “exceedingly nervous” prisoner from Baltimore to Bel Air under cover of darkness, arriving at 5:40 a.m. in time for Black’s hearty if secretive last breakfast in the company of his wife, and then proceeding swiftly to the scaffold before the rabble could get wind of what was going on. It was a high-risk ploy as it entailed leaving behind in Baltimore Black’s armed escort in the interests of stealth — but it did work, our scribe judging the unhappy business to have been conducted “creditably”.
* Black persisted in his innocence at trial, and up to his execution. Though condemned prisoners’ assertions of virtue are hardly the most reliable gauge, neither are eyewitness statements … although in this case, Black reportedly admitted to the crime in the last hours before his death.
Part of the Themed Set: Americana.