On this date in 1915, a quintet of African Americans died in South Carolina’s electric chair during a 70-minute span.
Joe Malloy was put to death for killing two white men four years before; the other four executed on this date were convicted together of murdering 73-year-old Confederate veteran John Q. Lewis. They were John Crosby, Nelse Brice, and — our principal concern today — Thomas and Meeks Griffin.
In this case, and even though public opinion was predictably inflamed at the aged veteran, the Griffins weren’t lynched: indeed, prominent white people in the community, such as the mayor and the sheriff, rose to the Griffins’ defense to the extent of signing a petition for executive clemency. They didn’t believe then that the thief whose accusation condemned the brothers was credible.
More than likely they suspected Lewis’s 22-year-old black mistress, Anna Davis, and/or her husband — and undoubtedly, they would have known exactly why this scandalous angle was not pursued in court.
Still, South Carolina’s governor reckoned that they’d had their day in court, the victims deserved closure, and whatever other equivalents of the familiar modern-day rationales one might care to name.
Almost surely, this distant injustice would be lost to time were it not for the Griffins’ famous great-nephew, the radio host Tom Joyner.
Joyner only recently discovered (via Henry Louis Gates Jr.‘s research for a PBS documentary*) his kinship with these executed men; his grandmother had moved away to Florida to bury the family tragedy.
But the broadcaster exhumed it with gusto, and, two years ago, was able to secure a posthumous pardon from South Carolina based on the weakness of the original case. It’s thought to be the first official posthumous pardon the state has granted to any executed persons.
But we do want to extend the Palmetto State the credit due to all its sons whose signatures graced the disregarded clemency petition way back when. More than that: The State editorialized, confusedly but forcefully, against the manifest racial discrepancies in capital sentencing on the occasion of this quintuple-execution. (Oct. 1, 1915) These questions, ever present, are more sincerely grappled with in this column than we can manage today.
* You can watch the big reveal when a flabbergasted Joyner first hears about his ancestors: it’s quite a moment.