(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1897, a 23-year-old black man named Harvey DeBerry was hanged for sexually assaulting his employer’s daughter.
His offense, this sexual assault, was a new one under the Tennessee statutes, different from the crimes of rape and attempted rape, and DeBerry was the first person in Shelby County to be convicted of it.
DeBerry was a live-in laborer on the Eigiman farm in Frayser Station, Tennessee, and his wife was the farm’s cook. Mr. and Mrs. Eigiman had three children aged seven, five and two. It was the oldest child, Elenora, that DeBerry assaulted on October 8, 1896.
At the time of the crime, Mr. Eigiman was in the hospital in Memphis recuperating from a fractured skull and a broken leg. Mrs. Eigiman went to see him that day, leaving her children in the care of the DeBerrys. She left Elenora in bed in her nightgown, because the little girl said she wasn’t feeling well.
When Mrs. Eigiman returned at the end of the day, Elenora was still in bed, crying and acting as if she was in pain. She refused to tell her mother what was wrong, and cried and moaned all night.
The next morning, her mother stripped the bed and found blood on the sheets. Mrs. Eigiman confronted her daughter, and Elenora said Harvey DeBerry had come into her room, lain on top of her and hurt her. That same day, a doctor was called to examine the victim. His findings, according to court documents, were as follows:
He found the child highly excited, nervous, and trembling; that the person of the child was swollen, and very tender to the touch; that the parts showed acute inflammation and swelling; that he found a purulent discharge, and a slight rupture of the hymen; that penetration had been partial, but not complete; that the acute inflammation, purulent discharge, and swelling indicated that the injury was recent. During the course of the examination the physician asked the child who hurt her, and she replied that ‘Harvey hurt her.’ The mother was not present when the child made this statement.
Harvey DeBerry fled when Mrs. Eigiman and Elenora confronted him with their accusations.
He turned up soon enough, though, living in Arkansas under the alias Frank Berry, and was extradited to Tennessee for trial. He was represented by a father-and-son team of black lawyers and offered two witnesses in his defense: a washerwoman who said there was no blood on Elenora’s clothing, and someone who said he and DeBerry were harvesting corn together at the time of the crime.
However, the prosecution was able to prove that DeBerry’s alibi witness was mistaken about the date, and the washerwoman had laundered Elenora’ clothing a full month before she was attacked.
Elenora testified about her experience at the trial, saying the reason she hadn’t immediately told her mother about the attack was that Harvey had threatened to kill her if she breathed a word about what he had done. The defense tried to convince the court that another man had abused the little girl, but Elenora denied this on the stand.
A jury acquitted DeBerry of two counts of rape, but convicted him of “assault and battery upon a female under ten years of age, with intent to unlawfully and carnally know her.” What exactly constituted “rape” when there was scant to no penetration was a grey area in Anglo jurisprudence, but with the sexual assault law it was six of one and a half-dozen of the other: both rape and sexual assault were capital offenses.
On the scaffold DeBerry was sobbing and appeared terrified.
A newspaper said later that his last words were “the ravings of a madman. There was no connection of coherency in what he said.”
When he stood on the trap and the sheriff pulled the lever, nothing happened. After an agonizing moment, a deputy stepped forward and pulled it a second time. This time the trap worked and DeBerry fell, cleanly breaking his neck. He was pronounced dead within twelve minutes.
As to whether he confessed before he died, the sheriff and the minister refused to say.
For a bit of period context, the same date that DeBerry hung lawfully saw the summary lynching of an unknown tramp in Manheim, Illinois, outside Chicago. That man attempted to outrage a farmer’s wife but was fought off by the “muscular German woman,” then led a desperate chase through woods and cornfields for half an hour until one of the pursuing posse finally plunked him with a gunshot.
The wounded assailant was searched for identity papers (none turned up), then instantly strung up on the nearest sturdy tree. (Source: The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), Aug. 20, 1897)