On this date in 1895, three black women and two black men were lynched in Greenville, Alabama for the murder of Watts Murphy, white.
Watts was a “young man of great prominence” who was said to be the nephew of Alabama’s former governor, Thomas H. Watts. He was killed on April 17, aged about thirty. When he failed to arrive home, his family began looking for him. Finally, one of the family servants confessed to what he knew: Watts had been working in the field with six black people, three men and three women, and one of the men hit him on the head with a tree limb. The others beat him unconscious and carried his body to a secluded area, where the women gathered loose brush, piled it on top of Watts’s body, and set the heap ablaze.
Newspapers reported grisly details about the crime, saying that the murderers kept piling wood on the fire until there was nothing left but the victim’s teeth, his heart and his liver, which “for some unknown reason failed to burn.”
Just why the murder happened has been lost to history, and various contradictory rumors floated around. According to one story, one of the men planned to kill him in revenge for “an imaginary wrong of a trivial nature.” In another account, it was an impulsive act of violence, the result of an argument.
Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.), April 22, 1895
Zeb Caley or Calley, Martha Greene, Alice Greene, Mary Deane, and John Rattler were arrested on April 20 near Butler Springs, Alabama, and charged with murder. (The third man who was implicated, left unnamed in press reports, got away.) A group of men was charged with transporting the five prisoners sixteen miles to the security of jail in Greenville. They set off at 11:00 p.m. At 3:00 a.m., while the party was en route, a mob of approximately 100 men brandishing Winchester rifles surprised the party on the road, surrounded them and took the prisoners away.
The members of the mob tied each person’s hands, lead them one by one to the side of the road, and hanged them from trees. Later that day the bodies were seen by people passing by on their way to church.
On April 29, the sixth suspect in the crimes, who has never been identified, was found hanging from a tree in the same general area as the other ones. He had been dead for about a day.
This date in 1859 saw the first hanging in Denver — then a nascent mining town known as Denver City.
Denver in 1859 was clinging to end of a long western extrusion of the Kansas Territory, but had John Stoefel managed to refrain from murder just two years longer he might have had the privilege to be the first to hang in Colorado Territory instead.
Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Mass.), April 6, 1859
On a New York to San Francisco overland odyssey, newsman Horace “Go West Young Man” Greeley arrived in Denver in June, missing our milestone hanging by weeks; his annals (being dispatched east for publication) describe a hardscrabble* place that “can boast of no antiquity beyond September or October last.”
Prone to deep drinking, soured in temper, always armed, bristling at a word, ready with the rifle, revolver, or bowie-knife, they give law and set fashions which, in a country where the regular administration of justice is yet a matter of prophecy, it seems difficult to overrule or disregard. I apprehend that there have been, during my two weeks sojourn, more brawls, more pistol shots with criminal intent in this log city of 150 dwellings, not three-fourths of them completed, nor two-thirds of them inhabited, nor one-third fit to be, than in any community of equal numbers on earth.
No surprise, the first outright murder case to blot the infant city implicated two prospectors: our villain John Stoefel, one of a party of German emigres, shot his brother-in-law Thomas Biencroff on April 7 for his gold dust. From that point, Stoefel had 48 hours to live; standing on only the barest pretense of legal nicety, a “people’s court” convened to try and condemn Stoefel on the basis of his own confession, then immediately hanged him to an obliging tree.
The affair was reported in the very first issue of the Rocky Mountain News, a newspaper that debuted two weeks after Stoefel’s execution/lynching and was destined to survive until 2009.
* Greeley: “It is likely to be some time yet before our fashionable American spas, and summer resorts for idlers will be located among the Rocky Mountains.” You’ve come a long way, Colorado.
Maria del Rosario Villa had abandoned her husband Domingo Felix (or Feliz) back in 1834 to take up with a vaquero named Gervasio Alipas (or Alipaz). The honor-stricken husband spent two years fruitlessly trying to reconcile until in 1836 at his behest the alcalde successfully pressured Maria into returning to her husband.
But on the couple’s return trip to their ranch, the lover Alipas intercepted them and did the husband Felix to death. Narciso Botello’s* annals describe that Alipas “took hold of his [Felix’s] horse and threw himself on Felix, grabbed him by his neckerchief, and pulled him off, dragging him along downhill and twisting the neckerchief, strangling him” — then pitched the choking victim into a gully where he finished him off with a machete. “Later it was proven by the tracks that the wife had been present.” (Source) She helped him dump the body near San Gabriel Mission, too.
Outraged both by the dastardly murder and by the wanton violation of matrimony that precipitated it, a gang of 55 organized themselves as a Junta of the Defenders of the Public Safety, led by Victor Prudon, a recent arrival to the area from the Hijar-Padres colony.** As no militia could be mustered inclined to oppose its will, on April 7 the junta forced open the jail where Alipas was interred, stood him up behind a church, and shot him to death. Villa — being held in an apartment at a private residence — was likewise forced out and marched to a nearby stable where she got the same treatment.
The vigilantes deposited the bodies back at the jail with the communique,
Junta of the Defendres of the Public Safety —
To the First constitutional Alcalde:
The dead bodies of Gervacio Alispaz and Maria del Rosario Villa are at your disposal. We also forward you the jail keys that you may deliver them to whomsoever is on guard. In case you are inned of men to serve as guards we are at your disposal.
God and Liberty. Angeles, April 7, 1836.
Victor Prudon, President
Manuel Arzaga, Secretary
And that was the end of the Defenders of the Public Safety, who disbanded a few days later, never to reconstitute. Indeed, while vigilance committees became regular features on the Californian landscape in later years, this is the sole such incident ever known to have occurred there under Spanish or Mexican rule.
* A Mexican who would serve two terms in the state assembly of California after it became a U.S. state in 1850.
** Mexico at this point was still in its first generation of independence; its hold on sparsely-populated California was not strong — and the missions set down there to convert natives to Christianity and project a Spanish presence had Russian competition.
The Hijar-Padres colony (Padres was the name of the colony’s organizer, Hijar its financier) was a nucleus of 200-odd souls dispatched to settle in California by one of the liberal intra-Santa Anna governments. The leaders soon became embroiled in a complex political rivalry with California’s governor and the colony itself failed to take root, its emissaries settling and taking work wherever they could. Many set down roots in California’s “Southlands” where Los Angeles, then just a small town but still the regional capital, would one day splay out its sunlit superhighways. While colonists were involved in the vigilance committee proceedings, no member of the love triangle was a colonist. (See C. Alan Hutchinson, “An Official List of the Members of the Híjar-Padrés Colony for Mexican California, 1834,” Pacific Historical Review, Aug. 1973.)
In an effort to sustain some measure of order, a number of the city’s respectable citizens banded together to create a famous or infamous Vigilance Committee.
Sworn in their published constitution of June 9, 1851 “to do and perform every lawful act for the maintenance of law and order,” the Committee declared itself “determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption o the Police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.”
Two days later, they proved their chops by hanging on no authority but their own emigre from Australia named John Jenkins for stealing a safe. A month later, James Stuart, also late of Sydney, was lynched at the Vigilance Committee’s hands, too.
Detail view (click for full image) of Whittaker and McKenzie’s lynching.
Though not the first Vigilance Committee hangings, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie might be the best-known.
Like their predecessors, Whittaker and McKenzie had arrived from Australia** — which had aptly bequeathed to gold rush San Francisco a criminal colony of its own in the form of a network known as the Sydney Ducks. Scrambling to save his own neck, Stuart had informed on a number of these confederates.
Whittaker and McKenzie were arrested based on Stuart’s information, as the Vigilance Committee tried to smash up the Ducks. Though extrajudicial, the Committee’s investigations were at least as meticulous as one might expect from the law at this moment in time, and the minutes of its witness interviews can be read here.
In the end, the two were basically convicted not so much for any individual crime as for their lengthy careers of robbery, often violent — for “divers offences, whereby the safety of Lives and property have been endangered” (as read the executive report on Whittaker) that rendered each “a hardened offender, and dangerous to this community … it would be unsafe to hand him over to the Authorities or mete out to him a less Penalty than Death” (as read the report on McKenzie).
Such an arrangement of juridical powers, exercised in lieu of “unsafe” Authorities, can scarcely persist long-term. Here, the governor of California, John McDougall determined to intervene in order that the fracturing of the Australians’ vertebrae would also vindicate the majesty of the law.
McDougal arrived to San Francisco and secured a writ to seize the suspects from the Vigilance Committee’s hands, tucking them away in the county jail.
Although in principle this orderly and lawful prosecution of malefactors was exactly what the Committee wanted to see happen, Gov. McDougal’s intervention when they were on the brink of consummating their own process left everyone with a frustrating sensation of justice interruptus.
And so that next Sunday — August 24, 1851 — when prisoners were removed from their cells to a chapel for the salvation of their souls and the jail’s guard detail was reduced by the proportion of gendarmes attending services of their own, a party of 36 Vigilance Committee men barged into the jail, overpowered all concerned, and seized their prey.
“Never before was San Francisco so excited,” editorialized the Steamer Alta California (Sept. 1, 1851).
Through every street, in all directions, the hurrying crowd of humanity rushed with the utmost precipitation — no one knew whither, no one knew for what. The bell of the Vigilance Committee had sounded its alarum note — and instantly the streets were living, swaying masses of human beings — uncertainty and conflicting fears and hopes ruled the hour … with a sweep like the rushing of a torrent of lava they bend their course towards the Rooms of the Vigilance Committee. Almost instantly California street, Battery street, and all their approaches, are filled with one dense mass of human beings. From lip to lip the news flies that the two criminals, Mackenzie and Whittaker, have been taken by force from the jail, by an armed posse of the Vigilance Committee. On the eager and excited multitude press toward the Rooms. On, on, on — the crowd becomes denser and broader. Wonder is stamped on every face — a solemn, almost awful silence pervades the thousands who are anxiously gazing up at the building, when quickly the doors are opened — a moment of preparation — and the numberless multitude holds its breath as the two malefactors are seen suspended by the neck — a struggle or two, a spasmodic heaving of the chest — and each spectator feels a thrill of terror coursing his veins as he involuntarily utters — dead, dead, dead!
Yes, they were dead! The two men — Whittaker and Mackenzie — who were taken from the hands of the Vigilance Committee a few nights since, by virtue of a write of habeas corpus, had been torn from the ail by force, in the middle of the day, and at the risk of life, hurried to the Committee rooms, and executed without scarcely a moment’s preparation. It is a most terrible tragedy! Well, indeed, might one exclaim, “I have supped full with horrors!”
Such are the terrible effects of misrule — these are the fruits of maladministered laws — these the results of official corruption, neglect and malfeasance. Well may the patriotic and the good turn in sadness and grief from the contemplation of such horrors. The timid may shrink from beholding them — the quiet desire an end to them; but neither fear, regret, nor desire will accomplish our security. It must go abroad over the land that this community possesses the power and the will to protect itself against every species of wrong, and that it is resolved to do it at all hazards.
Whilst we regret that the Vigilance Committee have by this act, been brought into direct collision with the constituted authorities, we cannot but approve their course in executing the two criminals. This condition of affairs was not sought by the committee; it was rather forced upon them by the action of the authorities. True, the authorities acted rightly in rescuing the men; but the course they took has proved to be unnecessary and injudicious. No one doubts the guilt of the men executed, and no one believes but that they deserved the punishment they received. The Vigilance Committee felt this, and believing that the public welfare would be promoted by the act, they had resolved to execute Whittaker and Mackenzie. But the officers of the law, with unusual adroitness, prevented the decision from being carried into effect. The Vigilance Committee have now redeemed their honor, and carried out their original determination, by recapturing the prisoners and executing them. The line of division between the legitimate civil power and the Vigilance Committee is therefore plain, broad and unmistakable.
And what is to result? We see nothing disheartening or dispiriting in the prospect. On the contrary, we think we perceive that settled determination on the part of the body politic to have justice done, which is to be the great lever of our salvation. When crime is convinced, as it must now be, that nothing is capable of preserving it from speedy and avenging punishment — when the abandoned feel, as they will now feel, that there is no safety for them here — when all bad men shall understand, as they may now understand, that their unworthy acts will surely be visited with condign reward — then will the country rise above its tribulations and its sorrows.
But this is a dreadful storm! If we did not know the ship, the crew and the passengers, we might despair of our reaching port. As it is, we speak confidently. We feel that there is gloom around us, but there is nothing to alarm the honest and patriotic. The guilty may, and ought to, flee before the gale of popular indignation; but it is through such trials that our voyage is ultimately to become a prosperous and fortunate one. Through the watches of the night of darkness which now surrounds us, there is a gentle voice whispering “Be firm, be calm, be just, and the welcome daylight will soon come!”
The Vigilance Committee disbanded itself a few weeks later. Its last act in 1851† was to prevent the lynching of a sea captain by sailors angered at his brutality, an expression of class solidarity in the definition and punishment of crime as timeless as America herself. (Source)
* These fires were widely feared to be the product of arson motivated by the opportunity to loot. This is likely a reversal of cause and effect. One inclines here to reckon with Tolstoy that cities have a natural tendency to kindling fire, and those fires are liable to blaze out of control in inverse proportion to the city’s administrative faculties.
The late San Francisco police officer and amateur historian Kevin Mullen puts together an argument here that merchants opportunistically torching excess stock to sustain gold rush price gouging was also a contributing factor.
** Both men were born in England; many of the Sydney Ducks hailed originally from the British Isles.
† Like Batman, the Vigilance Committee later emerged from retirement to fight crime again, in 1856.
One hundred years ago today, Leo M. Frank was lynched to an oak tree at Marietta — one of the most notorious mob murders in American history.
Methodically extracted hours before from the Midgeville State Penitentiary by an Ocean’s Eleven-style team of coordinated professionals, Frank’s murder was as shocking in 1915 as it reads in retrospect.
The well-heeled Jewish Yankee was factory superintendent at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta when a 13-year-old girl in his employ was discovered in the factory’s basement — throttled and apparently raped. That was in 1913; for the ensuing two years, the prosecution of Mary Phagan’s boss as her murderer would play out in sensational press coverage.
Frank is today widely thought innocent of the crime, although the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has balked at issuing an unconditional pardon since so little of the original evidence survives. (A 1986 pardon came down “without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence” in recognition of the slanted trial and the failure to protect Frank from lynchers.) But this was much more than a courtroom drama; the Frank affair crackles with the social tensions of early 20th century America. Industry and labor; integration; sexual violation; sectional politics; race and class and power.
Populist Party politician Thomas E. Watson, whose magazines made a dishonorable intervention by openly agitating for (and then celebrating) Frank’s lynching, captures the Zeitgeist for us as he fulminates against the nationwide campaign to grant the convicted murderer a new trial: “Frank belongs to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile.” Frank came to enjoy (if that’s the right word) the editorial support of most of the country’s major papers, but the meddling of northern publishers, and of fellow Jews in solidarity,* arguably led Georgians to circle wagons in response. Present-day Muslims called upon to disavow every bad act by every other Muslim would surely recognize this no-win position.
But then we must also add that Watson himself, a lawyer, had been approached by Frank’s defense team hoping to enlist his bombast to defend their man at trial. The white supremacist demagogue would have been perfect for the job, for the legal battle pitted the credibility of a black janitor named Jim Conley against that of Frank.
Here amid the nadir of American race relations Frank’s team made its own ugly and unsuccessful pitch for racial solidarity with his neighbors. When formulaically asked by the court that had convicted him for any statement to mitigate the impending sentence, Frank replied that
my execution will make the advent of a new era in Georgia, where a good name and stainless honor count for naught against the word of a vile criminal; where the testimony of Southern white women of unimpeachable character is branded as false by the prosecution, disregarded by the jury and the perjured vaporings of a black brute alone accepted as the whole truth.
This violent collision of two vulnerable minorities each with the keen sense that one or the other of them was being outfitted for WASP America’s nooses makes for riveting and sometimes bizarre reading. Newspapers could hardly fail to note that the all-white jury (Leo Frank’s defense team struck all the blacks) had, as Frank complained, privileged the account of just the sort of “black brute” that Southern courts were accustomed to scorn, or railroad. Thus we have the NAACP organ The Crisis taking umbrage that “Atlanta tried to lynch a Negro for the alleged murder of a young white girl” but “a white degenerate has now been indicted for the crime.” It was likewise reasoned by some that since Conley was a young black man with a criminal record who was a potential suspect in the Deep South in the murderous sexual assault of a little white girl, “the mere fact that Conley did not long ago make his exit from this terrestrial sphere, via a chariot of fire is convincing proof that he, at least, is not the man who committed the deed.”** (New York Age, Oct. 29, 1914.)
In the end it was a zero-sum game between Jim Conley and Leo Frank: one of them was the murderer; each accused the other. Their respective desperate interests permeated to their respective communities. (After Frank’s lynching, hundreds of Jews left Georgia; many who remained took pains to downplay their Jewishness.)
By whatever circumstance police zeroed on Frank and the white community’s passion followed — tunnel vision that would eventually manifest itself in a circus courtroom atmosphere where the prosecuting attorney was cheered and defense witnesses hooted at and the ultimate outcome more demanded than anticipated. The judge feared that an acquittal would result in the summary lynching of not only Frank but his defenders.
Unusually for the time, appeals on the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court which declined to intervene — although two justices filed a dissent citing the egregious trial atmosphere.
Mob law does not become due process of law by securing the assent of a terrorized jury …
This is not a matter for polite presumptions; we must look facts in the face. Any judge who has sat with juries knows that in spite of forms they are extremely likely to be impregnated by the environing atmosphere … we think the presumption overwhelming that the jury responded to the passions of the mob …
lynch law [is] as little valid when practiced by a regularly drawn jury as when administered by one elected by a mob intent on death.
“Feeling as I do about this case, I would be a murderer if I allowed this man to hang,” the governor said. “It may mean that I must live in obscurity the rest of my days, but I would rather be plowing in a field than feel for the rest of my days that I had this man’s blood on my hands.”†
Frank was spirited away to the penitentiary under cover of darkness; it was hoped that the remote and reinforced edifice would deter any reprisal. It turned out that the furies who hunted Franks could not be dissuaded by mere inconvenience: a committee calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan formed with the open object of organizing the intended mob vengeance — and indeed it was almost superseded in July of that year by a fellow-prisoner who slashed Frank’s throat as he slept.
Frank survived that murder attempt only to await the next one. Who knows what fancies frequented him in those weeks when he ducked from the shadow of the gallows to that of the lynching-tree, object of pity or hatred. He had time on the last day to savor his impending fate when the Knights methodically cut their way into the penitentiary — snipping the phone wires and disabling the vehicles — and marched their man out with nary a shot fired. Then, a convoy of automobiles “sped” (at 18 miles per hour) all the way back to a prepared execution-site at Marietta. The drive took seven or eight hours over unpaved country lanes, and for every moment of it Frank surely knew how it would end.
As a contrasting response, the American Jewish Committee declined to participate in the Frank campaign for fear of lending counterproductive credence to charges such as those voiced by the New York Sun (Oct. 12, 1913):
The anti-Semitic feeling was the natural result of the belief that the Jews had banded to free Frank, innocent or guilty. The supposed solidarity of the Jews for Frank, even if he was guilty, caused a Gentile solidarity against him.
** Maurianne Davis’s Strangers and Neighbors: Relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States has a trove of interesting editorial comment from Frank’s contemporaries in the black press, and the Jewish press. Conley was actually the confessed accessory, and served a year in prison for it: he said that he complied with Frank’s order to hide the body for fear that his “white” boss could easily get Conley lynched for the crime. Conley also wrote (under Frank’s directive, he said) the preposterous “murder notes” found with the body that purported to be Mary Phagan’s dying indictment of Newt Lee, the African-American night watchman.
† The allusion to political suicide suggests Slaton’s mind was on the precedent of Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, whose career was destroyed by pardoning some of the Haymarket anarchists. If so, Slaton was quite correct; he actually had to flee Georgia altogether and could not return to the state for more than a decade.
On this day in 1886, John W. Kelliher, known as “Reddy” or “Big Red”, was lynched by a mob of some five hundred people in Becker County, Minnesota.
Kelliher had gotten into a fight with a rival pimp and gambler and the village marshal of Detroit (today, Detroit Lakes), John Conway, tried to intervene. Conway was shot dead for his pains, shortly before his wedding day.
Marshal Conway had been very much liked in the village. Though his killer was instantly chased down and handed over to the constabulary,
little business was done in Detroit that day. Men were to be seen in small groups in every part of the town, upon the streets, in the stores, saloons and alley-ways earnestly discussing the tragedy, and the many threatening countenances were ample indications that further developments might be expected, while many appeared anxious, apprehensive and excited, as though waiting for and fearing some terrible event. At precisely ten o’clock in the evening, several taps were made upon the fire bell in quick succession, and the fierce yell, which immediately followed, breaking harshly upon the oppressive stillness, was ample evidence that this was the understood signal for an execution by Judge Lynch. Farmers for many miles around had been coming into town all day, and many men arrived by the evening train from points both east and west; the town was thronged with men and at the ringing of the bell a mass of humanity surged toward the court house; a sledge hammer was brought into use; the sheriff and jailer were overpowered and the keys to the jail taken from them, and Kelliher was quickly brought face to face with his unlawful but determined executioners; a rope was thrown over his head and the cry “go ahead” was given; with probably fifteen men having hold of the rope, and pulling with frenzied zeal the mob left the jail and ran wildly down the street leading west, to the house that had been occupied by Big Red as a bagnio, and in a twinkling the rope had been thrown over the limb of an oak tree, and the body of Big Red was swinging in the air; the victim was doubtless dead long before the tree was reached, or if not dead certainly unconscious.
The scene was one of wildest confusion, but all had been done so quickly and so effectually that the terrible affair could scarcely be realized, but the deed over, the excited crowds melted away and in a short time the village streets were practically deserted. (Original source)
According to John D. Bessler’s Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Tribune took a vehement editorial line against this “barbarous and disgraceful act,” and urged that jails fit themselves out with “a Gatling gun, intended for business” as proof against Judge Lynch. However, the St. Paul Daily Globedemurred, editorializing that “Society owes it to itself to get rid of such tough characters as Kelliher” — and if attaining that end via lynch law was in principle less than ideal, “it was past all human endurance to have a defiant desperado walk the streets of a respectable town and shoot down its citizens in cold blood. Nobody is surprised that he was taken from jail by a mob and swung to the nearest tree. It would have been a surprise if it had not been so.”
In extending [Cesare] Beccaria‘s views on capital punishment to the history of lynching in the West, one begins to see that the “violent passions” of the mob were regularly invoked to justify their actions, but as Beccaria predicted, these passions were often little more than a ruse to justify the cold-blooded — and often premeditated — lynching of an accused criminal. Taken as a whole, the case list demonstrates that by and large, lynching had as much to do with vengeance as with the pursuit of justice.
The frequent invocation of San Francisco’s vigilance committees in many of the case records is clearly intended to link extrajudicial execution to “tradition,” an essential element found in the Tuskegee definition of lynching.* On a formal level, well over 50 percent of lynching cases that give a time, record that the lynching took place between midnight and 2 a.m. when the accused was usually encouraged to confess his or her crimes before being strung up. Sometimes they were allowed to make a statement, to smoke a cigarette, or confess to a priest, and after it was over, the bodies would usually be left to hang through the night. This public display of the body can be found in every case, with the shortest times usually lasting around thirty minutes, and the longest, until the bodies decayed.
In one instance, in the small village of Newtown, an African American man known only as “Brown” was apprehended for stealing money. The evidence was completely circumstantial but he was found guilty and sentenced to be hung by the mob on March 4, 1852. Unfortunately for Brown, the rope was a little too long, and once he was hanged to the tree, the branch slowly gave way — until his legs dangled to the ground. Struggilng in agony, the poor man was cut down in order to be properly hanged. Once he was fully revived, he was tied to a higher branch and the whole process was repeated. When he was finally cut down, a physician was asked to examine the body, at which point he annunced that if Brown’s body was left above ground for five minutes that he would regain consciousness. As a result, “he was therefore hastily dumped into a grave that had been dug and was half full of water, and quickly covered from sight.” Whether completely true or not, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could argue that this killing really served the greatest good.
* The Tuskegee lynching definition: “there must be legal evidence that a person has been killed, and that he met his death illegally at the hands of a group acting under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition,” where “a group” connotes three or more persons.
On this date in 1917, 24-year-old black farmhand Lation (or Ligon) Scott died a horrible death in Dyersburg, Tennessee.
For the two years prior to his extrajudicial “execution” by a lynch mob, Scott had worked as a farmhand for a white family, doing the farm chores while the husband worked at his job in Dyersburg.
He got on well with the family and was fond of the two children. He seemed like an ordinary enough man and a good worker, according to the NAACP journal The Crisis:
Accounts as to his intelligence vary widely. One report asserts that he was almost half-witted. Others attribute to him the intelligence of the average country Negro… He had the reputation of being a splendid hand at doing general housework, or “spring-cleaning,” and…had done this sort of work for a prominent woman of Dyersburg. She states that she was alone in the house with him for two days.
No trouble resulted.
In addition to farming and the doing of odd jobs, he was a preacher. On November 22, 1917, however, he allegedly raped the farmer’s wife while her husband was at work. He threatened to kill her if she reported what he had done. He then fled, leaving his victim bound and gagged inside the farmhouse.
The woman was able to free herself and identify her attacker, and the community took swift action, searching extensively for Scott and offering a $200 reward for his apprehension. Scott was able to elude capture for ten days, though, making his way fifty miles to Madison County. There, a railroad worker recognized him and he was arrested.
The sheriff’s deputy for Dyer County, along with some other men (including, presciently, an undertaker), picked up the accused man and started off back to Dyersburg by car in the wee hours of the morning. They didn’t bother taking an indirect route for the purpose of their journey.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people gathered along the road and waited for their quarry.
And when he appeared, they forced the car off the road and made the officers turn over their prisoner.
These people were not typical of the average lynch mob: rather than stringing him up on the spot, they drew up a list of twelve “jurors” and, at noon, after church let out, drove Scott to the county courthouse for a “trial.”
Scott was ordered to stand up and asked, “Are you guilty or not guilty?”
Scott admitted he was guilty, and the “jury” voted for conviction.
Although one “prominent citizen” asked the people not to be barbaric, because it was Sunday and because “the reputation of the county was at stake,” both the rape victim and her husband wanted Scott to be burned alive rather than merely hanged.
The Crisis‘s description of what happened is not for the faint-hearted.
The Negro was seated on the ground and a buggy-axle driven into the ground between his legs. His feet were chained together, with logging chains, and he was tied with wire. A fire was built. Pokers and flat-irons were procured and heated in the fire… Reports of the torturing, which have been generally accepted and have not been contradicted, are that the Negro’s clothes and skin were ripped from his body simultaneously with a knife. His self-appointed executioners burned his eye-balls with red-hot irons. When he opened his mouth to cry for mercy a red-hot poker was rammed down his gullet. In the same subtle way he was robbed of his sexual organs. Red-hot irons were placed on his feet, back and body, until a hideous stench of burning flesh filled the Sabbath air of Dyersburg, Tenn.
Thousands of people witnessed this scene. They had to be pushed back from the stake to which the Negro was chained. Roof-tops, second-story windows, and porch-tops were filled with spectators. Children were lifted to shoulders, that they might behold the agony of the victim.
It took three and a half hours for the man to die.
This spectacle of horror took place in broad daylight, and no one in the mob wore masks.
Nevertheless, no one was ever prosecuted.
According to The Crisis,
Public opinion in Dyersburg and Dyer County seems to be divided into two groups. One group considers that the Negro got what he deserved. The other group feels that he should have had a “decent lynching.”
A “decent lynching” was defined as “a quick, quiet hanging, with no display or torturing.”
One local citizen remarked that he thought the people who tortured and killed Lation Scott were no better than the rapist himself. Another simply commented, “It was the biggest thing since the Ringling Brothers’ Circus came to town.”
Lation Scott’s was the last lynching in Dyer County history.
Wire report in the Salt Lake Telegram, Dec. 3, 1917.
On this date in 1881, a mob of 5,000 shouting imprecations against the courts spent two hours breaking open the jail in Bloomington, Illinois, then hauled out a horse thief named Charlie Pierce* and lynched him to an elm tree at the corner of Market and Center.
Pierce’s offense wasn’t so much the horse-and-buggy theft from a weeks prior — the crime for which he was arrested — as making an impulsive and extraordinarily foolish escape attempt that entailed grabbing the sidearm of a well-liked jailer named Teddy Frank and shooting him dead. Rushing to the scene, the sheriff disarmed an unresisting Pierce who perhaps was already beginning to apprehend the possible consequences his rashness would visit on him that very night.
Now, murdering a lawman was typically just about the best way to appear before the bar of Judge Lynch this side of sexual assault. And it may have been that folks in McLean County were just spoiling for a bout of vigilante justice anyway; the local paper Pantagraph had reported that June that such “excitement prevails” against two other criminals that “it is not improbable they will be lynched.”
They weren’t, but according to a 2010 recap of the still-notorious Pierce hanging written by a McLean County Museum of History archivist, matters were exacerbated by the autumn by an Illinois Supreme Court ruling reversing the conviction of another Bloomington murderer.** And Pierce’s end came just two weeks after the U.S. President finally succumbed to the bullet that a madman had pumped into him months before.
A flash mob of infuriated citizenry had the jail surrounded by 8 o’clock, 90 minutes or so after Pierce shot Frank.
“Special despatches from Bloomington, Ill., give graphic details,” ran wire copy that generally expressed special shock at the participation of “the best citizens … in the front ranks of the lynchers. Leading business men cheered and encouraged the lynchers, and women waved their handkerchiefs in approbation.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 3, 1881)
These bloodthirsty local grandees ran up against — and in this instance prevailed over — the growing sentiment among respectable elites that such carnivals tarnished the majesty of the law. In some cases, that was pretty near the very point of them; hooting onlookers were reported to have shouted things like “Justice and the courts are a farce!” and “We have seen too much of court quibblings!” For any observer in his wits it was manifest that such hot blood would bend towards anarchy if given free rein.
A police officer managed to cut down Pierce as the three-quarter-inch manila hemp gouged into his neck, but the miscreant was strung up a second time and “upon [the officer’s] attempting to repeat this act of bravery he came near being killed.” The fire department was summoned to disperse the mob with hoses but was also forced to retreat. And the area’s delegate to the U.S. Senate as well as a state’s attorney pleaded with the mob to let the courts handle Mr. Pierce.
By way, maybe, of retort, a placard appeared the following day on the late Charlie Pierce’s lynch tree reading
McLean, Illinois — Ax-man, ax-man, spare this tree, and never touch a single bough; and may God spare this elm tree forever to grow to mark where the first justice to a murder ever was done in McLean County, and may the good people stand by the boys that did it. (The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Ill.), October 3, 1881)
It’s the only lynching in McLean County’s history.
* It transpired that Pierce’s actual surname was Howlett. He hailed from Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
** Patrick “Patsey” Devine, the beneficiary of that ruling, would be convicted again and hanged in 1882. He was feared in danger of joining Pierce on the lynch tree this night, but the mob gave him a miss.
Here Dr Lambe, the conjurer lyes,
Against his will untimely dies
The Divell did show himselfe a Glutton
In taking this Lambe before he was mutton
The Divell in Hell will rost him there
Whome the Prentises basted here.
In Hell they wondred when he came
To see among the Goats a Lambe.
Friday the 13th of June in 1628 bore foul luck for John Lambe, an aged astrologer, magician, and folk healer so hated of Londoners that a mob fell on him as he returned from theater this evening and butchered him in the street.
While we hope to justify Lambe’s presence in these pages under our going interest in lynchings, his curious homicide transgresses the boundaries of Executed Today as surely as did Lambe transgress those of Stuart London.
North of 80 at the time of his death — although still vigorous enough at that age to defend himself with a sword — Lambe came to misfortunate public notoriety in the 1620s. These were crisis years when the crown sowed the dragon’s teeth that would in later years devour Charles I. Lambe’s slaughter was a little taste of worse to come.
Sources from the period view Lambe as both a shameless fraud and a vile wizard, with no consistency between the propositions save for their vitriol. Lambe seems like he got the worst of both perceptions at once: he faced a 1619 complaint to the Royal College of Physicians that he was a “mountebank and impostor.” [sic] Three years after that, he was in the dock for witchcraft
What Lambe did do was beat two charges in as many years that could easily have hanged him: the aforementioned witchcraft case in 1622, and a rape charge in 1624. Evidence in either case was underwhelming, but the charges themselves were incendiary; Lambe’s knack for slithering out of the hangman’s grasp must have suggested for the man on the street a channel to sinister higher powers.
Commoners bestirred themselves about this time against the realm’s own higher powers — the politically ham-fisted new king Charles and his grapples with Parliament to secure sufficient tax revenue for his inept war with France and Spain.
In all this mess, the Duke of Buckingham — royal favorite and possible lover of Charles’s father — was the number two man in the kingdom, and the number one object of hate.
In the mid-1620s, Lambe became conjoined in the public eye with Buckingham — as Buckingham’s demon-summoning henchman, say. Was it the Duke’s pull that spared his familiar the noose? Was it Lambe’s necromancy that captured the king in the thrall of his detested aide?
Did it even matter?
From the distance of centuries the particulars of the supposed affiliation between the two seems difficult to establish,* but it sufficed for Lambe’s death (and Buckingham’s too) that they were analogues for one another, that their respective villainies could be multiplied one atop the other.
Despite all that tinder lying around, we don’t know the exact spark for Lambe’s murder on June 13, 1628. A few months before, Buckingham had fled a humiliating military defeat in France; Parliament and King were at loggerheads that June, forcing the reluctant Charles to accede to a Petition of Right on June 7 that remains to this day a bedrock document of Britons’ liberties.
On the 13th, Lambe was recognized by “the boyes of the towne, and other unruly people” attending a play at the Fortune Playhouse.
As he left it, some began to follow him. Maybe it was just one insult too tartly answered that multiplied these hooligans, or maybe there was a ready rabble that immediately took to his heels. The frightened Lambe picked his way to the city walls menaced all the way by his lynch mob, hired a few soldiers as an ad hoc bodyguard, and by the dark of night tried desperately to find some sort of shelter from the crowd growing in both number and hostility. Under the mob’s threat, a tavern put him out, and a barrister likewise; his guards fled their posts; and someone at last laid his hands on John Lambe. By the time the frenzy had passed, Lambe’s “skull was broken, one of his eyes hung out of his head, and all parties of his body bruised and wounded so much, that no part was left to receive a wound.” Many contemporaries must have understood it as the just punishment that courts could not manage to exact.
Woodcut of the assault on Lambe outside the Windmill Tavern, from the title page of A Briefe Description of the Notorious Life of Iohn Lambe (1628)
The libels now rejoiced openly in Lambe’s summary justice — nobody was ever prosecuted for his murder — and anticipated another one to follow it.
“Who rules the Kingdome? The King. Who rules the King? The Duke. Who rules the Duke? The Devill,” one menacing placard announced. “And that the libellers there professe, Lett the Duke look to it; for they intend shortly to use him worse then they did his Doctor, and if thinges be not shortly reformed, they will work a reformation themselves.”
Their thirst for “reformation” was not long delayed.
Ten weeks after Lambe’s murder, a disaffected army officer named John Felton at last enacted the swelling popular sentiment and assassinated Buckingham.
“The Shepheards struck, The sheepe are fledd,” one unsympathetic doggerel taunted, recalling the dead wizard whose supernatural exertions could no longer protect his wicked patron. “For want of Lambe the Wolfe is dead.”
* So says Alastair Bellany, whose “The Murder of John Lambe: Crowd Violence, Court Scandal and Popular Politics in Early Seventeenth-Century England” in Past and Present, vol. 200, no. 1 is a principal source for this post. (It’s here, but behind academic paywalls.)