The story of what would become known as the Wright County War began on September 21, 1858, when Henry A. Wallace was found lying dead in a clump of willows on his own farm, his head bashed in. He had last been seen alive on August 27, twenty-five days earlier.
Wallace’s employee, Oscar F. Jackson, was the prime suspect in his murder. Jackson had agreed to help Wallace reap his hay crop in exchange for a portion of the harvest, and on August 27 the two men had been seen working together in the fields near where Wallace’s body was later found.
Jackson showed a curious lack of concern about his boss’s disappearance. He never even bothered to tell the authorities he was missing, and when neighbors noted that Wallace hadn’t been seen in weeks and decided to launch a search, Jackson declined to join in. An impoverished sharecropper, Jackson also seemed to have become suddenly flush with cash — an oddity because like most of the residents of Wright County, Jackson was poor, still struggling to recover from the Panic of 1857. Wallace was comparatively well-off.
A grand jury indicted Jackson for his employer’s murder, but the case against him was incredibly feeble. At the trial, Jackson’s attorneys pointed out that no one had seen the murder or could even determine the day it took place, and suggested any number of people could have visited Wallace and killed him at any time during that three-and-a-half-week period that he was missing.
The jury quite rightly gave Jackson the benefit of doubt and acquitted him on April 3, 1859, after eighteen hours of deliberation.
That night, a lynch party of fifteen men chased him into the woods. Fearing for his life, Jackson fled to St. Paul.
The local citizenry — among them Henry Wallace’s brother, Hiram — were not prepared to let the matter rest. And, horrifyingly, neither was the Wright County Sheriff, George M. Bertram,* or the justice of the peace, Cyrus Chase Jenks.
Five days after Jackson’s acquittal, the three men went to find the presumed murderer in Hennepin County. There, Hiram Wallace swore out a complaint against Jackson accusing him of theft, and Jenks issued a warrant for his arrest. Never mind that Jenks did not have jurisdiction outside of Wright County: Sheriff Bertram delivered the warrant to Alfred Brackett, the deputy sheriff of Hennepin County, and asked him to serve it.
Brackett found Jackson in St. Paul’s Apollo Saloon the next day. Handcuffing his prisoner, the deputy set out with him for St. Anthony by buggy. Jackson pleaded for time to call his attorney, but at first Brackett would not allow it. On the ride Jackson insisted that his arrest was based on a false charge, the purpose of which was to get him back to Rockford [in Wright County] where he would be murdered… Brackett reconsidered. When the two men reached St. Anthony, he sent word to Jackson’s counsel and persuaded the Wright County sheriff to spend the night in town before starting back to Rockford.
The implacable Sheriff Bertram
Jackson’s lawyer hastily drew up a writ of habeas corpus and before the day was out he’d served it to Sheriff Bertram. The Hon. Isaac Atwater, a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, ordered Jackson’s release on April 11. He was immediately re-arrested, however, as by then Jenks and Bertram had realized their error, gone back to Wright County and drawn up a second warrant. Jackson’s attorney responded with a second writ of habeas corpus, and on April 13, the man was ordered released again.
His friends had pooled their money and come up with enough for him to leave Minnesota forever, but for some reason Jackson returned to Rockford instead of skipping town. The residents of Wright County still wanted to lynch him, and to that end a neighbor swore out yet another phony complaint against him and yet another justice of the peace issued yet another warrant for his arrest.
A mob virtually tore Jackson’s cabin and its contents to pieces and set several fires. They surrounded the home of Jackson’s father-in-law, George Holdship, where the fugitive was reported to be hiding, and set more fires.
On April 24, Sheriff Bertram arrived at Holdship’s residence, and after he swore Jackson would not be harmed, arrested Jackson and took him away.
Less than half a mile from the house an armed mob overtook Sheriff Bertram’s procession. The sheriff relinquished power without resistance and rode off with the deputies, failing to even report the incident. After taunting Jackson throughout the night, the mob strung him up, even as his wife arrived to plead for mercy. Her pleas ignored, she was sent away distraught and empty-handed. The bloodthirsty mob hauled Jackson up and down times, failing to get Jackson to confess but successfully mangling his neck. Only when Jackson was hoisted up for a third time, at 2:00 P.M. on April 25, did his neck break. Jackson’s body was left dangling from a beam that protruded from Wallace’s cabin.
A coroner’s jury was called on the same day Jackson died and decided he had met with his death at the hands of some person or persons unknown. “The jury was not likely,” Trenery noted dryly, “to accuse its own members.”
But the story didn’t end there.
At the time of Oscar Jackson’s lynching, Minnesota had been a state for less than a year; it was admitted to the Union on May 11, 1858. Their first state governor, Henry Hastings Sibley, was anxious to maintain the rule of law, which had been besmirched by the Jackson outrage. One newspaper said, a tad melodramatically, “Wright County will be painted black upon the map of Minnesota — a patch of loathsome leprosy upon the fair surface of the land.”
Sibley offered a $500 reward for the arrest and conviction of anyone concerned with the lynching. It went unclaimed and the lynching started to slip away into obscurity, until July, when Oscar Jackson’s wife spotted Emery W. Moore (called “Emory” or “Aymer” in some accounts) at a gathering in Minnehaha Falls. Moore had been a member of the lynch mob, and it was his warrant that lead to Jackson’s arrest at his father-in-law’s house.
Mrs. Jackson alerted St. Paul’s chief of police, who arrested Moore for murder, and he was sent to Rockford to stand trial.
What followed, as Trenery describes it, was something of a solemn farce:
To prevent further collusion among local officials, the governor directed Charles H. Berry, the state’s attorney general, to conduct the prosecution in person. Berry opened the preliminary examination in Monticello on July 31, 1859, with an angry mob swarming about the building, shouting and threatening the agents of law enforcement. Mrs. Jackson, testifying for the prosecution, clearly and unequivocally named the leaders of the lynch mob and described the circumstances under which her husband had died. When the Wright County sheriff took the stand to explain how the mob had overwhelmed him and took Jackson from his custody, the attorney general found the sheriff’s explanation so unsatisfactory that he ordered Bertram arrested and held as an accomplice in the lynching. Berry then discovered that certain prosecution witnesses had mysteriously disappeared before they could testify, and he was forced to adjourn the hearing before it had been in session a full day.
To add insult to injury, that evening the vigilantes descended on the place where Emery Moore was confined, set him free, and melted into the darkness.
Berry returned to St. Paul and reported all this to the governor.
Fed up, Sibley declared Wright County to be “in a state of insurrection” and sent in the state militia to put a stop to mob justice and force the county officials to do their damn jobs. Three units — the Pioneer Guards, the St. Paul City Guards and the Stillwater Guards — marched in, aided by 35 special policemen.
The results were mixed. At first the militia was unable to find any members of the lynch mob, the locals just shrugged their shoulders when asked where they had gone, and the sheriff and other officials refused outright to cooperate. Only when they found out Governor Sibley was on his way over to personally take charge did the county officials “find” and arrest three suspected lynchers: Emery Moore, Hiram S. Angell, and J.E. Jenks.**
Satisfied, the governor sent the state militia home. The three-day occupation was later facetiously dubbed the Wright County War. It was a bloodless war.
The arrested men were almost immediately set free on a $500 bail, and in October, a grand jury refused to indict them. In the end, no one at all was punished for Oscar Jackson’s death, and Henry Wallace’s murder was never officially solved.
And so the drama ended; the curtain fell; and the so-called “Wright county war” was a thing of the past. Its effects, however, long remained in the enormous expense incurred, which, with other criminal cases of less magnitude, created an indebtedness almost resulting in bankruptcy, and depreciating county orders to less than thirty-five cents on the dollar.
Of the principals involved in this story:
Sheriff Bertram left office in 1860 and was succeeded by W. Smith Brookins.
Cyrus Jenks died in Meeker City, Minnesota in 1897. He was almost 90 years old.
Governor Sibley stayed in office until 1860, and did not seek reelection. In 1862, he was appointed colonel of the Minnesota Militia and led them against the Native Americans in the Dakota War.
Charles Berry was later appointed as a judge in the Idaho Territory. He died in 1900.
Alfred Brackett fought in the Civil War, leading what would become Brackett’s Battallion, which served longer than any other Minnesota unit. The unit fought against the Confederates between 1861 and 1864, then became part of the Northwestern Indian Expedition in the Dakota Territory.
On this date in 1915, a mob visited Cordella Stevenson’s cabin, dragged her out, and lynched her.
The good citizens of Columbus, Mississippi, found her body the next day, hanging from a tree limb. The site of her lynching was only 50 yards north of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, and rail passengers who came in and out of the city that day saw her corpse thus displayed. She had been “maltreated” (that is, raped) and stripped naked before being strung up.
Several months before, Gabe Frank, a local white man, lost his barn to fire. Although there was no direct evidence to implicate him and he had not been seen in the area for months prior to the fire, Cordella and Arch Stevenson’s son came under suspicion of arson.
The parents were respectable people who had worked for the same white employer for over a decade, but the son had a “worthless” reputation. Frank tried tracking the young man with bloodhounds, but was unsuccessful. The local police arrested Cordella and kept her locked up for several days, hoping she might know something of her son’s whereabouts, but they eventually released her without charge.
The Stevensons thought or hoped that would be the end of the matter.
Arch and Cordella had already gone to bed that Wednesday night in December when, at about 10:00 p.m., they heard someone pounding on their door. Before they could get to the door to answer it, the vigilantes had broken it down. They seized Cordella, pointed their rifles at Arch, and threatened to shoot him if he moved. At some point he managed to flee, bullets whizzing miraculously past him in the dark, and he ran to town for help. Arch knew what was good for him; after reporting what happened to the authorities, he fled the area for parts unknown. Meanwhile, somewhere out there in the night, the mob fell on his wife.
Sheriff Bell telephoned to Justice of the Peace McKellar to hold an inquest. He was out of town and did not return until Thursday night. As a result, the naked body was left hanging in view of the “morbid” crowd that came to see it until Friday morning when it was cut down and the inquest was held. That inquest jury returned a verdict that Cordella Stevenson came to her death at the hands of persons unknown.
The Chicago Defender, a (still-extant) black newspaper noted for its accurate reporting of Jim Crow era violence, bitterly editorialized, “This these southern culprits did. No law below the Mason and Dixon line that would cause them to fear. No officer in the police department that would dare to do his duty. No man in the government circles in Washington that has enough backbone to enforce the Constitution of the United States. This mob knew and they went on with their ghastly work.”
A century later, Cordella Stevenson’s ghastly death has still not been forgotten. In 2013, a poem for her, titled “What the Dark Said”, was published in the collection Ain’t No Grave, by Tennessee poet TJ Jarrett.
Though he is even to present-day Turkey the iconic traitor, it would be more generous to take him as the prophet of a future stillborn in the whirlwind of war.
Although he was of their generation, just a few years older than the “Three Pashas”, Kemal was not at all of their ethno-nationalist outlok. A cosmpolitan with a Circassian mother and a British wife — Kemal happens to be the great-grandfather of British pol Boris Johnson* — Kemal clashed with the Young Turks’ political organ and consequentially found European exile more congenial for much of the run-up to World War I. His book Fetretanticipates an inclusive, liberal, and westernized Ottoman Empire. It was a dream that shellfire pounded into mud, and not only for the Ottomans: these were years for national chauvanism run amok.
Politically sidelined within Turkey as the Young Turks steered the empire into war and genocide, Kemal re-emerged post-1918 — when the former empire lay supine before its conquerors — as a minister of state not merely acceptable to the Allied occupation but actively collaborating in its objectives. (Quite impolitic was his co-founding The Association of the Friends of England in Turkey even as England was occupying Istanbul and carving up the defeated empire.)
It is from this that his reputation as a Quisling figure derives, though there is little cause to believe that Kemal undertook these actions in anything other than a spirit of sincere public-service. The fact that he did so under the aegis of foreign domination, however, underscores the futility of his position: that Anglo-friendly, polyglot Turkey of his imaginings was not in the cards.
He and the nationalists were anathema to one another now, and though he resigned from the government in 1919 his university position gave him a platform to continue writing and lecturing against the Ataturk’s growing Turkish National Movement. Curiously, he did not join the sultan in flight from Turkey when the nationalists took the capital in hand and abolished the sultanate. Instead he was arrested having a placid shave at a barber shop by minions of Gen. Nureddin Pasha. The Nov. 13, 1922 New York Times described the horrific aftermath:
Ali Kemal Bey, editor of the anti-Nationalist newspaper Sabah, who was arrested at Ismid on the charge of subversive actions, was killed by a mob after having been officially condemned to death.
He was taken before General Nureddin Pasha who pronounced the death sentence dramatically: “In the name of Islam, in the name of the Turkish nation, I condemn you to death as a traitor.”
Ali Kemal remained passive, uttering no word of protest. His hands tied, he was led to a scaffold.
Before he reached the gibbet, however, an angry mob of women pounced on him, attacking him with knives, stones, clubs, tearing at his clothing and slashing at his body and head with cutlasses.
After a few minutes of excruciating torture, the victim expired. His body was dragged through the streets by the mob and exposed to public gaze on the scaffold for several hours.
The editor’s death has caused profound resentment and emotion in Constantinople, where he was known as one of Turkey’s most enlightened and most impartial citizens.
* Johnson, the former Mayor of London and (as of this writing) Britain’s Secretary of State, embraces this part of his ancestry but things were a little touchier when the Ottoman Empire and British Empire took opposite sides in World War I: at this awkward juncture, Ali Kemal’s English in-laws Anglicized his children’s names, using the surname of his late wife’s mother — Johnson.
Kemal also had a Turkish son by a subsequent marriage; his grandsons via that line, Boris Johnson’s cousins, are a major Istanbul publisher and a Turkish diplomat.
American lynch law come 1926 was into its decline phase; the 30 lynchings in that year across the country have never been equalled in the nine decades since, but were also 50% below the rates at the beginning of the 1920s, and very far from the peak 1890s where triple-digit counts of mob murder were the perennial norm.
One might say that both the phenomenon and its pracitioners had matured. If exhortations to better refer justice to the law were the authorities’ running strategy for quelling lynch mobs, then the mobs themselves became complicit with the barristers — and could reserve recourse to extrajudicial means for occasions when the courts failed to work Judge Lynch’s will. Leo Frank’s case a decade prior to this is an excellent example: though there was a virtual lynch atmosphere at his trial, it was only after the man’s death sentence had been commuted by the governor that a lynch gang systematically extracted the man from prison to slay him.
Something like this pattern appears to distinguish the Lowman lynchings.
This dreadful case began with an exercise in that other grand tradition of racialized justice, the drug war — Prohibition-style. On April 25, 1925, the Lowmans’ tenant farm near Monetta was raided by police on a bootlegging tip.* The Lowmans resisted and a firefight broke out, leaving two dead: Annie Lowman, and Sheriff Henry Hampton “Bud” Howard.
Annie’s killing would of course never be punished. But inside of three weeks, fourteen-year-old Clarence Lowman was death-sentenced as Sheriff Howard’s killer, along with his cousin and “conspirator” 21-year-old Demmon Lowman. Bertha Lowman, Demmon’s older sister, received a life sentence.
And so Judge Lynch might rest easy.
Except that one year later, the South Carolina Supreme Court surprisingly threw out the Lowmans’ sentences as prejudicially obtained. The second trial began in October and right away the state suffered a setback when Judge Samuel Lanham threw out the murder case against Demmon Lowman.
Judge Lynch was wide awake now.
That very night — October 7 — white vigilantes organized a new verdict. According to the NAACP’s investigation, “within one hour of [Lanham’s] decision, news had been sent to as distant a point as Columbia that the three Lowmans were to be lynched that night.”
At 3 o’clock in the morning of October 8, and aided by the local constabulary, the mob stormed the jail and dragged Clarence, Demmon and Bertha Lowman away to a pine thicket outside of town where they were gunned down.
“On the way Clarence Lowman jumped from the car in which he was held,” the NAACP investigator would later report in the summation of his interviews.
He was shot down and recaptured, in order to prevent telltale blood marks, a rope was tied to the back of the car and the other end of it around Clarence’s body. In this manner he was dragged about a mile to the place of execution. The members of the mob sated that Bertha was the hardest one to kill. She was shot but not killed instantly. She dragged herself over the ground and as one member of the mob put it, ‘bleated like a goat.’ Another member of the mob, slightly more decent, said that she begged so piteously for her life and squirmed about so that a number of shots had to be fired before one found a vital spot and ended her agony.
Although the NAACP supplied South Carolina’s governor with the identities of 22 alleged members of the lynch mobs (including the sheriff himself) and 11 other witnesses to its actions, no man was ever sanctioned for this event, and an all-white grand jury declined to forward any indictments.
A distant Lowman relative was quoted in the Augusta Chronicle recollecting the stories his grandmother told about that horrible night, and the impression those stories had in his own life.
“She [grandma] talked about it all the time,” William Cue said. “Took them out of jail — drug them out like dead mules. When I drive past, I think about it — it happened in that house. … I learned something from that. … There was a lot of times where a man mistreated me and it kept me from doing anything.”
* It’s been argued by latter-day researchers that the tip itself was bogus, and supplied to police further to a personal vendetta — which, if true, would make the Lowmans victims of the 1920s version of SWATting.
On this date in September 10, 1893, the same day that they admitted to their roles in a murder conspiracy, Mehaley (or Mahaley) Jackson and Louisa Carter were lynched in the town of Quincy in eastern Mississippi, 137 miles east of Memphis.
The two black women’s slayings were only part part of a grisly tragedy that resulted in the deaths of six people, perhaps more.
In late August or early September 1893, a white gentleman named Thomas Woodruff fell ill along with his entire family. Two of his five children died. Two weeks later, what was left of the Woodruff family were all still languishing in the hospital, and there was little hope that any of them would recover. Neighbors who nursed the sick family also became ill.
A search of the Woodruff property turned up three packages of Rough-on-Rats, an arsenic-based poison, in the well.
Suspicion fell on Ben Woodruff, a local black man. The previous fall, Ben had “entered Woodruff’s house violently, and so excited his wife, who was in a delicate condition from childbirth, that she died in a few hours.” Ben had faced criminal charges in connection with the incident, and Woodruff was one of the witnesses against him, which, it was thought, provided motive to for Ben to kill him. (The news report below prefers a stolen wagon as the source of the friction.)
New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 10, 1893.
On September 9, during the inquest following Ben Jackson’s arrest, a group of unmasked men dragged him away from the police who had custody of him and hanged him. The murder inquiry continued without the suspect and, a day later, his widow, Mehaley Jackson, and mother-in-law, Louisa Carter, testified before the jury. They admitted they had known of Ben’s plan to poison the Woodruffs’ well. The two women were not arrested, but it would have been better for them if they had been: when they left the courthouse, an armed mob was waiting for them and hanged them as well.
Vigilante justice wasn’t finished yet: Mehaley and Louisa had said a neighborhood man named Rufus Broyles had given Ben Jackson the money to buy the poison. Broyles fled the area after Ben’s death and went into hiding in a nearby town.
On September 14, he was caught there, and strung up like the others.
Circuit court judge Newman Cayce made a “forcible and peremptory” order to the grand jury to identify and indict the lynchers. Predictably, there’s no record of any charges being brought against anyone.
September 7 was the date of Porteous’s own scheduled hanging, for triggering a mob scene at a previous execution we have already visited: Porteous, commanding the guard detail at that hanging, reacted insaley when
some unlucky boys threw a stone or two at the hangman, which is very common, on which the brutal Porteous (who it seems had ordered his party to load their guns with ball) let drive first himself amongst the inocent mob and commanded his men to folow his example which quickly cleansed the street but left three men, a boy and a woman dead upon the spot, besides several others wounded, some of whom are dead since. After this first fire he took it in his head when half up the Bow to order annother voly & kill’d a taylor in a window three storys high, a young gentleman & a son of Mr Matheson the minister’s and several more were dangerously wounded and all this from no more provocation than what I told you before, the throwing of a stone or two that hurt no body.
Nowadays Porteous might cite officer safety and be back on the job in a week’s time. Edinburghers in 1736 gave their law enforcement a bit less latitude, and the city magistrates were obliged to box Porteous up in the Tolbooth lest a baying mob “would have torn him, Council and Guard all in pices.”
Five months remained to Mr. Porteous, a span in which he must have died a thousand deaths as he watched fortune toss his prospects to and fro from within his dungeon. The temper of the city would admit no other result than his conviction and death sentence but officers of the law have strings to pull with the state their muskets uphold. With King George II out of hand,* Queen Caroline granted Porteous a reprieve (not yet an outright clemency) from an intended September 8 date with his own hangman. That intervention was soon overruled by a higher sovereign, for as the Newgate Calendar puts it, “when the populace were informed, such a scheme of revenge was meditated as is perhaps unprecedented.” This was no sudden spasm of public rage; five calculating days had elapsed from the arrival to Edinburgh of the queen’s mercy when
On the 7th of September, 1736, between nine and ten in the evening, a large body of men entered the city of Edinburgh, and seized the arms belonging to the guard; they then patrolled the streets, crying out, ‘All those who dare avenge innocent blood, let them come here.’ They then shut the gates and placed guards at each.
Illustration of the Porteous mob, from Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian — which dramatizes the lynching.
The main body of the mob, all disguised, marched in the mean time to the prison; when finding some difficulty in breaking open the doors with hammers, they immediately set fire to it; taking great care that the flames should not spread beyond their proper bounds. The outer door was hardly consumed before they rushed in, and, ordering the keeper to open the door of the captain’s apartment, cried out, ‘Where is the villain, Porteous?’ He replied, ‘Here I am, what do you want with me?’ To which they answered, that they meant to hang him in the Grass Market, the place where he had shed so much innocent blood.
His expostulations were all in vain, they seized him by the legs and arms, and dragged him instantly to the place of execution.
On their arrival, they broke open a shop to find a rope suitable to their purpose, which they immediately fixed round his neck, then throwing the other end over a dyer’s pole, hoisted him up; when he, endeavouring to save himself, fixed his hands between the halter and his neck, which being observed by some of the mob, one of them struck him with an axe, which obliging him to quit his hold, they soon put an end to his life.
When they were satisfied he was dead they immediately dispersed to their several habitations, unmolested themselves, and without molesting anyone else.
Such was the fate of Captain John Porteous, a man possessed of qualifications which, had they been properly applied, might have rendered him an honourable and useful servant of his country. His undaunted spirit and invincible courage would have done honour to the greatest hero of antiquity. But being advanced to power, he became intoxicated with pride, and instead of being the admiration of his fellow citizens, he was detested and hated by all who knew him. The fate of this unhappy man, it is hoped, will he a caution to those who are in power not to abuse it; but, by a humane as well as diligent discharge of their duty, to render themselves worthy members of society.
Porteous did get a solemn memorial stone in Greyfriars Kirkyard once passions cooled … 237 years later.
Just last year — 2015 — the FBI was reported to be investigating the Moore’s Ford lynching anew. SixtySeventy years on, it’s still just possible that a perpetrator or two remains alive who might be brought to book … provided the curtain of silence Walton County drew around itself so long ago can finally be lifted.
The victims of the lynching were the Dorseys (George and Mae) and the Malcoms (Roger and Dorothy), black sharecroppers employed by a farmer named J. Loy Harrison. Roger Malcom had been clapped in jail in Monroe, Ga., for stabbing a white man; on the day of the lynching, Harrison drove Dorothy Malcom and the Dorseys to Monroe, where he posted bail for Roger.
Just why Harrison did this appears to be one of the many mysteries of Moore’s Ford Bridge. Harrison was a Klansman, so one possible inference is that he was complicit in the events that were about to transpire; however, as Wexler notes, this bailing-out “favor” would not have been at all unusual for a Walton County plantation owner to do for his help.
[L]ike many large landowners in Georgia in 1946, he was perpetually in need of more help than [his sharecropping] tenants could provide. There were few prospects in the immediate community; as in much of the rural South, the area surrounding Loy Harrison’s farm had shrunk massively in population … Without a sufficient supply of “free” workers to fill his needs, Loy Harrison often did … pay off a prisoner’s fine, or post his bond, and let him work off the debt on his farm.
Loy Harrison was far from unusual in that respect. Large landowners all over the rural South, faced with both war-induced and urban migration, used the local jail as a labor pool. And often the local sheriffs and city police made sure the pool was stocked. They’d lock black people up on a Saturday night on minor– or trumped-up — charges, such as gambling, possession of liquor, or public drunkenness. When a landowner came to the jail on Monday morning to pay a prisoner’s fine, the police claimed part of it for making the arrest, the jailer claimed part of it for “turning the key,” and the landlord took hom a cheap, reliable worker who was bound to him until his debt was paid. … The practice of landowners buying prisoners — particularly black prisoners — out of jail was so common in Walton and Oconee counties that it had its own slogan. “If you keep yourself out of the grave,” landlords told their black tenants, “I’ll keep you off the chain gang.”
Returning from Monroe with his four sharecroppers in tow, Harrison was stopped near the bridge by a gang of armed white men — men that Harrison would later tell investigators he did not recognize, although it was 5:30 p.m. on a summer’s evening and nobody was wearing a disguise.
“A big man who was dressed mighty proud in a double-breasted brown suit was giving the orders,” reported Harrison, who is the best we’re going to do for an eyewitness. “He pointed to Roger and said, ‘We want that nigger.’ Then he pointed to George Dorsey, my nigger, and said, ‘We want you too, Charlie.’ I said, ‘His name ain’t Charlie, he’s George.’ Someone said ‘Keep your damned big mouth shut. This ain’t your party.'”
The “party” entailed forcing all four black men and women — whatever their names were — out of Harrison’s car, lining them up in front of an ad hoc firing squad, and on the count of three, gunning them all down. That night, all four corpses would be found riddled with bullets (the coroner estimated some 60 gunshots had been fired in all) and strewn near the bridge. Dorothy Malcom was five months pregnant.
There are now annual re-enactments of this notorious lynching; here’s another from 2007. When the tradition began in 2005, whites were unwilling to participate and so the first instance was staged with an all-black cast — the lynchers donning white masks.
By the 1940s, Judge Lynch’s gavel did not fall nearly so often as it once had; these mob executions which had once gone abroad with such numbing frequency now took place only sporadically, about once, twice, or thrice per year* in all of the United States.
So the mass murder of four people in a single go at such a late date shook the country. NBC news headlined the event with unconcealed disgust:
140 million Americans were disgraced late yesterday, humiliated in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world by one of the most vicious lynchings to stain our national record. A gang of armed and degenerate, poor whites, waylaid a Negro man and another man and their wives on a country road 40 miles from Atlanta. The brief and sadistic orgy ended in the bodies being riddled by 60 bullets.
Library of Congress image of Roger and Dorothy Malcom’s funeral.
Whether or not the lynchers anticipated this wave of national attention, they were ready to handle it. FBI officials dispatched by President Harry S Truman were systematically stonewalled; a suspect list as long as your arm (55 names!) went nowhere because, in the words of a Georgia patrolman, “the best people in town won’t talk.” And that really does mean the best people; one lead the FBI pursued into the usual cul-de-sac was that the white supremacist ex-governor Eugene Talmadge actually sanctioned the lynchings as an electoral ploy during a hard-fought 1946 campaign to regain his office.
The best folks’ silence — and the dire warning issued by their fusillades into the Dorseys and the Malcoms — stopped the mouths of everyone else, too. A federal $12,500 reward went begging.
Robeson Tells Truman: Do Something About Lynchings Or Negroes Will
Paul Robeson, Negro baritone, spearhead of the American Crusade to End Lynching, said yesterday after a White House visit that he had told the President that if the Government did not do something to curb lynching, “the Negroes would.”
To this statement, Robeson said, the President took sharp exception. The President, he said, remarked that it sounded like a threat. Robeson told newspaper men he assured the President it was not a threat, merely a statement of fact about the temper of the Negro people …
When he was asked whether he was a Communist, Robeson described himself as “violently anti-Fascist.” He said he had opposed Fascism in other countries and saw no reason why he should not oppose Fascism in the United States.
While investigators were spinning their wheels, activists catalyzed by the Moore’s Ford horror were leaping into action. Singer-activist Paul Robeson launched the American Crusade to End Lynching in response to this event, and led a delegation to the White House. In a combative meeting with President Truman, he demanded stronger federal action.
Truman, like many politicians had before, voiced sympathy but demurred as to tangible remedies: the time was forever not right to push such politically treacherous legislation.†
Robeson replied firmly that if the government would not act to protect black lives, “the Negroes would.” Truman affected great umbrage at this threat to law and order and had no time for Robeson’s describing lynch law as a human rights abuse of the sort that the U.S. had only just finished prosecuting at Nuremberg.
The feds weren’t interested in putting the screws to lynching. But they were definitely interested in putting the screws to Paul Robeson.
The Communist Robeson, whose impossibly gorgeous voice we have previously featured in hymns to leftist martyrs John Brown and Joe Hill, was even then being investigated as a subversive by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. In time, Robeson’s passport would be revoked in part because he made bold while abroad to denounce racial injustice in the United States.
This audio is abridged; a more complete transcript can be read here.
No degree of dignity and self-possession in these inquisitions could avail Robeson, who not only did not regain his passport but was gradually levered out of America’s mainstream cultural life as punishment for his politics. He even remained estranged from the rising civil rights movement because his unwillingness to disavow his radical affiliations left him politically radioactive in those red-baiting days.
By the 1960s, the lynchings were a dead letter to those who were supposed to investigate them — just as the lynchers intended. Nobody had ever come close to being indicted. Robeson’s Crusade had gone by the wayside.
But they were not forgotten.
A young man named Bobby Howard, who was a five-year-old child in Walton County at the time the Dorseys and the Malcoms were gunned down, grew up to take an impolitic (not to mention dangerous) interest in the crime; he even pitched an investigation personally to Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before the latter’s assassination.
* In fact, there have never been so many as four recognized lynchings in any single calendar year in the United States since 1946.
** Talmadge’s 1946 gubernatorial campaign was demagoguing a 1944 Supreme Court decision that gave black voters access to racially desegregated primary elections. Talmadge would eventually win a Bush-v.-Gore-esque poll in which he lost the primary vote but won the county electors that at the time decided the race. (Talmadge carried Walton County by 78 votes.) Having done all that, he then dropped dead in December before he could take office and bequeathed his state — which had never thought to legislate the succession for this particular scenario — a constitutional crisis.
Joseph Smith, the strange founder of America’s most successful home-grown religion, was lynched on this date in 1844 at the jail in Carthage, Illinois.
Mormonism today boasts some 15 million adherents but it all started in the 1820s when Smith, then an energetic young mystic in the revival hotbed of western New York, claimed to have been guided by an angel to plates engraved in a made-up language that only he could translate and only that one time because the plates disappeared back to angelic custody after Smith’s perusal. It will not be news to this site’s LDS readers that few outside the faith place this origin story on the near side of the laugh test, but then, it is the nature of religions to appear ridiculous to outsiders: Christ crucified is unto the Greeks foolishness.
Smith’s heretical story of America as the ancient zone of a literal “New Jerusalem” founded by Israelites with a theretofore unknown gift for transoceanic navigation was certainly a stumbling-block for Protestant American neighbors, who harried from state to state — a practically Biblical sojourn through the desert — the fast-growing community. It came to pass* that the young man’s implausible scripture struck a resonant chord for the young nation.
“It was a really powerful religion,” says John Dolan in an episode of the War Nerd podcast.** “It said, our people have always been here, America is the promised land, you’re at home here. And that meant so much to 19th century Americans.”
The strange new sect’s capacity for punching above its weight in the missionary game also unleashed violently hostile reactions, marrying to its settler theology a compelling lived experience of persecution. The march of the movement across the continent has an astonishing, can’t-make-this-up character — “full of stir and adventure” in Mark Twain’s words, so again a perfect fit for America.
A few books about Joseph Smith
Smith took his fledgling faith from its New York birthplace to Kirtland, Ohio — where he was fortunate to survive a tarring and feathering in 1832 — and then onward to Missouri where a dirty vigilante war led the governor to issue a notorious “extermination order”: “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” Scrabbling for a homeland and pursued by a Missouri treason charge (!) Smith ducked over the western border to Illinois and set up a Mormon town called Nauvoo.
The faith was barely a decade old and still struggling to find an equilibrium. While Smith fought the last battle by creating a gigantic militia to protect his flock from the sorts of military attacks it had faced in Missouri — which state still sought Smith’s head in the 1840s — he attained his martyrdom as the fallout of prosaic internal politics. Seeking to suppress schismatic Mormons, Smith in June 1844 ordered the destruction of their critical newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor.†
By now having worn out his welcome with yet another state, the unpopular Smith became the subject of an Illinois arrest warrant as a result of this lawless attack on his rivals. Expecting better treatment than Missouri would have offered him and angling to keep Mormons in an amicable relationship with neighbors, Smith this time chose to turn himself in to face trial for inciting a riot, along with his brother Hyrum Smith and two other Mormon leaders, Willard Richards and John Taylor.‡
But in this case, the law did not take its course.
On the afternoon of June 27, 1844, a mob of 200 armed men stormed the jail in Carthage where the Mormons were held, meeting only token resistance. (Indeed, many of the force assigned to guard the Mormons joined the attackers instead.) They gunned down Hyrum Smith on the spot and drove Joseph Smith — firing back all the while — to a window where a fusillade knocked him out of the second story. His body was shot up and mutilated; one of the numerous accounts of those moments even has it that the corpse was propped up for a summary firing squad “execution.”
Whatever else one could say of Joseph Smith, he forged a community that survived its founder’s death, and is thriving still nearly two centuries on. With Smith’s passing, leadership of the Mormons fell to Brigham Young, who brought the Mormons out of Illinois for their destiny in Utah.
* Smith — or the angel Moroni, if you like — amusingly abuses the portentous clause “it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon, repeating it in about one-fifth of the tome’s verses.
** Also recommended: Dolan’s article on Joseph Smith as an outstanding product of an era of “text-finding” — his book offering pious Americans their greatest desideratum, a national link to God’s Biblical chosen people much like James MacPherson‘s forged Ossian epic thrilled the patriotic fancies of Scots discomfitingly swallowed up into Great Britain.
† The Expositor published only one single issue: the June 7, 1844 edition that caused its immediate suppression and eventually Smith’s death.
‡ Both Richards and Taylor survived the mob attack on Carthage Jail. Taylor in 1880 succeeded Brigham Young as president of the church.
The 18th and last of the “Letters of the Living” comprising the original disciples of the the faith’s founding prophet the Bab, Quddus was a charismatic young mullah of whom it was said that “whoever was intimately associated with him was seized with an insatiable admiration for the charm of the youth.” Denis MacEoin even argues that Quddus’s preaching verged on asserting divinity, and he might have been an incipient rival to the Bab himself for leadership of the new religion.
Under either leader the movement was officially excommunicate to the ulama, and its heretical proselytizing consequently generated no shortage of martyr-making backlash. The backlash in question for this post began with an anti-Baha’i riot in the Mazandaran city of Barfurush (today, Babol) which drove a few hundred adherents to the nearby Shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi where they took refuge behind ad hoc defensive fortifications.
The Persians’ ensuing besiegement of this redoubt constitutes the Battle of Fort Tabarsi — and if the designation sounds a bit exalted for mob control it was dearly earned by the surprising (and to Persia, embarrassing) Baha’i resilience. Under Quddus’s leadership the makeshift fort held out for seven months. Half of those original 18 “Letters of the Living” disciples would die in the engagement — the largest upheaval during those formative years.
At last, having finally been reduced to near-starvation by the encirclement, the Baha’i defenders surrendered on the guarantee of safe passage — a guarantee that was immediately violated, with most of the former “garrison” massacred on the spot on May 10.
Quddus was preserved for special treatment in Barfurush several days later: not judicial execution, but simply handing over to an angry rabble who tore him apart.
The Bab, already imprisoned pending the passion he would suffer the following year, was said to be so devastated at learning of Quddus’s fate that he could scarcely write any longer: “the deep grief which he felt had stilled the voice of revelation and silenced His pen. How deeply He mourned His loss! What cries of anguish He must have uttered as the tale of the siege, the untold sufferings, the shameless betrayal, and the wholesale massacre of the companions of Shaykh Tabarsi reached His ears and was unfolded before His eyes!” (Source)
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.