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.
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.