Posts filed under 'Racial and Ethnic Minorities'

1932: Jose Feliciano Ama, Izalco indigenous peasant

Add comment January 28th, 2020 Headsman

El Salvador campesino Jose Feliciano Ama was hanged in the town square of Izalco on this date in 1932 during a ferocious repression of the peasantry.

In an environment of desperate economic immiseration for nearly all Salvadorans below the landed oligarchy, the heavily indigenous western peasantry rebelled on January 22, 1932 — aided or led by the Communist Party.*

This fate of this rebellion might be inferred by its historiographical sobriquet, the Salvadoran peasant massacre — or simply la Matanza, the slaughter.

In numerical terms, it ran to well into the tens of thousands, maybe up to 40,000 — indiscriminately visited on peasants of originario complexion in the zone of rebellion, batches of them summarily shot into mass graves they’d been forced to dig for themselves.

In the Pipil town of Izalco, where coffee latifundias dominated the best agricultural land,* up to a quarter of the population was butchered. None of those put to la Matanza were more recognizable nor more vividly recalled than the local rebel leader Feliciano Ama English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), extrajudicially noosed in front of the Izalco church. Today a small plaque in this square honors him as a popular martyr.

* See States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise of National Governments in Central America. An heiress of coffee magnate and former president Tomas Regalado allegedly forced our Feliciano Ama off his lands by dint of brute force.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,El Salvador,Execution,Hanged,History,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Summary Executions,Torture

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1891: Slumach

Add comment January 16th, 2020 Headsman

Treasure-hunters mark this date in 1891, the hanging of an elderly Katzie indigenous man named* Slumach. Did he take with him to the gallows the secret of a lost gold hoard?

The previous September, Slumach shot dead a man named Louis Bee at a fishing spot along Lillooet Slough near the Pitt River in Canada’s western province of British Columbia. Evidently, Mr. Bee was the slough’s resident asshole, “in the habit of blustering at, and threatening almost everyone with whom he came in contact,” and had a running grudge with Slumach that the old man decided to resolve.

Although there were several bystander who witnessed the murder, none could — or dared try — apprehend the gunman, who escaped into the rugged wilderness and evaded pursuers for a number of weeks, until winter deprived him of his forage and forced his surrender.

Legendary for his ferocity in a scrap, this Slumach was much reduced, having scarcely eaten for days and showing every bit of his 60 years. “There was much sympathy for Slumach among those who witnessed his execution,” one news report ran — for, “[i]t was thought that the Government might, with just clemency, have extended a reprieve to him, for he certainly would not have lived very long in confinement, and the fact that he never ran across law and order in any shape until the latter years of his long life made many hope that he would be allowed to finish his career in the confinement of the penitentiary.”

This is an interesting enough incident on its own but what’s not in any of the original reporting is talk about gold. Many years later, however, newspapers began to speculate on his possible associations with Pitt Lake’s lost gold mine, a mythical(?) B.C. El Dorado that has been a desideratum of prospectors since the mid-19th century.

Both the existence of this mine and its relationship to Slumach are highly dubious propositions — greatly embroidered from the 1920s onward in wistful romances of the vanished frontier. (For example, Slumach is supposed to have cursed the stash, dooming a number of explorers and treasure-hunters lost in the vicinity.) Nevertheless, the link is so tightly held at this point that the mine is also sometimes known simply as “Slumach’s Mine” and latter-day adventurers have still been known to take up the trail in the hopes of conquering a lucrative historical mystery.

There’s a fun audio summary of this continuing enigma from the Dark Poutine Podcast — a Canadian true crime/dark history jam, as one might guess — here. And if you’re ready to break out the pick and shovel, the site slumach.ca has you covered for deep background reading.

* He was baptized under the scaffold and given the Christian name Peter. Fortunately for his searchability, nobody refers to him that way.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,The Supernatural

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1935: Kemal Syed, assassin

Add comment January 14th, 2020 Headsman

A 28-year-old Afghan nationalist was executed in Berlin’s Ploetzensee Prison on this date in 1935.

“During a heated argument” with Sardar Mohammed Aziz Khan* on June 6, 1933, Kemal (or Kamal) Syed on June 6, 1933 “accused the minister of treason and of selling out his country to the British. He then pulled a revolver and shot him fatally.” (UP wire report via the redoubtable pages of the Oshkosh (Wisc.) Northwestern, Jan. 14, 1935)

His punishment was delayed by diplomatic wrangling between Germany and Afghanistan over possible extradition. In the end, Berlin handled matters directly.

* This man also happened to be the brother to the late (and likewise assassinated) King of Afghanistan. In time, the assassinated diplomat’s son would overthrow the assassinated king’s son and rule from 1973 to 1978 as Afghanistan’s first president. (Although if you like, you could also consider him the last of the Musahiban dynasty.) That diplomat’s son in turn was deposed in a palace coup by the ham-handed Communist who would set off the catastrophic Soviet-Afghan War.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Afghanistan,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Racial and Ethnic Minorities

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1915: Mewa Singh, Sikh martyr-assassin

Add comment January 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Mewa Singh Lopoke was hanged in British Columbia, Canada.

He was part of a massive influx of Punjabi migrants to Canada, and particularly its westernmost province of British Columbia, from around 1904 until Canada clamped down on immigration from the subcontinent in 1908.*

There Mewa Singh became involved in activism for the Ghadar Party — the North American expatriate movement for Indian independence. This movement was heavily infiltrated by spies and informants, some of whom ratted Mewa Singh out after he attempted to deliver some firearms to Punjabi passengers stranded on the Komagata Maru in Vancouver’s harbor and slated for return to the subcontinent.**

In an atmosphere of rising tension within the Vancouver Sikh community, a police informant named Bela Singh, driven to desperation by the pressure of his handlers and fear of exposure, opened fire on his coreligionists inside a Sikh temple. In the resulting trial, B.C. immigration inspector William C. Hopkinson — the man who ran the spies within the Sikh community — was scheduled to testify on the gunman’s behalf. Instead, Mewa Singh shot him dead in the hallway outside the courtroom, them immediately surrendered his pistol and calmly submitted to arrest. As he entered a guilty plea and took full responsibility for the murder, his trial came in under two hours.

“These people have disgraced us,” Mewa Singh said in his confession, accusing Hopkinson of exploiting vulnerable Sikhs to mine them for information and bribes.

We are poor, only coolie men, and whatever Hopkinson said was law. The Government listened to him completely.

Everyone knows that Hopkinson did these underhand things and it must be brought to light. The European public must be aware of the fact that Hopkinson draws money from us poor native men. In the Vancouver public there are a few that are Christian men who have received us with the proper spirit. The other have treated us like dogs.

He hanged at 7:45 a.m. at New Westminster jail. To this day he remains a martyr to many within his community; there have been campaigns for a posthumous pardon on grounds that his assassin’s turn was strictly the result of the injustice Sikhs faced in Vancouver.


Funerary procession for Mewa Singh.

By the time of Mewa Singh’s execution, World War I was well underway and Ghadrites, sensing their chance to break free from British domination, were working on orchestrating a mutiny in India. Thanks in no small part to the many spies keeping tabs on the Ghadrites, that mutiny was strangled in its crib.

* As a longer-range effect of this migration period, Canada today has a reputation as “Little Punjab” and its substantial Sikh minority is a significant political bloc — especially in B.C.

** This incident, in which 352 Punjabis were refused entry into Canada and forced to return to India — where Raj police arrested a number of the leaders as subversives, triggering a riot that took 20 lives — is still notorious in Canada today. “Not to be confused with Kobayashi Maru,” Wikipedia observes, sagely.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,India,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Wartime Executions

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1949: Leander Jacobs and Hector Chavis

Add comment December 30th, 2019 Headsman

Associated Press story from the Gastonia (North Carolina) Gazette, Dec. 30, 1949:

RALEIGH, Dec. 30 (AP) — Two Indian farm workers died today in the gas chamber after a futile effort by one to save the life of his companion in crime.

Leander Jacobs, 28, and Hector Chavis, 29, were executed for the robbery-murder of Martin L. Blackwell, 79-year-old Lumberton storekeeper.

Jacobs yesterday told Prison Warden Joe Crawford and Paroles Commissioner T.C. Johnson that although Chavis participated in the robbery, he took no actual part in the killing.

For this reason Chavis did not learn until about 3:30 a.m. today that he was going to die at 10 a.m.

Crawford told him that Governor Scott had decided not to intervene.

“All he said was, ‘Thank you’.” Crawford said.

Chavis entered the chamber calm. Jacobs walked briskly. They both were pronounced dead in less than 12 minutes.

The governor’s decision followed conferences at the mansion last night and this morning with Paroles Commissioner T.C. Johnson to whom Jacobs made his statement.

Jacobs made his confession to Johnson and Central Prison Warden Joe Crawford. Johnson said Jacobs’ story was a “full confession” and was the first detailed account obtained from either of the men.

The two Indian farmers were convicted last April in Robeson superior court of the robbery-murder of Martin L. Blackwell, 79-year-old Lumberton storekeeper.

Jacobs’ statement came yesterday shortly after he heard that governor [sic] would not intervene. The condemned man said he only wanted to clear his conscience before he died.

Johnson said “He told us that he didn’t want to take another man with him.[“]

However, the paroles commissioner pointed out that despite Jacobs’ attempt to take the full blame the fact remained that both men were present at the murder scene and both shared in the ensuing robbery.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,Murder,North Carolina,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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1969: Fred Hampton, “good and dead now”

Add comment December 4th, 2019 Headsman

Today is the 50th anniversary of the December 4, 1969 extrajudicial execution of American revolutionary Fred Hampton.

This charismatic — nearly every bio uses this word — 21-year-old star of the Illinois Black Panther Party had in his brief life shown himself a visionary exponent of radicalism; he would end as one of the signal martyrs to his movement’s violent suppression.

Well did he know it.

“If you’re asked to make a commitment at the age of 20 and you say, I don’t want to make a commitment only because of the simple reason that I’m too young to die, I want to live a little bit longer. What you did is, you’re dead already,” Hampton once mused. “You have to understand that people have to pay the price for peace. If you dare to struggle, you dare to win. If you dare not struggle then damnit, you don’t deserve to win … And I think that struggle’s going to come. Why don’t you live for the people? Why don’t you struggle for the people? Why don’t you die for the people?”

Emerging late in 1966 out of Oakland, Calif., the Black Panthers were a revolutionary and pointedly armed movement that fused black power demands with critique of the entire edifice — war, imperialism, capitalism and the rest of it. Although the organization was dissolved in 1982, the Panthers’ actions and legacy are still quite controversial and their mere specter remains a potent bogeyman for much of contemporary white America.

One thing is for sure: in their moment, they scared the shit out of the powers that be. Within months of its founding, the Federal Bureau of Investigation turned upon the Panthers its COINTELPRO program of domestic surveillance, suppression, and assassination. One particularly notorious FBI memo drew a bead on “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups” with an avowed intention to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement” — and to “pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them”.

Fred Hampton isn’t mentioned by name in this chilling missive from early 1968; he was just then beginning to emerge onto the FBI’s index of rabble-rousers. (Literally, the feds had a list called the “Rabble Rouser Index”.) He was fresh out of high school in 1966, and subsequently a wildly successful NAACP chapter leader, but gravitated to the new Illinois Panthers organ by 1968 where he quickly became its most outstanding organizer and spokesman, the prospective future face of a stirring cross-racial, class-conscious justice movement that Hampton perceived with a wisdom well beyond his years. Under his leadership the BPP spun out health care programs, legal aid programs, and free breakfast programs; he forged the original Rainbow Coalition* that brought rival street gangs and activist groups from different racial communities into a shared political ambition.

“We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity,” Hampton said. “We’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”

Just as energetically did the FBI work — and succeed, in the end — to break up such alliances, using informers and agents provocateur and false flags to encourage schisms and discredit leaders. Chicago’s police department was a ready collaborator in these operations; its relationship was the Panthers was hostile and often violent. Just three weeks before Hampton’s murder, two Chicago cops and a 19-year-old Black Panther were killed in a shootout. (Hampton was in California at the time.)

We don’t have the full documentary paper trail with deliberations and countersigned orders, but the known facts (and the smug grins of the cops) admit no reasonable dispute this side of performative naivete that Hampton was assassinated by a state death squad — “executed”, if you like, to fit an admittedly expansive read of this here site‘s mandate.

A compromised Hampton bodyguard named William O’Neal gave his FBI handler — who also happened to be running the Chicago COINTELPRO operation targeting the Panthers — a detailed floor plan of Hampton’s apartment, which the FBI shared with the Chicago police for a raid putatively hunting illegal weaponry. On the night of December 3, O’Neal slipped Hampton a barbituate to dull his reactions for what was to come; surviving comrades would describe Hampton being roused amid the early-morning fusillade only with difficulty, responding barely and in “slow motion” even as Chicago police stormed front and rear entrances and poured nearly 100 rounds into the place. Another Hampton aide named Mark Clark, sitting watch, was blasted dead in the initial barrage, convulsively discharging his shotgun once into the ceiling as he fell. It was the only shot fired that night by any of the Black Panthers.

By the account of Hampton’s eight-months pregnant partner Deborah Johnson, corroborated by other Panthers in the apartment, Fred Hampton was injured by the volley, but alive — and cold-bloodedly finished off with a coup de grace.

First thing that I remember after Fred and I had went to sleep was being awakened by somebody shaking Fred while we were laying in the bed. Saying, “Chairman, Chairman, wake up, the pigs are vamping, the pigs are vamping!” And, um, this person who was in the room with me, kept shouting out “we have a pregnant sister in here, stop shooting”. Eventually the shooting stopped and they said we could come out. I remember crossing over Fred, and telling myself over and over, “be real careful, don’t stumble, they’ll try to shoot you, just be real calm, watch how you walk, keep your hands up, don’t reach for anything, don’t even try to close your robe”. I’m walking out of the bedroom, there are two lines of policemen that I have to walk through on my right and my left. I remember focusing on their badge numbers and their faces. Saying them over and over on my head, so I wouldn’t forget. Um, as I walked through these two lines of policemen, one of them grabbed my robe and opened it and said, “Well, what do you know, we have a broad here.” Another policeman grabbed me by the hair and pretty much just shoved me — I had more hair then — pretty much just shoved me into the kitchen area. It was very cold that night. I guess that it snowed. And, ah, the back door was open. Some people were on the floor in the kitchen area. I think it was Harold Bell was standing next to me in the kitchen area. They, ah, it was a police, ah, plainclothes policeman there, and I asked him for a pin, so I could pin my robe, because it was just open. And he said, “Ask the other guy.” And, ah, then somebody came back and handcuffed me, and Harold Bell behind the back. I heard a voice come from the area, I guess from the dining room area, which was, the kitchen was off from that area. And someone said, “He’s barely alive, he’ll barely make it.” The shooting, I heard some shooting start again. Not much. Just a little shooting, and, um, and someone said, “He’s good and dead now.” I’m standing at the, um, kitchen wall, and I’m trying to remember details of these policemen’s face, say it over and over in my head, and, and badge numbers, so, you gotta remember, gotta remember. And then when I felt like I was just going to really just pass out, I started saying the ten-point program over and over in my head. Um, at one point I turned around, the shooting had continued again, and I saw the police drag Verlina Brewer and throw her into the refrigerator. And it looked like blood was all over her. And she fell to the floor and they picked her up and threw her again. I saw Ronald Satchel bleeding. I kept trying to focus on the ten-point program platform, because I, again, I wanted to take myself out of that place. And I knew I just couldn’t break down there. Because I didn’t know if I would be killed, or what would happen.

Incidentally, Hampton’s killing was also a key catalyst for the terroristic turn of the Weather Underground — whose decisive “war council” meeting occurred later that same month of December 1969, with Hampton’s blood heavy in the air (and his picture prominently displayed on the wall) as an emblem of the futility of pacific resistance within the belly of the beast. “It was the murder of Fred Hampton more than any other factor that compelled us to feel we had to take up armed sturggle,” said David Gilbert, who’s now serving a prison sentence for a deadly bank robbery. “We wanted to create some pressure, to overextend the police so they couldn’t concentrate all their forces on the Panthers. We wanted to create a political cost for what they were doing. And we also felt that to build a movement among whites that was a revolutionary movement, a radical movement … it had to respond when our government in our name was destroying the most promising, exciting, and charismatic leadership to come out of the Black movement in a long time.” (Source) It was a paradoxical inspiration, since Hampton himself had criticized the emerging Weathermen after their “Days of Rage” riot in Chicago as “anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic,” and even “Custeristic” — as in Indian Wars cavalryman George Armstrong Custer, famous for his defeat — “in that its leaders take the people into situations where they can be massacred. And they call that revolution.”

* The name and concept of the Rainbow Coalition were later revived by Jesse Jackson in his left-wing presidential challenges in 1984 and 1988, but there is not a continuous institutional thread from Hampton’s coalition to Jackson’s. Jackson did, however, deliver a eulogy at Hampton’s funeral on December 6, 1969.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,History,Illinois,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Shot,Summary Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1958: Sass Kalman and Istvan Hollos

Add comment December 2nd, 2019 Headsman

Ethnic Hungarians Sass Kálmán and Istvan Hollos were shot in Romania on this date in 1958. Links in this post are in Hungarian.

Both were condemned — along with a third man, Vilmos Balasko, his sentence subsequently commuted — as the result of a mass trial earlier that year of alleged traitors and saboteurs.

The trial targeted the large ethnic Hungarian population in Transylvania, bordering Hungary, in the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. There the feared Romanian secret police rolled up culprits for offenses ranging from subversive leaflets in simpatico with failed revolution, to a general penumbra of perceived unreliable loyalty.

Istvan Hollos, a lawyer and teacher, had fought in the German-allied Hungarian army during World War II and unsuccessfully attempted to flee to Switzerland afterwards. Sass Kálmán was a Calvinist pastor once close to anticommunist peasant party leader Ferenc Nagy; a previous brush with political scrutiny had been shielded by towering general Pal Maleter, but Maleter’s participation in (and execution for) the 1956 revolution played against Kálmán too. (A third man, pastor Vilmos Balasko, was condemned to death in the same mass trial but he received clemency and was released a few years later in a general amnesty. He lived until 2004 and published a memoir after the fall of the Iron Curtain.)

Kálmán’s Reformed Church, whose adherents are predominantly ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania, treat Kálmán as a martyr and have pressed hard for his official rehabilitation — thus far, to no avail.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Hungary,Lawyers,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Romania,Shot

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1903: Phil Davis, Walter Carter and Clint Thomas, multiracial lynching

1 comment November 30th, 2019 Headsman

From the Dec. 1, 1903 Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,Lynching,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1872: Joseph Garcia, for the Llangibby Massacre

Add comment November 18th, 2019 Headsman

Spanish seaman Joseph Garcia was hanged at Usk Prison on this date in 1872, for the Llangibby Massacre.

It occurred in the Welsh village of that name, inland from the mouth of the Severn where Garcia had alit as a mariner at Newport nearly a year before.

He’d committed a burglary there, and been committed to jail for his pains. His sentence was nine months … followed by release to a foreign land whose language he barely spoke, his ship long gone and no friend or occupation to direct him.

A “short, thin man, just five feet five inches tall, with a swarthy complexion, coarse black hair and beard,” Garcia trudged the road in to the farming town. Several times he was observed loitering there but his presence was really announced by the billows of smoke pouring from the home of William Watkins, a farmworker — and neighbors who rushed to the scene beheld the horror of its owner dead from a stab wound through his throat, his wife similarly dealt with, and all three of their small children also put to the blade — their wee corpses already partly charred from the fire.

The stranger’s foreignness invited attention, of course, and when he was arrested back at Newport circumstantial evidence appeared to confirm the connection: he had some injuries and bloodstains that suggested a scrap, a pair of boots that might have been stolen from Watkins, and some stolen household articles that a surviving daughter of Watkins fortunate enough to be away from the house at the fatal hour recognized as the family’s own. He also possessed a knife that he hadn’t been discharged with.

Then as now the fury for a swarthy outlander come uninvited to go a-viking among law-abiding Britons was potent; while legal proceedings were entirely regular, “the noise outside the court was powerful enough at times to prevent the witness from being heard, and from the character of the exclamations which permeated to the interior of the court the crowd appeared ready to lynch Garcia.” (Period press quoted here.) Indeed, such a sentiment was openly published in at least one broadsheet murder ballad:

May the murderers to justice quickly be brought,
And suffer the penalty they surely have sought,
Lynch law in some countries they would very soon find,
And their bodies be swinging on the trees to the wind.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Wales

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1908: Joe James, in the crucible of the Springfield Race Riot

1 comment October 23rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1908, the “negro boy scarcely of legal age”* Joe James hanged at Sangamon County jail in Illinois. His alleged crimes helped spark that year’s Springfield Race Riot, one of the deadliest such rampages in U.S. history.

He was a southern youth who’d been pulled north up the Mississippi, living by the sweat of his brow. As a newcomer to the Land of (in fact the very town of) Lincoln, he’d been tossed in prison for vagrancy when he couldn’t speedily demonstrate a place of employment, but he’d proven a good-natured inmate whom his jailers trusted with errands outside the walls.

On Independence Day of 1908, which was just three days before he was due to be released, James finally abused his parole and decided to take in the celebrations in Springfield’s majority-black working-class neighboroods, where he proceeded to drink himself into oblivion at one of the town’s many saloons, or so he said. (Many other witnesses did see him boozing and banging away on the piano.) He’d be awoken at dawn the next morning passed out at Reservoir Park — awoken by white men who proceeded to beat him up.


Joe James’s mughot (right) shows the effects of the thrashing.

Reservoir Park, you see, stood but half a mile from the home of a beloved North End white resident, Clergy Ballard. (Clergy was his name, not his profession: this Clergy mined.) That same Fourth of July night, an unknown black intruder had burgled the house late at night and upon being caught out had scuffled with Clergy in a running bout/flight that crossed several neighboring yards before the patriarch caught a mortal wound from the assailant’s blade.

By morning’s light, rumors of the home invasion were afoot in the neighborhood, and the discovery of an unrecognized black kid passed out in the vicinity led everyone to draw the obvious conclusion — a conclusion that subsequently became self-confirming especially given the moral panic licensed by the fact that Ballard’s daughter had first encountered the intruder in her own bedroom. “One conclusion that finds most supporters is that James was a degenerate negro, inflamed by strong opiates with a crazed brain that sought satisfaction only in human blood.” (Decatur (Ill.) Herald, July 6, 1908)

From a century’s distance the evidence, while not impossible to square with James’s guilt, is feeble and circumstantial. James had been arrested within a day of his arrival to town, so he barely knew Springfield at all; he had no motivation to select Ballard’s house, possessed no valuables taken from it, and was armed neither when he was given his day pass from jail, nor when he was taken into custody the next morning. And as his attorney* pled to James’s eventual jury in vain, “No guilty man in his right senses would go six blocks away from where the fatal blow was struck and lie down to pleasant dreams.”

Against this stood eyewitness identifications by the surviving Ballards, who had glimpsed the unfamiliar assailant fleetingly by moonlight or streetlamp and who by the time they were making their official attestations had knowledge of James as the suspect, his every particular now a mold into which liquid recollection could pour.

While it was the Ballard outrage that set Springfield on edge, a second black-on-white crime a few weeks later really set match to tinder: another North End white woman, Mabel Hallam, alleged that she’d been raped in her home by an unknown black intruder. Out of a lineup she picked George Richardson, a respected middle-class streetcar conductor, grandson to Abe Lincoln’s barber. Even while admitting that “colored men [all] looked alike,” she fingered Richardson with the insightful words, “I believe that you are the man, and you will have to prove that you are not.”

Rape across the color line even moreso than murder was a frequent incitement to mob violence, and with Richardson jailed alongside the presumed rape-aspirant Joe James, a crowd of 3,000 or more gathered in downtown Springfield on August 14 with lynch law on its mind. The sheriff thwarted its aim by spiriting both of his endangered prisoners out of town, and announced as much to the multitude, hoping it would disperse.

Instead, balked of its strange fruit, the mob rampaged through the black districts of Springfield and for that night and deep into the following day — when a 5,000-strong state militia quelled the disturbance with some difficulty — put black homes to the torch. At least nine black Springfielders died, but accounts of people forced back into their own burning homes or buried secretly by night to avoid any further incitement hint at uncounted casualties besides. Seven whites were also slain.

Horrific photos show burned-out homes and businesses, and rioters posing smugly at the scenes where they’d lynched two men — one an octogenarian who literally used to be Abe Lincoln’s friend — for no better cause than showing defiance to the mob.


Photos from the Chicago Tribune, Aug. 17, 1908.

This particular atrocity stood out even at the nadir of American race relations for its location: the hometown and burial place of former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. Indeed, some caught on the lips of the crowd that awful night slogans explicitly drawing the connection — “Curse the day that Lincoln freed the niggers!” and “Lincoln freed you, now we’ll show you where you belong!” The Springfield events catalyzed the formation early in 1909 of the NAACP. Today, several markers in Springfield commemorate the riot of August 14-15, 1908 — but it still remains a delicate subject in the town that it violently reshaped.

A few books about the 1908 Springfield Race Riot

As for the accused men whose supposed crimes lurked behind this explosion, they proceeded to vastly different fates. Mabel Hallam’s rape charge fell apart and she recanted when it was discovered that she had a sexually transmitted disease, while George Richardson did not. Instead she charged “Ralph Burton”, the son of one of the men lynched during the riots — but this charge also failed to stick on account of there being no such son. George Richardson lived out the balance of his 76 years in Springfield and died peacefully in hospital.

Joe James, however, had no such benediction from his own unreliable accusers. Springfield still smoldered, its bloodlust alongside its ruined buildings; letters delivered to the courthouse threatened a renewed bloodbath should he be acquitted, and black families packed go-bags in the event they should make a sudden departure.

The requisite conviction ensued. James testified on his own behalf, sticking to his claim to have passed out drunk, innocent of the Ballard situation. He would have little to say to anyone beyond that time, referring the many press inquiries to his existing statements.

* There was dispute about James’s age throughout the proceedings; his mother — not an unbiased source, of course — fixed his birthday at November 28, 1890, which would have made him just 17; James estimated it at “19 or 20”. Even the largest of these figures would have made him too young to execute by the statutes of the day. The state, by contrast, officially estimated James at 23 years old.

** A man named Octavius Royall, a “former prosecutor and successful middle-class black attorney representing the local bank” who out of an uncommon measure of courage and decency “decided to represent the most dangerous of all clients.” (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!