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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1908: Grete Beier, who wanted the fairy tale

1 comment July 23rd, 2015 Headsman

Marie Margarethe (Grete) Beier, the daughter of the late Mayor of Brand-Erbisdorf, was beheaded on the fallbeil on this date in 1908 for murdering her fiance. While her crime was banal, the consequent spectacle lit up newswires all the globe ’round.


Despite the marquee half of this contradictory headline in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser (Aug. 26, 1908), the execution occurred behind prison walls. About two hundred tickets were distributed to members of the public (all men), but thousands of applicants (which included many women) were denied them. These “ticket holders rushed in pell mell in their eagerness to get the best places. Men fell and fought wildly.”

Secretly carrying on with a lover named Johannes Merker, Beier (German Wikipedia link) was forced by her parents — a working-class couple made good — into pledging her troth to a respectable engineer named Heinrich Pressler.

With “the face of an angel and the heart of a fiend”* the charming Beier contrived a plan to truly have it all: on May 13, 1907, she visited her would-be husband and spiked his drink with potassium cyanide — then to be sure of her project, had him close his eyes and open his mouth on her flirty promise of a sweet surprise. Then she shoved his own revolver between his lips and fired, abandoning at the scene of her crime a forged will to her benefit, a forged suicide note lamenting a purported affair with a vengeful Italian woman, and forged love letters corroborating the latter, fictional, relationship.

She was some weeks on towards her way to getting away with it — the coroner did indeed take Herr Pressler for a suicide — before suspicions as to the dead man’s testament led police to set a watch on her and unravel the web. Grete Beier confessed, in an unsuccessful gambit to secure mercy.

She reportedly died bravely, albeit slightly appalled by the size of the audience that had been admitted to gawk at her disgraceful finale.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the courthouse yard at Freiburg being readied for Grete Beier’s beheading. Image via the invaluable Bois de Justice.

* Her feminine fiendishness was greatly exacerbated to contemporaries by stories that she had also aborted three bastard children.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Pelf,Sex,Women

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1908: Massillon Coicou and the Firminists

Add comment March 14th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1908, the octogenarian Haitian president Pierre Nord Alexis had a number of political opponents arrested and, that very night, summarily executed.

Nord Alexis, a career officer risen to the post of Minister of War in a provisional 1902 government* when the previous president Tiresias Simon Sam* resigned to avert a constitutional crisis.

That was a strange affair: a misreading of the constitution had Sam set to rule until 1903, until someone caught the mistake. Sam’s diligently on-time resignation proved not the Rule of Law victory he might have hoped when the resulting power vacuum brought civil war.

The contest for power boiled down to Nord Alexis on one side, and the scholar and diplomat Joseph Auguste Antenor Firmin on the other.**

As one can see, Nord Alexis won it — but the conflict flared again in 1908, with the exiled Fermin making an attempt to return to Haiti. Nord Alexis’s response was ruthless and, for now, effective. (Nord Alexis was ousted later in 1908, however.)

Massillon Coicou

Prominent among the victims of the crackdown this date was the novelist and poet Massillon Coicou (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed French).

Coicou had been in the diplomatic service in France with Firmin, where the two forged a close affinity, and Coicou became a toast of literary circles.

Coicou and his two brothers Horace and Pierre-Louis, staunch Firminists all, were shot together with a several others at the walls of the Port-au-Prince cemetery on the night of March 14-15. (The exact number of others seems a little hard to come by; there are different counts from around 10-15 ranging up to 27+ total people executed in this incident, although the larger count may encompass executions other than those at the cemetery.)

For Francophones, several of Coicou’s poems can be perused via links at the bottom of this biographical page.

* Sam’s cousin Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam held that same office for a brief and bloody interval in 1915.

** Firmin is noted for his 1885 book De l’égalité des races humaines, which mounted a strong defense for the fundamental equality of the races, and also predicted a black U.S. president.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Haiti,History,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Shot,Summary Executions

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1908: Khudiram Bose, teenage martyr

Add comment August 11th, 2012 Headsman

The investigations following upon the recent raids on Anarchist dens here prove the existence of a revolutionary plot on a vast scale and show that there was a systematically organized “college” … where bombs were manufactured and instruction in explosives was given … The prisoners talk freely of their “heroic conduct” and “noble design,” while refusing to impart any informaton incriminating those working behind the scenes and furnishing the funds. They all confess, however, that their minds have been fired by writings in the Press and speeches on platforms.

London Times

It’s a timeless story, really; with a tweak here or there, the excerpt above could do for reportage on seditious movements by the hundredfold. As it happens, its dateline is May 11, 1908 — Calcutta.

Separatist stirrings on the subcontinent were then manifesting themselves in the explosive revolutionary language of the day, and the chief magistrate of that ancient city of Calcutta — Kingsford by name, as in charcoal — was a character notorious for his harshness toward the movement. The year before, he’d had a 15-year-old flogged for trying to stop a British soldier beating Indian activists.

Among the more militant types excited to wrath against Kingsford was an 18-year-old Bengali who would have the privilege of martyrdom for the cause of national self-determination.

Khudiram Bose sought the judge out in Muzaffarpur and, with another young revolutionary, attempted to assassinate him in April 1908 by tossing a couple of bombs into Kingsford’s carriage.

Minor problem: it was the wrong carriage.

Instead of popping the nefarious judge, the bombs killed the wife and daughter of a barrister.

The other assassin committed suicide when cornered by police, but Bose would meet his end via the judiciary.

Bose played his patriotic martyr’s role to the hilt in the few brief weeks before his hanging, and found himself on the leading edge of a growing movement of anti-British bombers. “People are prepared to do anything for the sake of swarajya [home rule] and they no longer sing the glories of British rule,” one contemporary newspaper (quoted here) put it. “They have no dread of British power. It is simply a question of sheer brute force.” The editor was convicted of seditious libel.

One can now find plentiful Khudiram Bose hagiographies celebrating the youthful freedom fighter … regardless of his target selection.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,India,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Terrorists

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1908: John Boyd, by John Radclive

Add comment January 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1908, John Boyd managed six fitful hours of sleep, had a breakfast of toast, poached eggs and tea, and then went to the Don Jail gallows for murdering his paramour’s rival suitor.

Canada had long before ceased public executions. Prior to Boyd’s execution, Don Jail hangings had occurred in a jail yard — technically behind prison walls, but easily peeped upon by curiosity-seekers willing to obtain higher ground. Boyd’s execution introduced a new privacy measure: it was the first of 26 hangings to occur in an interior chamber completely away from public eyes, the same place where Canada eventually held its last hangings in 1962.

But apart from this minor milestone, we notice on this date the hurried and disturbed departure of prolific hangman John Radclive. “Another poor soul gone,” he was overheard to say as he left.

Radclive is the subject of an empathetic Toronto Star profile that’s well worth the read.

He was Canada’s first professional hangman, with 69 recorded executions and perhaps just as many which the uneven documentation of the day failed to note. Predecessor of the better-known Arthur Ellis, Radclive learned his trade direct from William Marwood, and was put on the federal payroll as a full-time executioner in 1892.

He had a swagger in his ill-starred step back then: he once started a brawl boasting in a pub that he had “come to hang a Frenchman, and hoped it would not be the last.” By the time he got to Boyd and beyond, he was ready for the last. Alcoholism had wasted his nerves (and his liver: he died of cirrhosis in 1911). In 1910 Radclive told a psychiatrist,

“Now at night when I lie down, I start up with a roar as victim after victim comes up before me. I can see them on the trap, waiting a second before they meet their Maker. They haunt me and taunt me until I am nearly crazy with an unearthly fear.”

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

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1908: Two Persian constitutionalists

Add comment June 24th, 2010 Headsman

TEHERAN, June 24.

Two of the Nationalist leaders, Malik-Mutikalamin and Mannchir Khan, were hanged in the Royal camp to-day. Anxiety is felt regarding the fate of the others, including the President, notwithstanding the verbal promise of the Shah to spare their lives.

The house of Zahir-ed-Dowleh, now Governor of Resht, has been bombarded and looted. A state of terrorism exists.

Troops are guarding the approaches to the British Legation, with orders to shoot fugitives seeking sanctuary there.

London Times, June 25, 1908

On this date, two Persian constitionalist liberals were summarily hanged by the Shah as two factions fought for the future of Iran.

A Constitutional Revolution was shaking that country’s ruling dynasty when the throne passed and the new Shah, Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar, mounted a coup dissolving the newborn parliament and reversing the country’s 1906 constitution. (According to the Shah, constitutionalism was un-Islamic.)

On June 23, the Shah’s Cossacks — he had Russian support, arranged with the connivance of other European powers — bombarded Iran’s parliament, capturing in the process a number of constitutional delegates.

Two in particular, both of them prominent Azali Bab’i exponents of the constitution, would interest the Shah.

Mirza Jahangir Khan (left), and Malek al-Motakallemin.

Journalist, revolutionary, and intellectual Mirza Jahangir Khan Shirazi was a well-known spokesperson of the reformist cause through his paper Sur-e Esrafil. Malek al-Motakallemin was a dissident essayist and preacher with an interest in Persia’s Zoroastrian ancient history.

Their hanging this day calmed the capital for the moment, but hardly settled matters in Iran. (Indeed, one could say matters have never been settled in Iran.) By the next year, Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar was out on his ear (he’d die in exile) — succeeded by the last monarch of the Qajar dynasty.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Iran,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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