1881: Four Black Friday hangings

Add comment November 25th, 2013 Headsman

November 25, 1881, was the day after Thanksgiving. And that date was a true “Black Friday” on the American gallows: four distinct murderers, all African-American men, were hanged in four different cities on this date in 1881.

We’re cadging entirely from the New York Herald of Nov. 26, and all quotes (as well as the pictured headline) source to that journal.

Richard James (South Carolina)

Richard James hanged in Marion, South Carolina for the previous year’s murder of a local shopkeep, David M. Harrell.

James insisted on his innocence, and even “turned upon the preacher with indignation” at in his cell on his last day when importuned to unburden himself of his sin. He “swore by all that was holy that he knew nothing of the crime, and was ready to face his Maker with this oath on his lips.”

James, “a light colored negro about thirty two years old” who “looked capable of committing any crime” and had a bad reputation in town, had been tried with his two brothers, Benjamin and Lewis for having waylaid the Harrell on his way home from closing the store.

A mixed-race jury (nine whites, three blacks) convicted the first two but acquitted Lewis. Benjamin had already been executed some weeks previously.

Henry Johnson (South Carolina)

Shortly afternoon that same day, Henry Johnson hanged in the jail in Sumter while “the housetops and fences near the jailyard were crowded with negroes, who heightened the scene by melancholy exclamations.”

Johnson, who converted to Catholicism the week before his death, occupied his last morning writing to a sweetheart in Port Royal, S.C. (He sent her some wooden buttons to remember him by, and demanded that she never marry.)

While he went mildly, his crime was “one of the most cold-blooded and unparalleled murders ever known in South Carolina.” (Of course, newspapers say this about every crime.)

John Davis, a good and hard working colored man was going through Hope Swamp on his way to the forest, where he was employed to cut cross ties for the railroad [but] he was followed by one Henry Johnson, also colored, who shrouded himself from view by the thick undergrowth. Thus, Indian like, he thirsted for his victim’s blood, and followed David step for step with the greed of a hungry panther until they arrived at a point where the depth and loneliness of the swamp was best suited for the tragedy that was enacted. The desired spot having been reached, Johnson, without uttering a word, raised his gun and fired, shooting John Davis in the middle of the back. Davis dropped dead in his tracks instantly. Johnson then caught him by his heels and dragged him to a hollow log, in which he placed Davis and then covered the log all over with … straw and leaves.

And then Johnson went to Davis’s house, where he knew he would get a good reception since Davis’s wife fancied him.

Explaining that Davis had had to go into town on business and would not be back for a day or three, Johnson made himself “not only lord of Davis’ house, but his much beloved wife.” He tried to lay the blame on a local fellow named Orange Isaacs whom Johnson by all appearances sincerely believed to be a sorcerer.

Joseph Harris (Tennesee)

In Rogersville, Tenn., Joseph Harris hanged for slaying two men in November 1880 in a crime that aroused so much local hatred that he was stashed away in Nashville until two days prior to the execution to prevent the appearance of lynch law.

Unlike the South Carolina condemned, Harris’s hanging was fully public, and a fair concourse of onlookers braved freezing temperatures to satisfy themselves with the course of justice.

Harris had targeted the outgoing proprietor of a country farm called Marble Hall. John Brown, having sold the estate, had sent his family on to their next lodgings in Bristol while he remained at Marble Hall with a 17-year-old stable hand named Heck to sell off the remaining livestock and close up affairs.

Those affairs were closed for good on November 23, when the room that Brown and Heck occupied was discovered on fire, its inhabitants having had their brains bashed in. $500 Brown had recently pocketed from the sale of his hogs was missing.

Sang Armor (Georgia)

Sang Armor not only had the most unusual name of November 25’s grim harvest, but was distinguished as the first-ever public execution (or execution of any kind) in Taliaferro county, Georgia. Taliaferro is currently (circa 2010 census) the least populous county east of the Mississippi with a population of just 1,717.

Armor was egged on by the crowd at his gallows to give up the names of accomplices whom he had previously implied had aided him in the murder of an elderly white man, but he remained “sullenly silent on the subject and talked only on religious matters.” The scaffold was erected in Ellington meadow, on the land of his victim, Amos Ellington.

“The feeling against Armor was very strong,” concludes the report, “especially among the colored men, several of whom he tried to implicate in the crime.”

Not Squire Clark (South Carolina)

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Squire Clark, who was supposed to hang in Lexington, S.C., was respited until December 23.

Clark, sentenced to be die in a strange case where a body was found on a railroad tracks, mutilated by passing trains, had been convicted circumstantially for having killed the fellow before dumping his remains on the tracks. Convicted, overturned on appeal, convicted again, and ultimately commuted to a penal sentence, Clark never made it into the executioners annals.

The estate of his victim later sued the railroad for negligence in having run over the remains of W.S. Hook no fewer than three times.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,South Carolina,Tennessee,USA

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1930: Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, strange fruit

1 comment August 7th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1930, two black youths were lynched in Marion, Indiana for murdering a white man and raping his girlfriend.

(The rape allegation — although it, and not the homicide, seems to have been the thing that triggered the lynching — was subsequently withdrawn, and there were even rumors that the white girlfriend was a lover and confederate of one of the lynched men. It’s just one strand in the very human tapestry around the “last classic lynching north of the Mason-Dixon line” explored by Cynthia Carr in Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America.)

Thomas Shipp and Abram (or Abraham) Smith had been taken just the day before. The Chicago Daily Tribune (Aug. 8, 1930), for whom this event was banner news, reported that

Shipp, who is said to have confessed killing the white man, Claude Deeter, 23, of Fairmount, Ind., was hanged from an elm tree in the courthouse yard. Smith, whom the girl identified as her assailant, was thrown from a third floor window of the jail with a noose around his neck and strangled.

Reports of the crimes and confessions, published in Marion newspapers this afternoon, stirred this quiet community of 23,000 to intense excitement. There was no hint of the impending violence, however, until 8:30 p.m., when a motorcade of Deeter’s fellow townsmen arrived from Fairmount.

The Fairmount delegation, numbering about 100, gathered in the public square, openly displaying their guns and shouting for a lynching … The sheriff led his deputies to the front door, argued a moment with the leaders of the mob and then ordered the tear bombs thrown. Blinded, the lynchers fell back for a few minutes, but returned and began the sledge hammer siege which forced the jail doors within ten minutes. No shots were fired on either side.

Following the lynching the mob gathered in the square for an hour, some proposing to drive the 2,000 members of the Negro colony from the city and burn their dwellings. Peace officers from Indianapolis, Kokomo, Fort Wayne, and other towns were arriving however, and gradually the mob broke up.

The corpses hung in the square for hours, attracting throngs of gawkers — including a photographer able to snap this picture:


Teacher/poet Abel Meeropol ran across this photo of the Shipp-Smith lynching a few years later in a magazine, and it so “haunted” him — his word — that he penned the anti-lynching poem “Strange Fruit”. You know it from Billie Holiday‘s arresting vocal rendition.

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Abel Meeropol was no passing sentimentalist himself, but a prolific left-wing activist. During the McCarthy years, he adopted the children of the Rosenbergs when the latter were electrocuted as Soviet spies. As faithfully as those two orphaned boys have carried the torch for their lost birth parents, they also still carry an adoptive surname: Michael Meeropol and Robert Meeropol.


A third person was almost lynched in the same Marion, Ind., incident, but 16-year-old James Cameron (sometimes called “Herbert” or “Robert” in the 1930 news reports) managed to convince the mob that he wasn’t involved. Just how he managed this feat and what he’d really been up to is another strand of Carr’s tapestry: many of the Marion blacks as well as whites she interviewed overtly mistrusted Cameron.

At any rate, the crowd let him off with a beating, and Cameron served time as an accessory to the crime.

After release, he became an anti-lynching activist in Indiana and, later, Wisconsin — where he founded a (since-shuttered) Black Holocaust Museum. He started several NAACP chapters.

Cameron was pardoned by Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh in 1993, and authored a memoir titled A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story.

In the more immediate aftermath, it was far from a given that this date’s effusion of summary justice wouldn’t cascade into a generalized racial pogrom.

As the Tribune article notes, the lynch mob mulled attacking the black community, ultimately dissuaded by the gradual arrival of lawmen. By the next day, the Indiana national guard had occupied Marion. The Tribune on Aug. 10 reported the town “peaceful to all outward appearances but acutely aware of an undercurrent of racial antagonism that it feared might flame into open warfare at any moment.”

Lest this seem a bit over-the-top, recall that all this went down just a few years since a lynch mob in Tulsa had metastasized into one of America’s most notorious race riots. The prospect of wholesale bloodletting was very real.

When the local attorney general and grand jury waved away the small matter of punishing mob leaders, several of whom were publicly known by name, Indianapolis attorney general (and Marion native) James M. Ogden drove up to town and personally filed indictments, to the fury of white residents.

“It was astonishing to see and feel the mob atmosphere that still prevailed nearly seven months after the murder,” wrote a correspondent for The Nation. Ogden’s deputies were “looked upon as enemies of the community, not only by the mob, but also by most of the court officials.” After all-white juries acquitted the first two people tried, the state dropped its remaining indictments.


The maelstrom of race and politics and history that emerged from that first fatal transaction — a brutal but banal Lover’s Lane heist — grew so far beyond the original cast of criminal and victim that they practically became secondary to the story.

On August 8, 1930, a wire story datelined Fairmount, Ind., ran in the Indianapolis Star (but not the Marion papers):

Deep regret that the negro slayers of their son Claude, were lynched in Marion last night by a mob, was expressed today by Mr. and Mrs. William Deeter, members of the Apostolic faith, a sect similar to the Quakers.

“God should have been the judge,” said the elderly Deeter. “They had no right to do it,” his wife assented.

Both are opposed to capital punishment and did not want to see the negroes put to death for their crime.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Indiana,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Lynching,Mature Content,Murder,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA

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