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

Add 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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1854: Willis Washam, “I never done it, though, boys”

Add comment August 25th, 2018 Headsman

Today’s hanging comes courtesy of a public domain History of Greene County, Missouri, whose account we reproduce in full below:


HANGING OF WILLIS WASHAM — THE FIRST LEGAL EXECUTION IN GREENE COUNTY.

August 25, 1854, the first legal hanging came off in Greene county. The subject was one Willis Washam, of Taney county. The crime which it was alleged Washam committed, and for which he was hung, was thus described at the trial: —

Washam lived on a little farm down on White river, near Forsyth, in Taney county. He was a poor man, somewhat well advanced in years, and lived a retired, obscure life. He had married a woman, who had a son, some fourteen years of age at the time of his death. The Washam family was not a model one. The old man and his wife had frequent quarrels, and both of them treated the son with great cruelty, frequently beating him with uncommon severity. It is said that the boy often showed fight, and was known to strike his mother with a single-tree and with a hoe.

One morning Washam and the boy went down on Bee creek to fish. According to the old man, when they reached the fishing place they separated. The boy never returned home alive. Some days afterward his body was found in Bee creek, with a heavy stone tied about the neck and marks of violence on the body. Mrs. Washam at once accused her husband of having killed her son, and, giving an alarm, he was at once arrested and imprisoned at Forsyth.

Becoming alarmed, Washam struck out for Arkansas, taking with him his own little boy, aged probably eight years, and riding a famous horse which he called “Tom Benton.” He worked on a cotton plantation down on the Arkansas river for some months, or until, as he said, he had a buckskin purse a foot in length full of silver dollars. His little boy never murmured for a long time, but at last one morning, while the two were lying in bed, he threw his arms about his father and said, “Daddy, when are you going to take me home to see my mammy?” Washam immediately arose, and in two hours was on his way back to Taney county, and behind him on old “Tom Benton,” was his little boy, who was overjoyed at the prospect of soon seeing his “mammy.” Arriving at home, Washam was cordially received by his wife, who told him that he was now considered innocent of the crime of which he was accused: that no proceedings had been commenced against him, and that indeed the matter had almost died out in the minds of the community. Washam lay down to sleep in fancied security, but before morning he missed his wife, and searching for her found that she had left the premises. Suspicioning that she had gone to Forsyth to betray him (which was true) Washam again mounted “Tom Benton” and started to escape. He had not gone far before he was overtaken by the sheriff of Taney county, and arrested and taken to Forsyth. On his way to Forsyth the sheriff said Washam offered him “Tom Benton” if he would let him escape; but Washam said that the sheriff himself offered “to look the other way” if Washam would give him his horse. Washam had been indicted and on being arraigned at Forsyth took a change of venue to this county. There were many threats made to lynch him by the people of Taney county. At the July term, 1854, of the circuit court of this county Washam was brought to trial. Judge Chas. S. Yancey presided. E. B. Boone was circuit attorney, A. G. McCracken clerk and Junius T. Campbell sheriff (by appointment). Hon. Littleberry Hendrick was the counsel for the prisoner. The jury before whom Washam was tried was composed of Ezekiel C. Cook, foreman; Wm. Gray, Qualls Banfield, Wm. White, James S. McQuirter, Sam’l McClelland, Mark Bray, John Freeman, Thos. Green, Joseph Moss, John R. Earnest, and Jabez R. Townsend. The trial lasted two days. The testimony was mainly of a circumstantial character, and that most damaging to the prisoner was the evidence of his wife. On the 21st of July the jury reurned a verdict of “guilty of murder in the first degree.” The next day Judge Yancey sentenced Washam to be hung at Springfield on the 25th of August following, — speedy punishment and short shrift certainly.

Mr. Hendrick made a hard fight for his client, but it was without avail. He made a strong speech to the jury, and urged the members to be careful not to hang a fellow-man on circumstantial evidence. After Washam was sentenced Mr. Hendrick moved for a new trial and for arrest of judgment; both motions were overruled. He then moved for a suspension of the sentence until the case could be heard in the Supreme Court; this motion was also overruled. He then prepared to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, but as there was to be an adjourned term of the circuit court held in August, he decided to attempt to set aside the sentence of the court then. At this adjourned term, two days before the hanging of his client, he moved to vacate, set aside, and annul the judgment of the court and set aside the verdict of the jury, but Judge Yancey refused to take any action in the matter.

It is doubtful if Mr. Hendrick could have secured a new trial for his client in the Supreme Court, since all the proceedings had been regular, and there remained but the matter of guilt and innocence, questions of fact, which the jury had passed upon; yet it is strange that he did not take the case to the Supreme Court, at any rate, even if but for the purpose of delay, and it is said that he afterward expressed regret that he did not do so, as he was fully convinced of VVasham’s innocence.

On the 25th of August, the day set for the execution, without commutation, postponement, or mitigation of the sentence, Willis Washam was hung. The execution took place in the northeastern part of Springfield, on the north side of “Jordan,” [Creek] and west of the present site of the cotton factory. The gallows stood not far from the tree on which the negro ravisher was hung. An immense crowd from all parts of Southwest Missouri was present, coming from Buffalo, from Bolivar, from Warsaw, and other points miles away. Washam made a short speech on the gallows, saying he was innocent of the crime for which he was to be made to suffer, “and,” said he, “if I had plenty of money to hire big lawyers with and pay expenses, I could get clear. My old woman has sworn my life away, but I am ready to die. I never done it, though, boys; I never done it.”

Sheriff Samuel Fulbright had been elected sheriff a few days previously, and he was the executioner. It is said that he always regretted the part he had to perform on this occasion, even to his dying day, and there are those silly enough to allege, without any good reason, that this was the moving cause that impelled him to take his own life, which he did, by poison, only a few years since. Washam died game, and after being pronounced dead his body was cut down and given to Dr. —-, of Springfield, who used it for scientific purposes. A few years since a story was put in circulation and obtained some credence, that Mrs. Washam, wife of him who was hung and mother of the murdered boy, had died at her home in Taney or Wright county, and on her deathbed, it is said, she made confession that her husband was innocent of the crime for which he died at Springfield, and that she, herself, had perpetrated the dreadful deed and murdered her own son with her own hands, tying the stone to his neck and sinking the body in Bee creek, and, then by all manner of devices, had contrived to fasten the burden of guilt upon her husband, and caused him to suffer what should have been her punishment. After careful investigation the writer has been unable to obtain a corroboration of this story, and does not hesitate to declare it a fabrication. At any rate, from the evidence and all of the facts adduced, there seems no reasonable doubt but that Washam was guilty of a deliberate and atrocious murder and suffered a just punishment. It is said that the story of Mrs. Washam’s confession was first told by an ingenious but unscrupulous attorney, who was trying to acquit a client of murder in the circuit court of this county.


Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, another family homicide was avenged on the scaffold. This account from the Washington (Penn.) Review and Examiner of September 9 that same year will read very banal to anyone without an abiding interest in the particulars of the Anglo hanging ritual, until we come to the final paragraph’s gruesome revelation that “the left eye was found to be forced out of its socket and very black all around; the knot of the rope was on this side.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Missouri,Murder,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,USA

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1912: Bertram Spencer

1 comment September 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1912, a prolific Springfield thief died in the electric chair.


No, not Snake.

This fellow was Bertram G. Spencer, whose Boston Brahmin name belied a deceptively modest station.

A brakeman by day, Spencer lived a double life as Massacusetts’ boldest burglar in the evenings, when he would raid homes around Springfield at times when he was likely to be caught. (Hey, he did have a day job.) He frequently was intercepted, but for two years nobody ever got the drop on him and the numerous conversations he had with his victims were not enough to crack the case.

This villain comes up short of positively Moriartyesque by virtue of his amateurish chops in acquisition; one of the mystery burglar’s noted characteristics was the frequency with which he passed over the most valuable booty in the house in favor of some inconsequential bauble.

With his penchant for brandishing a weapon at the folks he bumped into, it was only a matter of time before somebody died for one of those inconsequential baubles. On March 31, 1910, schoolteacher Martha A. Blackstone became that somebody when in a panicking reaction to Spencer’s home invasion she failed to pipe down and let him rob — and he shot her dead.

Forensics then languishing in a primitive state, Spencer kept getting away with his larcenous (and then murderous) spree with little more than the expedient of wearing a kerchief and hat to hide his face. How were they ever going to find the guy — unless he did something ridiculous like drop a monogrammed locket on the scene?

Wait. No way. You cannot be serious.


Period
postcard shows images connected to the Spencer crimes centered around the “B.G.S.” locket he dropped at one site, leading to his detection. Just to really make sure he hung himself, the locket contained pictures of his mother and sister.

Upon arrest, police tossed his home and discovered (quoth the New York Times) “black masks, slouch hats,” and “a big revolver, fully loaded” under his pillow. No word on whether he was twirling his mustache, too.

Where the relieved well-to-do of Springfield perhaps saw only a somewhat preposterous villain — inspired, according to the Springfield Republican, by “a daredevil bravado, a love of the spectacular and a lack of pecuniary calculation which strongly suggested either the monomania of an unbalanced mind or a romantic vanity fed on by penny dreadfuls” — other practitioners in the emerging field of psychiatry saw a systemic breakdown.

Indeed, Spencer became the topic of an open tug-of-war over handling defendants with putative mental disorders in the criminal justice system. The district attorney at the time had Spencer committed without trial, and his doing so — rather than contesting Spencer’s sanity in court — contributed to his loss at the polls in 1910. (The new guy, in his remarks on the case, reclassified Spencer from “insane” to the more prosecutable “moral imbecile.”)

If the public was certain enough about Bertram Spencer’s sanity to elect a guy just to try him, it will come as no surprise that the testimony about Spencer’s abusive childhood and manic-depression cut no ice with a jury of his peers.

While our burglar went to his juridical death (last words: “good night”), a Massachusetts psychologist named Lloyd Vernon Briggs took up the man (alongside more luminous criminals like presidential assassin Leon Czolgosz) as one of his case studies for a 1914 book, The Manner of Man That Kills. A lengthy pdf of the Spencer material — it’s all public domain — is available here.

Briggs viewed mentally disordered prisoners as people who were ill-served by the criminal justice system: more than that, as instances where a society failed itself by failing to recognize potentially criminal mental illness before it metastasized into actual crime, and the adversarial judiciary as a factor in that dysfunction.

Dr. L. Vernon Briggs … made it his goal to end the courtroom spectacle of dueling psychiatrists. …

Briggs was an indefatigable advocate of the psychological links between mental illness and murder. He believed that mental illness and moral degradation were the root causes of crime and violence. … Briggs insisted that the “real offender is society and not the children in the form of men, not the mentally diseased” who commit violent crime.

When mentally ill people landed in court, Briggs believed that the law’s adversary procedures undermined scientific truth and the legal protection provided a defendant. He wanted to bridge the gulf between law and psychiatry by intervening in the process before a mentally ill defendant appeared in court. He was especially critical of the “spectacle in our courts of two or more physicians pitted against one another, testifying to diametrically opposite opinions as to the mental condition and responsibility” of the defendant. Such a procedure, he said, not only humiliates the mentally ill defendant but increases the likelihood that a mentally ill capital defendant will be sentenced to death and executed … Briggs lobbied the public and the legislature for a law that required all capital defendants to undergo a psychiatric examination by neutral experts as son as they were taken into police custody.

Briggs was appalled [at Spencer’s case]. He contended that all of the psychiatrists who examined Spencer knew he was insane at the time of the murder and at the trial. Some thought he was medically insane but not legally insane. Briggs denounced the distinction between medical insanity and legal insanity as without a difference. The awful result of the confusion between psychhiatry and the law was the unnecessary execution of an insane person. “The whole legal machinery of the State,” he wrote angrily, “had been put in motin to crush this defective and uphold the Majesty ofthe Law and so it came about that Bertram G. Spencer, a defective from birth, with the mind of a child, was tried for his life and sentenced to death and executed with a smile upon his lips.”

-From Alan Rogers, Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Theft,USA

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