And up until 1922-23, Texas executions had indeed been hangings administered by county sheriffs. But that newfangled killing technology, the electric chair, beguiled the legislature here as elsewhere. Oil wells popping up all over the state were rewriting its economic future … so why not a futuristic way of killing wrongdoers, too?
A 1923 bill centralized future executions in Huntsville, where they still remain today.
Denouncing countyseat [sic] executions as a barbaric relic of the frontier past, L.K. Irwin launched a one-man campaign to bring Texas in tune with the times. The state legislator converted many to his cause with the argument that public hangings harmed society almost as much as the condemned.
Irwin insisted executions usually degenerated into bloodthirsty carnivals that did nothing to instill in spectators a respect for the law. All too often untrained local officials made the spectacle even more gruesome, when the drop failed to snap the victim’s neck. On those occasions, he slowly strangled in full view of females and impressionable children.
In the 1923 session of the Lone Star legislature, Irwin introduced the Electric Chair Bill. In addition to doing away with the gallows, the proposal relieved county sheriffs of the responsibility of the carrying out death sentences. Future executions would be held behind closed-doors inside the Texas Department of Corrections.
That law took effect on Aug. 14, even though the electric chair hadn’t even been built yet. The hanging of one Roy Mitchell in Waco on July 30 figured to be the last, and thousands packed the public square to witness it. It’s still sometimes cited as the Lone Star State’s last hanging.
But on that very same date in the Gulf town of Angleton, Nathan Lee, an illiterate middle-aged black sharecropper, was condemned to die for shooting his white employer dead in a dispute over money. (The Ku Klux Klan sent flowers to the funeral.)
A month later, he did so — albeit in an area whose public access had intentionally been curtailed, to chill out any potential carnival scene.
Lynching is such a vile word. Likely taken from the name of Captain William Lynch of Virginia (circa 1780), the term for administering justice while dispensing with a trial had, by 1916, long since taken on its more common meaning of a white-on-black public killing.
But Jesse Washington‘s case defies this simple definition, straddling the line between state execution and an unrestrained populace. Washington’s brutal lynching at the hands of a white mob in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916, clearly fits the definition, and the particularly grisly details of his demise conjure all-too-familiar images of violent racism in the pre-Civil Rights South; but in another more disturbing way, Washington was effectively executed, his punishment carried out not by the state of Texas, but by the people themselves.
Jesse Washington’s charred corpse after the lynching.
Washington was born in 1899, a black farmhand who may or may not have been mentally retarded.* While his life is not well-documented, his death most certainly is. Washington was arrested on May 8 of that year for the rape and murder of Lucy Fryer, the 53-year old wife of a well-to-do cotton farmer. Fryer was found bludgeoned to death. Washington was spared for a week by the Waco sheriff, who successfully took him into custody before a pre-trial mob got their hands on him; Washington was then sent to Dallas for holding to prevent a local incident. To appease the mob, he was transferred back to Waco and tried for the crime just one week later.
It’s unclear whether Washington was guilty — evidence is scant and the trial lasted just one hour, but Washington appears to have had ample opportunity to perpetrate the act and is purported to have confessed — but his guilt or innocence in the matter was not on the mob’s mind. On May 15, the well-attended trial ended, and in four minutes, the jury reached its guilty verdict. Before the 17-year old could be sentenced, and with little or no resistance offered by any of the various legal entities in the courthouse, several hundred of the onlookers (some brandishing weapons) rushed Washington and carried him out the doors. Outside, a larger crowd waited to beat and castrate him. A chain was thrown around Washington’s neck, and he was dragged to the town square, where he met an immense crowd as well as the pile of dry goods boxes that was to be his end.
A Fred Gildersleeve image of the lynching of Jesse Washington.
By some estimates, up to 15,000 (mostly white, though not exclusively white) people watched the horrible events unfold; without question, Waco’s mayor as well as several other public officials watched from their second-story perch at town hall on one side of the square. Washington was tossed onto the boxes and coal oil was poured over him. The other end of the chain was thrown over what has become known as the Hanging Tree, and the fuel below Washington’s feet was set ablaze. Immersed in the flames, he attempted to climb the blisteringly hot chain multiple times, each time to be lowered back into the cauldron. It’s unclear how long Washington was alive, but the event lasted more than an hour, after which his fingers and teeth were claimed as souvenirs, his body parts were separated from the torso, and the remains of Washington were dumped in a bag so they might be dragged once more through the Waco streets.
Also watching from the mayor’s position was a cameraman who wanted to sell photographs of Washington’s charred corpse as postcards. Fred Gildersleeve snapped a series of images which would briefly make Waco the most shamefully famous city in the nation. Gildersleeve’s work paints a portrait of a town possessed by spite and uncontrolled rage: thousands of white spectators standing about the burning body of Washington from above, then hundreds of blacks gathered around his burned and brutalized remains from ground level. Others took pictures as well,
some more disturbing than others.
A complete and startlingly brutal account of this murder is given by Patricia Bernstein in her 2005 book The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP, which also tracks the increased viability of the NAACP in the wake of the slaying. What makes this case noteworthy for this column, though, is that Washington was found guilty prior to his lynching, and he would doubtless have received a state-supported death sentence. At the time, Texas law would have allowed for a public hanging; presumably, the spectacle surrounding Washington’s execution would have been just as significant (though not nearly as gruesome). Instead, vigilante justice was administered on the young farmhand, and his case because a linchpin for the Civil Rights movement. As with other lynchings of the time, no persons were charged in the incident, though it was obvious that there was significant planning involved and, from some of the images, that some form of self-appointed executioner actively participated in the deed.
Unlike a state-sponsored execution, though, Washington’s death raised the ire of the jury foreman, who harshly criticized the court for not protecting him. And because he was lynched, his cause was also taken up by several Northern papers, pushed into the national spotlight by NAACP secretary Royal Freeman Nash and Elisabeth Freeman.** Over 90 years later, the town of Waco is still dealing with the Waco Horror. The lynching has reared its head multiple times as many residents have pushed for a plaque to be erected on the site of the lynching, as one was for a distressingly large number of prior lynchings in Waco. Some in the town continue to resist, asserting that Washington’s guilt absolved the mob of responsibility for its act.
A postcard commemorating the lynching; written on the back: “This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe [Myers].”
Washington’s case raises two of the critical issues in the modern death penalty debate: culpability of the executioner (and witnesses), and cruelty of punishment. Nobody in the mob was prosecuted for the crime, and in the Waco of that day, it would have been unusual if someone had; today, we take little interest in the state executioner but would vociferously condemn such mob action. On a similar note, Washington’s death was barbaric and brutal, and few would argue that such an execution should be undertaken through legal channels, but recent Supreme Court cases have found it difficult to identify the meaning of “cruel and unusual punishment”. The debate continues in the United States, but these are two arguments, posed by Cesare Beccaria, that caused Leopold II to outlaw capital punishment in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1789, and cases like Washington’s suggest they should continue at the very least to give us pause today.
* Some accounts state simply that he was illiterate, and if this is the litmus test for mental retardation in the early 1900s, around 6 percent of the population fell into that category.
** Freeman worked tirelessly to drag information from Waco’s inhabitants, her actions likely sparking papers like the local Waco Times-Herald to quickly shut the door on the case; that paper officially apologized 90 years later for its and other newspapers’ roles in venerating the lynch mob.