Lynchings & Hangings of America

Chinese immigrants at the San Francisco custom-house. P. Frenzeny, 1877.

The “ethnic cleansing” of Chinese from the American West was another dark chapter in our nation’s history. Writes John Higham in Strangers in the Land, “No variety of anti-European sentiment has ever approached the violent extremes to which anti-Chinese agitation went in the 1870s and 1880s.” Many of the estimated 200 American lynchings victimizing people of Asian descent occurred during this time.

In 1880, many Chinese lived in Hop Alley, Denver, Colorado’s Chinatown. In October of that year, an anti-Chinese riot resulted in the lynching of a Chinese man and injuring many others. A mob of approximately 3000 people had gathered in Hop Alley, consisting of “illegal voters, Irishmen and some Negroes.” Only eight Policemen were on duty at the outbreak of the riot. Firemen, brought in to disperse the crowd, hosed them with water, making them angrier. The mob began to destroy Chinese businesses, loot their homes, and injuring many. According to the Rocky Mountain News, the Chinese quarter was “gutted as completely as though a cyclone had come in one door and passed out the rear. There was nothing left…whole.”

It is difficult to identify the youngest person legally executed in American history, but records indicate that a ten-year-old Cherokee Indian boy was hanged for murder in 1885.

On October 28, 1889, Katsu Goto was a merchant, interpreter, and lynching victim. He spoke fluent English and was a contract laborer who took over a store in Honokaa, Hawaii, a plantation village. His customers were not only Japanese, as he was but also Hawaiian and Haole (white). White plantation owners disliked him, and his popularity in the community created competition with shopkeepers loyal to the white Protestant overseers.

Nine days before he was lynched, on October 19th, a fire broke out at the nearby Overend Camp, and Goto and seven other workers were accused of arson. Though he never had a trial, four men ambushed and killed Goto. His body was found swinging from a telephone pole the next day. After a lengthy investigation, the perpetrators were arrested, tried, and sentenced to O’ahu Prison.

After a black rape suspect was forcibly taken from a county jail and lynched in front of a crowd of 9,000 people in Ohio, the Cleveland Leader published this editorial on June 19, 1897, which echoed the sentiments of many of the American people.

“The people of Ohio have seen murderers tried and convicted of murder in the 1st degree two or three times over and finally set free. They have known many desperate and dangerous criminals to be sent to the penitentiary for long terms and released soon enough to make the whole costly process of the courts seem little better than a farce… That is the real reason why, once in a while, the passion and indignation of the masses break through all restraints, and some particularly wicked crime is avenged… “

In 1891, several Italian Americans were accused and arrested for the murder of the local police chief. At the news of the not guilty verdict, hysteria took hold of a crowd of several thousand citizens, who stormed the jail where the former suspects were held. On March 14, 1891, eleven Italian Americans were dragged into the streets, beaten, and hanged. “Public opinion around America generally endorsed the mob’s action, applauding the citizens’ efforts to stop the mafia. As a result, President Benjamin Harrison was the first resident to request a federal law against Lynching later that year. An incident in New Orleans and the recurring violence against African-Americans was becoming an international human rights embarrassment.

Despite its reputation for violence, TombstoneArizona, saw only one lynching during its history, and miners conducted that from nearby Bisbee, Arizona. When six men held up the Goldwater and Castenada Store in Bisbee in December 1883, three men and a pregnant woman were shot and killed. While five robbers were sentenced to be hanged, one named John Heath was found guilty of second-degree murder and given life imprisonment. This so enraged the people of Bisbee that a group went to Tombstone on February 22, 1884, removed Heath from the sheriff’s custody, and lynched him from a telegraph pole at the corner of First and Toughnut Streets. The other five men were legally hanged at Tombstone, March 6, 1884.”

Back in the south, Ida Wells, an editor for a small newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee called the Free Speech, investigated the many lynchings in 1884. She discovered that white mobs had hung 728 black men and women in just a short period. Of these deaths, two-thirds were for small offenses such as public drunkenness and shoplifting.

Ellen Watson, aka "Cattle Kate"

Ellen Watson, aka “Cattle Kate.”

There were occasions when people were lynched for political reasons or greed. For example, on July 20, 1889, James Averell and Kate Watson, aka “Cattle Kate,” were lynched on the orders of Albert J. Bothwell, a powerful cattleman in Wyoming.  Unfortunately for Averell and Watson, they had become involved in a dispute with Bothwell during the Johnson County range war. Bothwell responded by organizing a vigilante mob, perpetuating a story of how the pair had been involved in cattle rustling and they were lynched.

A couple of days later, on July 23, 1989, in Fayette, Missouri, 19-year-old Frank Embree was accused of raping a fourteen-year-old white girl. Embree maintained his innocence but confessed after having been whipped over 100 times, crying, “he would ‘own-up’ if they would ‘hang me or shoot me, instead of torturing me.”‘ Frank Embree died at the end of a rope without a trial.

By the 1890s, lynchers had become particularly sadistic when blacks were the prime targets. Increasingly burning, torture, and dismemberment were used to prolong the suffering. Sadly, these tactics were also utilized to create a more “festive atmosphere” among the onlookers. Public spectacles became more common as newspapers carried advance notices and railroad agents sold excursion tickets announcing lynching sites. As families brought their children to these “recreational” events, executioners cut off black victims’ fingers, toes, ears, and genitalia as souvenirs. Often these racially motivated lynchings were not spontaneous mob reactions but instead were carried out with the assistance of law enforcement.

Though many at the time were under the false impression that these multiple lynchings were taking place for violations against women and were rightly justified, this was rarely the case. More often, their alleged crimes included such offenses as using offensive language; having a bad reputation; refusing to give up a farm; throwing stones; unpopularity; slapping a child; and stealing hogs, to name a few. In East Texas, a black man and his three sons were lynched for the grand crime of “harvesting the first cotton of the season.” Only 19% of those lynched were ever charged with rape. Fewer were ever proven.

On March 9, 1892, a cold-blooded lynching occurred in Memphis, Tennessee. Three young men of color, in an altercation at their place of business, fired on white men in self-defense. They were imprisoned for three days, taken out by a mob, shot, and lynched. Thomas Moss, William Stewart, and Calvin McDowell were energetic businessmen who had built a flourishing grocery business.

Their business had prospered, and that of a rival white grocer named Barrett had declined. Barrett led the attack on their grocery, which resulted in the wounding of three white men. No effort was made to punish the murderers of these three men.

Ida B. Wells Barnett

Ida Wells was exiled from her home in 1892 under penalty of death for writing articles about lynching in her small newspaper.

When Ida Wells, editor of Free Speech, wrote an article condemning the lynchers, a white mob destroyed her printing press. They declared that they intended to lynch her but fortunately, she was visiting Philadelphia at the time. This led Ida to write more on the topic and begin the Anti-lynching Campaign, a movement to end mob violence against African-Americans that would last through the 1940s.

However, her property was soon destroyed, and she was exiled from her home under the penalty of death for writing the following editorial, printed in her paper.

The Free Speech, in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 21, 1892:

“Eight Negroes lynched since last issue of the ‘Free Speech’ one at Little Rock, Ark., last Saturday morning where the citizens broke (?) into the penitentiary and got their man; three near Anniston, Ala., one near New Orleans; and three at Clarksville, Ga., the last three for killing a white man, and five on the same old racket—the new alarm about raping white women. The same program of hanging, then shooting bullets into the lifeless bodies were carried out to the letter. Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves, and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”

The Memphis Daily Commercial Appeal called her a “Black scoundrel,” White businessmen threatened to lynch the owners of her newspaper, and creditors commandeered the newspaper’s offices and sold the equipment.

1892 ended up being the worst year for lynchings in America, with 69 whites hanged and 161 blacks put to death at the hands of lynch mobs.

By the turn of the century, the Old West had instituted official legal entities throughout the states, and most of the vigilante groups had disappeared. From there on out, almost all of the lynchings that occurred in the 20th century were either racially or politically motivated.

The international response, condemning the U.S. for lynching foreign citizens residing in the U.S., resulted in the State Department having to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to foreign governments. Between 1887 and 1903, a total of $480,000 was paid to the governments of China, Italy, Great Britain, and Mexico alone. During this time, Americans traveling abroad routinely encountered critical commentaries in foreign newspapers and magazines condemning the common practice of lynching in the United States.

How could America, these foreign critics asked, champion human rights abroad when it failed to prevent and punish the most brutal human rights violations at home?

Between 1880 and 1905, not one person was ever convicted of any crime associated with these killings. Lynchings are, in effect, the most extensive series of unsolved murders in American history.

George Henry White

George Henry White.

In 1901, George Henry White, the last former slave to serve in Congress, proposed a bill to make anyone involved in lynching a federal crime. He pointed out that white mobs primarily used lynching in the south to terrorize African Americans. He supported his proposal by showing statistics that of the 109 people lynched in 1899, 87 were African Americans. However, the bill was defeated.

On October 8, 1902, a town mob of 500 in Newbern, Tennessee, lynched two black men named Garfield Burley and Curtis Brown. Burley had confessed to killing a well-known young farmer near Dyersburg, Tennessee, named D. Fiatt over a horse trade. Later, when Burley demanded that the trade be declared off, Fiatt refused, and Burley shot him down when Fiatt was on his way home.

When a posse apprehended Burley, he implicated Curtis Brown as an accomplice. When the mob appeared and demanded possession of the prisoners, Criminal Court Judge Maiden pleaded to the group to allow the law to deal with the case, stating that the two men would be placed on trial the very next day. However, the mob would not listen. The prisoners were taken to a telephone pole, where they were securely tied face to face and strung up.

Available at Legends’ General Store.

On August 3, 1906, the mob numbered into the thousands when five black men — Nease, John Gillespie, Jack Dillingham, Henry Lee, and George Irwin– were lynched in Salisbury, North Carolina. Accused of murdering members of a local family named Lyerly, the victims were tortured with knives before being hanged and then riddled with bullets. The authorities in North Carolina, alarmed at what was one of the largest multiple lynchings of the 20th century, took unusual steps to punish the mob’s leaders. After the Governor ordered the National Guard to restore order, local officials arrested more than two dozen suspected leaders. One of the killers, George Hall, was convicted and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in the state penitentiary. The New York Times predicted that, by taking these measures, North Carolina’s Governor Glenn was not improving his political prospects.

On January 9, 1907, an atypical lynching victim was taken from the Floyd County Jail in Charles City, Iowa. James Cullen, a wealthy, white, 62-year-old contractor, had murdered his wife and 15-year-old stepson, Roy Eastman, the day before. Young men orchestrated the mob, perhaps acquainted with the ill-fated Eastman. When the group of several hundred men rammed down the jail doors with a rail iron, the sheriff and several deputies offered only feeble resistance. Seizing Cullen, they hanged him from the local Main Street Bridge. By 11:30 p.m., a crowd of at least 500 residents, including women and children, had gathered to view the swaying body of James Cullen hanging from the bridge.

In 1908 eight black men were lynched on June 24th near Hemphill, Texas. The trouble began when a local man named Dean was shot, and six black men were arrested in connection with the crime. Soon, a mob stormed the jail, taking the six men and hanged them on the same tree. Later the same evening, another black man was shot; the next morning, two more African-American corpses were found hanging from trees near the town.

On August 1st of the same year, four men were hanged simultaneously in Logan County, Kentucky. Joseph Riley, Virgil, Robert, and Thomas Jones were discontented sharecroppers in Russellville, Kentucky, with whom a man named Rufus Browder was a friend and lodge brother. When Browder and James Cuningham, the farmer for whom he worked, had an argument, Browder turned away when Cunningham cursed him and struck him with a whip. Cunningham then drew his pistol and shot Browder in the chest. Browder, in self-defense, returned the fire and killed Cunningham. After having his wounds tended to, Browder was arrested and sent to Louisville for his own protection.

Subsequently, the three Jones men and Riley were conducting a lodge meeting in a private home when police entered and arrested them for disturbing the peace. In fact, they were arrested for having expressed approval of Browder’s actions and discontentment with their employers. On August 1, 1908, 108 men entered the jail and demanded the prisoners. The jailer complied, and the four men were hanged from the same tree. A note pinned to one of the men read, “Let this be a warning to you ni**ers to let white people alone, or you will go the same way.”

Jim Miller

Jim Miller.

Another vigilante mob killed a notorious killer named Jim Miller, also known as Killin’ Jim. Miller, sometimes known as “Deacon Jim” for his Sunday preachings, killed more than 30 men in Texas and Oklahoma as one of the first known “killers for hire.” When the law finally caught up with him, he was sentenced to death, but Miller only laughed. The finest criminal lawyers in the West were on his payroll, and he soon bragged that he would be released after his attorney filed their appeals. However, a crowd of vigilantes did not wait for these legal procedures. They knew Miller, who had often bragged of his many killings, might cheat justice through his highly paid lawyers.

On the night of April 19, 1909, a lynch mob broke into the jail in Ada, Oklahoma, and dragged Miller and three others out to a livery stable. Though the other men begged for their lives, Jim “The Killer” Miller showed no signs of fear. He only asked that his diamond ring be given to his wife and that he be permitted to wear his black Stetson while he was being hanged. The vigilantes granted these wishes. Then Miller, standing on a box, displayed his last act of bravado, shouting, “let ‘er rip!” He then voluntarily stepped off the box to be jerked by the rope around his neck, which was tied to a rafter in the stable. He dangled as the other three were strung up. The bodies were left hanging for some hours to allow a local photographer to take enough photos of the lynchings—these photos were sold for many years in Ada, Oklahoma, to tourists. The only surviving photo shows Miller hanging with the others, his black hat on his tilted head.

In Texas, the publicity of the lynching provoked even more attacks on Mexicans. Because Mexicans “displayed an impudent attitude,” they were attacked in Galveston. In construction camps and ranches in Webb, Duval, LaSalle, Dimmit, and Starr Counties, Anglos attacked Mexicans who were reportedly “sullen and threatening since the burning of Rodriquez at Rock Springs.”

In the American Southwest, people of Mexican descent were also prey to ‘mob’ violence, as evidenced by the lynching of Antonio Rodriquez on November 3, 1910, in Rock Springs, Texas. Allegedly, Rodriquez killed a white woman named Mrs. Clem Hernderson after the two had an argument. Rumors circulated that he had committed the murder in front of Mrs. Henderson’s five-year-old daughter.

His guilt was based solely upon her husband’s third-hand description of the suspect delivered over the telephone. Most likely, Rodriquez was the victim of a tragic case of mistaken identity. The young cowboy was captured, taken a mile outside of town, tied to a mesquite tree, doused in kerosene, and burned alive.

Widely publicized in the Mexican press, the lynching in Texas led to large anti-American demonstrations in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Coverage of the lynching and the reaction to it was wildly sensationalized. The newspapers at the capitol of Mexico demanded, ‘Where is the boasted Yankee civilization?'”

In late April 1911, a posse visited the Nelson cabin in Oklahoma, suspecting Mr. Nelson of stealing cattle. While they were looking for meat, Nelson’s 14-year-old son, L.W., shot and killed Deputy George Loney, who was in charge of the posse. Laura Nelson, the boy’s mother, claimed to have shot the deputy to protect her son. Both mother and son were taken to the Okemah County jail. Days later, Mr. Nelson pled guilty to stealing cattle and was sent to prison.

While Laura and her son awaited their trials, Laura was determined to be innocent of the crime. However, on May 25th, forty men stormed the sheriff’s office. The jailer, named Payne, lied that the two prisoners had been moved elsewhere, but when a revolver was “pressed into his temple,” he led them to the prisoners. Mother and son were then hauled by wagon six miles west of town to a steel bridge crossing the Canadian River and hanged.

The next morning a black boy taking his cow to water discovered the two bodies swaying under the bridge. Before long, the scene had attracted hundreds of viewers before the bodies were cut down. No one was ever arrested for the crime.

One local newspaper said of the lynching: “While the general sentiment is adverse to the method, it is generally thought that the Negroes got what would have been due them under process of law.”

Amazingly, even the black folks got wrapped up in the lynching craze when they lynched three of their own people on September 12, 1911, in Wickliffe, Kentucky. Three black men, by the names of Ernest Harrison, Sam Reed, and Frank Howard, confessed to the murder of Washington Thomas, an older and much respected black man. When Thomas, employed in a tobacco factory, was walking home from work, the three men waylaid him along the railroad tracks, robbing him of his salary and killing him. The offenders were quickly apprehended and placed in jail. However, a mob of blacks invaded the jail during the night, took the prisoners, and hanged them to a cross beam in a mill near the river.

Bennie Simmons, or Dennis Simmons, accused of the murder of 16-year-old Susie Church, was taken from prison guards in Anadarko, Oklahoma, on June 13, 1913. His killers led him to a nearby bridge and hanged him from the limb of a cottonwood tree flourishing by a stream.

The Eufaula Democrat would report the following on the lynching:

“The Negro prayed and shrieked in agony as the flames reached his flesh,” reported a local newspaper, “but his cries were drowned out by yells and jeers of the mob.” As Simmons began to lose consciousness, the mob fired at the body, cutting it to pieces. “The mobsters made no attempt to conceal their identity, but there were no prosecutions.”

On August 17, 1915, a Jewish-American factory manager, Leo Frank, was hanged from a tree in Marietta, Georgia, by a mob of 25 men. Frank had been convicted of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee of the Atlanta pencil factory that Frank had managed two years earlier. His trial attracted international attention, turning the spotlight on anti-Semitism in the United States and leading to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. Though he was sentenced to death, his sentence was later commuted by Georgia’s governor.

Soon after the commutation, on August 16, 1915, a group of 25 men stormed the Milledgeville Prison hospital where Leo Frank was recovering from having his throat slashed by a fellow inmate. They kidnapped Frank, drove him more than 100 miles to Mary Phagan’s hometown of Marietta, Georgia, and hanged him from a tree. Frank conducted himself with dignity, calmly proclaiming his innocence.

People came from all over to celebrate by digging their heels into the face of the dead man, and, like the vultures, they were, by carving up Frank’s clothing to take home as “souvenirs.” Before the body was cut down, photographers took snapshots of the scene, which were sold in rural Southern drugstores for years.

The mob included two former Superior Court justices, one ex-sheriff, and at least one clergyman. After his extrajudicial death, evidence emerged that he was innocent of the murder charge brought against him. Leo Frank represents one of only four cases of a Jewish-American being lynched in United States history. (There was a case of a double lynching of a Negro and a Jew in Tennessee in 1868; there were two other cases of American Jews lynched in the 1890s.)

The tragedies continued. One such terrible ordeal was the killing of Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old black youth who worked on a farm belonging to George and Lucy Fryer in Robinson, Texas.

In nearby Waco, Washington, he was convicted and confessed to raping and killing Mrs. Fryer on May 15, 1916. Sentenced to death by hanging, residents were in an uproar over the crime and were unwilling to wait for justice to follow its course. They hurried him down the stairs at the rear of the courthouse, where a crowd of about 400 persons waited in the alley. A chain was thrown around Washington’s neck, and he was dragged toward the City Hall, where another group of vigilantes had gathered to build a bonfire underneath a large tree.

He was stripped naked and beaten with clubs, shovels, and bricks. Before a crowd of some 15,000 people, including the Police Chief, Waco’s Mayor, and police officers, Washington was immersed in coal oil, hoisted onto the tree, and slowly lowered into the fire. After his death, many spectators cut off fingers and toes to keep as souvenirs. Two hours later, several men placed the burned corpse in a cloth bag and pulled the bundle behind an automobile to Robinson, Texas, some seven miles south of Waco, where they hung the corpse from a pole in front of a blacksmith’s shop for public viewing.

The “Waco Horror” stood as a vivid reminder that though the frequency of lynchings had begun to decline in the United States after 1900, those incidents that still occurred were often characterized by extreme barbarity.

An elephant is hanged.

An elephant is hanged.

The lynching mania continued resulting in one of the most bizarre hangings in history – that of an elephant on September 13, 1916, in Erwin, Tennessee. According to circus posters of the day, Big Mary, at 5 tons, was said to be the biggest elephant in captivity and was one of the stars of Sparks World Famous Shows. Though the details of her crimes have gotten lost in history, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not reported in 1938 that Mary was responsible for killing three people, while rumors said as many as eight. What is known for certain is that the elephant killed her trainer, Walter “Red” Eldridge, on September 12th.  Attempts to shoot her to death failed, so it was decided to hang her from a railroad derrick car until she was dead. A crowd of between 2,500 to 5,000 witnessed the vigilante justice.

Though not as often hanged as black men, women were also the targets of vicious lynchings, such as Mary Turner in Valdosta, Georgia, in May 1918. Turner, whose husband had been killed at the hands of a mob, made the mistake of making “unwise” remarks after he was killed. Mr. Turner had not committed any offense; however, another black man killed a white farmer. In retaliation, many of the white citizens of Valdosta lynched eleven black men before they shot and killed the man they were after. Mr. Turner was one of those men who were in the wrong place at the wrong time during the mob’s frenzied vendetta.

Mary Turner Marker.

After her husband’s murder, Mary, who was eight months pregnant, vowed to avenge those who killed her husband. For her remarks, a mob of several hundred white men and women determined they would “teach her a lesson.” Turner’s ankles were tied together, and she was hanged upside down from a tree, doused with gasoline, and burned. After her clothes burned off and while she was still alive, a man sliced open her abdomen with a hog-splitting knife. Her unborn infant fell from her womb, gave two screams, then had its head crushed by mob members who stomped on it.

Mary Turner’s body was then riddled with bullets. Turner and her child were hastily buried about ten feet from the execution site. An empty whiskey bottle and a cigar marked their graves. After the lynchings, more than 500 African-Americans left the vicinity of Valdosta, leaving hundreds of acres of untilled land behind them.

Walter White, who later investigated the lynching for the NAACP, was told by one eyewitness, “Mister, you ought to’ve heard that n***er wench howl.” The lynching was recounted in numerous articles and editorials and discussed in Congress. It became a rallying point to obtain federal anti-lynching legislation. A month later, on July 26, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson issued a national appeal to stop lynching, stating:

“There have been lynchings, and every one of them has been a blow at the heart of ordered law and human justice. No man who loves America, no man who really cares for her fame and honor and character, or who is truly loyal to her institutions, can justify mob action while the courts of justice are open and the Government of the United States and the nation are ready and able to do their duty.

“I therefore very earnestly and solemnly beg that the governors of all the States, the law officers of every community, and above all, the men and women of every community in the United States, all who revere America and wish to keep her name without stain or reproach, will cooperate, not passively merely, but actively and watchfully to make an end to this disgraceful evil.”

During World War I, lynching declined, but the year it ended in 1918, it started up again, as evidenced by this statement in the Charleston newspaper: “There is scarcely a day that passes that newspapers don’t tell about a Negro soldier lynched in his uniform.” The next year, more than seventy black men were lynched, including ten black soldiers still in uniform. The “Red Scare” of 1919 was overshadowed by the racial violence and lynching fever that was termed, by James Weldon Johnson, as “the Red Summer.” During that summer, there were twenty-six race riots in such cities as ChicagoIllinois; Elaine, Arkansas; Charleston, South Carolina; Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee; Longview, Texas; and Omaha, Nebraska. Over 100 black people were killed in these riots, and thousands were wounded and homeless.

Racial tensions were at an extreme in Omaha, Nebraska; the influx of African Americans from the South and a perceived epidemic of crime created an atmosphere of mistrust and fear that led to the lynching of William Brown.

Brown had been accused of assaulting a white woman. When police arrested him on September 28, 1919, a mob quickly formed, which ignored orders from authorities that they disperse. When Mayor Edward P. Smith appeared to plead for calm, he was kidnapped by the mob, hung to a trolley pole, and nearly killed before police could cut him down.

The rampaging mob set the courthouse prison on fire and seized Brown. He was hung from a lamppost, mutilated, and his body riddled with bullets, then burned. Four other people were killed and fifty wounded before troops could restore order.

Between 1919 and 1922, statistics show that another 239 were lynched. What is unknown is the number killed by individual acts of violence and unrecorded lynchings. No one was ever punished for these crimes.