Lynchings & Hangings of America

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, who was 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, during the night a mob of blacks invaded the jail, 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 sixteen-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 Enfaula 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.”

August 17, 1915, Leo Frank, a Jewish-American factory manager, 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 managed, two years earlier. His trial had attracted international attention, turning the spotlight on anti-Semitism in the United States and led 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 extra-judicial 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 was convicted and confessed to the crime of 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.

Beating him with clubs, shovels, and bricks, he was stripped naked. 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 up onto the tree and slowly lowered into the fire. After his death, many of the 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 were 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 3 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 that of 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 type of offense, however, another black man had killed a white farmer and 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. Their graves were marked by an empty whiskey bottle and a cigar. 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 very year it ended in 1918, they 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. More than one hundred black people were killed in these riots, and thousands were wounded and left 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 were able to 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 were able to restore order.

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

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