Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism

Opening of the Thebes Bridge, May, 1905

Opening of the Thebes Bridge, May, 1905

Though Cairo wouldn’t reach its peak population until 1907, at over 15,000 residents, the turn of the century was forecasting the signs of decline. One of its biggest businesses in the city was the many ferries that crossed the both the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, which transported hundreds of thousands of railroad cars each year. Until 1889, there was no railroad bridge crossing either the Ohio or the Mississippi River at or near Cairo. That changed; however in 1905, when a railroad bridge was completed across the Mississippi River at Thebes, a small town northwest of Cairo. This dealt a heavy blow to Cairo’s status as a railroad hub. Traffic soon shifted to the new bridge at Thebes, decreasing the traffic through Cairo and completely eliminating the ferry operations.

Before long, the railroads began to bypass the city and severe problems were created by water seepage on the low-lying land of the city. The problem was so severe that one of Cairo’s mayors claimed it was the most serious obstacle preventing prosperity for the town. Many citizens began to consider their community as an economic failure and even newspaper editorialists commented on how businessmen preferred to rent homes as opposed to buying them: “They preferred to rent because they regard their stay in Cairo as temporary.”

The first decade of Cairo’s 20th-century history was also marred by an extremely violent episode which occurred on November 11, 1909. On that date, Cairo was the scene of one of the most gruesome lynchings in American history when a black man named Will James, who was accused of murdering a shop girl, and a white man, who was charged with murdering his wife, were lynched by a mob, which numbered in the thousands.

Will “Froggy” James, an African-American man, was charged with the rape and murder of white 22-year-old Annie Pelley, who worked as a shop clerk in Cairo.

A report soon circulated that James had confessed to the crime, also implicating an accomplice by the name of Alexander. However, though the people asked for an immediate trial, the case was put off by the court. Anticipating trouble, the local Sheriff kept James hidden in the woods for two days in the hope of saving him from the vengeance of the townspeople. However, the angry citizens tracked James down in the woods near Belknap, Illinois, some 29 miles northeast of Cairo. The infuriated mob forcibly took James from the Sheriff’s custody and returned him to Cairo. He was then taken to the most prominent square at 8th and Commercial Street to be hanged before thousands of cheering spectators. Just before the rope was placed around James’ neck, he reportedly said, “I killed her, but Alexander took the lead.”

Will James Lynching 1909

Will James Lynching 1909

In response, the crowd jeered: “We don’t want to hear him; string him up; kill him; burn him.” James was hanged from an arch at 8:00 pm. However, when the rope broke, James was riddled with bullets. The body was then dragged by a rope for a mile to the scene of the crime and burned in the presence of at least 10,000 people. Many women were in the crowd, some of whom helped to hang and drag the body. His remains were then cut up for souvenirs before burning the rest. His half burned head was then attached atop a pole in Candee Park at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Elm Street. The next morning, nothing was left of his body other than bones.

With their blood-thirst boiling, part of the mob then went in search of James’ named accomplice – Alexander. However, they evidently didn’t find him, if such a man ever existed.

In the meantime, the other part of the mob fled to the county jail, where they hammered at the cell of a man named Henry Salzner, for more than an hour. Salzner, a local photographer, had been charged with murdering his wife with an axe in August. The prisoner pled for mercy while protesting his innocence, but it was to no avail. The bars finally gave way, and the prisoner was dragged to a telegraph pole at Washington Avenue and 21st Street. He was lynched at 11:15 p.m. and once dead, filled with bullets. Salzner’s body was left in the street and claimed by his father the next day.

The mob remained in a frenzy and order was restored only after Governor Charles Deneen ordered eleven companies of the National Guard to proceed to Cairo. By morning, all was quiet, the mob had dispersed, and only a few persons, on the lookout for Alexander, were lurking about the streets. However, hundreds of men continued to search the riverfront, breaking into freight cars in the hope of finding Alexander.

During the mob chaos, the Mayor and the Chief of Police were being guarded in their homes, as the infuriated mob threatened them.

The very next year, in 1910, a sheriff’s deputy was killed by another mob attempting to lynch a black man accused of snatching a white woman’s purse. Again, the National Guard was called in and martial law implemented until order could be restored.

Cairo Gem Theatre

Cairo Gem Theatre

Though the racial tension continued, the town continued to thrive. In 1910, the historic Gem Theatre opened its doors to much acclaim. Seating 685 people, it was a cultural hot spot in the town. Unfortunately, a fire completely gutted the theatre in 1934, but it was rebuilt two years later including a new, elegant marquee. The Gem continued to operate for nearly another half century before it was closed in 1978. Unfortunately, though the vintage theatre still stands, it is long vacant and has fallen into serious disrepair.

In the meantime, Cairo’s reputation was developing a “mean, hard edge,” which was backed up in 1917 when the city had the highest arrest rate in the state with 15% of its population incarcerated at one time or another. This reputation, which would get worse before it was over, still lasts to this day, even though Cairo’s “meanness” is long past and its citizens work together to do what they can to save their dying town.

Like many other cities across the continent, the 1930’s and the Great Depression hit Cairo hard. The town’s population and fortunes began to dwindle.

4 thoughts on “Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism”

  1. Grew up in Mound City, 7 miles up Ohio from Cairo. Delivered Cairo Evening Citizen 1964-1967. In 1967, moved to Wickliffe, KY, first KY town 6 miles after crossing Ohio River Bridge, Cairo, IL; graduated High School 1970 Ballard County, KY. Watched Christmas and July 4th parades, first cinema experience at Gem Theatre, first patient in new children’s wing of hospital in 1958, major shopping in Cairo, employed in branches of Federal Government with local offices in Cairo in early 1970’s.
    Not disputing presence of racism, but did not feel it as intensely as this record asserts. Perhaps I was insulated by the Baptist churches which emphasized equality and brotherhood. Candidly, however, the practice of their teaching was not as apparent: I never knew of any black members.
    I can assert the start of integration of schools was apparent at Mound City no later than 1964 with High School fully integrated by 1966. From Wickliffe, KY, I attended Ballard County High School, fully integrated no later than 1967. If Cairo was not fully integrated until 1967, it was significantly behind surrounding school districts.
    Racism is the only available practice of the result of prejudice. Prejudice feeds on fear, fear feeds on ignorance and ignorance feeds on pride. Neither black nor white population are without pride, ignorance, fear and racism. Brotherhood can grow but it first requires we acknowledge our own accountability for pride, ignorance, fear, prejudice and racism.
    But other cities and towns suffered racism and survived. I propose racism was not the only cause of Cairo’s decline.
    The geography of Cairo is also a problem and any analysis of the decline of Cairo’s economy should not avoid consideration of that problematic geology.
    The longest river in the world (geographically) is the Missouri-Mississippi River. And the Ohio River is the second longest River in North America. Preventing floods requires continuous vigilance and frequent maintenance.
    Cairo suffers from another phenomena: sinkholes. Powerful currents from the two mighty rivers curl, flow, and churn up the river bottoms changing the channels and creating “sand-bars”, temporary islands, every year.
    My first childhood sweetheart was enjoying a late summer picnic lunch with her family on a sandbar when she was wading in shallow waters and the sand beneath her collapsed. She fell into the current and was drowned. With a school class size of less than twenty, the mortuary and funeral hall a block from my home, her death remains one of my significant life events.
    That same natural force also cuts under the river banks. Mark Twain even described the capricious and treacherous nature of the river currents. It is also a major cause of sink-holes. The water table rises and falls annually with the river floods. That continuous change in the water table dissolves and erodes the underground geology. It is not uncommon for sinkholes to appear suddenly causing structures to collapse and infra-structures to fail, sometimes causing death. A fair description of the geology of Cairo, IL is a large sandbar subject to Nature’s annual and capricious whims. Not a favorable feature for establishing a long term prospect.
    The extensive navigability of rivers in central North America is one of the most significant factors in the rate of growth of the wealth of the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the dependence on navigable rivers has declined, those cities which required the economies of river traffic to survive have declined. Cairo, IL is one of many examples. The economy of Cairo, IL relied almost exclusively on river traffic until rail traffic arrived in the mid 19th century. And then, starting in the mid 20th century, the interstate highway system bypassed Cairo diverting highway traffic.
    Cairo has a history worth remembering, but it has nothing attract an industry to sustain an economy.
    Racism made Cairo a place that offended fair minded people. But after river traffic declined, after rail and highway traffic were diverted, and lacking anything to attract an enduring industry, Cairo has lost any economic stimulus or prospect.

  2. This city was plagued with racism from it’s beginning. Current and prior residents remain closed minded!

  3. I keep reading about how “racism” killed this town. It sounds more like the town was fading economically to begin with.

    1. It has nothing to do with racism. The town only thrived because of the riverboats. It’s location was perfect when riverboats were the main mode of bulk transportation. Now with trucks/interstate highways and trains it is a less than desirable location.

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