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.”
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.
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.