Troy Davis in Perspective. The Work of Ida B. Wells

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Lynch Law

By Ida B. Wells


“Lynch Law,” says the Virginia Lancet, “as known by that
appellation, had its origin in 1780 in a combination of citizens of
Pittsylvania County, Virginia, entered into for the purpose of
suppressing a trained band of horsethieves and counterfeiters whose well
concocted schemes had bidden defiance to the ordinary laws of the land,
and whose success encouraged and emboldened them in their outrages upon
the community. Col. Wm. Lynch drafted the constitution for this
combination of citizens, and hence ‘Lynch Law’ has ever since been the
name given to the summary infliction of punishment by private and
unauthorized citizens.”


NAACP Poster, circa 1926


This law continues in force to-day in some of the oldest states of the
Union, where courts of justice have long been established, whose laws
are executed by white Americans. It flourishes most largely in the
states which foster the convict lease system, and is brought to bear
mainly, against the Negro. The first fifteen years of his freedom he was
murdered by masked mobs for trying to vote. Public opinion having made
lynching for that cause unpopular, a new reason is given to justify the
murders of the past 15 years. The Negro was first charged with
attempting to rule white people, and hundreds were murdered on that
pretended supposition. He is now charged with assaulting or attempting
to assault white women. This charge, as false as it is foul, robs us of
the sympathy of the world and is blasting the race’s good name.

The men who make these charges encourage or lead the mobs which do the
lynching. They belong to the race which holds Negro life cheap, which
owns the telegraph wires, newspapers, and all other communication with
the outside world. They write the reports which justify lynching by
painting the Negro as black as possible, and those reports are accepted
by the press associations and the world without question or
investigation. The mob spirit had increased with alarming frequency and
violence. Over a thousand black men, women and children have been thus
sacrificed the past ten years. Masks have long since been thrown aside
and the lynchings of the present day take place in broad daylight. The
sheriffs, police, and state officials stand by and see the work done
well. The coroner’s jury is often formed among those who took part in
the lynching and a verdict, “Death at the hands of parties unknown to
the jury” is rendered. As the number of lynchings have increased, so has
the cruelty and barbarism of the lynchers. Three human beings were
burned alive in civilized America during the first six months of this
year (1893). Over one hundred have been lynched in this half year. They
were hanged, then cut, shot and burned.

The following table published by the Chicago Tribune January,
1892, is submitted for thoughtful consideration.

1882, 52 Negroes
murdered by mobs
1883, 39 [Negroes
murdered by mobs]
1884, 53 [Negroes
murdered by mobs]
1885, 77 [Negroes
murdered by mobs]
1886, 73 [Negroes
murdered by mobs]
1887, 70 [Negroes
murdered by mobs]
1888, 72 [Negroes
murdered by mobs]
1889, 95 [Negroes
murdered by mobs]
1890, 100 [Negroes
murdered by mobs]
1891, 169 [Negroes
murdered by mobs]


Of this number

  269 were charged with rape.
  253 [were charged with] murder.
  44 [were charged with] robbery.
  37 [were charged with] incendiarism
  4 [were charged with] burglary.
  27 [were charged with] race prejudice.
  13 [were charged with] quarreling with white men.
  10 [were charged with] making threats.
  7 [were charged with] rioting.
  5 [were charged with] miscegenation.
  32 [were charged with] no reason given


This table shows (1) that only one-third of nearly a thousand murdered
black persons have been even charged with the crime of outrage. This
crime is only so punished when white women accuse black men, which
accusation is never proven. The same crime committed by Negroes against
Negroes, or by white men against black women is ignored even in the law

(2) That nearly as many were lynched for murder as for the above crime,
which the world believes is the cause of all the lynchings. The world
affects to believe that white womanhood and childhood, surrounded
by their lawful protectors, are not safe in the neighborhood of the
black man, who protected and cared for them during the four years of
civil war. The husbands, fathers and brothers of those white women were
away for four years, fighting to keep the Negro in slavery, yet not one
case of assault has ever been reported!

(3) That “robbery, incendiarism, race prejudice, quarreling with white
men, making threats, rioting, miscegenation (marrying a white person),
and burglary,” are capital offences punishable by death when committed
by a black against a white person. Nearly as many blacks were lynched
for these charges (and unproven) as for the crime of rape.

(4) That for nearly fifty of these lynchings no reason is given. There
is no demand for reasons, or need of concealment for what no one is held
responsible. The simple word of any white person against a Negro is
sufficient to get a crowd of white men to lynch a Negro. Investigation
as to the guilt or innocence of the accused is never made. Under these
conditions, white men have only to blacken their faces, commit crimes
against the peace of the community, accuse some Negro, or rest till he
is killed by a mob. Will Lewis, an 18 year old Negro youth was lynched
at Tullahoma, Tennessee, August, 1891, for being “drunk and saucy to
white folks.”

The women of the race have not escaped the fury of the mob. In Jackson,
Tennessee, in the summer of 1886, a white woman died of poisoning. Her
black cook was suspected, and as a box of rat poison was found in her
room, she was hurried away to jail. When the mob had worked itself to
the lynching pitch, she was dragged out of jail, every stitch of
clothing torn from her body, and she was hung in the public court-house
square in sight of everybody. Jackson is one of the oldest towns in the
State, and the State Supreme Court holds its sittings there; but no one
was arrested for the deed – not even a protest was uttered. The husband
of the poisoned woman has since died a raving maniac, and his ravings
showed that he, and not the poor black cook, was the poisoner of his
wife. A fifteen year old Negro girl was hanged in Rayville, Louisiana,
in the spring of 1892, on the same charge of poisoning white persons.
There was no more proof or investigation of this case than the one in
Jackson. A Negro woman, Lou Stevens, was hanged from a railway bridge in
Hollendale, Mississippi, in 1892. She was charged with being accessory
to the murder of her white paramour, who had shamefully abused her.

In 1892 there were 241 persons lynched. The entire number is divided
among the following states.

Alabama 22 Montana 4
Arkansas 25 New York 1
California 3 North Carolina 5
Florida 11 North Dakota 1
Georgia 17 Ohio 3
Idaho 8 South Carolina 5
Illinois 1 Tennessee 28
Kansas 3 Texas 15
Kentucky 9 Virginia 7
Louisiana 29 West Virginia 5
Maryland 1 Wyoming 9
Mississippi 16 Arizona Ter. 3
Missouri 6 Oklahoma 3



Of this number 160 were of Negro descent. Four of them were lynched in
New York, Ohio and Kansas; the remainder were murdered in the south.
Five of this number were females. The charges for which they were
lynched cover a wide range. They are as follows:

Rape 46 Attempted Rape 11
Murder 58 Suspected Robbery 4
Rioting 3 Larceny 1
Race Prejudice 6 Self-defense 1
No cause given 4 Insulting
Incendiarism 6 Desperadoes 6
Robbery 6 Fraud 1
Assault and Battery 1 Attempted
No offense stated, boy and


In the case of the boy and girl above referred to, their father, named
Hastings, was accused of the murder of a white man; his fourteen year
old daughter and sixteen year old son were hanged and their bodies
filled with bullets. Then the father was also lynched. This was in
November, 1892, at Jonesville, Louisiana.

A lynching equally as cold-blooded took place in Memphis, Tennessee,
March, 1892. Three young colored men in an altercation at their place of
business, fired on white men in self-defense. They were imprisoned for
three days, then taken out by the mob and horribly shot to death. Thomas
Moss, Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell, were energetic business men who
had built up 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. For this cause were three innocent men barbarously
lynched, and their families left without protectors. Memphis is one of
the leading cities of Tennessee, a town of seventy-five thousand
inhabitants! No effort whatever was made to punish the murderers of
these three men. It counted for nothing that the victims of this outrage
were three of the best known young men of a population of thirty
thousand colored people of Memphis. They were the officers of the
company which conducted the grocery. Moss being the President, Stewart
the Secretary of the Company and McDowell the Manager. Moss was in the
Civil Service of the United States as letter carrier, and all three were
men of splendid reputation for honesty, integrity and sobriety. But
their murderers, though well known, have never been indicted, were not
even troubled with a preliminary examination.

With law held in such contempt, it is not a matter of surprise that the
same city – one of the so-called queen cities of the South – should
again give itself over to a display of almost indescribable barbarism.
This time the mob made no attempt to conceal its identity, but reveled
in the contemplation of its feast of crime. Lee Walker, a colored man
was the victim. Two white women complained that while driving to town, a
colored man jumped from a place of concealment and dragged one of the
two women from the wagon, but their screams frightened him away. Alarm
was given that a Negro had made an attempted assault upon the women and
bands of men set out to run him down. They shot a colored man who
refused to stop when called. It was fully ten days before Walker was
caught. He admitted that he did attack the women, but that he made no
attempt to assault them; that he offered them no indecency whatever, of
which as a matter of fact, they never accused him. He said he was hungry
and he was determined to have something to eat, but after throwing one
of the women out of the wagon, became frightened and ran away. He was
duly arrested and taken to the Memphis jail. The fact that he was in
prison and could be promptly tried and punished did not prevent the good
citizens of Memphis from taking the law in their own hands, and Walker
was lynched.

The Memphis Commercial of Sunday, July 23, contains a full
account of the tragedy from which the following extracts are made.

At 12 o’clock last night, Lee Walker, who attempted to outrage Miss
Mollie McCadden, last Tuesday morning, was taken from the county jail
and hanged to a telegraph pole just north out of the prison. All day
rumors were afloat that with nightfall an attack would be made upon the
jail, and as everyone anticipated that a vigorous resistance would be
made, a conflict between the mob ad the authorities was feared.

At 10 o’clock Capt. O’Haver, Sergt. Horan and several patrol men were on
hand, but they could do nothing with the crowd. An attack by the mob
was made on the door in the south wall and it yielded. Sheriff McLendon
and several of his men threw themselves into the breach, but two or
three of the storming shoved by. They were seized by the police but were
not subdued, the officers refraining from using their clubs. The entire
mob might at first have been dispersed by ten policemen who would use
their clubs, but the sheriff insisted that no violence be done.

The mob got an iron rail and used it as a battering ram against the
lobby doors. Sheriff McLendon tried to stop them, and some one of the
mob knocked him down with a chair. Still he counseled moderation and
would not order his deputies and the police to disperse the crowd by
force. The pacific policy of the sheriff impressed the mob with the idea
that the officers were afraid, or at least would do them no harm, and
they redoubled their efforts, urged on by a big switchman. At 12 o’clock
the door of the prison was broken in with a rail.

As soon as the rapist was brought out of the door, calls were heard for a
rope; then some one shouted “Burn him!” But there was no time to make a
fire. When Walker got into the lobby a dozen of the men began beaten
and stabbing him. He was half dragged, half carried to the
corner of Front street and the alley between Sycamore and Mill, and hung
to a telephone pole.

Walker made a desperate resistance. Two men entered his cell first and
ordered him to come forth. He refused and they failing to drag him out,
others entered. He scratched and bit his assailants, wounding several of
them severely with his teeth. The mob retaliated by striking and
cutting him with fists and knives. When he reached the steps leading
down to the door he made another stand and was stabbed again and again.
By the time he reached the lobby his power to resist was gone, and he
was shoved along through the mob of yelling, cursing men and boys, who
beat, spat upon and slashed the wretch-like demon. One of the leaders of
the mob fell, and the crowd walked ruthlessly over him. He was badly
hurt – a jawbone fractured and internal injuries inflicted. After the
lynching friends took charge of him.

The mob proceeded north on Front street with the victim, stopping at
Sycamore street to get a rope from a grocery. “Take him to the iron
bridge on Main street,” yelled several men. The men who had hold of the
Negro were in a hurry to finish the job, however, and when they reached
the telephone pole at the corner of Front street and the first alley
north of Sycamore they stopped. A hastily improvised noose was slipped
over the Negro’s head and several young men mounted a pile of lumber
near the pole and threw the rope over one of the iron stepping pins. The
Negro was lifted up until his feet were three feet above the ground,
the rope was made taut, and a corpse dangled in midair. A big fellow who
helped lead the mob pulled the Negro’s legs until his neck cracked. The
wretch’s clothes had been torn off and, as he swung, the man who pulled
his legs mutilated the corpse.

One or two knife cuts, more or less, made little difference in the
appearance of the dead rapist, however, for before the rope was around
his neck his skin was cut almost to ribbons. One pistol shot was fired
while the corpse was hanging. A dozen voices protested against the use
of firearms, and there was no more shooting. The body was permitted to
hang for half an hour, then it was cut down and the rope divided among
those who lingered around the scene of the tragedy. Then it was
suggested that the corpse be burned, and it was done. The entire
performance, from the assault on the jail to the burning of the dead
Negro was witnessed by a score or so of policemen and as many deputy
sheriffs, but not a hand was lifted to stop the proceedings after the
jail door yielded.

As the body hung to the telephone pole, blood streaming down from the
knife wounds in his neck, his hips and lower part of his legs also
slashed with knives, the crowd hurled expletives at him, swung the body
so that it was dashed against the pole, and, so far from the ghastly
sight proving trying to the nerves, the crowd looked on with
complaisance, if not with real pleasure. The Negro died hard. The neck
was not broken, as the body was drawn up without being given a fall, and
death came by strangulation. For fully ten minutes after he was strung
up the chest heaved occasionally and there were convulsive movements of
the limbs. Finally he was pronounced dead, and a few minutes later
Detective Richardson climbed on a pile of staves and cut the rope. The
body fell in a ghastly heap, and the crowd laughed at the sound and
crowded around the prostrate body, a few kicking the inanimate carcass.

Detective Richardson, who is also a deputy coroner, then proceeded to
impanel the following jury of inquest: J. S. Moody, A. C. Waldran, B. J.
Childs, J. N. House, Nelson Bills, T. L. Smith, and A. Newhouse. After
viewing the body the inquest was adjourned without any testimony being
taken until 9 o’clock this morning. The jury will meet at the coroner’s
house, 51 Beale street, upstairs, and decide on a verdict. If no
witnesses are forthcoming, the jury will be able to arrive at a verdict
just the same, as all members of it saw the lynching. Then some one
raised the cry of, “Burn him!” It was quickly taken up and soon
resounded from a hundred throats. Detective Richardson for a long time,
single handed, stood the crowd off. He talked and begged the men not to
bring disgrace on the city by burning the body, arguing that all the
vengeance possible had been wrought.

While this was going on a small crowd was busy starting a fire in middle
of the street. The material was handy. Some bundles of staves were
taken from the adjoining lumber yard for kindling. Heavier wood was
obtained from the same source, and coal oil from a neighboring grocery.
Then the cries of “Burn him! Burn him!” were redoubled.

Half a dozen men seized the naked body. The crowd cheered. They marched
to the fire, and giving the body a swing, it was landed in the middle of
the fire. There was a cry for more wood, as the fire had begun to die
owing to the long delay. Willing hands procured the wood, and it was
piled up on the Negro, almost, for a time, obscuring him from view. The
head was in plain view, as also were the limbs, and one arm which stood
out high above the body, the elbow crooked, held in that position by a
stick of wood. In a few moments the hands began to swell, then came
great blisters over all the exposed parts of the body; then in places
the flesh was burned away and the bones began to show through. It was a
horrible sight, one which perhaps none there had ever witnessed before.
It proved too much for a large part of the crowd and the majority of the
mob left very shortly after the burning began.

But a large number stayed, and were not a bit set back by the sight of a
human body being burned to ashes. Two or three white women, accompanied
by their escorts, pushed to the front to obtain an unobstructed view,
and looked on with astonishing coolness and nonchalance. One man and
woman brought a little girl, not over 12 years old, apparently their
daughter, to view a scene which was calculated to drive sleep from the
child’s eyes for many nights, if not to produce a permanent injury to
her nervous system. The comments of the crowd were varied. Some remarked
on the efficacy of this style of cure for rapists, others rejoiced that
men’s wives and daughters were now safe from this wretch. Some laughed
as the flesh cracked and blistered, and while a large number pronounced
the burning of a dead body as an useless episode, not in all that throng
was a word of sympathy heard for the wretch himself.

The rope that was used to hang the Negro, and also that which was used
to lead him from the jail, were eagerly sought by relic hunters. They
almost fought for a chance to cut off a piece of rope, and in an
incredibly short time both ropes had disappeared and were scattered in
the pockets of the crowd in sections of an inch to six inches long.
Others of the relic hunters remained until the ashes cooled to obtain
such ghastly relics as the teeth, nails and bits of charred skin of the
immolated victim of his own lust. After burning the body the mob tied a
rope around the charred trunk and dragged it down Main street to the
court house, where it was hanged to a center pole. The rope broke and
the corpse dropped with a thud, but it was again hoisted, the charred
legs barely touching the ground. The teeth were knocked out and the
finger nails cut off as souvenirs. The crowd made so much noise that the
police interfered. Undertaker Walsh was telephoned for, who took charge
of the body and carried it to his establishment, where it will be
prepared for burial in the potter’s field today.

A prelude to this exhibition of 19th century barbarism was the following
telegram received by the Chicago Inter-Ocean, at 2 o’clock,
Saturday afternoon – ten hours before the lynching:

“Memphis, Tenn, July 22, To Inter-Ocean, Chicago.
Lee Walker, colored man, accused of raping white women, in jail here,
will be taken out and burned by whites to-night. Can you send Miss Ida
Wells to write it up? Answer. R.M. Martin, with Public Ledger.”

The Public Ledger is one of the oldest evening daily papers in
Memphis, and this telegram shows that the intentions of the mob were
well known long before they were executed. The personnel of the mob is
given by the Memphis Appeal-Avalanche. It says, “At first it
seemed as if a crowd of roughs were the principals, but as it increased
in size, men in all walks of life figured as leaders, although the
majority were young men.”

This was the punishment meted out to a Negro, charged, not with rape,
but attempted assault, and without any proof as to his guilt, for the
women were not given a chance to identify him. It was only a little less
horrible than the burning alive of Henry Smith, at Paris, Texas,
February 1st, 1893, or that of Edward Coy, in Texarkana, Texas, February
20, 1892. Both were charged with assault on white women, and both were
tied to the stake and burned while yet alive, in the presence of ten
thousand persons. In the case of Coy, the white woman in the case,
applied the match, even while the victim protested his innocence.

The cut which is here given is the exact reproduction of the photograph
taken at the scene of the lynching at Clanton, Alabama, August, 1891.
The cause for which the man was hanged is given in the words of the mob
which were written of the back of the photograph, and they are also
given. This photograph was sent to Judge A. W. Tourgée, of Mayville, N.

In some of these cases the mob affects to believe in the Negro’s guilt.
The world is told that the white woman in the case identifies him, or
the prisoner “confesses.” But in the lynching which took place in
Barnwell County, South Carolina, April 24, 1893, the mob’s victim, John
Peterson escaped and placed himself under Governor Tillman’s protection;
not only did he declare his innocence, but offered to prove an alibi,
by white witnesses. Before his witnesses could be brought, the mob
arrived at the Governor’s mansion and demanded the prisoner. He was
given up, and although the white woman in the case said he was not the
man, he was hanged 24 hours after, and over a thousand bullets fired
into his body, on the declaration that a “crime had been committed and
some one had to hang for it.”

The lynching of C. J. Miller, at Bardwell, Kentucky, July 7, 1893, was
on the same principle. Two white girls were found murdered near their
home on the morning of July 5th: their bodies were horribly mutilated.
Although their father had been instrumental in the prosecution and
conviction of one of his white neighbors for murder, that was not
considered as a motive.  A hue and cry was raised that some Negro had
committed rape and murder and a search was immediately begun for a
Negro. A bloodhound was put on the trail which he followed to the river
and into the boat of a fisherman named Gordon. This fisherman said he
had rowed a white man, or a very fair mulatto across the river at six
o’clock the evening before. The bloodhound was carried across the river,
took up the trail on the Missouri side, and ran about two hundred yards
to the cottage of a white farmer, and there lay down refusing to go

Meanwhile a strange Negro had been arrested in Sikestown, Missouri, and
the authorities telegraphed that fact to Bardwell, Kentucky. The
sheriff, without requisition, escorted the prisoner to the Kentucky side
and turned him over to the authorities who accompanied the mob. The
prisoner was a man with dark brown skin; he said his name was Miller and
that he had never been in Kentucky. The fisherman who had said the man
he rowed over was white, when told by the sheriff that he would be held
responsible as knowing the guilty man, if he failed to identify the
prisoner, said Miller was the man. The mob wished to burn him then,
about ten o’clock in the morning, but Mr. Ray, the father of the girls,
with great difficulty urged them to wait till three o’clock that
afternoon. Confident of his innocence, Miller remained cool, while
hundreds of drunken, heavily armed men raged about him. He said: “My
name is C. J. Miller, I am from Springfield, Ill., my wife lives at 716
North Second Street. I am here among you to-day looked upon as one of
the most brutal men before the people. I stand here surrounded by men
who are excited; men who are not willing to let the law take its course,
and as far as the law is concerned, I have committed no crime, and
certainly no crime gross enough to deprive me of my life or liberty to
walk upon the green earth. I had some rings which I bought in Bismarck
of a Jew peddler. I paid him $4.50 for them. I left Springfield on the
first day of July and came to Alton. From Alton I went to East St.
Louis, from there to Jefferson Barracks, thence to Poplar Bluff, thence
to Hoxie, to Jonesboro, and then on a local freight to Malden, from
there to Sikeston. On the 5th day of July, the day I was supposed to
have committed the offense, I was at Bismarck.”

Failing in any way to connect Miller with the crime, the mob decided to
give him the benefit of the doubt and hang, instead of burn him,
as was first intended. At 3 o’clock, the hour set for the execution, the
mob rushed into the jail, tore off Miller’s clothing and tied his shirt
around his loins. Some one said the rope was “a white man’s death,” and
a log-chain nearly a hundred feet in length, weighing nearly a hundred
pounds was placed about his neck. He was led through the street in that
condition and hanged to a telegraph pole. After a photograph of him was
taken as he hung, his fingers and toes cut off, and his body otherwise
horribly mutilated, it was burned to ashes. This was done within twelve
hours after Miller was taken prisoner. Since his death, his assertions
regarding his movements have been proven true. But the mob refused the
necessary time for investigation.

No more appropriate close for this chapter can be given than an
editorial quotation from that most consistent and outspoken journal the Inter-Ocean.
Commenting on the many barbarous lynchings of these two months (June
and July) in its issue of August 5th, 1893, it says:

“So long as it is known that there is one charge against a man which
calls for no investigation before taking his life there will be mean men
seeking revenge ready to make that charge. Such a condition would soon
destroy all law. It would not be tolerated for a day by white men. But
the Negroes have been so patient under all their trials that men who no
longer feel that they can safely shot a Negro for attempting to exercise
his right as a citizen at the polls are ready to trump up any other
charge that will give them the excuse for their crime.  It is a singular
coincidence that as public sentiment has been hurled against political
murders there has been a corresponding increase in lynchings on the
charge of attacking white women. The lynchings are conducted in much the
same way that they were by the Ku Klux Klans when Negroes were mobbed
for attempting to vote. The one great difference is in the cause which
the mob assigns for its action.

The real need is for a public sentiment in favor of enforcing the law
and giving every man, white and black, a fair hearing before the lawful
tribunals. If the plan suggested by the Charleston News and Courier will
do this let it be done at once. No one wants to shield a fiend guilty
of these brutal attacks upon unprotected women. But the Negro has as
good a right to a fair trial as the white man, and the South will not be
free from these horrible crimes of mob law so long as the better
classes of citizens try to find excuse for recognizing Judge Lynch.”

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