The Waco Horror and the “culture of lynching”

By: J.B. Smith, Waco Tribune-Herald

March 6, 2005

On the afternoon of May 15, 1916, renowned Waco photographer Fred Gildersleeve set up his box camera on the second floor of City Hall, aiming it at a small tree below.

Under the tree, men were stacking wooden boxes for a fire. A crowd of hundreds, then thousands began to swarm.

A roaring mob rushed to the scene from the courthouse, carrying a black teenager and mutilating him with knives. The men slipped a chain over the tree and began dangling the boy over a fire, to the cheers of a crowd estimated at 15,000. The orgy of torture would continue for more than an hour, ending with the decapitated body dragged through town.

Gildersleeve had gotten advance word of the lynching of 17-year-old Jesse Washington, who was on trial that day for murdering and raping a white woman.

The 35-year-old photographer joined the mayor and police chief in the mayor's office to watch the afternoon's spectacle. A faithful chronicler and booster of Waco, Gildersleeve was planning to sell postcards of the event.

As the grinning mob closed in on its prey, he clicked away. He burned onto film a scene that would outrage a nation and bring shame to a community known as the home of churches, colleges and cotton.

Though the atrocity on the Waco square was hardly unique for its era, the rare photos of a lynching in progress caused an international scandal. The Houston Chronicle, the New York Times and Le Monde of Paris denounced the "Waco Horror." The newly formed NAACP used it as a cause celebre for a nationwide antilynching campaign.

"Any talk of the triumph of Christianity, or the spread of human culture, is idle twaddle so long as the Waco lynching is possible in the United States of America," wrote W.E.B. DuBois, editor of the NAACP's newspaper.

The explosive power of the photos is such that 89 years later they have created a resurgence of interest in the case. Americans far from Waco have seen the images at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and in the 2000 book “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” and a related traveling exhibit.

Now two well-researched books have appeared that investigate the case and raise disturbing questions about an event Waco would rather forget.

“The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP,” by Houston author and publicist Patricia Bernstein, was released by the Texas A&M Press.

The other book is “The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas 1836-1916,” by William Carrigan, a McLennan County native and professor of history at Rowan University in New Jersey. The book was released by the University of Illinois Press.

Meanwhile, a reporter from the Washington Post is working on yet a third book on the incident.

Carrigan, a 1989 graduate of Vanguard Preparatory School in Waco, never heard of the incident until he saw the Jesse Washington photos in a history class at the University of Texas in fall 1990. In the nearly 15 years since then, he has devoted his academic career to researching lynching in Central Texas.

"They're powerful," he said of the photos. "They stay with you in a way that the story by itself doesn't. When I saw them, I felt a range of emotions: Anger, shame, guilt and frustration. But the strongest was bewilderment.

"I grew up in rural Texas and knew people who were not ashamed of their racism. But here was something else: Thousands of people, including people like doctors and ministers, gathering to watch somebody burned alive, then having it defended in the local newspapers. That left the central question: What motivated them to do this?... How could ordinary people lynch?"

For Waco, revived interest in the case raises still more questions: How does a community deal with atrocities committed in the distant past? What relevance does this event have to modern-day Waco, which just last year elected a black mayor?

Does it do more harm than good to bring it to light now? And is it fair to single out Waco when many other communities have similar skeletons in their closets?

Waco's white leaders have never shown much interest in revisiting the Jesse Washington lynching. Few spoke out against it at the time. Waco's premier historian and onetime mayor, Roger Conger, never wrote about any of the numerous incidents of racial violence in McLennan County's past. Carrigan said Conger told him it was because he didn't want to give Waco a bad name.

In recent years, former Councilman Lawrence Johnson and County Commissioner Lester Gibson have unsuccessfully pushed for memorials of the Waco Horror to express the community's resolve to overcome its racist past. They noted that city and county officials had been complicit in allowing the action to occur.

Authors Carrigan and Bernstein agree that Waco's failure to publicly acknowledge and denounce the incident could reinforce old stereotypes of a racist Waco.

Carrigan lectured at Baylor University this past week to a crowd of about 100 professors, students and Waco-area residents. He argued that the time has come for blacks and whites to discuss the Waco Horror publicly and clear the air.

"Whether Waco likes it or not, Jesse Washington is back," he said. "How Central Texas and Waco respond is something people are going to be watching."

* * *

For a blow-by-blow account of the events of May 15, 1916, Bernstein's book is the place to go. She unearths hideous details, such as how children pried the teeth from Jesse Washington's severed head and sold them on the streets.

Like Carrigan, Bernstein said she couldn't get the lynching off her mind after she saw the Gildersleeve images at the National Civil Rights Museum in the 1990s.

"It's one of the worst accounts about the murder of a single human being I've heard," she said. "It compares to anything from the Inquisition or the Holocaust. You can compare it to the Middle Ages, but this happened 89 years ago in a supposedly civilized and prosperous community with pretensions toward gentility."

But the real appeal of the book lies in the way she paints the picture of that community, with vivid portraits of local characters, including a pandering sheriff and a conflicted judge. She even interviewed descendants of one of the suspected mob leaders and found him to be a drunkard with a mean streak and two wives.

There are heroes, too, including pastors of First Presbyterian Church and Austin Avenue Methodist Church who denounced the lynching, and a later sheriff who protected a black defendant from a would-be lynch mob. She devotes an admiring chapter to Elisabeth Freeman, an intrepid young suffragist who investigated the incident for the NAACP.

"It was a coherent story that showed what the best people are capable of as well as the worst," she said. "If it was just a horrible atrocity, I probably wouldn't have spent five years on it."

Jesse Washington himself is described as a young farmhand, illiterate and possibly retarded, who worked for the Fryer family in Robinson. He was accused of raping 53-year-old Lucy Fryer in a shed and killing her with a hammer.

Sheriff's deputies reportedly found him that night on his porch, whittling and wearing blood-stained overalls. Newspaper accounts say he later confessed to the crime and described the brush where he hid the hammer.

The next day, word got out of the arrest, and a group of white Robinson men mobilized for vigilante action. Sheriff Samuel Fleming met a mob of about 500 people who were headed to Waco, and he got out of his car to plead with them.

He told the mob, truthfully, that Washington had been spirited away to Dallas, and he allowed them to search the jail.

While some newspapers urged residents to let the law take its course, the Waco Morning News described the mob in heroic terms.

"Resembling the forefathers who dared anything for their country's sake, the determined band of farmers and neighbors last night declared to the sheriff that they didn't want trouble, but that their blood would not stand for a fiendish brute to trample the chastity and sacredness of life and their women folk," the newspaper stated.

NAACP investigator Freeman later concluded that Washington was probably guilty of the crime. Bernstein leaves the question open, saying the evidence could have been fabricated and that Washington never got a fair trial.

Bernstein's book describes in detail how Waco authorities rushed Washington's trial to appease the mob, how the young court-appointed defense attorneys made no defense and how hundreds of people, some carrying guns, were allowed to overwhelm the courthouse. She describes how the mob seized Washington immediately after he was sentenced to death and how Judge Richard Munroe, Sheriff Fleming and other authorities offered little resistance.

She also describes the coverage of local newspapers, which at first described the lynching in almost obscene detail, then made it a taboo subject.

"Yesterday's exciting occurrence is a closed incident," stated the Waco Times-Herald (a predecessor of this newspaper) on the day after the lynching.

Bernstein chronicles at length the role the NAACP played in publicizing the atrocity internationally. The NAACP put other communities on notice that if they allowed lynching, their reputations would likewise suffer.

Ultimately, the shaming strategy worked and lynching nationwide declined, she said.

"It was a very slow process," Bernstein said. "But over time, people began to say, 'This is not good for our town economically.' What company wants to be located in a town known for lynching?"

While Bernstein aims a microscope on the events of May 1916, Carrigan offers a panoramic view. He argues that the story of Jesse Washington's lynching begins in the 1830s.

Carrigan's book, originally a doctoral dissertation, is a scholarly effort to explain the historical squall lines that collided to create a tornado of mob violence in Central Texas.

"Our books really complement each other," Carrigan said of Bernstein's book, which he reviewed before publication. "I hope her book will inspire people to read my book."

Carrigan studied McLennan, Hill, Bosque, Coryell, Limestone and Bell counties, using many previously untapped sources, such as 2,000 criminal court cases during the lynching era.

Carrigan traces the lynching mentality to the Texas frontier, where men were honored for "extralegal" violence against Indians and Mexicans. He documents vigilantism against runaway slaves before the Civil War, and the virtual race war that accompanied Reconstruction in Central Texas.

For example, in Groesbeck in May 1875, a black man was dragged from jail and shot, igniting an episode in which 40 to 50 blacks were reportedly killed.

Newspapers generally condoned mob violence, and at their most extreme promoted it. William Cowper Brann, incendiary editor of the Waco Iconoclast, suggested that "if the South is ever to rid herself of the Negro rape fiend she must take a day off and kill every member of the accursed race that declines to leave the country."

Carrigan acknowledges lynching was a nationwide phenomenon, with horrible events occurring even in the area where he teaches in New Jersey .

"I certainly think Central Texas was in many ways not exceptional to what was going on in the United States," he said. "But what's different about Central Texas is that it experienced a tremendous amount of violence in a compressed time period."

Carrigan's book shows a pattern of vigilante violence against black and white. In an appendix, Carrigan lists 131 confirmed casualties of Central Texas mob violence between 1860 and 1922. Slightly more than half were white.

The book lists dozens more unconfirmed victims, black and white.

Carrigan also shows that the lurid nature of Jesse Washington's lynching was hardly unprecedented in Central Texas.

In Belton in 1910, Henry Gentry, a black man, was accused of trying to enter a white woman's home and shot a constable while trying to escape. Several thousand people watched a mob burn Gentry alive, drag his body around the town square, then take turns firing hundreds of bullets into his corpse.

In Temple in 1915, a black murder suspect named Will Stanley was dragged from jail and burned alive before an audience of 5,000 to 10,000, Carrigan writes.

Carrigan found that lynchings in the area abruptly ceased between 1897 and 1905, a fact he credits in part to Judge Samuel R. Scott of the 54th District Court in Waco. After a group of masked white men beat four local black farmhands and killed a fifth in 1896, Scott ordered an investigation. Ten white men were indicted — the first whites ever indicted for lynching a black man.

Later, when a black man was on trial for killing a white police officer, Scott took the extraordinary step of allowing a black man on the jury. Though the jury convicted the man, the state's black press lauded Waco's progress.

But the virus of vigilantism returned with a vengeance in 1905, when a 20-year-old black man named Sank Majors was accused of raping a white woman. Majors was convicted but granted a retrial because of mistakes a judge made.

An angry mob broke into the jail with sledgehammers, seized Majors and hanged him from the Washington Avenue bridge, cutting off fingers as souvenirs.

"The act was justifiable; fully so, in all respects," the Waco Times-Herald later declared.

Carrigan said that with the Majors episode, the stage was set for a series of ghastly lynchings that culminated in the Jesse Washington lynching.

"These spectacle lynchings flourished throughout the South in the early 20th century, but few regions matched the horrors of Central Texas," Carrigan writes.

* * *

The Waco Horror left a stain on Waco's name and conscience. Bernstein shows how the NAACP chose to make an example of Waco precisely because of its prior reputation for learning and culture.

At the time, Waco was known as the "Athens of Texas" for its schools and colleges and the "City with a Soul" for its many churches. The population was booming, tall buildings were going up and Waco's annual Cotton Palace fair was drawing thousands of Texans.

The next lynching didn't occur until 1921, and this time it was a crippled white man. Judge Munroe, who had presided over the Washington trial, angrily denounced the lynching, and the Waco Bar Association officially condemned all mob violence.

But it took another incident as disturbing as the Washington lynching to turn the tide against mob violence. In 1922, the Waco area was plagued with a series of attacks on couples courting in isolated areas.

On the night of May 25, a man was murdered on the Corsicana highway east of Waco, and his girlfriend was raped. She described the suspect as a light-skinned black man with a gold tooth. A huge posse began a countywide manhunt for anyone who fit that description.

Two days later, a deputized white Waco resident saw a young black Waco car driver named Jesse Thomas and decided he fit the description. The white man lured Thomas to the victim's house.

She screamed when she saw Thomas; accounts differ as to why; and her father shot him dead. A mob quickly formed and seized Thomas' body from the police. The body was dragged to the public square and burned in front of about 5,000 people.

This time, white leaders publicly denounced the violence, though no one was prosecuted. Waco's black community was outraged, Carrigan writes, because unlike Washington, Thomas was well-known and widely believed innocent.

As the bizarre killing spree involving courting couples continued, it became clear the real killer was still on the loose. Ultimately, a black service station worker named Roy Mitchell confessed to the crimes and was brought to trial.

This time, Sheriff Leslie Stegall went to great lengths to protect the suspect from mob violence. Stegall's men interrogated Mitchell in Hillsboro, and then returned him with a stern warning for any vigilantes.

"Sheriff Stegall is prepared to defend the jail against any sort of attack and has taken every precaution against a surprise," a front-page story in the Times-Herald stated. "He brought Mitchell back here because this was the place for him, and he is determined to protect the negro and his honor as sheriff at all costs."

Stegall was true to his word, assembling a well-armed force to protect the jail and ordering them to shoot to kill if necessary. The trial proceeded under strict decorum in Munroe's court, and Mitchell was sentenced to death. He became the last man to be legally hanged in Texas.

"There was nothing they did that couldn't have been done years earlier," Bernstein said. She said here and elsewhere, it made a difference when authorities finally drew a line in the sand.

"Whenever one courageous person stood up to a mob and said, 'You are going to take this prisoner over my dead body,' in most cases the mob would melt away," she said. "They didn't want to kill a white man because they knew there would be consequences."

Carrigan said the best testimony of Waco's change in attitude comes from an editorial in the Waco Messenger, a black newspaper, in 1937. The editorial said that after the lynching situation became "extremely bad," community leaders took action, "and the country has since witnessed an era of total freedom from mobs."

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