Laura Wilkerson

Laura Wilkerson
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JUNE 14, 2012 7:23PM

A Lynching at Mt. Vernon; 1878

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            Mt. Vernon is a small town in Indiana located in the southwesterly toe of Indiana. It is the county seat of Posey County. Located on a bend in the Ohio River, today Mt. Vernon is home to some 7,000 people; 95.85% of them White with an African American population around 2.65%.

            Back in 1878 some 3,000 people lived in Mt. Vernon. Some of these people resided in brothels which dotted the banks of the River up and down the Ohio. It was 8:00 p.m. on a Friday night, October 11, 1878, when, “eight negroes, lawless and drunk, went to a house of ill-fame near the outskirts of Mt. Vernon and knocked for admittance. There were three girls in the house, and one of them, in inquiring what was wanted, was answered that a messenger with a note was waiting.”

            The demimondaine went downstairs and opened the door. Standing on the steps was, “a young negro,” and behind him, “a gigantic fellow with a cocked revolver in his hand.”

            The man with the revolver ordered the woman to open the door and then he and his seven companions barged in demanding money. The women told them that they had no money. As the men rummaged through the house, one of the three women tried to escape through the back door but, “one of the scoundrels pressed a revolver to her head and told her he would kill her if she went, that they had business with her.”

            The women were ordered by the armed men into another room where, “putting out the lights, began a beastly debauch, holding their pistols to the girls’ heads and compelling them to submit to their wishes.”

            After the ordeal, “One of the hapless victims is reported to be in such a state of physical and nervous prostration her recovery is doubtful.”

            Four men, Jim Goode, Jeff Hopkins, Edward Warner and William Chambers were arrested the following Wednesday and taken to the Polk County jail. Officials tried to keep quiet about the arrests “in order to prevent a lynching,” but there were already stirrings in the town, which was described as, “greatly excited.”

            On Thursday, October 17th, four men, Deputy Sheriff Cyrus Oscar Thomas, Marshall Edward Hayes, Constable William Russell, and Charles Baker, went to the home of Dan Harris Sr., “a negro 60 years old,” seeking to arrest his son, Dan Harris, Jr., in connection with the rapes and home invasion.

            Deputy Thomas, “knocked at the door and demanded admission. It was refused. He demanded it again, and ordered the persons inside to strike a light. Old Harris told him to strike a light himself. Thomas went to the side of the window with Russell to parlay with the negroes, and as they approached a double barreled shot gun was pushed out and discharged within three feet of them. One buckshot grazed Russell’s cheek, and eighteen buried themselves in Thomas’s face, throat, and breast. The jugular vein was cut, and one shot went through his heart, and his shoulder was blown off. He staggered a few feet, said –Boys, I’m shot to death,” and fell dead without a struggle.”

            What happened next was a standoff that lasted, “two or three hours,” before Dan Harris, Sr. was finally overpowered and taken into custody.

            By the time the posse returned to the jail with the elder Mr. Harris at around 6:00 that evening, there was already, “A great crowd, armed with pistols and guns, surrounding the jail. Several of them attacked Harris as he was carried through. The officers put him into jail, and Hayes, Jim Dunn, Baker, and others locked themselves in, armed to the teeth, and denied the mob, which was howling outside.”

            Prominent Citizens Major Menzies and William Nelson tried to quiet the crowd but failed. Then “a colored man who came into the mob began to talk freely, and was fired upon. He fled, and was shot in the back.”

            Soon rumors were afoot that the Governor, John Douglas Williams, had ordered the State Militia to Mt. Vernon so, “two hundred men, armed with guns and pistols, were ordered to the depot to await the coming of the train and prevent the soldiers from getting off. A cannon was got out of quarters, and, under the charge of the remainder of the crowd, was hauled to the Court House and placed in front of the house, facing the street to the depot, and a determination was expressed to keep the troops off if every man died.”

            At 8:00 that evening, “the long roll a drum echoed through the streets, in which the crowds stood awaiting the outlaws. At the Court House corner a tall man, under the influence of liquor, addressed the crowd which had gathered around him, and urged that their wives were not safe. He was summarily stopped by several citizens, and then at the command several hundred men then started out of the city and assembled in a dark wood half a mile out on the railroad, where one hundred black masks were ready. They spent an hour preparing the work and taking oaths of secrecy.”

            “The men disguised themselves by putting on long veils or masks, made up of all kinds of material, turning their coats wrong side out, swapping hats, and muffling their necks, till they appeared like a Kuklux Klan.”

            At 10:00 p.m. a whispered rippled thought the assembled crowd of 200 to 300 people who had remained behind, “They are coming.”

            Then came the sound of, “the steady tramp of two hundred feet, and a few minutes later a hundred men, the best of the yeomanry of the county physically, and probably in reputation, marched up the street and filed by twos into the yard and up to the guards without a word.”

            The Posey County Courthouse was, “shaded with heavy locust trees. The night was clear, and the bright moon made the scene ghost like. The cannon that had been used to defend the jail in morning had been brought to the jail entrance loaded and primed, and pointed blank at the door. A gunner stood ready with lighted match to apply if necessary.”

            The defenders of the law, Edward Hayes, Matt Nelson, William Kenna, Charles Baker and Frank Wright stood guard armed with shotguns. They ordered the assembled crowd, “to clear the yard for fear of accident in whatever might ensue.” The crowds drew back to the fence line. Inside, the prisoners began to pray.

            Not a sound was made as the masked men gave a signal and, “the little knot of guards were seized. Another company of masked men had deployed to keep the crowd back, and as the guards were attacked a volley of pistol and gun shots was fired. A melee ensued, in which the guards and gunners were overpowered, and their weapons taken from them.”

            During this melee, the newly appointed Sheriff of Mt. Vernon, Alexander Crunk, was shot in the right eye. His father was also wounded in the face and neck and two other men suffered minor wounds.  

            Ed Hayes had the keys to the newly built jail taken from him and, “in a moment more the door was opened, and fifty masked men were in the corridor.”

            Around the corridor were three cells. Behind one of these, Dan Harris huddled behind his cell door. The masked men found him there and, “he was seized, a hand clutched about his throat to stifle his scream, and a knife plunged into his heart. In five minutes his body had been cut into pieces -- head, arms, legs, all separated – and the sickening mass of human flesh was flung into the privy.”

            The masked men then turned their attention to the four prisoners secured behind a heavy door. As the men obtained, “a cold chisel, sledge hammer, and a crow bar,” and as they endeavored to open the door, “The helpless victims had paid no attention to the dread avengers but went on with their prayers. As the first heavy blow of the sledge fell on the iron the plaintive voices began to cry” “Oh! Jesus save yo’ child.” One moaned out: “Oh, I see de waters ob Jordan, and de feet ob de Lamb! Oh, save yo’ innocent child!” But for minute after minute the dull thuds fell with unerring certainty.”

            Forty-five minutes after entering the jail the mob broke through the door. The four prisoners in the cell had their hands tied behind their backs and ropes tied around their necks.

            "The doomed uttered not a word of pleading, nor faltered for an instant. At five minutes before eleven the little group at the jail door received orders, and the masked guards again moved back into the crowd, which had begun to struggle into the yard. A minute later a little procession emerged from the jail.

            “First came Bill Chambers, three men leading him by the rope about his neck, while one walked with him. He said nothing, but his step was firm. Next came Jim Goode, Jeff Hopkins, and Ed. Warner, in the order named, all walking firmly, but on either side of the latter walked a man who seemed to support him unnecessarily. There were no threatening, and not one of the doomed wretches craved mercy. The gloomy procession moved to the fence on the south side of the square, just where the portico of the splendid new Court House looked upon the scene. Here stand three locust trees within three feet of the fence. The four men were led under the fatal trees.  The rope around Jeff Hopkin’s neck was thrown over the limb at the first trial, but the others caught on the leaves, and three or four minutes were spent in having men climb the trees and put the ropes over. Not a word was yet said, except all the prisoners were softly praying, but they stood firm as rock. In the street in front a dense crows was drawn up, patrolled by masked men with gleaming pistols.

            Jim Goode was the first to be pulled up. As the man who put the rope over finished his task he caught the end, and, holding, swung from the limb to the ground. The tension caught Goode and pulled him on tip-toe.” Jim Goode, “appeared to make an effort to stand for a moment, but his legs gave way and his whole weight fell on his neck. He was straightened up, the rope slackened and loosened around his neck, and a voice asked him: “Will you tell what you know?” But the culprit had fainted and there was no response, and in another moment a dozen men seized the rope and he was swung up five feet from the ground.”           

            Goodes’s, “death was painless,” the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.           

            Jeff Hopkins and Edward Warren were hanged from one locust tree while Jim Goode and William Warren were hanged from the other. Just was Jim Goode was being hoisted for the final time, “Bill Chambers’ body rose up on the opposite limb of the same tree, only to fall again heavily as the limb broke. Jumping up, he asked leave to pray, but was told there was no time for that, and then he began a tale of what he had done and where he had been with Jim Goode on Monday night, closing with the statement that Jim Goode had gone out of Louis Boyd’s house with a woman and he [Chambers] went home and knew nothing of the troubles or the crime, saying: “Fo God, gentlemens, I’m innocent.” Notwithstanding this, the rope was readjusted, and he was pulled from his feet a second time and left hanging.”           

            An hour later, the Court House square was completely deserted, save for the four corpses left dangling from the Locust trees so that, “when the people of Mt. Vernon rose in the morning they beheld them dangling in the air.”           

            Later, two other men believed to be responsible for the crime were found. One was killed and “stuffed inside a hollow tree.” The other was, “thrown alive, into the fiery steam engine of a train.”           

            The New York Times reported that, “The victims’ character were all bad. Good was recently pardoned out of the Penitentiary, where he had been sent for rape. Chambers barely escaped conviction for the murder of Pat McMullen at Grand Chain, on the Wabash, last Fall, by proving an alibi by a number of negroes, who, it is now known, have since boasted that they know how to get any nigger loose. Good recently made an attempt to decoy a lady out of her house at night during the absence of her husband on a pretext so transparent that his object was evident. Hopkins was arrested for the murder of a white prostitute last Summer, but could not be identified, and both he and Ed. Warner are suspected of the murder of Duffy, the dyer, a few weeks ago.”           

            The Editor of the Mt. Vernon Democrat, a Mr. Sparks, wrote in 1879, “It is true that only a short time ago the citizens of this community took the law into their own hands and avenged the murder of one of her more respected citizens, and an outrage upon a number of white women by Negro desperadoes. While we are not encouraging mob law, we feel justified in saying the hanging of these Negroes was one of the things necessary for the welfare of the community.”           

            The Editor of the St. Paul Minnesota Daily Globe most certainly agreed,  opining in print on October 14, 1878, “The lynching of five negroes in Indiana on Friday night will have a tendency to attract renewed attention to the lax enforcement of the laws and the tardy administration of justice by the courts, and raise the question of whether the people are justified in taking the law into their own hands and executing that justice which is denied by the laws and the courts. It cannot be denied that the punishment prescribed by law for offenses of the character for which these negroes were hung is wholly inadequate. If any crime merits death, swift, certain and exemplary, that of rape does, and it makes no difference that in this particular instance the victims were lewd women. It is a crime too, that our very nature demands should be punished without delay and in summary manner. The law should be instant, unrelenting, rigorous in the enforcement of its penalty, but these requisites the law does not possess. The only remedy, therefore, which the people possess, is that afforded by a mob. It is to be regretted, however, that mobs are too often unreasoning and hasty in arriving at conclusions, and not infrequently visit punishment upon innocent persons. If there could be any possibility be made infallible judges of the guilt or innocence of those accused of such crimes, they would be wholly defendable and commendable.”

            The Editor of the Sedalia Missouri Democrat had a slightly different take, writing, “Explains the difference thus: Lynching negroes in Indiana is a “social disorder.” In the South it is a “political outrage.”

 

posey court     

Courthouse, Posey County, Indiana 

posey jail          

Jail, Posey County, Indiana, 1878

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fascinating story and telling that in the light of reflection the newspapers found no fault with the complete circumvention of the law which, to that point, was doing its duty
Interesting story, thanks!