Mob Justice: 5 of the Most Brutal Lynchings in America

Mob Justice: 5 of the Most Brutal Lynchings in America

Donna Patricia Ward - May 18, 2017

Lynching is American. The term comes from Charles Lynch, who was a justice of the peace in Virginia during the Revolutionary War. A Patriot, Lynch encouraged and instructed other Patriots to commit extralegal punishments against those that supported the Crown. Lynch’s Law, as it became know; typically was carried out by mobs that tarred and feathered their victims. The public humiliation not only sent fear through Loyalists, it also acted as a way to ensure that others would fall in line and become good Patriots and, eventually, Americans. At the onset of the 19th century, pro-slavery factions lynched abolitionists that advocated for the immediate abolition of slavery in America.

Lynching has never been a legal form of capital punishment like hanging or firing squad. Yet, throughout the country, law enforcement overlooked the actions of angry mobs seeking vengeance for perceived crimes. Throughout America’s history, lynching has happened for a variety of reasons. Horse thieves, rapists, murderers, back-talkers, and sometimes, people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time were strung up a tree and left for anyone to see. Mob violence was horrific and lynchings proved to be a powerful spectacle. From the American Civil War until the last recorded lynching in 1981, thousands of people died as they were strung up a tree, pole, or just strangled for a perceived or real crime. Below is a sampling of eight kidnappings and lynchings that impacted communities throughout America.

Mob Justice: 5 of the Most Brutal Lynchings in America
“The Hanging of Bill Sketoe” monument in Newton, Alabama. Public Domain

William “Bill” Sketoe, Jr, Methodist Minister, December 3, 1864

The lynching of Bill Sketoe has become ledgend. A native of Spain, Sketoe resided in the southern Alabama town of Newton. His lynching and death, over the years, has evolved into a popular ghost story. Even why he was lynched and murdered carries some controversy as facts have been spun into good stories. Some details of Sketoe are undisputed; he lived in Newton and got on the bad side of the Newton Home Guard.

When southern states began seceding from the United States of America, not all residents of these states agreed. In Georgia, for example, there were numerous heated and sometimes violent debates on the issue. Voters—only white males who met the requirements to vote—eventually voted to secede. Southern states that had port cities on the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, or on rivers, were extremely concerned about how an impending war would impact their trade and profits. Blockading of any port city would dramatically reduce importation of food items that sustained the populace. Despite the massive agricultural output of most southern states, they grew one crop: cotton, which people could not eat to survive.

As the armies engaged on the battlefields, some of the most horrific fighting occurred on the home front. Families that supported the Union were targeted as traitors. People that attempted to maintain neutrality were forced either to take the side of Southern resistance or be forced to leave their homes, farms, and assets. Millions of people were violently forced to leave their homes. The violence increased as more and more men fled the Confederate army at the request of their wives, mothers, and daughters.

Wives and mothers mailed letters to their menfolk in service begging for their return. They outlined how the armies, deserters, and home guards were pillaging their food supplies; burning their barns, homes, and land; absconding with cherished family possessions; and claiming all livestock by order of the Confederate government. Women and children were left with nothing but the promise of starvation. As such, Confederate soldiers deserted by the thousands to protect the very thing they were fighting for: their homes, families, and livelihood.

The Home Guards were created as a way to deal with deserters and unionists that continually terrorized the local population. Reasons for desertion were not nearly as important as returning soldiers to the front lines to fight against the invading armies of the Union. For Bill Sketoe, legend states that he was a Confederate deserter; however, he has no service record. It was much more likely that Sketoe was a Unionist and terrorized the local population as he gathered food to support the hundreds of other Unionists hiding in the dense woods around Newton.

Sketoe was a large, tall man. He was crossing the Choctawhatchee River when the Home Guard came upon him. Already a well-known person, the Home Guard dragged Sketoe into the woods, where they beat him and then forced him to crawl through the sand along the river. Next, he was dragged to a waiting buggy, where a noose was placed around his neck, and the rope thrown over a nearby tree branch. Sketoe was given a last request of prayer. Instead of praying for himself, he prayed for the men who had captured him and put him into the noose. This made the Home Guard mad and the horse attached to the buggy was hit. As the men were expecting to see Sketoe dangle by his neck, they realized that they had not considered the man’s body size. Sketoe’s weight bent the branch and his feet still touched the ground. To make the hanging successful, men from the Home Guard began digging a hole so that Sketoe’s feet could freely dangle and he would die from the hanging.

Bill Sketoe’s hanging was successful and he died. When his body was removed his wife, Sarah, buried her husband’s body. The hole, however, took on a life of its own. In the years following the Civil War, locals declared that the whole dug by the Home Guard to accommodate Sketoe’s frame never stayed filled. Today the unfillable hole has been covered by tons of rock and debris to strengthen the riverbank. Members of Sketoe’s descendants and Newton officials placed a monument near the death site, honoring Sketoe, which is a popular site for visitors and believers of the paranormal.

Mob Justice: 5 of the Most Brutal Lynchings in America
Speaker inciting a mob in New Orleans, March 14, 1891, Harper’s Weekly. Public Domain

Mass Lynching: Italians in New Orleans, 1891

At the end of the nineteenth century, European immigrants flooded into the United States. Agents, working on behalf of industrialists, traveled to Europe to recruit people to come to America to be factory workers. The massive industrial revolution that took a hold of America required cheap labor. This ensured that the industrialists would turn a profit and that goods would be cheap enough for the growing middle class to purchase.

Many Europeans happily came to America to take factory jobs. These late-19th century immigrants often arrived speaking a language other than English and an overwhelming majority were Catholics. An increase in the Catholic population was disheartening to many protestant groups such as German Lutherans and Protestant Irish. The Protestant German and Irish had been established in the United States as far back as colonial times. They believed that Catholics would follow the Pope before they would follow the democratic laws of the land. As such, a wave of xenophobia and anti-Catholic sentiment swept across the country.

Italians were viewed as particularly harmful to the American way of life during the late-19th century. Often called dagos, the Italians were Catholic and spoke little to no English. They also worked cheap. Since the American Civil War ended, slavery had been outlawed. Now that all people needed to earn a wage, former slaves, many believed, demanded too much money. When Italian immigrants arrived in southern cities, such as New Orleans, they fulfilled a need for cheap labor. To them, working for low wages in an American factory was far better than starving in a poor, newly unified Italian state. Additionally, factory recruiters repeatedly told immigrants that they had the potential to advance into the growing middle class. After all, America was a land of opportunity.

New Orleans had a strict hierarchy. French Creoles, who spoke French, were at the top of the hierarchy and typically resided in the French Quarter. Americans remained mostly in their own section, and freed blacks and other immigrant groups remained in their own section of the city. Despite the ethnic diversity of New Orleans, it experienced waves of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movements like most of America. This wave of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant played out in October 1890.

Italians were viewed as black. Through the 1920 US census, Italians were officially classified as colored. Some people viewed them as dirty, stupid, and poor. Italians were stereotyped as being a part of the Italian Mafioso and were repeatedly called dagoes, a derogatory name for Italians and ethnic groups from the Mediterranean region. On the night of October 15, 1890, the police chief of New Orleans was walking home. As David Hennessey walked home, several gunmen attacked him. Hennessey returned fire as he chased his attackers, but eventually he collapsed declaring that dagoes had attacked him. He died in the hospital the following day due to his injuries.

The mayor of New Orleans, Joseph A. Shakspeare, ordered the police to search all neighborhoods and “arrest every Italian” that they came across. The police arrested as many as 250 Italian immigrants. Most Italians were afraid to leave their homes. A few days after the murder of the police chief, the Mayor declared that Hennessey had been a victim of “Sicilian vengeance” and asked the citizenry to teach the immigrants a lesson that they would never forget. Appointing a committee of 50 men to investigate and totally annihilate all Italian secret societies—real and perceived—an open letter was presented to Italian-Americans. In it, the committee encouraged all Italian-Americans to provide the police with any information they had on secret societies, people who vowed to kill law officers, or any other illegal behavior.

Of the 250 Italians arrested, only nineteen were charged with crimes related to the assassination of the police chief. A trial began on February 16, 1891. A jury of 12 people who were not of Italian descent, had no problem with capital punishment, and showed no open prejudice toward Italians, listened as witnesses identified the suspects in the courtroom and claimed that before Hennessey died he stated that dagos had gunned him down. In a city that was known for its corruption, people believed that the law firm defending the suspects had actively attempted to bribe the jurors in exchange for a verdict of innocence.

Nine of the 19 suspects were on trial. When the jury reached its decision, it declared four defendants not guilty. The jury could not reach a decision of guilt or innocence for the other suspects and asked the judge for a mistrial. With their job done, the jurors left the courthouse through the front door to face questions. Some jurors stated that they could not convict the suspects because they had a reasonable doubt. Protestors outside of the courthouse viewed the jurors as not doing their jobs. To the protestors, the Italian suspects were guilty.

Thousands of demonstrators gathered at a Henry Clay statue near the prison. As they began to march toward the prison, they chanted, “we want the dagoes.” The jail warden feared for the safety of the Italian prisoners. He opened their cells and told them to hide themselves as best they could. In the meantime, the angry mob had begun to beat down the prison door. A few men from the mob took hold of two prisoners. One was hung from a lamppost and shot. A second one was hung from a tree and shot after he died. Both bodies were bullet-riddled and left hanging for hours for all to see. Other Italian prisoners were shot and clubbed to death inside the prison by members of the angry mob.

Those that survived the lynching and murder were set free and those that had not been tried saw the charges dropped. Eleven Italian prisoners had been murdered, yet no one was convicted of the murders. Newspapers reported the events in New Orleans as sympathetic to the lynchers and not the Italian prisoners. In the aftermath of the trial, lynching, and murder of prisoners, politicians began campaigning for tougher restrictions on immigration, particularly for Italians.

Mob Justice: 5 of the Most Brutal Lynchings in America
Postcard: The Barefoot Corpse of Lynched Laura Nelson, May 25, 1911. Public Domain

Lynched Together: Laura and L.D. Nelson, May 25, 1911

Lynchings were horrific. In the aftermath of the American Civil War, many in the South were mad. Union forces had destroyed their small farms, white southern males had lost their right to vote, and the South was divided into five military zones. All states that had left the Union were forced to rewrite their constitutions that had to ensure all of the laws established by the Federal Government. Adding insult to injury, the 15th Amendment had granted universal male suffrage to all citizens no matter their race, color, or “previous condition of servitude.” This upended the southern society, albeit temporarily.

In many places in America, African Americans were viewed as the enemy. Some believed that they were the sole reason for the Civil War and all of its devastation. Others believed that they undermined the rights of laborers who were striking to gain better pay, better working conditions, and 40-hour work weeks. Newly arrived eastern European immigrants viewed African Americans as direct competition for factory and mill jobs. To the immigrant, African Americans were an obstacle in the quest to achieve the American Dream.

Oklahoma was a US Territory until it became a state in 1907. While a territory, Oklahoma had become a place where the federal government sent Native Americans. President Andrew Jackson, in defiance of the US Supreme Court, forced the Cherokee to relocate to Oklahoma in what is now called the Trail of Tears. Despite the relocation of many Native Americans to Oklahoma, in 1892, the territory’s population remained over 85% white and 10% colored. When the territory became a state, its new constitution established racial segregation through the notorious Jim Crow laws.

Paden, Oklahoma was an African-American town. Laura and her husband, Austin Nelson, had a farm about six miles north of town. According to the 1910 census, Laura and Austin had two children; L.D., age 13, and Carrie, age two. A nearby white farmer, Claude Littrell, reported that one of his steers had been stolen. Suspecting that the Nelsons stole the animal, Littrell obtained a search warrant from the Justice of the Peace. A posse of four men, one being the deputy sheriff, George Loney, set out to search the Nelson farm.

Like other places throughout the country, when white officers arrived with a search warrant, most African Americans could do little. It was always a white man’s word against that of a person of color. Even newspapers tilted the stories to imply that black people were always the trouble, even if it was a gross exaggeration. There are two accounts of what happened to Deputy Sheriff Loney the night they searched the Nelson farm.

Two newspapers, the Independent and the Ledger, reported the accounts of May 2, 1911. One reported that Laura Nelson told the men to get away from her gun, stating, “Look here, boss, that gun belongs to me!” She then took another gun hidden in her house, preparing to defend her home, when she and her son fought over the gun, causing it to go off. The bullet first grazed a man in the thigh before it entered Loney’s hip and abdomen. Deputy Sheriff Loney died minutes after he walked outside.

The second report stated that L.D., Laura and Austin’s son, took the hidden gun, loaded it, and had the intent to kill. As people began to shoot, a gunfight broke out. When Loney was shot, no one seemed to notice until he asked for some water. The Ledger reported that Laura Nelson stated to let the white man die. And he did within a few minutes. The Ledger went on to state that the murder of Loney was one of the “most cold blooded murders” that had ever happened in the county.

Austin Nelson was taken into custody right after the shooting and confessed to taking the steer. He stated in his confession that he had no food to feed his family. In his confession Nelson stated that he was the one that challenged the posse from taking his weapon off of the wall and that his wife struggled to take another gun out of her son’s hands, causing the gun to go off. Unable to pay his bond, Austin Nelson was charged with larceny and sentenced to three years in prison. He was transferred to the state prison on May 16th, which was 69 miles away from the Okemah County courthouse.

Meanwhile, Laura and her son were taken into custody. After the shooting, they had fled to an uncle’s house. The two went to the county jail without incident. The Ledger newspaper described L.D. Nelson as being around 16 years old, “rather yellow, ignorant and ragged.” Newspaper accounts and even the court records repeatedly recorded L.D.’s name incorrectly. On May 10th, Laura and her son, L.D., were charged with murder and held in the county prison without bail.

Three days after charges were filed against Laura, the jailer, Lawrence Payne, declared that Laura had tried to grab his gun and kill him. Payne reportedly struggled with the woman stating that he had to choke her loose. During the struggle, Payne stated that Ms. Nelson had tried to throw herself out a window and had “begged to be killed.” The Ledger had reported the incident in their May 25, 1911, issue, the same day that Laura and L.D. were to be arraigned.

A dozen to 40 men arrived at the county jail between 11:30 and midnight on the night of May 24th. Payne, the jailer, claimed that the men used force to bound, gag, and blindfold him, then took the keys at gunpoint. The mob went to the female cells to remove the reportedly “vicious” black woman of small stature. Then the mob went and got L.D. out of his cell. Prisoners reported no noise in the jail when the two were taken.

The Nelsons were taken to a bridge over the North Canadian River. Laura was gagged and raped. L.D. was weighted down with tow sacks. Both had nooses placed around their necks and then hanged from the bridge. Their bodies were found suspended by their necks from the middle span of the bridge, 20 feet above the ground. A newspaper reported that the lynching was “executed with silent precision,” making it appear as a “masterpiece of planning.”

L.D. was hung 20 feet away from his mother. Laura’s arms were not bound. As the wind gently blew, her body swayed about. L.D. had his hands tied with a saddle string and his pants were torn from his body. Hundreds of people came to view the bodies swaying in the breeze before they were cut down around 11 am on May 25th. Numerous photographs were taken of the lynched bodies and of the spectators. Several of the photos were turned into postcards and sold as souvenirs in local shops near the site of the lynching. No one in the Nelson family claimed the bodies of L.D. and his mother, Laura. This forced the county to bury the bodies in the Greenleaf Cemetery near Okemah, Oklahoma.

Mob Justice: 5 of the Most Brutal Lynchings in America
Emmett Till at Christmas in 1954; Emmett Till’s open casket funeral, 1955. Public Domain

A Boy from Chicago: Emmett Till, 1955

The American South held millions in a type of agricultural bondage. Whites and blacks left their lives as sharecroppers and tenant farmers for the promise of work in factories. Some people moved less than a hundred miles from rural homes to the larger county seat towns and cities. Others traveled much farther, taking the train from southern rural Mississippi up to cities like Detroit and Chicago. For most, leaving the South was a permanent situation. They said their goodbyes with little intention of ever returning to the place of their birth and upbringing. As people settled, married, and had children in northern cities, it was not uncommon to send their young folks south to spend the summer with aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Emmett Till was one such young folk.

After the Second World War, Chicago was a booming town. People of all ethnicities and color filled in the city’s boundaries established in 1893. Factories were once again making consumer goods and steel mills were working at full output. Urban and suburban kids rushed to the Maxwell Street Market on Sunday mornings to listen to artists with Chess Records jam in a sort of continuation of their Saturday night gigs. Despite all of its problems with racism, segregation, and neighborhood conflicts, Chicago was a good place to be.

Mamie Carthan moved to Chicago from the Mississippi Delta with her parents when she was two years old. In 1940, against her parent’s wishes, she married a man from New Madrid, Missouri, Louis Till. Mamie gave birth to Emmett on July 25, 1941. The marriage was fraught with violence. Mamie obtained a restraining order and divorced Till. When Till repeatedly violated the restraining order, he was given the choice between prison or enlisting in the US Army. Till chose the Army, and eventually, he was court-martialed for raping women while serving in Italy. Till’s sentence was death by hanging. He was hanged on July 2, 1945. The accounts of Louis Till’s crimes, court-martial, and death were concealed from the family. They were revealed during a murder trial in 1955.

Emmett Till, 14, went to Mississippi to visit relatives during the summer of 1955. He arrived in Money, Mississippi on August 21st. The following Sunday, Emmett skipped church with his cousin. They, along with some local boys, went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to get candy. Roy Bryant, 24, and his wife, Carolyn, 21, owned and operated the store that served mostly the sharecropping population. Blacks were not barred from the store, but local custom stated that they were not permitted to speak to white folks unless spoken to first.

What happened between Till and Carolyn Bryant inside the store is unclear. Till’s mother stated that her son had difficulty speaking at times, particularly “b” sounds. To alleviate his sometimes stuttering, Till would whistle. Carolyn Bryant went on record stating that as she was stocking candy in the store, Till stated, “How about a date, baby?” She then claimed that Till began to make advances toward her stating that she should “not be afraid of me, baby” as he had been with “white women before.”

Between 2 and 3 am on August 28, 1955, three days after Till’s encounter with Carolyn Bryant, Roy Bryant and another man went to Till’s great-uncle’s cabin and forcibly took Till. Carolyn Bryant stated that Till was indeed the boy who had accosted her, while Till’s great-aunt offered to pay the Bryants money in exchange for not taking Emmett away. After Emmett Till was taken, his whereabouts were unknown. Around August 31, 1955, two boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River found a swollen and disfigured body.

Emmett Till’s head was badly disfigured. The time his body had spent in the water increased the after death swelling. Till had been pistol-whipped and one of his eyes had dislodged from its socket. He had been shot above the right ear and he had markings on his back and hips that were consistent with being beaten. Instead of being strung up a tree, Emmett Till was weighted down with a 70-pound fan blade that was attached to his neck with barbed wire. When his body was recovered, Till was naked and wearing a silver ring with “L.T. May 25, 1943” engraved on it.

Newspapers across the country reported on the condition of Emmett Till’s body when it was discovered. The next day, an image of Till and his mother on Christmas Day, happy and smiling, was published. Readers were astonished and outraged. They sent letters to their local newspapers that ran the story about Till, proclaiming the horrors of the South. Writers proclaimed that the problem in the South was not with African Americans but with the white people that would brutally murder a teenager simply for speaking out of turn.

Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett’s mother, demanded that her son be returned to Chicago. She fought with local authorities who were determined to bury Till in Mississippi. With assistance from the NAACP, the mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, and the governors of Illinois and Mississippi, Till’s body was clothed, placed in pine coffin, packed in lime, and shipped north. Mamie Bradley insisted that the entire world see what had happened to her son and held an open-casket funeral. As her son’s body continued to decompose, tens of thousands of people lined up outside of the mortuary to view the body. Thousands of people attended the funeral. Till’s body was interred on September 6, 1955, in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.

Shortly after Till’s body was found, a murder trial began in the county in which the body was found. Reporters who went to the trial remarked on the relaxed atmosphere of the courthouse, lending credence to the courtroom being more of a spectacle instead of a place for legal matters. To some, it seemed like a spectacle. On September 23, 1955, an all-white male jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam after a 67-minute deliberation.

Under oath, Carolyn Bryant stated that Emmett Till had accosted her. She testified that Till had grabbed her hand while she was stocking candy and asked her for a date. In Mississippi, and throughout the South, it was not acceptable for a black boy or man to touch a white woman. The true crime was not that Till had whistled at Bryant, but that he had touched her, which was how she was accosted. For that misstep, Till paid with his life. In 2008, Carolyn Bryant stated in an interview with a historian that she had lied under oath, and that she had not been accosted.

Mob Justice: 5 of the Most Brutal Lynchings in America
Page from the United Klans of America publication. Public Domain

The Last Official Lynching: Michael Donald, March 21, 1981

While committing a robbery, Josephus Anderson murdered a white police officer in Birmingham, Alabama. Anderson’s lawyers were granted a change of venue and the trial moved to Mobile, Alabama. Members of Unit 900 of the United Klans of America declared that justice for the white officer would never happen because there was a black man on the jury. Their line of thinking was that a black man would never convict another black man for killing a white police officer.

A mistrial was declared. On the night of March 21, 1981, members of Unit 900 of the United Klans of America burned a large cross in front of the Mobile County courthouse. Two members of the Klan group were very upset and began driving around Mobile in search of a black person to attack. Henry Hays and James Knowles were armed with a gun and a rope when they happened upon Michael Donald who was walking home from purchasing a pack of cigarettes for his sister.

Hays and Knowles motioned to ask Donald directions to a night club. When Donald approached the car, he was forced at gunpoint to get inside. The men drove the car to the next county into a secluded and wooded area. When Donald attempted to escape by running away, he was caught and beaten with a tree branch. As Hays tied a rope around Donald’s neck, Knowles continued to beat Donald with the tree branch.

Working together, the two men pulled Michael Donald’s body up over a tree limb. There his beaten body hung from the tree until all life left it. To ensure that Michael Donald was dead, Henry Hays cut the man’s neck three times. The body was left hanging from a tree in a mixed-race neighborhood in Mobile.

The Mobile police and the FBI investigated the lynching. Both concluded that Michael Donald was hung as a result of a drug deal gone bad. Donald’s mother insisted that her son had nothing to do with drugs and asked for prominent civil rights leaders to assist in getting to the bottom of her son’s murder. Just before the FBI was to close the case, Rev. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights activists demanded that the investigation remain open, which it did.

Eventually, Hays and Knowles were convicted of the murder of Michael Donald. In 1984, the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the United Klans of America. The case was filed in the federal court in the Southern District of Alabama. An all-white jury heard the civil liability case against the United Klans of America. In 1987, the jury awarded $7 million in the wrongful-death case to the Donald family.

The payout by the United Klans of America bankrupted the organization. The Michael Donald wrongful-death lawsuit was the first civil liability suit directed specifically at an organization that professed hate based solely on race. Setting a precedent, the lawsuit opened the door for others to file civil cases against hate groups and their members in the United States.