17 February 2017

Charlotte Harris Lynched, Yet Innocent

I haven't come across many articles such as this one.  A concession that a woman lynched – hung without due process – was, in fact, innocent.

Marietta Journal (Georgia)
26 April 1878, pg. 1 [Viewable online at GenealogyBank]


Along with the news of the lynching of three men – two negroes and one white – at Huntsville, Ala., for the murder of a white man, comes the story from the Valley of Virginia that the innocence of a colored woman, Charlotte Harris, who was hung there some weeks ago, has been fully established.  This woman was hung by a mob for the offence of burning a barn, and of course the evidence must have been satisfactory to the minds of the parties engaged in the horrible work, or they would not have ventured upon a measure so extreme, and one subjecting themselves in any aspect of the case to a prosecution for murder.

That a mob has no right to punish an evil-doer in any way will not be denied, and the only plea that any one can put up in defense of Lynch law is the probability, or the the [sic] possibility, of the escape of evil-doers either through a weak prosecution or in some other way.  Now, when we look this plea fairly in the face, we see that it wants one of the first elements of truth – that is, candor.  The very men who engage in this unlawful way of pretending to mete out justice are the parties to whom the law looks for assistance and help.  They help to make the lists of jurors, officers and witnesses, who are relied on for a proper execution of the law, and in thus confessing the weakness and uncertainty of the law, they but confess their own weakness.  A good strong dose of the law against such conduct, administered to those guilty, will prove beneficial to society, and will make all those who witness its infliction willing to let the law take its course, and willing also to lend their assistance to a proper enforcement of the law. – Rome Courier.

An article published almost a week earlier in another Georgia newspaper provided more details of the criminal acts:

Augusta Chronicle
20 April 1878, pg. 1 [Viewable online at GenealogyBank]


A Woman's Life Taken by a Virginia Mob, Who Now is Proved Guiltless.

RICHMOND, VA., April 16. – The barbarous lynching of an unfortunate colored woman named Charlotte Harris, who was accused of being the instigator of a barn burning, had a fitting sequel today in the acquittal of the boy Jim Ergenbright, who was imprisoned at the time for setting fire to the barn.  The poor woman was pursued, captured, brought before a magistrate and committed for trial.  That night a party of ruffians, with blackened faces, rushed into the room in which the woman was confined, took her from the guard, and after dragging her about a mile hung her in a most horrible manner to a black jack sappling [sic].  Her body remained suspended from this tree from the 6th of March until noon on the 9th, when it was finally cut down and interred.  The Governor issued a proclamation for the arrest of the murderers, but owing to the existing secrecy maintained by the lynchers and public sympathy for them none of them have been arrested.  It is now fully established in the acquittal of the boy Jim Ergenbright, who was accused of burning the barn and of being instigated by Charlotte Harris, that the woman was equally guiltless.

From NY Public LibraryA simple search on Google will give you the statistics. The Tuskegee Institute kept track of lynchings in America from 1882 - 1968. There were 581 in Mississippi, 531 in Georgia, 493 in Texas, 391 in Louisiana, 347 in Alabama, and so on. Total from all states: 4,743. That's more than one lynching and victim a week.

I feel a little like I should try to explain why I would give the horrible acts – those committed by the criminal, as well as those committed on the criminal – voice on this blog. There are no (at least to my knowledge) statistics showing the accuracy of the lynchers. How many times was an innocent person hung, riddled with bullets, and mutilated in the name of "justice?" I mean, we probably agree there are innocent people sitting in jail right now – with supposed checks and balances in place. Imagine when there were none. Shouldn't those innocent people be remembered?

Now, make no mistake, sometimes the lynching party "punished" the right person. As in, sometimes the true perpetrator was indeed apprehended – and then disposed of, often in a barbaric fashion. Even if you take the literal "eye for an eye" death penalty approach, I would not be surprised if that would have been an applicable punishment in only an infinitesimal number of cases. People were lynched for stealing, people were lynched for "insubordination," people were lynched for literally being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And let us not be cowards and leave out the racism debacle that lingers to this day. So another reason for giving voice to these past atrocities is in the same vein of "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

As a family historian, I am saddened to think (1) these revolting deeds took place, and (2) while statistics are easy to find, the names and stories of the individual victims are much harder to locate. A list of lynching victims will unfortunately never be complete. I hope that in a small way, posts such as these will serve as a memorial to those who were victims of Judge Lynch and his frightful law.

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