30 November 2017

The Plight and Legacy of Mary Turner (1897-1918)

Mary Turner, in 1918, was lynched because she had the audacity to speak out about her husband being lynched.

AugustaChronicle1918-05-20Augusta Chronicle (Georgia)
Monday, 20 May 1918 -- pg. 1 [via GenealogyBank]


Negro Woman Hanged and Body Riddled With Bullets Because She Made "Unwise" Remarks About Lynching of Husband.

Valdosta, Ga., May 19. – Mary Turner, wife of Hayes Turner, was hanged this afternoon at Folsome's Bridge over Little River about sixteen miles north of Valdosta.  Hayes Turner was hanged at the Okapilco river in Brooks county last night.  His wife, it is claimed, made unwise remarks today about the execution of her husband and the people in their indignant mood took exceptions to her remarks as well as her attitude and without waiting for nightfall took her to the river where she was hanged and her body riddled with bullets.

This makes five persons lynched in this section as a result of the Smith tragedy at Barney…

On Thursday night two negroes stole a shot gun from Hampton Smith at Barney and shot and killed Smith in his home.  Mrs. Smith fled from the house and was attacked.  She awoke the following morning in a creek and went to a negro cabin for aid.  Those who investigated her story found Smith's body and the negroes, farm hands, had disappeared.

Since then the farming section of that part of the state has been greatly aroused.

Another article from the same newspaper, published the next day, stated the following:

It was definitely established today that only four negroes have been lynched in connection with the crime and a coroner's jury returned a verdict that "they came to their deaths at the hands of parties unknown." Those who have paid the penalty were Will Head, Eugene Rice, Hayes Turner and his wife, Mattie Turner.

While there are no words I could say – or type – that would even begin to make sense of the lynching of a single human being, the lynching of a woman because of her unwise remarks and attitude leaves me especially bereft of speech.  This was not the case for Joseph B. Cumming in 1918, however.  He wrote a letter to the editor of the Augusta Chronicle explaining his thoughts on the matter:



Editor Chronicle:
A new capital offense in Georgia – and one so heinous that it cannot wait on the regular and orderly processes of law, but must be punished by those noble protectors of society – lynchers! The designation of this crime, calling for such swift punishment, is "Unwise Remarks." This important evolution of our criminal code and its righteous treatment are thus spoken of in the following Associated Press dispatch:  Negro Woman Hanged and Body Riddled With Bullets Because She Made "Unwise" Remarks About Lynching of Husband.

…Of all the horrible occurrences that have disgraced the state of Georgia this is the most horrible.

Look at this picture:  A poor, abject negro woman is informed of the lynching of her husband – let it be granted, himself a murderer.  She cannot keep silence [sic].  She cannot express her agony in terms of Christian forgiveness.  She cannot even use the high-sounding phrases of the fine old pagan philosophers.  She blurts out an "unwise remark." Away with her to the nearest limb! Break her neck and then manifest the calm, righteous and judicial judgement of her executioners by "riddling her body with bullets." Were these human beings or fiends hot from hell? Was she a human being? If not, let us stop calling on her race for men to fight, as we are sure they will well do, for our country and for us.  Where are the grand juries? Where are the petit juries? Where are the sheriffs? Where is public opinion? Is it dead? Or is it cowed by a handful of the most detestable murderers and cowards? God in heaven have mercy on us! Let the governor – if he will do no more – proclaim a day of deepest humiliation and most earnest prayer, in which we may plead humbly and agonizingly with the All-Father, who, dreadful thought, has said:  "Vengeance is mine," not to visit his righteous vengeance on us in the slaughter on the sea and across the sea of our dear boys, who, with negro comrades in arms, have gone to fight for the betterment of the world. – JOSEPH B. CUMMING.

It's important to note the article transcribed at the beginning of this post is not entirely accurate, or at least does not tell the whole story.  In regards specifically to Mary Turner, the article did not mention she was eight months pregnant.  The Mary Turner Project, citing four scholarly and historical sources, provides a more detailed account:

To punish her, at Folsom's Bridge the mob tied Mary Turner by her ankles, hung her upside down from a tree, poured gasoline on her and burned off her clothes. One member of the mob then cut her stomach open and her unborn child dropped to the ground where it was reportedly stomped on and crushed by a member of the mob. Her body was then riddled with gunfire from the mob. Later that night she and her baby were buried ten feet away from where they were murdered. The makeshift grave was marked with only a "whiskey bottle" with a "cigar" stuffed in its neck.

The article at top also stated "only four negroes have been lynched in connection with the crime" of killing plantation owner Hampton Smith.  Other victims of lynch law that should have been known at the time were Will Thompson and Julius Jones.  But there would be more victims to come, including Chime Riley, Simon Schuman, and Sidney Johnson.

According to a Georgia historical marker placed near the site of Mary's lynching, there were at least two additional victims.  In fact, the entire ordeal was dubbed "the Lynching Rampage of 1918." Text from the marker:

Mary Turner and the Lynching Rampage of 1918

Near this site on May 19, 1918, twenty-one year old Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, was burned, mutilated, and shot to death by a local mob after publicly denouncing her husband’s lynching the previous day. In the days immediately following the murder of a white planter by a black employee on May 16, 1918, at least eleven local African Americans including the Turners died at the hands of a lynch mob in one of the deadliest waves of vigilantism in Georgia’s history. No charges were ever brought against known or suspected participants in these crimes. From 1880-1930, as many as 550 people were killed in Georgia in these illegal acts of mob violence.

According to MonroeWorkToday, the lynching of Mary Turner is referenced in A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930 and Fitzhugh Brundage's Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930.  Mr. Brundage noted the lynching rampage of 1918 was "perhaps the most extraordinary example of wanton slaughter."

Part of the legacy of Mary Turner was briefly mentioned above – The Mary Turner Project (MTP) is a diverse, grassroots volunteer collective of students, educators, and local community members who are committed to racial justice and racial healing.  Learn more about the plight of Mary Turner and her legacy at MaryTurner.org.

Furthermore, The Color Line Murders podcast explored this unfathomable incident in episode 2.

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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