12 February 2018

Usual Crime, Usual Penalty: the Lynching of Jack Hilsman

According to MonroeWorkToday, the lynching of Jack Hilsman 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.

Macon Telegraph (Georgia)
Wednesday, 25 July 1900 [via GenealogyBank]
Jack Hilsman Was Lynched at Knoxville.
Had Been Identified By the Young Lady and By a Negro Woman Who Saw Him Fleeing From the House – Betrayed His Employer's Confidence.
Jack Hilsman, the 25-year-old negro who was confined in Macon's jail last week for safe keeping, but who was taken to Knoxville and given a commitment hearing Monday on the charge of assault, was lynched Monday night, having been taken from the Crawford county officers by a number of the neighbors of the farmer whose daughter was the object of the negro's attack.
The negro had been committed to jail by Justice K. P. Lowe of Knoxville, and was to have been brought back to Macon yesterday for safe-keeping.
The negro's crime occurred last Thursday at Musella, a small village about twelve miles from Knoxville.  The negro had been employed on the plantation of Mr. James Mitchell.  Mr. Mitchell was away from the residence on Thursday and the young lady was alone in the house, her two sisters being engaged at the dairy, some distance away.  The negro discovered these facts and he entered the house.  He seized the young lady, but before he could overpower her she made such outcries as to attract the attention of her sisters, and others nearby.  The brute ran away, but a posse was hastily formed, and he was pursued and caught within a few hours.
He was brought to Macon, it being about as near to this place as to Knoxville, but he was taken to Knoxville for a commitment hearing on Monday.  He stoutly denied his guilt, but he was identified by the young lady and by a negro woman who saw him running from the house, and he was sentenced to jail.  It was not known that he was in any danger of being lynched, as only four men from the neighborhood of Musella were noticed about the court house at Knoxville during or just after the trial.  The sheriff and his deputies were taking the negro to the jail, after the court had decided that he was probably guilty as charged, and on the way the four men from Mr. Mitchell's neighborhood rushed in and sought to take charge of the prisoner.  They were quickly repulsed.
The incident caused great excitement, however, and as the posse moved on toward the jail a considerable crowd gathered.  It seems that there were in and about the town, hidden out, a large number of people from the district in which the crime had been committed.  Some had been just out of town, in the woods, it is understood, and when the trouble began they all rushed in and joined the gathering mob.  Before the posse had gotten to the jail quite a formidable crowd had gathered, and they made an assault on the posse.  After a determined scuffle, the crowd overpowered the guards and got the prisoner.  Not a shot was fired.
The crowd seemed to have formed its plans fully beforehand.  They carried Hilsman out to a negro settlement about half a mile from town, and there hung him in full view of the negro cabins.  They riddled the body with shots.
…Sheriff Handcock and County Treasurer L. A. Hatcher pleaded with the crowd, but to no avail.
The body was still hanging early yesterday morning.
The lynching was an orderly affair, in its way, and after the scuffle in which the negro was captured there was no undue demonstration.  The shots were fired into the negro's body immediately after he was hung, and then the crowd dispersed.
Jailer Phil Stephan said:
…"The sheriff and I both suspected that the negro would be lynched and we made unusually slow progress in turning him over, hoping that the train might leave him.  The negro begged us most piteously not to let him go, and we were tempted to telephone the governor, but since the judge and sheriff had sent for the prisoner to stand his commitment trial, we thought it beyond our jurisdiction to interfere.  When they led the negro out I remarked to the servants, who were looking on in silence, 'Look at him well, he'll never come back.'"
While I don't pretend to know for certain the true details of what transpired between Mr. Hilsman and Miss Mitchell, I can't help but think of the following quotes from anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett:
With the Southern white man, any m├ęsalliance existing between a white woman and a colored man is a sufficient foundation for the charge of rape.
…the same crime committed by white men against Negro women and girls, is never punished by mob or the law.  A leading journal in South Carolina openly said some months ago that "it is not the same thing for a white man to assault a colored woman as for a colored man to assault a white woman, because the colored woman had no finer feelings nor virtue to be outraged!" – from The Red Record

Note: the above title is available for free with kindle.

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.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hello...my name is Charlotte Smith and I just stumbled across this article this morning. My family and I are life long residents of Crawford County, GA and my great grandfather was Willie Hillsman who was related to Jack Hillsman. I am seeking more information on Jack Hillsman lynching but I know it may be nothing more documented. I would like to speak with you concerning his unfortunate and more than likely vain death as I plan to search historical records here in the county to learn more. Please contact me at the email below.