11 February 2018

Mayor of Griffin, Georgia Said He Would Have Helped to Hang Him

Oscar Williams was lynched at Griffin, Spalding County, Georgia in the summer of 1897.  A Bibb County sheriff was actually supposed to transport Oscar to Atlanta (unharmed, of course), but he failed at his duty.  Yet the county was apparently so proud of the part played in the unfortunate ordeal they devoted 5 newspaper columns across 2 pages – plus an illustration – to conveying the whole story.  The title of the article was Hemp and Lead.  Illustration below.


One line from the above referenced article that stood out to me was this: A mob recognizes no law.  Here's a shorter rendition of what happened to Oscar Williams:

Columbus Daily Enquirer (Georgia)
Friday, 23 July 1897 [via GenealogyBank]


Crowd of Citizens Capture the Rapist and Swing Him to a Limb.


Well Known Citizens of Griffin in the Mob, but the Coroner's Jury Declared That the Deceased Came to His Death at Hands of Parties Unknown

Griffin, Ga., July 22. – Oscar Williams, the negro brute who outraged the little five year old daughter of Mr. Campbell, of Henry county on Saturday, July 10th, was lynched here this morning at six o'clock.

Sheriff Herrington, of Bibb county, had Oscar Williams in charge and was on his way to Atlanta where he proposed to turn the prisoner over to the Atlanta jail for safe keeping, but Oscar was compelled to stop over in Griffin and made to pay the penalty of his hellish crime committed just twelve days ago.

On the arrival of the 6:13 Central train a large crowd had gathered at the depot and when the train came to a halt twenty or more determined young men boarded the train and began a search for Williams.  The crowd was met by Sheriff [Herrington] and told that Oscar Williams was not on the train, but the people thought different and made a search that at first looked like the sheriff was giving them the straight tip, but finally Oscar was found concealed in the water closet and very tenderly and carefully taken out, placed in a buggy and driven out Broadway just outside the western city limits, followed by some two hundred men and boys, where he was hanged with a cotton well rope.  The rope was tied in hangman's style and thrown over an oak limb, when Oscar Williams was drawn up five feet above ground.  The other end of the rope was tied to a near by tree, and then five hundred bullets were shot into his body in less than half a minute.  His legs were tied below the knees…and his hands fastened with handcuffs.

It just took twenty minutes from the time the train reached Griffin until the crowd began leaving the dead and mangled body of the brute hanging in the air.

There were no masks worn or any effort made to conceal anything by the determined crowd.

Sheriff Herrington and his deputy saw they were powerless to save their prisoner and after seeing that he had been successfully lynched they returned to Macon on the 9:15 train.

This makes the second negro lynched in Spalding county in less than ten months for outraging young white girls and strange to say both crimes were committed in Henry county.

The Enquirer-Sun's representative failed to ascertain just how the people here knew Oscar Williams was coming through on the early morning train, but as their is a well regulated telephone line down the Central road all the way to Macon the news could have been received that way.  At any rate the news reached here in time for a good crowd to gather to avenge the outrage committed on a poor helpless five year old child.

Mr. Campbell, father of the unfortunate child, reached here before the body was cut down and identified the lynched negro as the brute who committed the crime.  Oscar Williams confessed that he did commit the crime.

At 11 o'clock this morning the body was cut down and there was at once a rapid division of the rope among the spectators.  It was cut into small pieces and distributed as far as it would go.  Some of the men were content with pieces of the dead negro's shirt, trousers or suspenders, and desires were expressed even for pieces of his body for a memento.

Men, women and children, black and white, were gathered about the scene of the lynching all the morning.  The whites were not slow in saying the right thing had been done and the negroes, if they thought differently, very wisely refrained from saying so.

The body, after it was cut down, was carried to the city hall where it was viewed by thousands who came too late to see it swinging.  The negro's relatives at Zebulon have been wired to know if they want the remains.  If not the burial will take place at the county poor farm.

It is an open secret that the lynching was done by some of the best citizens of Griffin.  There have been rumors current that the men who took the law into their own hands were farmers, but the facts do not support this.  Eye witnesses to the whole affair say confidently that in the mob there were not a half dozen men live outside the city.

The verdict of the jury empannelled [sic] by Coroner Williams was as follows:

"We the jury empannelled [sic] to inquire into the cause of the death of Oscar Williams, find that he came to his death by hanging and shooting at the hands of parties to us unknown…"

Mayor W. D. Davis, of Griffin, when asked about the lyncing [sic], said:

"Under my path of office, if it had occurred in the city limits, I would have done all I could to protect the negro.  I was in bed at the time, but if I had known it was outside the city limits I would have helped to hang him."

Sheriff M. M. Morris had no expression of regret to make…

According to MonroeWorkToday, the lynching of Oscar Williams 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.

Article referenced at top may be viewed online here >>> Georgia Historic Newspapers

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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