26 September 2019

Mob Burns John Lee Eberhart in 1921

"These upheavals of passion that make men lose their heads are calculated to destroy the very basis of our civilization. They are born of the devil." -- T. B. Stanford, pastor of the First Street Methodist Church in Macon, Georgia about 1922, denouncing the practice of lynching.

Jackson Herald (Jefferson, GA)
24 February 1921 - pg. 1 [via Georgia Historic Newspapers]

Oconee County Negro Taken From Clarke County Jail And Lynched Near Scene of Crime; Accused of Killing Mrs. Walter Lee

With the lynching of John Lee Eberhart in Oconee county on Wednesday night of the last week by a mob of 3,000 people, the climax was reached in one of the most brutal, most heartless and most heart rending murders ever committeed [sic] in this section of Georgia.

On Wednesday morning at 8 o'clock Mrs. Walter E. Lee, age 24, who resides about three miles from Watkinsville on the Athens road, was shot to death in the yard of her home, barely fifty feet from the public highway, of the most traveled road in that section, both loads of shot entering her back, and a few scattered shots peppering her shoulders and neck.

Mrs. Lee was at home with her eighteen-months-old baby. Her husband and her father-in-law, John Lee, who also lived at the place, were at the Cord Mill, where they are employed. They had left early in the morning for the Cord Mill.

Two negroes, who were driving down the road, it is reported, heard shots just after they had passed the house. Their team became frightened and ran wildly down the road. They did not stop to investigate, they told N. H. Cartey, who lives down the road. Mr. Cartey and his brother, G. Cartey, immediately went to the scene of the crime, and found Mrs. Lee lying dead in the front yard of her home, about twenty-five feet to the left, and in front of the house.

A bushel measure was found overturned, with oats spilled out, about five feet in front of the out-house just to the left of the main dwelling, and it is supposed that Mrs. Lee had just come out of this house with feed for the cow, and seeing her assailant had attempted to escape. Her body was found lying about twenty feet from the out-house.

A shot-gun was found lying at the left rear-corner of the main dwelling, where it had apparently been thrown in the hurry to escape. This gun was identified by John Lee, father of Walter Lee, as one that had been stolen from him last Saturday, so he said.

The sheriffs of Oconee and Clarke counties were soon on the grounds, and with a large posse of citizens, immediately began to locate the guilty criminal.

From the beginning suspicion rested on a negro, John Lee Eberhart, because of several chains of circumstantial evidence -- the fitting of the negro's shoe into the tracks which led away from the scene of the crime across the field back of the house, the fact that he was the only negro in the section who was not accounted for Wednesday, the finding of the gun, which was identified by John Lee, father of Walter Lee, as one that was stolen from him last Saturday, the statement of Eberhart's wife that her husband had gone hunting last Sunday, but that he had no gun of his own, and the general reputation of the negro in the past. Also, the fact that he did not show up at his post of duty with the International Agricultural Corporation; and the fact that he went to the Lee home a few days previous and inquired where Mr. Lee was.

The negro was located in Athens about 2.30 o'clock in the afternoon, was arrested and placed in the Clarke county jail, secured the prisoner, and lynched him.

The Athens Banner stated:
"Late in the afternoon groups of men formed in and near the court house, and early in the evening the crowd swelled to not less than three thousand.

"Sheriff Jackson caused the court house to be locked, and took every precaution to protect the prisoner. Near eight o'clock the crowd grew restless, and when a leader ordered them to enter the court house a mad rush was made, and the big plate-glass windows and doors were broken, and the crowd rushed into the building. A number of men were carrying acetylene torches, while others had crowbars, axes and other instruments with which to make their way into the jail. While the sheriff was arguing with a crowd on the third floor, a number of men rushed the elevator and entered the corridor, they proceeded to the cell, where the negro was confined, and it was only a few minutes until they had entered the cell, and, chaining the negro, they dragged him to the elevator, and rushed him downstairs, where he was hurriedly taken to a waiting automobile, which carried him to the scene of the crime.

"Milledge avenue was a mass of automobiles and vehicles of all kinds. It gave the appearance of one mammoth white way, and for over an hour this avenue was lined with automobiles rushing to the scene where the proposed burning was to take place. For over a mile on the Watkinsville road cars were parked, and people alighted and walked for over a mile, the parking point being the nearest to the scene they could reach, the road being lined with machines.

"In the presence of five thousand men, the negro was chained to a pine tree, and dry kindling wood stacked around his person. When the preliminaries had been arranged, he was asked if he had any statement to make. The negro stated that he did not commit the crime. He stated that if he had, he would confess to it. Time and again the negro was given an opportunity to confess, but he stoutly declared his innocence. The torch was applied, and as the flames enveloped his body he was asked again to make a statement, and the last words he spoke was a positive denial of his guilt. However, the evidence was strong against him, and the determination of the crowd entered into the final disposition of his body by increasing the fire, which grew in high flames above his head.

"The torch was applied about 9.30 o'clock, and shortly after the flames had covered his body, the crowd slowly and quietly dispersed, leaving the ashes and charred remains in a field across the road from the home where the scene of the crime had been enacted."
Though it would be another decade before (as Amy Wood writes in Lynching and Spectacle) "forward-looking white Southerners were compelled to adopt the position that lynching was barbaric and disgraceful, even as they continued to defend white supremacy or rail against black criminality," there was some tepid backlash to the lynching of John Lee Eberhart:

Winston-Salem Journal (North Carolina)
Sunday, 20 February 1921 - pg. 2 [via GenealogyBank]

Murder of Law Worse Than the Murder of Human Being

Atlanta, Ga., Feb. 19. -- Rewards totalling [sic] $3,000 for arrest and conviction of members of the mob that broke into jail at Athens, Ga., Wednesday night and burned John Lee Eberhardt, a negro, at the stake, were offered today by Gov. Dorsey.

...The Athens ministerial association in resolutions adopted demands an investigation of the entire affair, including responsibility of the officers having the negro in custody...

Clergy Take Action.
Demands of the ministerial association of Athens for an investigation of the storming of the jail here Wednesday night and subsequent burning of a negro near here were followed today by denunciations of the crime by David C. Barrow, chancellor of the University of Georgia and Andrew J. Cobb, formerly a justice of the State supreme court.

"This is a country where we depend for safety on law," sail [sic] Chancellor Barrow in an address to the student body. "The lawless acts of certain citizens Wednesday night must make each of us fear the future of our country." He added that information pointed to the negro's guilt of murder, but he deplored the mob's act.

After declaring that "the life of an excellent woman has been destroyed by a fiend," former Justice Cobb asserted in a signed statement that the negro burned was not shown to be guilty and asserted that "the murder of the law is a far graver offense than the murder of a human being..."
Finally, a curious note found in Frederick G. Detweiler's The Negro Press in the United States (pub. 1922):
...The Philadelphia American (February 19, 1921) has this to exhibit as evidence of the importance white people attach to the Negro newspaper:

"ATHENS, GA., Feb. 17. -- John Lee Eberhardt, your staff correspondent here, was taken from the local jail and burned at the stake...

It is believed by many here that advantage was taken of the situation to "get" Eberhardt for circulating the Philadelphia American. He had been warned on several occasions..."

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.