15 Lynchers and Newspaper Reports

Stanly Has a Lynching: The Murder of Alexander Whitley: A Family Legacy Entangled in a Web of Fiction & Folklore.




Lynchers and Newspaper Reports


The study of history is an ongoing process and correcting the mistakes of that past is a vital part of that process. The problem with local history is that too much of it is written too quickly and often from news clips and files that are themselves full of


   Judy Burris had been freed, Harrington’s ballad was a hit at square dances, and Nelia Whitley was safely hidden from sight. The 100 men, well known in the community, who brazenly donned their “bloodied shirts” in the darkness and murdered Alex Whitley were never identified, arrested, tried, or convicted. They and their families lived in peace in Stanly and Cabarrus Counties, protected by anonymity.

   American published in 2012, provides a broader view of how lynching was allowed to continue unchecked. In 1780, during the Revolutionary War, Col. Charles Lynch was a leader of a militia who directed the whipping of two captured Tories and the hanging of a third captive without a trial or military tribunal. The governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, heard of the act and suggested that in the future, Lynch deliver his prisoners to a proper authority. Lynch defied Jefferson, continued the practice of hanging prisoners without a trial, and coined the term “Lynch’s There is no explanation of why Jefferson, one of the United States’ founding fathers, did not arrest and prosecute Col. Lynch for the crime of murder. Perhaps many lives would have been saved, and the course of history been vastly different, if Jefferson had done more than object to the actions of a person under his command.

   Lynching became accepted as a method of communal punishment, intended to rein in horse thieves, gamblers, and those who defied the laws of the It evolved from whipping, flogging, and tar and feathering to hanging, and from the secretive snatching and murder of unsuspecting persons into an elaborate public ritual.

   Lynching was discussed in newspapers as a debatable topic; the main argument supporting it declared that the practice was necessary to protect citizens from a failed judicial system. Murders orchestrated by groups of white men expanded, becoming elaborate rituals with common elements. Torture by physical mutilation, such as the severing of body parts to be saved as souvenirs, was a frequent occurrence. Interrogation of victims about a crime or offense gave the appearance of a trial and often resulted in coerced false confessions. Preachers in attendance would hear the victim’s confession and pray for them, before the lynch mobs shot and mutilated the dying victims.

   During the 1800s, reports of mobs of hundreds of masked men torturing and lynching victims in front of thousands of witnesses filled newspapers across the country on a daily basis. Shocking news reports provided titillating details of lynching and burning, the size of the mobs, the helplessness of an overpowered sheriff, and the crimes attributed to their victims.


January 31, 1893, a negro by the name of Henry Smith was burned at the stake with extreme torture at Paris, Texas. Two excursion trains were run for the occasion, and there were many women and children in the throng who watched the sufferings of the


   Stories with horrifying descriptions of lynching, like that of Alex Whitley’s, supported the sales of newspapers. The Standard, the primary source of news for Stanly and neighboring counties, acknowledged that sensationalism was an excellent marketing tool.


Sensationalism is one of the great means to extend the circulation of a paper, and yet no paper is willing to admit that it is sensational. We received one recently though that advertised as one of its chief attractions. The _____ is sensational. Candid,


   Newspapers frequently employed evocative and sarcastic comments in columns that applauded lynch mobs for their efficiency.


A lynching party always travels at break-neck


The victim of lynching is usually very high


Lynch Law is generally


   Some editors were well aware of the power of these lurid stories, as noted in this short item in the Reidsville (NC)


“It’s a

And should be Tackled


The man who unduly tampers with a newspaper by publishing sensational articles calculated to excite and mislead the public, whether for gain or for reputation, or for notoriety, or for public effect, is a nuisance and a drag to professional journalism, and a pest and stirrer of strife to the community whose peace and best interests he should have sought to serve. A newspaper is a powder magazine, and the man behind it should not play recklessly with firebrands. For every idle word, every lie, every indecent thought, every slander, every profanity, uttered by a newspaper thousands are sufferers thereby, and the judgment of all good people in this world is against it, and the judgment in the world to come is awful to contemplate. An editor stands on slippery places in this


   Most editors of newspapers were not willing to support the punishment of a lyncher as a murderer. However, there was an inescapable sense that some form of punishment was needed, as was suggested in September 1889 by the Wilson




If North Carolina intends to assert her power and to maintain her dignity, no alternative is left. Laws must be enacted to deter lynching. It would be next to impossible to convict a mob of murder, but a wholesome Statute would be that sequestering the property of all those engaged in any lynching.




   This editor struggled to find even a trace of virtue in the mire of acquiescence, acknowledging the impossibility of convicting a man for murder as part of a mob. The idea that the rule of law should be compromised in this particular circumstance, and that sequestering the property of lynchers was an acceptable punishment for such a murder, suggests how white men addressed their apparent problem: how to appear virtuous without in fact being virtuous.

   News reports discussed the pros and cons of lynching. The conclusion of an article published just four days after the lynching of Alex Whitley was shared by many editors and their readers.


A little action on the part of Judge Lynch, once in a while, helps the law … In these days of quirks and quibbles and mystifying technicalities, the law is inactive and appears to have that tired


   Continual critique of the judicial process supported the efficacy of lynching through stark examples of injustice and unfairness. A series of stories about the 1889 lynching of Robert Berrier, a white man, in Davidson County and involving the attempted prosecution of men identified as part of a lynch mob, was a crucible for public debate on the issue of the punishment of convicted lynchers.

   Mr. Berrier, charged with the murder of his mother-in-law, who was attempting to prevent him from taking his child against the wishes of its mother, was being held in the Lexington Authorities were aware of the potential for lynching and intended to move him to Greensboro for safekeeping. However, during the night a mob “got possession of the prisoner” and lynched

   In this case, the justification for the lynching was that Mr. Berrier’s wife, the only witness to the murder, would be precluded from testifying against him. “There was no question of his guilt in the mind of the public,” and they did not want to “let a guilty man escape” due to a “defect in the law,” so “the people took the law into their own The case of Alex Whitley used a similar defense: that he had escaped conviction in previous instances due to an ineffective judicial system, and citizens were afraid if he was taken back to Arkansas he would be set free.

   In the Berrier case, individuals were identified and arrested for their participation in the lynching. The action by law enforcement was initiated not at the local level by the sheriff, but rather by Governor Fowle. Newspaper articles described in great detail the process and procedures that followed the state’s attempt to convict men identified as members of the lynch mob.


Twelve men out of twenty-six who were charged with the Berrier lynching at Lexington were bound over to court Thursday, in sums ranging from one to five thousand dollars. The remainder of the prisoners were


   Witnesses in this case identified participants of the lynching who took the prisoner from the jail cell, adjusted the rope, and observed the hanging, but “when it came to identifying the persons, their eyesight was so defective they could not say who were connected in The lack of success of the prosecution was noted due to “the sympathy of the people of the county with the Similarly, in the case of Alex Whitley, the lynchers were characterized as friends and neighbors of the sheriff and his deputy.

   The dilemma faced by the collective public mind was finding men well known in the community who participated in a mob murder guilty of murder, and then punishing them. In an article entitled “What Should Be Done!,” the Standard offered an analysis of the problem faced by the grand jury in the Berrier case, which was the first to attempt to assert the power of the law and enforce it. The conclusion that lynching was “increasing in frequency” and was a “barbarous practice” was not sufficient to overcome the fact that “this method of summary punishment [lynching] has been tolerated in the past, and in no instance has any effort been made to suppress it by bringing the offenders [to] The Standard pointed out that this acquiescence was a “negative approbation” or approval. The editor skillfully bound the readers to the lynchers through a common history, shared blame, and mutual responsibility for their actions as murderers.


The people, and as a body, must share the blame for allowing to exist hitherto an unhelpful public sentiment, and must not, in their sudden haste to become virtuous sacrifice those who were to some extent encouraged in their course by the history of the


   The Standard published a report on the conclusion of the Berrier case the following year, declaring the finding of “no true bill” a good result.


These defendants have been put to trouble, loss of time and the expense of employing counsel, and have been in some jeopardy. The next lynching party that starts out in Davidson or any of the surrounding counties will be apt to think


The murderers have not gone


   Newspapers such as the Standard focused on the welfare, protection, and fair treatment of those accused of the crime of murder committed by a mob who could be convicted by a judge and jury according to the rule of law. Skillful editors conveyed a directive to the community that members shared the responsibility for murder by lynching, characterizing the accused lynchers as sacrificial lambs and mocking those who advocated hanging as punishment as attempting to now appear virtuous. This shift of the blame for lynching to “the people, as a for “allowing an unhelpful public sentiment to was the cornerstone argument that perverted any constructive action on the part of government officials to stop lynching.

   On March 3, 1891, the Standard published a lengthy article acknowledging the frequency of lynching, stating, “The way some papers, popular and influential ones, handle a dangerous word lynch, is not conducive to public Here the editor condemned lynching in the strongest terms.


Lynching is not right anywhere or under any circumstances, however great a provocation there may be. It has gotten so here of late that as soon as a man is accused of or arrested on a charge that the major part of the masses look upon the fellow as a guilty wretch. This cannot be denied; and it is serious, and more so when you come to think that such is on the increase. Let papers cry down anything that looks like lynching. Lynching is pure murder and the meanest kind. It is the vile hand of a bloody mob jerking a fellow up between heaven and earth without any defense, without


   Thirteen days later the Standard published this article again, decrying lynching and calling for an end to its practice.




Another case of lynching. This time in broad daylight in the city of New Orleans. 11 of the convicted and indicted assassins of the chief of police Hennessey were lynched by a “citizens committee.”


To say the least of it, it is pure murder. If it is right for bands of men to resolve and put to death gratuitously with authority from the law, then do away with the expense of trial by jury. Such highhanded acts of lawlessness and murder are on the increase, and it cannot be denied.


Down with the lynch law or anything that smacks of


   Seven months later, and eight months before the lynching of Alex Whitley, the Standard published an account of a lynching in Asheville, again condemning lynching.


Let us cry down Lynch Law, and when an example is made of a few of these “civilized” murderers hanging on the “gallows,” then some good will be accomplished. They are murderers, defying the law and showing it fearful


   The Standard appeared to be in staunch support of hanging the so-called civilized murderers in lynch mobs, condemning these actions as “pure murder” and those participating in the mob as “vile,” depriving those only accused of a crime of due process of the law. Yet nine days later, the Standard published an article condemning judges and laying the blame for lynching on their inconsistent sentencing.


It was again said the lynching and lawlessness so prevalent (?) in the land was due to the lack of judges competent in those qualities that are necessary for a good judiciary. That justice was very seldom meted at the courtroom proceedings.




   Through their condemnation of the judicial system, they gave gravitas and sympathy to the more sure-handed lynchers. One month before the lynching of Alex Whitley, the Wilson Advance justified the continuation of lynching through an expression of impatience with constitutional democracy.


The Delay of the Law


The rule of mob law in this country seems to be extending. The fact that so many persons are lynched is the most powerful indictment that can be drawn up against the modes of criminal procedure prevalent everywhere. There cannot be any question of the fact that the machinery of the law, as it is administered in the United States, is cumbrous and slow, and provides more safeguards than terrors for the criminals. A skillful criminal lawyer, if his client possesses any influence or standing whatever, can “wear out” any ordinary case, even of murder. The law fills his hand with trump cards. He can find plenty of technicalities, a flaw in the indictment, or some other legal quibble, and he can ask for new trials and appeals and postpone until the important witnesses are dead or have left the country and the public have forgotten the case.



   Articles like these led citizens to believe that the government was neither reliable nor capable of punishing criminals due to the rules that must be followed: that is, the rule of law. Victims of lynching were portrayed as cunning gamers of the system, while the lyncher was a common man and helpless victim of an unjust system, with lynching the only means of his protection. This social unrest, distrust of the government, and support and encouragement of lynching in 1892 created tension in communities.

   Governor Fowle’s intervention in the Berrier lynching, for the honor of the state, was an opportunity for citizens to participate in stopping lynching by identifying and prosecuting those who lynched, and, if they were found guilty, punishing them by hanging. A clear message of the consequences of their unlawful activities could have been delivered.

   However, narratives in the press failed to support the governor, and instead continued to criticize the judicial process by emphasizing the imbalance through examples of the injustice and unfairness inherent in the process. Newspapers continued to publish articles debating the pros and cons of the appropriate punishment for a lyncher. Lynching continued, and lynchers were rarely rebuked.

   The number of reports of lynching in newspapers demonstrates that the practice was out of control across North Carolina before 1892. Lynch mobs maintained influence through the continued publication and promotion of their ideology, characterized as swift and sure, for which there was no demand for punishment.

   The casual characterization that Alex Whitley’s lynching “just keeps up the in North Carolina was a way of normalizing his lynching as no more than a numbers game, and one that was acceptable and justified for “an Victims of lynching, often accused but not convicted of some crime, were reduced to a statistic.

   The tacit approval of lynching by officials is buried in the dark shadows of our history in narratives, concocted to give the appearance of virtue while protecting the identity of mob members and failing to condemn the practice as premeditated murder. In 1893, North Carolina attempted to address the issue by enacting anti-lynching legislation. A conviction was punishable, not by death, but rather by “a fine of no more than $500 and not less than two nor more than 15 years But no attempt was made to enforce this law. Lynching continued.

   In 1906 in Salisbury, North Carolina, a mob of 2,000 stormed the Rowan County jail and removed three black men who were charged with but not convicted of murder. They were marched to the edge of town, hung on the limb of an oak tree, and shot numerous A second report of the lynching contained a more graphic description of the murderous mob’s action: “Each negro’s feet were tied to his head and he was drawn up to the timber and riddled with A small note in the Watauga Democrat reported an attempt to mail pictures of the mutilated bodies of these men, printed on post cards, a practice that was halted by the Salisbury Post Office.


A scandalous after-clap of an affair which has been shameful in all its features. There is but slight difference in the degree of depravity of taste and amount of sensibility of those who want to handle and circulate these cards and those who cut off for souvenirs the fingers, toes and ears of the negroes while they hung.




   This brief article only mentioned the torture of these lynching victims by the cutting off of their body parts for souvenirs as an aside in the scandal of the postcard mailing. The Hickory Democrat provided a detailed, gruesome description of the torture of these lynching victims with the headline:


The Ears of the Victims were Cut Off and their Bodies were Riddled with Bullets. John Gillespie Declared his Innocence to the Very



   Governor Glenn ordered three companies of state troopers to Salisbury. They camped around the courthouse and jail, placing the town under martial

   Only five people were charged in the lynching. Within a few hours, Mr. George Hall was arrested as the suspected leader of the lynch mob, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years at hard labor in the state penitentiary in an effort to restore order. Mr. George Gentle was charged and was to be tried at a later date. Bud Bullyboy and Francis Cress were also charged and Nevertheless, the 1906 lynching in Salisbury did not signal the end of an oppressive era.

   The federal government failed to pass anti-lynching laws. It was not until June 2005 that the United States Senate approved an apology and acknowledged its failure to stand against lynching by blocking anti-lynching legislation at a time when lynching was rampant.