Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Lynching of George Meadows, Part III: the Plan

[From the Birmingham Weekly Herald, January 16, 1889]


At this juncture a commotion on the outside and calls for the coroner caused the latter gentleman to step out on the platform and inquire what the trouble was. Some member of the crowd called out, “Some deputies have arrived, but they cannot have the prisoner. He belongs to Pratt Mines.” The coroner then adjourned the inquest for the present and went down to look into the matter.

Just across the street from the house in which the inquest was being held stood Capt. Sharp, of the county jail, and seven or eight deputy sheriffs. The coroner explained to the officers the suspicions of the citizens, and inquired the object of their visit. Capt. Price, who was in charge, very promptly responded that the squad had been sent down by Sheriff Smith to assist in protecting the white men from the reported anticipated onslaught of the negroes. This was communicated to the crowd, but did not have the desired effect. They believed that the officers had come to take the prisoner from them, and they were determined to KEEP HIM AT ALL HAZARDS.

They sent word to the officers that they were amply prepared to protect themselves against any kind of an attack from the negroes, and intimated that their visit was not by any means welcome. Many of the more enthusiastic wanted to hang the man at once and have the matter done with. They said the sheriff should not have him and that it was best that he should be hung before the troops or a large posse should arrive, and it would be necessary to yield him up or kill a number of good citizens in order to carry out their plan.


Finally one of the resident ministers mounted a platform and announced that he was there to represent Capt. Sharp, who was in charge of the deputies. He vouched for the captain’s honesty and honor, and said that he had stated to him and asked him to repeat to the crowd that the squad was there for the sole purpose of protecting the whites against the negroes.

He then introduced Capt. Austin, one of the officers, who assured the people of the same facts. He stated that they had brought no warrants and had no authority to take the man – that the people of Birmingham were as highly incensed as they were over the matter and that every man in the squad would be glad to the villain punished as he deserved to be. “But be sure you get the right man boys – don’t make a mistake,” said the captain in conclusion.

The crowd cheered him lustily, and, after a few minutes, the deputies RETURNED TO THE CITY and the investigation was resumed.

Here the clamors of the crowd again increased, and the coroner saw that it would be best to take the negro before Mrs. Kellum a second time for identification or otherwise.


When the prisoner, Meadows, was taken in charge by the citizens, the line of march was taken up in the direction of the Kellum residence. As the crowd moved forward the line of guards surrounding Stobert’s store, where the inquest was being held, withdrew and fell into line around the prisoner. Down the street, across the railroads, the immense throng rapidly moved. When the high trestle was reached, the men found the road entirely too narrow and commenced crowding along the flanks of the vanguard and spread across the broad commons in front of the Reese residence. The sight was a thrilling one. Scarcely a man that did not display a weapon of some description. Short-barreled repeaters and the old-fashioned squirrel rifle were the most conspicuous. Here and there a shot-gun, and even a few of the old flit-lock muskets, added variety to the warlike equipment.

At the Reese residence a halt was ordered and a consultation took place among the leaders. It was decided that the main body should remain where it then was and that the prisoner should be sent forward in charge of a committee, in order that no unnecessary disturbance be created at the Kellum residence. The crowd was very orderly and readily assented to the arrangement. The committee was selected and the prisoner placed in their charge. A LINE OF GUARDS was then thrown along the foot of the hill to guard the approach to the residence that nestled amid the trees at the brow. An AGE-HERALD reporter ran the blockade, however, and joined the committee just as the order “forward” was given. In a few moments the yard was reached, and the committee and prisoner halted and awaited the decision of the physicians in attendance on Mrs. Kellum as to whether that lady could be permitted to see them at that time.

During the interval of waiting the reporter studied the picture presented at the foot of the hill. Along every road that led to the commons groups of men could be seen hurrying to join the main body, already swollen into a perfect sea of humanity. The line of determined guards held the pressing throngs back AT THE MUZZLE OF THEIR GUNS. Not an inch of ground was given, and in all, it was a most impressive display of the power of resolute calmness when called into action under exciting circumstances.

The reporter’s musings were interrupted by the appearance of Dr. R. M. Cunningham, from the sick chamber, with an invitation to the committee to enter. Two of the committee, the prisoner, and the Age-Herald reporter, advanced to the hallway, and thence into the room.

Mrs. Kellum was reclining in her bed, in a sitting posture, supported by a mass of pillows. Her bandaged, sorrow-stricken countenance too plainly told the grief that was hers. Beside her bed stood her husband, a gentleman of quiet demeanor, yet of a most stern expression. Motioning the visitors to enter, he withdrew to the other side of the bed, next to the window, and asked for the prisoner.

An almost deathly quiet reigned in the room as George Meadows walked to the foot of the bed, and came to a stop. “Tell him to walk to the window,” quietly said Mrs. Kellum. The prisoner was conducted to a window where the light streamed through the window full upon his face. For a moment only did the lady hesitate, and then said, “He is the same one you brought here this morning. I can say nothing more than I did then”

“Are you sure he is the right man?” inquired the husband.

“Gentlemen, I know that I HOLD THIS MAN’S LIFE IN MY HAND, and I want to be careful in what I say,” responded Mrs. Kellum. “if this is not the right man, then he’s awfully like him. If this is not the man when you do catch the right one, you will say that he looks exactly like him”

Dr. Cunningham inquired of the lady whether any doubt existed in her mind as to his identity, and she reiterated her former statement, that “if he was not the right one he was awfully like him.” She then asked the prisoner if he could prove his whereabouts at 10 o’clock Saturday morning, and he promptly answered that he could prove it by both check bosses. After several more questions were put ot him the negro showed the least tremor of excitement, the first and only betrayal of the kind during the entire day. Raising his right hand he said: “Lady, I swear before high heaven that I am not the man. If you say I am, then I am willing to submit to any death.”

Mrs. Kellum, in reply, told him that she did not wish to have him injured, if he was innocent. Turning to the committee, she asked them to state to his friends, that, before taking further steps, they should hold the prisoner until morning, when she wished to have him brought before her again. She wished to look at him again, when there was more light.

The committee took the prisoner in charge and left the room.

During the entire episode, Mrs. Kellum showed not the slightest sign of excitement. The manner of her expression, more than the language, impressed the bystanders of her consciousness that the prisoner was the guilty man. “If he is not the right man, he is awfully like him,” was said in such a tone of conviction as to be almost startling to the group of friends at her bed-side.

In the yard the committee held a brief consultation, and decided upon a report. Dr. Cunningham was invited to accompany them and act as their spokesman. The doctor consented, and the party proceeded down the hill toward the impatient crowd. The prisoner was kept in the rear, while the doctor mounted a fence, and briefly, but with touching eloquence, told the crowd of Mrs. Kellum’s wish. NOT A SOUND escaped from the crowd to interrupt him. When he ceased speaking an elderly man, armed with a shot-gun spoke out, “It is the lady’s wish; so mote is be!” This sentiment was warmly applauded by the crowd, and it was evident that the neck-tie party was, for the time being, at least, deferred.

While the guard was being formed to look after the prisoner during the night, a report was received that the sheriff was organizing a strong posse for the purpose of going to the mines to take the prisoner. This report created the greatest excitement. It was decided at once to run the prisoner off to the woods. A picked body of sixteen men was selected to carry out the plan. A leader was chosen, and he was required to pledge himself to resist any attempt to take the prisoner, and to produce him dead or alive in the morning at 8 o’clock. He gave the pledge unhesitatingly, and volunteered the assurance that he would hold the prisoner against any force.

The main body then withdrew into the main part of the town, and, although orderly, they freely expressed their determination to hold the prisoner, and mete out to him proper punishment, should he be finally declared guilty. The only ripple of disturbance was when about twenty-five of the crowd got into a dispute as to who should act as chief executioner. It was finally agreed that this point should be decided by lot.


So carefully were the plans of the guard executed that after passing the cemetery all trace of them and their charge was lost. Nothing but a dense forest, thickly studded with undergrowth, confronted the reporter after passing the above-named point in his search for their hiding place. When the pursuit seemed almost a hopeless one, a gentleman who appeared to know something of their movements, and to be vested with some authority in the premises, kindly gave the Age-Herald man a confidential “tip,” under a pledge of secrecy, with the reservation that whatever he might learn was not be given out excepting through the columns of the paper, in the morning, he furnished with a guide and instructions as to how to proceed.

At 7 o’clock, sharp, the start was made. For some distance the route lay along the public road leading by the cemetery, in a direction almost directly opposite to that in which the reporter had made his previous explorations. The guide finally made an abrupt turn into the woods, and with a caution to the scribe to preserve perfect silence, went forward at a lively gait. Through hollows and across ridges, sometimes in paths and again through apparently trackless woods, the line of march was silently pursued. After having climbed what seemed to the reporter to be about a dozen mountains, each succeeding one apparently higher and more rugged than the preceding, he was rewarded with a faint glimmer of a camp fire in a densely wooded glen. Pickets, all entire strangers to the scribe, were now met with. The guide had no trouble in securing the right of way into the camp.

The scene was indeed a strange one. Scarcely heeding the appearance of the newcomers, the guards continued their onslaughts upon a hamper of provisions that had been sent out by provident friends at the mines. One of the party, apparently the leader, kindly invited the reporter to “help himself” and to make himself at home. This called forth admonitions from others “not to be bashful,” and the foot-sore newsgatherer, reassured, fell too with a will.

After the repast, a most bountiful one, cigars were passed around, but the reporter soon learned that the crowd was a strictly “dry” one. This fact he learned incidentally and not as a result of special inquiry. It is worthy of remark that not only in the camp in the woods, but in the town as well, there was a remarkable absence of liquor of any kind. During the entire day hardly man was seen who could have been said to be under the influence of the ardent.

The guard in camp had the prisoner carefully secured, and although every device was brought into service to lead him into a confession, he parried the efforts of his questioners with a coolness that was remarkable under the circumstances. He expressed a firm belief that he would be set free; and frequently said that if Mrs. Kellum pronounced him guilty, his guard could do with him as they pleased.

The lateness of the hour compelled the reporter to cut short his interesting visit, and bidding his host good night he set out on his return to the mines with the guide. The entire party in the camp were strangers to the scribe, but the circumstances under which he met them, and the associations of the brief sojourn in their midst, the lonely glen, and last, but not least, the specter-like figure of the prisoner in the background, with the shadowy form of a guard beside him, formed a scene never to be forgotten.

[Tomorrow:  Part IV:  the Murder]

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