Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Lynching of George Meadows, Part IV: the Murder

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

From To-Day’s Daily

Yesterday was a day which will not soon be forgotten by the people at Pratt Mines. It will be remembered as a day when cool, resolute men, thinking only of the protection of their homes and loved ones, bid defiance to law and meted out swift and terrible punishment to a being they believed guilty of the blackest of human crimes. Their action will be a terrible warning to evil doers in that vicinity.

George Meadows, colored, was lynched by a crowd of 500 white men. He was suspended from a limb and his body riddled with bullets.

The lynching party was no ordinary one. It was not a riot in the general acceptance of that term. There was little outward sign of excitement among all that crowd of men who had determined that George Meadows must die. There was no attempt at disguise and not a man among them was under the influence of liquor. But it was a mob in the most terrible sense of the word. These men were in that condition when only blood will appease their indignation and auger at a terrible crime. Nothing could stop them now. Every man of them would have risked his life to secure the death of the negro.

When daylight came yesterday morning only a smoldering camp fire here and there on the wooded hills around the mines indicated that anything unusual was about to happen. The guards in charge of the negro had not closed their eyes all night, and many others, who were simply awaiting the outcome of the affair, had not slept. At an early hour people were astir everywhere and soon began to gather in little groups on the streets. These little groups soon swelled in to crowds, and soon it was evident that the people were growing impatient. During the night they had gone over the whole affair in their minds, had put this and that together, and the majority of them had decided that the negro was guilty.


At 8:30 o’clock the doomed man was brought from the woods where he had been kept in hiding during the night. There was a crowd of perhaps 500 standing around the Kellum residence, and the look on the faces of the individuals composing it betokened grim determination. It was evident that with a little provocation something desperate would be done. Men cried: “We have lost too much time already; bring the prisoner up for identification.”

A dozen guards with the prisoner in their midst approached the house in which Mrs. Kellum lay. They were told to wait till the sick lady could be notified and propped up in bed; and in a few minutes the supposed murderer stood before the invalid. Every sound was hushed and each one waited with abated breath to hear what she would say. She looked quietly around and said: “He looks very much like the man, but his shoulders seem a little too round.” The prisoner stood with his hands tied before him with a stout cord. The command was given: “Untie him and let him straighten up.” He was untied and told to stand erect, but with stolid indifference he refused to change his posture.

After some consideration the lady asked that he be not executed, but kept for a day or two till something more definite could be learned. She looked the expressionless man square in the face, and in a voice of intense inquiry asked: “Are you not the man!”

“No, ma’am,” came the reply, “I did not do it.”

The guards led the prisoner from the room and started down the public road towards the office where the coroner had been holding the inquest. The coroner had not yet arrived, but it was thought best to take the negro to the office and make further investigations.

As the guard and prisoner walked down the steep hill from the Kellum residence and had reached a point about 150 yards from the house, a crowd gathered around that impeded further progress. People were continually arriving in crowds and singly till within a few minutes fully 3000 people, men, women and children, white and black had gathered. A few hundred blacked and smutted miners pushed and surged around the guards and the rest of the crowd was divided into little groups, discussing the affair in hushed and anxious undertones.

It soon became apparent that the guard would not be allowed to proceed toward the heart of town.

“You are going to give the prisoner to the sheriff,” they shouted. “Then we will never get him. He has committed the crime and we want to see him suffer.”

“He cannot escape us,” shouted another, “the lady said he was the right one, and was influenced by Preacher Rippey and others to express a doubt. She knows he’s the one and you are going to give him up where he will never get justice.”

The crowd was assured by Mr. Moore and others that there was still a doubt, and was asked in deference to Mrs. Kellum’s wish to allow a further investigation.

“He’s got blood on him,” they shouted. “Let us examine him if there is a doubt.”

In the meantime women had gathered on the outside of the multitude and raised their voices in behalf of a summary execution of justice.

To appease the crowd that man was closely examined. His hat was examined and his overshirt was pulled out and an examination was made of his under shirt. “There is blood on it,” shouted one of the spokesmen, as he pointed to a splotch on the back of the undershirt. “There is blood on his hat,” cried another, and on critical examination the hat showed stains like blood.

An old colored woman approached and said: “Take his clothes and wash them and see if the water is not bloody.”

A cry was then raised, “Take his clothes and wash them,” but finally some measure of quiet was restored when Mr. Moore, the superintendent out of the mines asked the crowd not to lay violent hands on the prisoner, and promised if they would give him eight men he would take the prisoner and keep him and deliver him up to them if he was found guilty.

A voice cried: “We don’t know that. You might give him up to the sheriff.”

Eight men armed with doubled barreled shot guns volunteered to act as guards and were ordered back up the road towards the stockade for shaft No. 1. Mr. Moore stayed and tried to pacify the crowd.

When the guard left with the prisoner a few persons, apparently bent on seeing what was going to be done, started following up the hill, when a hundred voices shouted: “HANG HIM!”

The prisoner was hurried along, but a mad rush was made, and the guards were surrounded with armed men. They were allowed to proceed, however, for a quarter of a mile, when two or three women come up and the crowd blacked the way. The guards were surrounded and could not proceed.

A parley took place and high words followed. The more cool-headed counseled patience, but two or three leaders of the mob crowded around and would not be appeased. Finally, Mr. Moore again arrived and he had seemingly almost quieted the crowd by arming two of the ringleaders and allowing them to go along with the crowd when the cry: “BRING A ROPE,” was raised. The cry had subsided, and the guard was beginning to move on when a man approached from the rear carrying two ropes on his arm, one a small cotton rope, the other an inch grass rope. He made a noose as he advanced, and threw it LIKE A LASSO at the prisoner. The sight of the rope and the act maddened the crowd, and nothing could stem their rage. The guards tried to hurry the prisoner away through the woods, but the mob followed along with them and took him from them as the mad rush was continued through the little timber and dense underbrush. When a point about 200 yards from the road was reached a man ran ahead and climbed a small post-oak tree, and sitting astride a limb called for the end of the rope. The doomed man was HURRIED TO THE TREE, the rope was tightened around his neck and the end was thrown towards the man in the tree. It was too short and did not reach him. The other rope was called for and a gentleman in the crowd elbowed his way up to the prisoner as he stood ashen pale, without a sign of emotion, and called on the crowd to consider what they were doing, as there was still a chance of the man’s innocence. “He has attempted to rape a negro girl anyhow. That is in proof and he ought to be hung for that.” This settled his fate.

“You have got a minute to live,” was said as the new rope was being spliced to the old; “We will make it five minutes IF YOU WANT TO PRAY,” said a bystander with watch in hand. The doomed man’s lips trembled slightly, the only sign of emotion visible: “I do not want to pray. I did not do it.”

“He is stubborn. He’ll never confess,” said the determined man who was splicing the rope.

Two attempts were made to throw the rope to the man in the tree. The third succeeded. A powerful man seized the prisoner as he stood with hands tied and raised him from the ground. The slack was taken up by the man who had taken a half hitch around the limb with the rope. Two other men sized the prisoner and shoved him up the body of the tree as far as they could reach, without so much as a murmur or a struggle on his part. The slack was again taken up; the end of the rope was dropped to the ground. It was seized by half a dozen men. The man slid down the body of the tree, the end of the rope was tied to a little pine sapling and the dangling body, WITH POPPING EYES, swung in the air, without a murmur or an evidence of pain, in the presence of 500 people, a few of whom were women, standing around in the thick undergrowth.

“Let’s all take a shot at him,” was shouted and almost as quick as thought 500 SHOTS rang forth and 100 bullets pierced the body.

At precisely 9:25 o’clock the first shot was fired, and in less than a minute a soul was launched into eternity.

The deed was done, the crime was expiated, the riddled body hung dangling in the air. A stream of people came down the road from the town to view the corpse, and the rope was cut into shreds and carried away as mementos.

A photographer had followed the crowd, and, when the deed was done, set his camera and took half a dozen negatives of the scene.

Among the first to arrive after the tragedy was Coroner Babbitt, who had just come out on the dummy line from Birmingham.

Dr. Cunningham also soon arrived on horseback and addressed the crowd. He said: “I desire to ask that nothing be said of this affair to Mrs. Kellum, for her own sake, and have ordered that no one be allowed to enter the house. I hope you will cooperate with me. If the dead man committed the crime you served him right, and had I been convinced of his guilt I would willingly have AMPUTATED HIM from the crown of his head to the end of his toes; and I think you got the right man.

“I also desire to thank you for the lady and her husband for the interest you have taken in this affair, and will state that their only reason for asking a delay was that they did not want the wrong man to suffer.”

While the shooting was going on, Jimmie Pascal, a lad about 11 years old, was standing near the tree, when a wild shot whizzed through his hat, just grazing his head, but not breaking the skin. There was no other casualty aside from a few hot words and a slight difficulty before the lynching between the members of the hanging party and citizens who thought their action a little hasty.

Not a mask was used, nor was there any attempt at concealment on the part of the perpetrators of the deed.

[Tomorrow:  Part V:  the Aftermath.]

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