How Not to Prevent a Lynching

Dr. Miller, who had sat up late the night before with a difficult case at the hospital, was roused, about eleven o’clock, from a deep and dreamless sleep. Struggling back into consciousness, he was informed by his wife, who stood by his bedside, that Mr. Watson, the colored lawyer, wished to see him upon a matter of great importance.

“Nothing but a matter of life and death would make me get up just now,” he said with a portentous yawn.

“This is a matter of life and death,” replied Janet. “Old Mrs. Polly Ochiltree was robbed and murdered last night, and Sandy Campbell has been arrested for the crime⁠—and they are going to lynch him!”

“Tell Watson to come right up,” exclaimed Miller, springing out of bed. “We can talk while I’m dressing.”

While Miller made a hasty toilet Watson explained the situation. Campbell had been arrested on the charge of murder. He had been seen, during the night, in the neighborhood of the scene of the crime, by two different persons, a negro and a white man, and had been identified later while entering Mr. Delamere’s house, where he lived, and where damning proofs of his guilt had been discovered; the most important item of which was an old-fashioned knit silk purse, recognized as Mrs. Ochiltree’s, and several gold pieces of early coinage, of which the murdered woman was known to have a number. Watson brought with him one of the first copies procurable of the extra edition of the Chronicle, which contained these facts and further information.

They were still talking when Mrs. Miller, knocking at the door, announced that big Josh Green wished to see the doctor about Sandy Campbell. Miller took his collar and necktie in his hand and went downstairs, where Josh sat waiting.

“Doctuh,” said Green, “de w’ite folks is talkin’ ’bout lynchin’ Sandy Campbell fer killin’ ole Mis’ Ochiltree. He never done it, an’ dey oughtn’ ter be ’lowed ter lynch ’im.”

“They ought not to lynch him, even if he committed the crime,” returned Miller, “but still less if he didn’t. What do you know about it?”

“I know he was wid me, suh, las’ night, at de time when dey say ole Mis’ Ochiltree wuz killed. We wuz down ter Sam Taylor’s place, havin’ a little game of kyards an’ a little liquor. Den we lef dere an’ went up ez fur ez de corner er Main an’ Vine Streets, where we pa’ted, an’ Sandy went ’long to’ds home. Mo’over, dey say he had on check’ britches an’ a blue coat. When Sandy wuz wid me he had on gray clo’s, an’ when we sep’rated he wa’n’t in no shape ter be changin’ his clo’s, let ’lone robbin’ er killin’ anybody.”

“Your testimony ought to prove an alibi for him,” declared Miller.

“Dere ain’ gwine ter be no chance ter prove nothin’, ’less’n we kin do it mighty quick! Dey say dey’re gwine ter lynch ’im ter-night⁠—some on ’em is talkin’ ’bout burnin’ ’im. My idee is ter hunt up de niggers an’ git ’em ter stan’ tergether an’ gyard de jail.”

“Why shouldn’t we go to the principal white people of the town and tell them Josh’s story, and appeal to them to stop this thing until Campbell can have a hearing?”

“It wouldn’t do any good,” said Watson despondently; “their blood is up. It seems that some colored man attacked Mrs. Ochiltree⁠—and he was a murderous villain, whoever he may be. To quote Josh would destroy the effect of his story⁠—we know he never harmed anyone but himself”⁠—

“An’ a few keerliss people w’at got in my way,” corrected Josh.

“He has been in court several times for fighting⁠—and that’s against him. To have been at Sam Taylor’s place is against Sandy, too, rather than in his favor. No, Josh, the white people would believe that you were trying to shield Sandy, and you would probably be arrested as an accomplice.”

“But look a-here, Mr. Watson⁠—Dr. Miller, is we-all jes’ got ter set down here, widout openin’ ou’ mouths, an’ let dese w’ite folks hang er bu’n a man w’at we know ain’ guilty? Dat ain’t no law, ner jestice, ner nothin’! Ef you-all won’t he’p, I’ll do somethin’ myse’f! Dere’s two niggers ter one white man in dis town, an’ I’m sho’ I kin fin’ fifty of ’em w’at ’ll fight, ef dey kin fin’ anybody ter lead ’em.”

“Now hold on, Josh,” argued Miller; “what is to be gained by fighting? Suppose you got your crowd together and surrounded the jail⁠—what then?”

“There’d be a clash,” declared Watson, “and instead of one dead negro there’d be fifty. The white people are claiming now that Campbell didn’t stop with robbery and murder. A special edition of the Morning Chronicle, just out, suggests a further purpose, and has all the old shopworn cant about race purity and supremacy and imperative necessity, which always comes to the front whenever it is sought to justify some outrage on the colored folks. The blood of the whites is up, I tell you!”

“Is there anything to that suggestion?” asked Miller incredulously.

“It doesn’t matter whether there is or not,” returned Watson. “Merely to suggest it proves it. Nothing was said about this feature until the paper came out⁠—and even its statement is vague and indefinite⁠—but now the claim is in every mouth. I met only black looks as I came down the street. White men with whom I have long been on friendly terms passed me without a word. A negro has been arrested on suspicion⁠—the entire race is condemned on general principles.”

“The whole thing is profoundly discouraging,” said Miller sadly. “Try as we may to build up the race in the essentials of good citizenship and win the good opinion of the best people, some black scoundrel comes along, and by a single criminal act, committed in the twinkling of an eye, neutralizes the effect of a whole year’s work.”

“It’s mighty easy neut’alize’, er whatever you call it,” said Josh sullenly. “De w’ite folks don’ want too good an opinion er de niggers⁠—ef dey had a good opinion of ’em, dey wouldn’ have no excuse f er ’busin’ an’ hangin’ an’ burnin’ ’em. But ef dey can’t keep from doin’ it, let ’em git de right man! Dis way er pickin’ up de fus’ nigger dey comes across, an’ stringin’ ’im up rega’dliss, ought ter be stop’, an’ stop’ right now!”

“Yes, that’s the worst of lynch law,” said Watson; “but we are wasting valuable time⁠—it’s hardly worth while for us to discuss a subject we are all agreed upon. One of our race, accused of certain acts, is about to be put to death without judge or jury, ostensibly because he committed a crime⁠—really because he is a negro, for if he were white he would not be lynched. It is thus made a race issue, on the one side as well as on the other. What can we do to protect him?”

“We kin fight, ef we haf ter,” replied Josh resolutely.

“Well, now, let us see. Suppose the colored people armed themselves? Messages would at once be sent to every town and county in the neighborhood. White men from all over the state, armed to the teeth, would at the slightest word pour into town on every railroad train, and extras would be run for their benefit.”

“They’re already coming in,” said Watson.

“We might go to the sheriff,” suggested Miller, “and demand that he telegraph the governor to call out the militia.”

“I spoke to the sheriff an hour ago,” replied Watson. “He has a white face and a whiter liver. He does not dare call out the militia to protect a negro charged with such a brutal crime;⁠—and if he did, the militia are white men, and who can say that their efforts would not be directed to keeping the negroes out of the way, in order that the white devils might do their worst? The whole machinery of the state is in the hands of white men, elected partly by our votes. When the color line is drawn, if they choose to stand together with the rest of their race against us, or to remain passive and let the others work their will, we are helpless⁠—our cause is hopeless.”

“We might call on the general government,” said Miller. “Surely the President would intervene.”

“Such a demand would be of no avail,” returned Watson. “The government can only intervene under certain conditions, of which it must be informed through designated channels. It never sees anything that is not officially called to its attention. The whole negro population of the South might be slaughtered before the necessary red tape could be spun out to inform the President that a state of anarchy prevailed. There’s no hope there.”

“Den w’at we gwine ter do?” demanded Josh indignantly; “jes’ set here an’ let ’em hang Sandy, er bu’n ’im?”

“God knows!” exclaimed Miller. “The outlook is dark, but we should at least try to do something. There must be some white men in the town who would stand for law and order⁠—there’s no possible chance for Sandy to escape hanging by due process of law, if he is guilty. We might at least try half a dozen gentlemen.”

“We’d better leave Josh here,” said Watson. “He’s too truculent. If he went on the street he’d make trouble, and if he accompanied us he’d do more harm than good. Wait for us here, Josh, until we’ve seen what we can do. We’ll be back in half an hour.”

In half an hour they had both returned.

“It’s no use,” reported Watson gloomily. “I called at the mayor’s office and found it locked. He is doubtless afraid on his own account, and would not dream of asserting his authority. I then looked up Judge Everton, who has always seemed to be fair. My reception was cold. He admitted that lynching was, as a rule, unjustifiable, but maintained that there were exceptions to all rules⁠—that laws were made, after all, to express the will of the people in regard to the ordinary administration of justice, but that in an emergency the sovereign people might assert itself and take the law into its own hands⁠—the creature was not greater than the creator. He laughed at my suggestion that Sandy was innocent. ‘If he is innocent,’ he said, ‘then produce the real criminal. You negroes are standing in your own light when you try to protect such dastardly scoundrels as this Campbell, who is an enemy of society and not fit to live. I shall not move in the matter. If a negro wants the protection of the law, let him obey the law.’ A wise judge⁠—a second Daniel come to judgment! If this were the law, there would be no need of judges or juries.”

“I called on Dr. Price,” said Miller, “my good friend Dr. Price, who would rather lie than hurt my feelings. ‘Miller,’ he declared, ‘this is no affair of mine, or yours. I have too much respect for myself and my profession to interfere in such a matter, and you will accomplish nothing, and only lessen your own influence, by having anything to say.’ ‘But the man may be innocent,’ I replied; ‘there is every reason to believe that he is.’ He shook his head pityingly. ‘You are self-deceived, Miller; your prejudice has warped your judgment. The proof is overwhelming that he robbed this old lady, laid violent hands upon her, and left her dead. If he did no more, he has violated the written and unwritten law of the Southern States. I could not save him if I would, Miller, and frankly, I would not if I could. If he is innocent, his people can console themselves with the reflection that Mrs. Ochiltree was also innocent, and balance one crime against the other, the white against the black. Of course I shall take no part in whatever may be done⁠—but it is not my affair, nor yours. Take my advice, Miller, and keep out of it.’

“That is the situation,” added Miller, summing up. “Their friendship for us, a slender stream at the best, dries up entirely when it strikes their prejudices. There is seemingly not one white man in Wellington who will speak a word for law, order, decency, or humanity. Those who do not participate will stand idly by and see an untried man deliberately and brutally murdered. Race prejudice is the devil unchained.”

“Well, den, suh,” said Josh, “where does we stan’ now? W’at is we gwine ter do? I wouldn’ min’ fightin’, fer my time ain’t come yit⁠—I feels dat in my bones. W’at we gwine ter do, dat’s w’at I wanter know.”

“What does old Mr. Delamere have to say about the matter?” asked Miller suddenly. “Why haven’t we thought of him before? Has he been seen?”

“No,” replied Watson gloomily, “and for a good reason⁠—he is not in town. I came by the house just now, and learned that he went out to his country place yesterday afternoon, to remain a week. Sandy was to have followed him out there this morning⁠—it’s a pity he didn’t go yesterday. The old gentleman has probably heard nothing about the matter.”

“How about young Delamere?”

“He went away early this morning, down the river, to fish. He’ll probably not hear of it before night, and he’s only a boy anyway, and could very likely do nothing,” said Watson.

Miller looked at his watch.

“Belleview is ten miles away,” he said. “It is now eleven o’clock. I can drive out there in an hour and a half at the farthest. I’ll go and see Mr. Delamere⁠—he can do more than any living man, if he is able to do anything at all. There’s never been a lynching here, and one good white man, if he choose, may stem the flood long enough to give justice a chance. Keep track of the white people while I’m gone, Watson; and you, Josh, learn what the colored folks are saying, and do nothing rash until I return. In the meantime, do all that you can to find out who did commit this most atrocious murder.”