The Lynching of Jesse Washington

By Patricia Bernstein 

The “exciting occurrence” mentioned in a Waco, Texas, newspaper on May 16, 1916, referred to one of the most horrific public lynchings in the history of the United States. On May 15, 1916, Jesse Washington, a mentally disabled, 17-year old black laborer, was beaten, stabbed, mutilated, hanged and burned to death on the Waco town square, before an audience of 10-15,000 screaming, cheering spectators.

Jesse Washington and his family were newly arrived in the area and had been working on the Fryer farm in Robinsonville, a suburb of Waco, for only about five months when, on the morning of May 8, 1916, Jesse’s employer Lucy Fryer was found dead in the doorway of the seed house. Her skull had been bashed in and her clothing was disheveled. She had been murdered and possibly also raped.

Local law enforcement focused attention almost immediately on Jesse Washington, who, after the noon meal that day, had been planting cotton closer to the house than either George Fryer, Lucy’s husband, or her children, Ruby, 22, and George Jr., 15, who were working in more far-flung fields. During the years of the lynching epidemic in the US (very roughly 1880-1930), it was not uncommon for lynch mobs to target black men who were mentally disabled or were strangers in the neighborhood, without established support from the local white community. Jesse Washington was both mentally disabled and a comparative stranger.

Washington was quickly arrested by sheriff’s deputies and taken first to the Hillsboro jail and then to the Dallas County jail to prevent an immediate lynching. Lawmen who arrested him claimed they had found him whittling in the front yard of his house with blood on his clothes, undershirt and pants.

At some point, while he was incarcerated, Washington supposedly told his interrogators where he had hidden the murder weapon. A blacksmith’s hammer was discovered right where he had allegedly said it would be, at the end of the rows where he had been plowing, hidden in high brush and weeds near a hackberry bush. According to testimony at Washington’s trial, the hammer was covered with blood and bits of cottonseed lint.

While still in jail, Jesse Washington also signed a “confession” which was promptly published in all three Waco newspapers. Since he was illiterate and could neither write the confession nor read it, he signed it with an X.

The confession inflamed the Waco community even more than the original report of the murder. In the bizarre context of the times, the populace was more outraged by the alleged rape than by the murder. Yet there was no testimony about rape at Washington’s trial. Dr. J. H. Maynard testified about Lucy Fryer’s skull wounds during the trial but made no mention of rape. Elisabeth Freeman, who was sent by the fledgling NAACP to investigate the lynching, came to the conclusion that Lucy Fryer was most probably not raped.

On Thursday, May 11, the grand jury, called into special session, indicted Jesse Washington for murder. The authorities decided that he would be tried on Monday, May 15, only one week after the body was discovered. The trial would take place in the 54th District Court, which was presided over by a longtime local courtroom fixture, wiry, outspoken, disreputable Judge Richard Irby Munroe. Six very young and inexperienced lawyers, most of them scions of prominent local families, were selected to represent Washington at trial. They had no contact with their client until the night before the trial when he was brought back to Waco. When they did meet with him, they simply advised him to pray.

The intention of city officials was to prevent a lynching by rushing through the trial and the expected execution of Washington as quickly as possible. They meant to demonstrate that the judicial process was greased lightning for someone as depraved as Jesse Washington, and thus there was no need for a “lawless demonstration” (a euphemism for lynching), such as had occurred in Waco in the past. Some locals even expressed the hope that, after his conviction, Jesse Washington would waive the 30 days allotted to him before he would be hanged and allow the officers to hang him at once to prevent “trouble.”

However, anticipating an “exciting occurrence,” thousands of people flooded into Waco during the Mother’s Day weekend before the trial. They came by train, in the newly popular Model T Fords, and by horse-drawn buggy. They did not come merely to observe an interesting trial, which was predicted to be very brief. It was apparent to everyone that Washington would be lynched.

At this point, other towns had brought in outside reinforcements to back up local policemen and sheriffs’ deputies or asked the governor to call out the National Guard. Other lynchings were successfully prevented by a timely show of force. Washington’s attorneys could have also demanded that Judge Munroe consider a postponement or change of venue.

But Sheriff Sam Fleming, a glad-hander without law enforcement experience before he became sheriff, was in the midst of the election fight of his life against professional lawman Bob Buchanan. Fleming was well aware that, if he did not allow the lynching of Jesse Washington to take place, a large contingent of men (all the voters were men at that point) would not vote for him. Therefore, he took no action to save Jesse Washington’s life, or at least to assure that he would eventually be hanged according to legal protocols.

Fleming may not have been much of a sheriff, but his political instincts were excellent. He won re-election that summer by only 53 votes. But in 1918, no new lynchings having taken place in Waco and Texas women now possessing the vote, Fleming lost to Bob Buchanan by the overwhelming margin of 9058 to 4783.

On the morning of the trial, it was estimated that about 2500 people somehow crowded and crushed into Judge Munroe’s two-tier courtroom. Thousands more filled the courthouse and surrounded the building outside. Spectators had to be shooed out of the jury box so jurors could be seated. Some witnesses and some of those called for jury duty had to be handed over desks and people to the front of the courtroom. Judge Munroe demanded that the boys in the balcony quiet down and all gentlemen remove their hats, but did not ask them to remove their guns or any other weapons they might have.

The six young defense attorneys did not challenge a single juror. The jury foreman was W. B. Brazelton, prominent lumberman and a member of the school board. (He was also the grandfather of noted pediatrician, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton.) Witnesses in quick succession described the discovery of the body, the identification of Jesse Washington as the culprit, the finding of the hammer, and the witnessing of Washington’s confession. One of the six defense attorneys asked one question, “Who were present when the hammer was found?” There were no defense witnesses and no opening or closing argument for the defense.

From the little that is recorded of Jesse Washington’s testimony and bearing during the trial, it seems apparent that he had little or no comprehension of what was going on. When asked how he would plead—guilty or not guilty—he plainly didn’t understand the question.

The jury retired for a grand total of four minutes and found the defendant guilty as expected. “Then,” as one reporter wrote, “he became the plaything of the mob.” As the judge was recording the verdict, the crowd rose up, grabbed the defendant and hauled him down the back staircase behind the courtroom and into the alley, tearing off his clothes as they went. A chain was wrapped around his neck and he was dragged down Washington Street from the courthouse to the town square where City Hall stood. On the way he was beaten and stabbed by so many men that, by the time he reached the town square, he was already covered in blood.

Shouts arose from the crowd, said one newspaper report, “like those a crowd will give when leading a triumphal procession from a ball game that has been a big victory.” Spectators stood on cars and buggies, climbed into trees and leaned out of the windows or climbed to the rooftops of nearby buildings. Children on their way home from school for lunch also saw the spectacle.

Kindling had been stored on the square and was piled in a large dry goods box at the base of a small tree. The chain around Washington’s neck was thrown over a branch of the tree. Coal oil was poured over him and a fire lit in the box. He was lowered into and out of the fire by the chain as members of the mob chopped off his fingers, toes and other parts of his body. Some of these body parts were kept in formaldehyde and shown off as treasured souvenirs for years.

Mayor John Dollins and Chief of Police Guy McNamara observed the whole edifying episode from the comfort of the mayor’s second-floor office at City Hall. The mayor’s office also served as a vantage point for the town’s chief professional photographer Fred Gildersleeve, who had stored all his equipment there, having been advised in advance where the lynching would take place.

After Washington’s body had smoldered for a couple of hours, and people had grabbed bits of charred bone, links of the chain, even splinters from the tree as souvenirs, a horseman lassoed what remained of the body and dragged it through the streets of Waco. The skull fell off and ended up on the doorstep of a prostitute in the red-light district. Small boys extracted the teeth and sold them for five dollars each.

At last the little that was left of Jesse Washington was put in a bag and dragged out to Robinsonville by car, where it was hung from a telephone pole in front of a blacksmith’s shop. At the end of the day, Constable Les Stegall collected the remains and brought them back to town where they were buried in a potter’s field.

The NAACP hired women suffrage activist Elisabeth Freeman, who was in Dallas attending a women’s suffrage convention, to go to Waco and gather all the details of the lynching so that the story could be publicized in the NAACP magazine The Crisis. The Crisis was then edited by one of the great luminaries of the age, author, sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. Freeman obtained interviews with all the leading figures in town and even managed to acquire the lynching photos Gildersleeve had taken, despite the fact that he had been ordered not to sell any more of them.

Freeman brought everything to Du Bois in New York, who then published the first-ever special supplement to The Crisis, which told the lynching story in detail, even displaying the gruesome photographs. Copies of the supplement were mailed to every member of Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet, to every member of Congress and to newspaper editors throughout the country. Freeman then embarked on a speaking tour around the US, telling the story of the Waco lynching and gathering donations for the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign.

Only six years after the Waco lynching, Congressman Leonidas Dyer’s anti-lynching bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Federal action was necessary because local communities simply would not punish lynchers, even though everyone knew who they were. The bill provided fines for counties in which lynchings took place, and fines and imprisonment for officials who allowed lynchings to occur or failed to prosecute lynchers. This bill and subsequent versions passed three times in the House but never became law because they were always blocked in the Senate.

Despite the best efforts of Waco authorities and Waco’s white community and the assurances of the Waco Times-Herald on May 16, 1916, that “Yesterday’s exciting occurrence is a closed incident,” the story of the lynching of Jesse Washington was never forgotten in Waco. For decades it lay under the surface and was not discussed openly, but black Wacoans never forgot.

When a tornado tore through Waco on May 11, 1953, killing 114 people and destroying most of the downtown area, a story gained credence in the black community of Waco that the tornado had followed the route over which Jesse Washington or a previous black lynching victim had been dragged through town. The tornado was seen as God’s vengeance on Waco. It was the only post-lynching justice black Wacoans ever got.

In more recent times the story of Jesse Washington has erupted into view several times. In 1995, Lawrence Johnson, black city councilman from Waco, saw a famous photograph of the Jesse Washington lynching on display at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. He was outraged. He had lived in Waco all of his life but had never heard the story of the Washington lynching. In May 1998, he shocked the city by reading a contemporary newspaper account of the lynching into the record during his swearing in for a fifth term.

In the spring of 2002, the handsome mural depicting the history of Waco, located in the basement of the Washington County Courthouse, was repainted. The mural included the image of a lynching tree—a tree with a noose dangling from one of its branches. No one knew what the artist, now deceased, had intended—whether she was implying a criticism of the violence in Waco’s history, or simply recognizing the fact that lynchings had been part of that history. In response, Lester Gibson, the only black county commissioner for McLennan County, proposed that a plaque be hung on the wall next to the mural telling the story of Waco’s lynchings. His motion was ignored at the time, but such a plaque does now exist on a podium located near the mural.

Eventually both Waco City Council and the McLennan County Commissioners did pass resolutions of regret for the lynchings in Waco’s past. In 2006, 90 years after the lynching, a group of Waco citizens from different walks of life stood on the steps of the Washington County Courthouse and read a resolution of apology for the lynchings that had taken place in the Central Texas city.

Many other towns in the Deep South and elsewhere throughout the US have not yet reckoned with similar history. As the story of the lynching of Jesse Washington confirms, that reckoning may be slow in coming but it will arrive at last.