Journey along with local historian Woody Maglinger III, as he investigates three lynchings of African Americans in Progressive-Era western Kentucky.
The first occurred in Owensboro. In July 1884, a masked mob attacked the Daviess County jail. Richard May, an African-American field hand, had been incarcerated for the alleged sexual assault of a local farmer’s daughter. During the lynch mob’s actions that claimed May’s life, the white county jailer was killed protecting his prisoner. Ironically, just two decades earlier Jailer William Lucas had fought for the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
In nearby Hawesville in September 1897, Raymond Bushrod was also arrested on suspicion of raping a white girl. Rumors swirled throughout the town about a potential mob, with the local newspaper even commenting that "the result of [the community’s outrage] will likely be the first lynching in the history of Hancock County before morning." Indeed Bushrod was hanged; however, the heinous act took place in daylight in the full view of cheering women and children.
The final case, the April 1911 Livermore (McLean County) lynching, received the widest national–and even international–attention. Residents of Livermore seized William Potter, a local black man arrested for allegedly assaulting a white man, from town law enforcement officials. The lynch mob then shot Potter to death on the stage of the town opera house. Some accounts state that admission was charged for the morbid spectacle. The horrific event was harshly condemned by the national and international press, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People petitioned both Frankfort and Washington, D.C. for action. Surprisingly, heavy public pressure resulted in the eventual indictment of eighteen prominent McLean Countians believed to have participated in the heinous spectacle. Not surprisingly, they were all hastily acquitted, however. Nonetheless, media attention of the disturbing tragedy helped to ensure that the days of unchecked lynch law in the American South were numbered.
These stories are brought to life through eyewitness accounts in contemporary newspaper reports and court records. In addition to presenting a case study of each lynching, Maglinger examines the public sentiment, media treatment, and legal proceedings (if any) surrounding these acts of racial violence. As an overarching theme, he analyzes how society itself changed during the period under review, from 1884 to 1911.
While there are unique aspects to each lynching, all of these stories share common threads. Each took place in the adjacent western Kentucky Coal Field counties of Daviess, Hancock, and McLean. Each lynching victim stood accused of a crime that typically brought with it an automatic "death sentence" in the New South–sexual assault of a white woman in two cases, and attempted murder of a white man in the other instance. Each occurred about a decade and a half apart.
While lynchings of African Americans in the Bluegrass State during the period covered by this thesis were not uncommon–historian George Wright counts some 135–many of the details make these three cases distinctive. The death of Jailer Lucas in the line of duty was a very rare occurrence. So too was the brazen communal nature of the Hawesville lynching and the legal action taken against the men of the Livermore mob. These tales also demonstrate that public attitude about extralegal "justice" was far from unanimous. While many whites undoubtedly agreed with the Owensboro Messenger’s assertion that lynching was "too good for" certain "black brutes," there were unwavering voices of reason and civility present also. These latter voices grew progressively louder as the national anti-lynching campaign reached its crescendo in the 1920s and 1930s.