|Date(s):||November 25, 1892|
|Tag(s):||African-Americans, Crime/Violence, Health/Death, Law, Race-Relations|
|Course:||“Rise And Fall of the Slave South,” University of Virginia|
George Dawson, a white man, was murdered in the town of Jasper, TN. Sheriff Rogers of Jasper had in his custody the three men believed to be responsible for the murder: Floyd Woodlee, John Turner, and Cal Collins. In fact, Woodlee was the only man who confessed to the act. Sheriff Rogers was keeping the men in the county jail until such time as their trial could take place. However, a mob surrounded the jailhouse, demanding that the men be released to them. They were determined to get the men and to take them away, but the mob refrained from actually breaking into the jail with force.
Sheriff Rogers went outside and stood among the crowd. He spoke to them calmly, rationally persuading them that justice was sure to take its course in the case. He quieted the mob with his speech and they eventually began to go home. The mob dispersed of its own accord, satisfied as it was that the three men would be found guilty and hanged anyway, with very little trouble to them. But the heat was not off. J.T. Simpson, a citizen of Jasper prognosticated that the black men would very likely be lynched, even over the protests of the sheriff, next time the mob assembled, if they were not found guilty of George Dawson's murder.
This 1892 narrative seems to be an anomaly in the history of lynching in the South. That the local law enforcement prevented lynching in this case is particularly significant given that in this same year, the number of lynchings of black men across the south reached its peak- 155 men killed over the course of this one year. The scenario of the mob surrounding the jail, demanding that the offenders be released to them was common- if the suspected offenders even made it into the jailhouse alive. Some who study the phenomenon of lynching postulate that the practice became common around the turn of the century in the South because of weak social institutions, weak civic institutions, and ineffective law enforcement. They say that all these factors failed to develop sufficiently and so failed to instill in their communities a respect for the rule of law. However, we see in this episode a law enforcement agent standing up to the mob effectively, something that probably occurred rarely. Indeed, in many accounts of lynchings, local officers of the law participated or even instigated the incidents. The incident is tempered through with the prediction that the men protected by Sheriff Rogers will surely be convicted anyway. So, their fate was delayed, rather than changed substantively.