Perpetrators and Other Named Individuals
The Burnham-Nobles Archive lists the names of the alleged perpetrators of racial homicides. It also lists the names of individuals identified as being present at an incident. These names have been taken from a wide variety of sources, including newspaper accounts, correspondence to the NAACP from witnesses to the event or relatives of the victim, and records of investigations undertaken by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Because there was often no trial to determine the guilt or innocence of those involved in an incident of racial homicide, we cannot definitively name them perpetrators. We have instead named them alleged perpetrators, even when the guilt of the accused appears obvious from the records. For the sake of consistency, even when there was a trial, we have continued to call them alleged perpetrators.
We have also chosen to list the names of individuals whom we have been able to identify as having been present at, or involved with, an incident of racial homicide. These named individuals tend to fall into two categories: members of law enforcement and members of a mob.
Named individuals who were members of law enforcement are those who either through inaction or ineptitude permitted a killing to occur. As part of a chain of events that led to the killing, they bear some responsibility for its occurrence; however, because the available sources do not offer a clear picture of this named individual’s motivation, we cannot readily assign culpability for their failure to prevent a killing. For example, in September 1932, press accounts relate that a mob of 1,000 “overpowered” H. Johnson, the night marshal of Crossett, Arkansas, to seize and then lynch Frank Tucker. We have no sources that convey Johnson’s state of mind or motivations at the time of the lynching. He may have feared for his life, or he may have willingly handed Tucker over to the mob. All we know is that Johnson was part of the chain of events that led to Tucker’s killing.
The names of individuals who were members of a mob are also included. Unless explicitly stated in the available sources, it remains impossible to know the motivations of an individual member of a large mob. They may be there to cheer on a smaller group of killers, or out of fear of not being seen there by neighbors, or to attempt to stop the killing, or out of mere curiosity. Nevertheless, their presence in that crowd helped constitute the mob and thus they are named. For example, a mob numbering 30-40 individuals was involved in the shooting death of Roosevelt Thompson in February 1942 in Lowndes County, Alabama. A private investigator sent by Gov. Frank Dixon stated that two men, Vantie Hartsell and Curtis Bowden were “immediately present” at the time of the killing. The investigator also named Perry Hartsell, Dave Owens and Robert Hartsell as waiting nearby in a car. While the reliability of an investigator hired by the governor of Alabama in 1942 can reasonably be doubted, this investigator nonetheless named these three other men as present. We do not know their motivations, but their presence helped constitute the mob.
There are multiple approaches to the question of whether an individual who witnesses but does not attempt to stop a killing is also complicit in that killing. Rather than assign responsibility ourselves, we have instead made available all the sources related to each killing that we were able to locate.
In the Burnham-Nobles Archive the term “incident” refers to one or more occurrences of racial violence committed by the same alleged perpetrator, or group of perpetrators at the same time and place. “Same time and place” means that the time interval between the occurrence or occurrences and the distance between the locations where they occurred were insignificant. Normally, the occurrence or occurrences must take place during an unbroken time duration and at the same or adjoining location(s). However, incidents can also be composed of occurrences of racial violence which by their nature involve continuing activity involving the same perpetrator or victim at different times and places. The Burnham-Nobles Archive addresses incidents and elements associated with them, e.g., homicidal conduct, victims, perpetrators, and legal proceedings.
For example, all the occurrences associated with the murder of Bob White in 1941 in Conroe, Texas constitute one incident. Picked out of a lineup, White was charged with the rape of a white woman. His conviction and death sentence imposed by a Texas court were overturned on appeal. He was tried a second time, and after conviction sentenced to death again. That second conviction was reversed in the US Supreme Court. White was returned to court for a third trial. As he awaited proceedings in the courtroom, the husband of the alleged rape victim, W.S. Cochran, shot and killed White. Cochran’s criminal trial resulted in an acquittal. In the Burnham-Nobles Archive all these events constitute one incident.
Similarly, three men were killed by mobs in 1930 in Kemper County, Mississippi. Two of the men, Holly White and Pig Lockett, were accused of robbing a white couple on the road. They were arrested. Three days later, as they were being transported to court, a mob pulled them from a police car, interrogated and then hanged them. CRRJ’s research revealed that a third man, Hollie Appleberry, was also lynched on the day White and Locket were killed in the same town. The mob apparently thought Appleberry was also connected to the robbery of the white couple. These events comprise one incident.
In the Burnham-Nobles Archive we use the term “racially motivated homicide” (or “racially motivated killings” or “anti-Black killings”) to refer to the unjustified killing of a Black person at the hands of white person(s) where the perpetrator’s actions are based in whole or in part on bias or prejudice about Black people. These include cases where the victim is selected because they are Black; where the criminal activity involves words or symbols that show bias; where other circumstances associated with the alleged perpetrator suggest bias, such as extreme brutality; where the victim or witness perceived the crime to be racially motivated; and where there is no other obvious motive for the homicide.
The Burnham-Nobles Archive includes incidents of police homicide where the victims are Black without regard to the presence of the indicia of bias described in the definition of “racially motivated homicides.” It is well established that African Americans were far more likely than whites to be killed by police during Jim Crow, and that law enforcement officers were the first and primary line of defense for Jim Crow regimes. The Archive includes incidents of police killings of Black individuals where the case was (1) reported in contemporary newspapers; or (2) documented in the files of civil rights organizations or government agencies such as the Department of Justice or the FBI. Here we reason that the full scope of Jim Crow-era violence cannot be adequately studied without examining police homicides. The data in the Archive invites researchers to examine, among other questions, the connection between the racial disparities in police killings and the particular circumstances of police killings of Black people.
The Burnham-Nobles Archive defines a grand jury as a body of persons drawn from a venire convened by a state or federal jurisdiction, which is sworn to inquire of crimes committed or triable within the jurisdiction from which they are selected. Contemporary newspaper reports sometimes used the term “grand jury” inaccurately, attributing to “grand juries” decisions made by prosecutors or coroners’ juries. The Archive uses the term grand jury only in situations where government records, newspaper accounts or other sources confirm that a grand jury proceeding actually occurred.
The Burnham-Nobles Archive defines a mob as “a crowd of people (ten or more individuals) unified in their intent to perpetuate violence and disorder.” This is distinct from a definition of “mob” that has been historically linked to the definition of lynching. These historical definitions of the minimum size of a mob have ranged from as few as two to as many as five. For proponents of anti-lynching legislation, it was important to keep small the number defining a mob, for it allowed those proposed laws to cover more acts of extra-legal violence. Despite the obvious political utility of such a definition, there are nonetheless significant differences in meaning between a killing at the hands of three people and one at the hands of thirty or three hundred people. Lumping all these together into a single category of lynch mob obscures our understanding of how the number of people participating in an act of violence can reflect the meanings and motivations of that violence. The Burnham-Nobles Archive encompasses a broad range of acts of racial homicide. In addition to lynchings, it includes killings at the hands of police, quasi-legal deputized posses, and individual acts of violence undertaken with impunity. Because of the central role played by lynching in the history of racial violence in the United States, we must contend with its definition and its related definition of the term mob in order to better situate the place of lynching in our archive. While the Archive defines the size of a mob as a group of ten or more, we note that, because of the link to the long struggle to pass anti-lynching legislation, the minimum number of people that comprise a mob has been the object of much debate, particularly during the period that the Archive covers.
The earliest code-based definition of a “lynch mob” appears in the raft of anti-lynching laws passed by states in the early twentieth century. Many of these laws were passed to blunt the momentum for the passage of a federal anti-lynching law and were typically weak. However, these early definitions influenced later understandings of what constituted a “lynch mob.” Frank Shay’s 1938 book, Judge Lynch, His First 100 Years, contains a useful appendix of these state anti-lynching laws. Eleven of these laws so chronicled contain definitions of a mob that stipulate how many lynchers were needed to constitute a mob. The Alabama and Indiana state anti-lynching laws are identical in this regard: “Any number of persons assembled for any unlawful purpose and intending to injure any person by violence and without authority of the law shall be regarded as a mob and any act of violence exercised by such a mob upon the body of any person shall, when such act results in the death of the injured person, constitute the crime of lynching.” 1 With minor changes in wording the Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, and Virginia statutes read similarly. 2 The Pennsylvania statute describe the perpetrators of a lynching as a “mob or riotous assemblage of three persons or more,” while the Kentucky statute similarly prescribes that “any number of persons more than three … shall be regarded as a mob.” 3 Finally, the Illinois, New Jersey, and West Virginia statutes defined a lynch mob as being five or more in number. 4
Among many scholars of lynching, the most common number of participants understood to be required to form a mob is three persons. This number finds its origin in the NAACP’s early campaigns to pass federal anti-lynching legislation. While these attempts failed, they profoundly impacted how a “lynch mob” would thereafter be defined as well as the types of violence that would constitute a lynching. As passed by the House in 1922, the Dyer anti-lynching bill used the term “mob or riotous assemblage,” to describe “an assemblage composed of three or more persons acting in concert for the purpose of depriving any person of his life without authority of law as a punishment for or to prevent the commission of some actual or supposed public offense.” 5 Following the pattern of the Dyer Bill, the 1934 Costigan-Wagner Bill also defined the mob as “a group of three or more persons, lacking a legal basis, who set about to harm another or deprive him or her of life.” 6
The three-person lynch mob was further etched into the historical record because of conflict between the NAACP, the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL), and the Tuskegee Institute (the sociologist Monroe Work and his team) over the tally of lynchings that each organization published annually. The increasingly public differences and conflicting agendas of these three organizations gave ammunition to their critics and undermined the anti-lynching campaign to which each group was committed. 7 To address the problem, in 1940, the ASWPL, the Tuskegee Institute, the NAACP and others met at Tuskegee to try to come up with a common definition of lynching. The minutes of that meeting record that “the question as to how many persons would constitute a mob was raised.” According to the minutes, it was observed that most of the then existing state anti-lynching statutes “required three or more persons to constitute a mob.” 8 Hence these earlier state laws offered models to guide the participants in defining lynching, including the size of a lynch mob. In addition to the requirement that three or more people be involved in a lynching, the definition of lynching emerging from the Tuskegee meeting also required evidence that a person was killed, that the victim met their death illegally, and that the killers “acted under the pretext of service to justice or tradition.” 9 The Beck-Tolnay database of lynching before 1930 hews closely to this definition; that inventory comprises only those killings that match the above description. 10 The effort of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to tally all of the lynchings in America relies heavily on the Beck-Tolnay database, thereby further extending the staying power of the 1940 Tuskegee/NAACP definition of lynching. 11 The official publications of the EJI do not clearly state that its definition of a “lynch mob” is based on this 1940 definition; however, EJI’s remarks to the press suggest that this is the source. 12 The three-person “lynch mob” is so ubiquitous in contemporary public discussions of lynching that a quick Google search for the definition of a lynching turns up dozens and dozens of examples.
There are other models that delink the definition of a mob from the definition of lynching. The first of these come from the NAACP itself. Though referred to widely as the “NAACP definition,” the agreement established at the 1940 conference was never formally adopted by the NAACP. The Association’s legal staff continued to debate internally the definition of lynching and the size of a lynch mob. Ultimately unworkable, it was, as a practical matter, ultimately set aside. 13 Another model follows the taxonomy of types of lynch mobs that W. Fitzhugh Brundage described in his foundational 1993 book, Lynching in the New South. He deployed these terms–terrorist mobs, private mobs, posses, and mass mobs–to describe categories of lynch violence rather than just the size of the group. According to Brundage:
Small mobs, numbering fewer than fifty participants, may be separated into two types. They were either terrorist mobs that made no pretense of upholding the law, or private mobs that exacted vengeance for a wide variety of alleged offenses. Posses, the third type, which ranged in size from a few to hundreds of participants, often overstepped their quasi-legal function and were themselves responsible for mob violence. Finally, mass mobs, numbering from more than fifty to even hundreds and even thousands of members, punished alleged criminals with extraordinary ferocity and, on occasion, great ceremony. 14
Where the Burnham-Nobles Archive differs from Brundage is that we include police-involved and quasi-legally sanctioned posse killings, while Brundage is focused on illegal mob activity. His concern with posses only occurs when they have clearly transgressed their lawful authority and act like other lynch mobs. By including police-involved and legally sanctioned posse killings, our Archive renders visible the continuum between legal and extra-legal violence. Defining a “mob” in accordance with the 1940 definition of lynching would obscure that continuum.
While violence at the hands of posses resembles that committed by unauthorized mobs, it does not necessarily align with killings committed by smaller groups deemed a “lynch mob” in accordance with the 1940 definition: i.e., three perpetrators. For example, the 1936 killing of Cora and William Wales by a lawfully constituted posse of 2,000 in Gordonsville, Virginia, was not counted as a lynching by the NAACP, the ASWPL, or Tuskegee, notwithstanding its resemblance to other lynchings on their lists. The posse surrounded the home and engaged in a six hour gun battle before both the brother and sister were killed by machine gun fire. The Wales’s ten-room home was burned to the ground. The white residents of Gordonsville then picked through the wreckage to collect souvenirs of the event. But for the fact that the participants in this incident were part of a lawfully constituted posse, it would readily have been described as a lynching.
- 1 Frank Shay, Judge Lynch, His First 100 Years, 255, 259.
- 2 Shay, Judge Lynch, 260, 261, 263, 269.
- 3 Shay, Judge Lynch, 261.
- 4 Shay, Judge Lynch, 257, 264, 271.
Robert L. Zangrando,
The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950,
Full text of bill here: The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching .
- 6 Robert L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950, 114.
- 7 Christopher Waldrep, The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America, 127-150.
- 8 ASWPL Records - Reel 8 - File 116 - Tuskegee Conf. on Lynching.
- 9 Waldrep, The Many Faces of Judge Lynch, 2.
- 10 Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930, 260.
- 11 Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, 3rd ed. (2017), 4.
- 12 See for example EJI researcher Jennifer Rae Taylor’s comments to reporter Ruth Hopkins for her article “A History of American Lynchings” published in Al Jazeera on 5/9/2017. A History of American Lynchings - Accessed 4/27/2022.
- 13 Waldrep, The Many Faces of Judge Lynch, 2.
- 14 W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 1880-1930, 19.