Negro Lynched in Pennsylvania

Today’s Guest Cartoonist Sam Olmsted is a very active political cartoonist.

Guest Blogger, John Jay Chapman, writes over one hundred eight years ago about a horrific event that took place a year before.

I was greatly moved by the Coatesville lynching at the time it occurred, and as the anniversary came round my inner idea began to force me to do something. I felt as if the whole country would be different if any one man did something in penance, and so I went to Coatesville and declared my intention of holding a prayer meeting to the various business men I could buttonhole. Then there appeared an extraordinary thing—the outcome of the lynching, i.e., that there is a reign of terror in Coatesville at this moment, If you speak of it you are suspect. . . The daily local newspaper at first refused to mention the lynching in the notice of the prayer meeting, but, finally, it was printed on the first page for two successive days. Everyone in the city knew of it. A friend of mine came over from New York, and we did hold the meeting in an unused store—a prayer meeting with Bible readings, addresses, prayer, silent prayer, and a talk on the whole matter. Two persons came: one an anti-slavery old Negress, who lives in Boston and was staying in Coatesville; the other a man who was, I think, an “outpost” finding out what was up. We held the meeting just as if there was a crowd, and I delivered by my address. There was a church meeting going on opposite to us, and people coming and going and gazing, and our glass front windows revealed us like Daniel when he was commanded to open the windows and pray.

We reprint an article from the New York Tribune describing the lynching of a black man in Coatesville, Pennsylvania in August of 1911.

Chapman’s address follows the Tribune’s very graphic account of what was apparently the first recorded lynching in Pennsylvania.

New York Tribune – Monday, August 14, 1911

Coatesville, Penn., Aug. 13.—Zacharia Walker, the negro who shot and killed Edgar Rice, special officer of the Worth Brothers Steel Company on Saturday night, when caught in the act of holding up and robbing a foreigner near the works of the company, was dragged from the Coatesville Hospital, where he had been lodged to-night under police guard, and burned by a frenzied mob of citizens, a half mile from town. The affair, which is the first of the kind to happen in this state, has aroused the town to white heat, and at midnight thousands of excited men and women thronged the streets, while requests for police assistance have been sent out to surrounding towns in Chester and Lancaster counties in the belief that more serious trouble may break out between the negroes and the whites.

Coatesville has more than twelve thousand inhabitants. At midnight every one of the twelve thousand was either in the streets or remained awake and on guard in their homes, in anticipation of an outbreak of race riots. The town’s force of half a dozen policemen is utterly lost and totally unable to cope with the situation.

Since the attempted hold-up and the arrest of the negro late this afternoon by a posse, when he tried to shoot himself to death after being cornered in a barn on the farm of Louis Entrekin, in Fallowfield Township, mutterings of trouble were heard on all sides, and efforts of the more sober-minded citizens to prevent the outbreak which came to-night were of no avail.

Armed Mob After Negro.

As dusk fell the crowds increased, and, apparently without leadership, joined forces and streamed toward the Coatesville Hospital, located upon a hill in the west end of the town. As the vanguard approached the institution it was instantly joined by hundreds coming from the other direction, all armed with revolvers, shotguns and all manner of firearms.

With one accord the mob ascended the steep road to the hospital and demanded that the negro be produced. The attachés hastily shut all the doors and windows and barricaded them with furniture and cots, or whatever was at hand, but the crowd of angered farmers would not be denied—in fact, their desire for vengeance was but increased—and they made short work of entering the hospital.

Scores, many of them wearing masks, struggled and fought their way into the chamber where the manacled negro was stretched on a cot. The single police guard at his side was swept away like a straw in a torrent.

The negro was seized by a dozen hands and dragged aside. When it was found that he could not be pulled from the bed, that the chains held him fast, a score or more lend aid and lifted the cot bodily from the floor and pulled it and the negro’s body to the doorway. Their progress was impeded by the others who were still fighting to gain entrance to the tiny hallway of the hospital.

Cries of “Lynch Him!

Finally a way was cleared and the cot and its burden was lifted upon the shoulders and carried swiftly down the hill to Strode’s Road. The crowd, which had increased in umber to more than five thousand men and boys, followed after, yelling, screaming and gesticulating, all shouting in unison: “Lynch him! Lynch him!”

At the foot of the incline the leaders wearied of carrying the bed and its burden, and unceremoniously dropped it to the roadway. A rope was instantly procured and a loop was placed about Walker’s feet. In this way the victim was dragged, chained to the cot, around the foot of a hill to the dark, dense and deserted road running by the side of Brandywine Creek to the spot where he had attempted to hold up and rob a foreigner on Saturday night, and where he had shot and killed the policeman, Rice.

Evidently not satisfied with the torture they had already inflicted on the man, the crowd decided that it was not enough to return their victim to the scene of his crime, but they hastily refastened the top about his heels (the rope had become untied when the mob came to a standstill) and started off again down the road. Aimlessly the crowd went, still shouting and yelling, all evidently not caring where they went or how far, but only bent upon continuing the negro’s torture as long as possible, and until they should find a more suitable spot in which to carry into execution the purpose to end his life as he had ended that of Rice, quickly and surely.

At the Newlin farm they came upon a spot, open for about fifty yards, by the roadside. It was on the Newlin farm, about half a mile from the town, where the bed and the crying and begging negro were allowed to halt.

Set Up Negro’s Funeral Pyre.

As if by magic, a pile of fence rails and lumber of all varieties, hastily collected from farm building, sheds and outhouses on the way, had been formed, and almost before the majority of the mob knew what was happening a match was applied and a sheet of flame shot up from the dried wood.

The same score of hands that had grasped the cot in the hospital and had torn it from the room and down the hills grasped it again, and with one swing tossed it, with the negro’s body, on the blazing pile. With a scream Walker fell on the flames, and, despite his injury and bandages and chains, fought frantically to break his bonds and escape the fire that was not raging about him on all sides. He begged and raised his hands to the skies, but the mob was obdurate. Several times the man apparently burst his chains and dropped to the side of the bed, which had by this time caught fire and was blazing about him.

Pushed Back Into Flames.

Walker’s efforts to escape, however, were obstructed by the inner ring of men and boys who stood about the bonfire. Not to be deprived of their vengeance—they still were armed with fence rails and sticks and all manner of farm implements, pitchforks and scythes and poles—the belabored the man and pushed him back into the flames.

Once the negro tried to crawl out when the bed was burned away from his chains, but he was pushed back into the fire. A second time he tried, and a second time he was pushed back. A third time he seemed to summon all his energy in a last effort for life, and it seemed that he was about to succeed, but the men with the fence rails were watching that there should be no escape, and they ruthlessly thrust the screaming and fighting negro back into his funeral pyre. He gave one last terrible shriek and fell bak exhausted and scorched on his bed, while the flames shot up higher and higher, finally entirely obscuring the black body and the blazing couch. Soon both were massed with the rails and flaming lumber in a sheet of fire. The cries had ceased and the crowd stood silent.

Body Entirely Consumed.

Not a man of the immense mob moved a muscle or raised a hand in protest against the burning of the negro. For a half hour they stood almost motionless, watching and waiting as the flames flickered lower and lower and then lower until the pile was but a mass of glowing coals. The negro’s body was entirely consumed and not a vestige of his cot or anything that may have served to prove that the body of a man had been prey to the flames remained, with the exception of the chains which had bound him to the cot, and which lay glowing red hot in the centre of the flickering pile. The chains were quickly snatched from the coals and dipped into water and then broken up as souvenirs.

Immediately after the crowd had hauled the negro to his death word was dispatched to West Chester by the authorities for assistance, and Sheriff David Golder immediately set out for Coatesville with several deputies. His aid, however, will be useless, it is believed, in view of the size of the crowds that filled the town till long after midnight.

Coatesville, 1912

by John Jay Chapman

We are met to commemorate the anniversary of one of the most dreadful crimes in history—not for the purpose of condemning it, but to repent of our share in it. We do not start any agitation with regard to that particular crime. I understand that an attempt to prosecute the chief criminals has been made, and entirely failed; because the whole community, and in a sense our whole people, are really involved in the guilt. The failure of the prosecution in this case, in all such cases, is only a proof of the magnitude of the guilt, and of the awful fact that everyone shares in it.

I will tell you why I am here; I will tell you what happened to me. When I read in the newspapers of August 14, a year ago, about the burning alive of a human being, and of how a few desperate, fiend-minded men had been permitted to torture a man chained to an iron bedstead, burning alive, thrust back by pitchforks when he struggled out of it, while around stood hundreds of well-dressed American citizens, both from the vicinity and from afar, coming on foot and in wagons, assembling on telephone call, as if by magic, silent, whether from terror or indifference, fascinated and impotent, hundreds of persons watching this awful sight and making no attempt to stay the wickedness, and no one man among them all who was inspired to risk his life in an attempt to stop it, no one man to name the name of Christ, of humanity, of government! As I read the newspaper accounts of the scene enacted here in Coatesville a year ago, I seemed to get a glimpse into the unconscious soul of this country. I saw a seldom revealed picture of the American heart and of the American nature. I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal—a cold thing, an awful thing.

I said to myself, “I shall forget this, we shall all forget it; but it will be there. What I have seen is not an illusion. It is the truth. I have seen death in the heart of this people.” For to look at the agony of a fellow-being and remain aloof means death in the heart of the onlooker. Religious fanaticism has sometimes lifted men to the frenzy of such cruelty, political passion has sometimes done it, personal hatred might do it, the excitement of the amphitheater in the degenerate days of Roman luxury could do it. But here an audience chosen by chance in America has stood spellbound through an improvised auto-da-fe, irregular, illegal, having no religious significance, not sanctioned by custom, having no immediate provocation, the audience standing by merely in cold dislike.

I saw during one moment something beyond all argument in the depth of its significance. You might call it the paralysis of the nerves about the heart in a people habitually and unconsciously given over to selfish aims, and ignorant people who knew not what spectacle they were providing, or what part they were playing in a judgment-play which history was exhibiting on that day.

No theories about the race problem, no statistics, legislation, or mere educational endeavor, can quite meet the lack which that day revealed in the American people. For what we saw was death. The people stood like blighted things, like ghosts about Acheron, waiting for someone or something to determine their destiny for them.

Whatever life itself is, that thing must be replenished in us. The opposite of hate is love, the opposite of cold is heat; what we need is the love of God and reverence for human nature. For one moment I knew that I had seen our true need; and I was afraid that I should forget it and that I should go about framing arguments and agitations and starting schemes of education, when the need was deeper than education. And I became filled with one idea, that I must not forget what I had seen, and that I must do something to remember it. And I am here to-day chiefly that I may remember that vision. It seems fitting to come to this town where the crime occurred and hold a prayer-meeting, so that our hearts may be turned to God through whom mercy may flow into us.

Let me say one thing more about the whole matter. The subject we are dealing with is not local. The act, to be sure, took place at Coatesville and everyone looked to Coatesville to follow it up. Some months ago I asked a friend who lives not far from here something about the case, and about the expected prosecutions, and he replied to me: “It wasn’t in my county,” and that made me wonder whose county it was in. And it seemed to be in my county. I live on the Hudson River; but I knew that this great wickedness that happened in Coatesville is not the wickedness of Coatesville nor of to-day. It is the wickedness of all America and of three hundred years—the wickedness of the slave trade. All of us are tinctured by it. No special place, no special persons, are to blame. A nation cannot practice a course of inhuman crime for three hundred years and then suddenly throw off the effects of it. Less than fifty years ago domestic slavery was abolished among us; and in one way and another the marks of that vice are in our faces. There is no country in Europe where the Coatesville tragedy or anything remotely like it could have been enacted, probably no country in the world.

On the day of the calamity, those people in the automobiles came by the hundred and watched the torture, and passers-by came in a great multitude and watched it—and did nothing. On the next morning the newspapers spread the news and spread the paralysis until the whole country seemed to be helplessly watching this awful murder, as awful as anything ever done on earth; and the whole of our people seemed to be looking on helplessly, not able to respond, not knowing what to do next. That spectacle has been in my mind.

The trouble has come down to us out of the past. The only reason that slavery is wrong is that it is cruel and makes men cruel and leaves them cruel. Someone may say that you and I cannot repent because we did not do the act. But we are involved in it. We are still looking on. Do you not see that this whole event is merely the last parable, the most vivid, the most terrible illustration that ever was given by man or imagined by a Jewish prophet, of the relation between good and evil in this world, and of the relation of men to one another?

This whole matter has been an historic episode; but it is a part, not only of our national history, but of the personal history of each one of us. With the great disease (slavery) came the climax (the war), and after the climax gradually began the cure, and in the process of cure comes now the knowledge of what the evil was. I say that our need is new life, and that books and resolutions will not save us, but only such disposition in our hearts and souls as will enable the new life, love, force, hope, virtue, which surround us always, to enter into us.

This is the discovery that each man must make for himself—the discovery that what we really stands in need of he cannot get for himself, but must wait till God gives it to him. I have felt the impulse to come here today to testify to this truth.

The occasion is not small; the occasion looks back on three centuries and embraces a hemisphere. Yet the occasion is small compared with the truth it leads us to. For this truth touches all ages and affects every soul in the world.

2 Comments Negro Lynched in Pennsylvania

  1. Margaret Hagedorn

    So powerful and important. I couldn’t bring myself to read the newspaper account—only the reflection by Chapman. Now I’m even MORE excited about reading the agitation book.


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