The Centennial of Jesse Washington – ‘This Is The Barbecue We Had Last Night’

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the brutal lynching of seventeen year old Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. Washington, accused of murder and rape, was burned alive by a mob of 15,000.

Though he quietly entered a guilty plea, there remains much speculation to whether he was actually guilty of either crime. Regardless, his trial now would not pass for anything more than a rubber stamp. There was no attempt to keep the mob at bay.

What follows is a period newspaper article describing the spectacle. More to the point, however, were the dozen or so photographs taken at every stage of the lynching itself. Shortly after, these were made into postcards and sold at local Texas gas stations.

Waco, Texas, on the day of the lynching. Probably taken just as the crowd was gathering.
Waco, Texas, on the day of the lynching. Probably taken just as the crowd was gathering.

15,000 Witness Burning of Negro in Public Square

Waco, Tex., May 15 – Screaming for Mercy until the flames silenced him, Jesse Washington, a negro of eighteen years [probably 17 years old], was burned to death by a mob in the public square here today. Many women and children were among the 15,000 who witnessed the lynching.

The scene where Washington was lynched. The fire seems to have just started.
The scene where Washington was lynched. The fire seems to have just started.

Just a week ago, the lad assaulted and killed Mrs. Lucy Fryar, a white woman, in her home at Robinson, seven miles from here. There was no question of his guilt, and he got one of the quickest trials on record in this part of Texas. The proceeding ended this forenoon, when the jury brought in a verdict of guilty, carrying with it the death penalty. [The deliberation took all of four minutes.]

Jesse Washington being lynched. In this photo, it is likely that he is still alive.
Jesse Washington being lynched. In this photo, it is likely that he is still alive.

“I’m sorry I done it,” said the prisoners in a whisper, shaking with fear as he saw the crowd in the court room rising threateningly all around him with the pronouncement of the verdict.

Now dead, Washington's semi-charred body was strung up for the crowd to get a good look at it.
Now dead, Washington’s semi-charred body was strung up for the crowd to get a good look at it.

“Get that nigger! was the shout raised by some, and it was chorused by the mob. The leaders made a rush, sweeping officers and lawyers aside. The negro was seized and then was dragged from the court room.

The photographer walked around the tree, trying to capture all angles.
The photographer walked around the tree, trying to capture all angles.

The first suggestion was to hang him from the suspension bridge, and a chain was tied around his neck and he was dragged, yelling, in that direction.

The body was also spun for the crowd to see.
The body was also spun for the crowd to see.

“Burn him! roared the hundreds of voices all raised at once, and the idea pleased the mob. So the negro was dragged by the chain to the City Hall square. There the ringleaders stood him under a tree and threw the chain over a limb. Boxes and sticks of wood were piled around him and then he was hoisted over the pile.

In one of the last photos, the mob had finally lowered the body to allow the flames to consume what they could.
In one of the last photos, the mob had finally lowered the body to allow the flames to consume what they could.

His clothing was saturated with oil and a match was applied. At a signal the negro was hoisted further in the air, then was let fall into the flames.

...and then was let fall into the flames.
…and then was let fall into the flames.

It was all over one hour from the rendering of the jury’s death verdict [some sources say it was closer to two hours]. When the fire had burned itself out the charred body was put in a sack and was dragged behind an automobile to Robinson, where it was hanged to a telephone pole for the colored populace to gaze upon.

After being strung up to a telephone pole in Robinson "for the colored populace to gaze upon," this postcard was made and sold at local stores in Waco.
After being strung up to a telephone pole in Robinson “for the colored populace to gaze upon,” this postcard was made and sold at local stores in Waco.

Text from the New York World, May 16, 1916

The reverse of the postcard reads: "This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe."
The reverse of the postcard reads: “This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe.”

There are several fine sources for more information on this lynching, but the best is probably ‘The “Waco Horror”: The Lynching of Jesse Washington’ by James M. SoRelle, which can be read online for free here.

What proud parents Joe must have had.
What proud parents Joe must have had.
Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

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