Anniversary of Kentucky Mass Lynching – Rumors of Race War – Lynching Postcards Banned

The brutal lynching of four black citizens of Kentucky in the dark hours of August 1, 1908 was hardly the end of the story. Taking two years to fully unfold, Logan County and even the entire nation, would never be the same. It was because of this specific lynching that postcards depicting such victims were banned by the postal service. There is much to unpack in this confusing story, which we’ll uncover through period newspaper articles, beginning with the original coverage of the lynching.

Four Negroes Are Lynched (1908)

Russellville, Ky., Aug 1 – The bodies of four negroes swung from the limbs of the old “hanging tree” on the Nashville pike when the sun rose this morning. They had been taken from the Local county jail during the night and lynched by a mob of fifty men.

Clipping from the Marion Star, August 1, 1908.
Clipping from the Marion Star, August 1, 1908. Full article here.

The victims were Virgin Jones, Tom Jones, Robert Jones and Joe Riley.

The cause of the lynching was the murder of James Cunningham, a white farmer, living near Allensville, Kentucky, in Todd county, by Rufus Browder, colored, a week ago. Browder ambushed Cunningham because he had been discharged.

Browder is in jail in Louisville for safe-keeping. The negroes who were lynched belonged to a lodge which had passed resolutions endorsing the murder of Cunningham.

For this, the four were arrested on charges of conspiracy.

Mob Enters Quietly
Last night, the mob quietly entered Russellville, went to the home of Jailer Butt, covered him with guns, secured the prisoners and hanged them so quietly that the town didn’t know it until this morning. Not a shot was fired. Two of the negroes were in night clothes. Pinned to one was the following note:

“Let this be a warning to you niggers, to let white people alone, or you will go the same way. You lodgers had better shut up.”

The bodies were cut down by the officials this morning. They were members of a lodge in the southern part of the county and just when the entire county was stirred up over the brutal murder of Cunningham by Browder, they held a big meeting and expressed their approval of Browder’s deed. The excitement in the vicinity ran so high that it was feared a race war would result, but the four leaders in the meeting were arrested and brought to this city.

Photo of the lynching of Virgil, Robert, and Thomas Jones and Joseph Riley.  The note pinned to one of the victims reads: "Let this be a warning to you niggers, to let white people alone, or you will go the same way. You lodgers had better shut up."
Photo of the lynching of Virgil, Robert, and Thomas Jones and Joseph Riley. The note pinned to one of the victims reads: “Let this be a warning to you niggers, to let white people alone, or you will go the same way. You lodgers had better shut up.”

Very Brutal Murder
The murder, which started the whole trouble, was one of the most brutal in the history of Logan county. Browder was a tenant on Cunningham’s place in the southern end of the county. He lay in wait for Cunningham, and, when the latter came near his hiding place, Browder fired, killing him instantly. The negro then escaped, but was later captured and place in jail at Russellville.

A mob was formed and the sheriff, hearing that violence would be attempted, had Browder taken into the woods for the night, and when the mob made its appearance, succeeded in convincing the members that the negro was not in the jail.

Then band dispersed and the next morning Browder was taken to Bowling Green. A request was made for troops to protect the negro in case he was returned to this city, but the soldiers did nto come and Browder was taken to Louisville, where he is now confined.

The meeting of the negro lodge and its endorsement of Cunningham’s death occurred immediately afterward.
-The Marion Star, August 1, 1908

The following day, Mr. Browder’s side of the story appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Shot in Self-Defense

Rufus Browder, At County Jail, Defends Killing of Cunningham
At the county jail Rufus Browder, the 20-year-old negro who killed James Cunningham near Russellville, trmbles in the fear that he will not be given sufficient protection when he goes back to answer to the charge of murder. If troops are not given him, he says, he knows destruction awaits him.

Regarding the killing of Cunningham, Browder says he was justified, as he committed the homicide in self-defense. He says he did not fire the fatal shot until after Cunningham had shot him in the breast, his life being saved, according to the statement of his doctor, only because Cunningham used a revolver of inferior make. Browder has a vivid scar on his breast which is good evidence that a bullet entered.

Clipped from the Louisville The Courier-Journal, August 2, 1908.
Clipped from the Louisville The Courier-Journal, August 2, 1908.

Cunningham on the Aggressive
In discussing the killing of Cunningham, Browder said yesterday: “I went to work for Mr. Cunningham about three months ago, leaving my father’s farm. My wife and I were given a cabin, and we got along all right with my employer until the Saturday before the trouble, when I asked him to let me go to town to get some medicine for my wife, who was sick. Cunningham said he would take off a quarter if I was gone an hour and a half, as I told him I thought I would be.

“This did not suit me, and I told the boss so. The reason it did not suit me was that I was not making that much in an hour and a half. He told me that if I wouldn’t stand for being docked that much I could quit, and I told him I would. I then left.

“The following Monday I passed Cunningham’s farm on my way to my father’s, when he came out and stopped me on the road. He told me to move my wife from the cabin right away, and I replied that it would kill her to leave then, as she was very sick. He said that did not make any difference, and that he would show me my place.

Cunningham Shot Him First
“With that he hauled off and struck me with a strap he had in his hand. I started to hit him, when he drew a gun from his pocket and shot me in the breast. I got my revolver out of my pocket as soon as I could and shot him in the breast. He fell to the ground and again shot, but missed me. I was afraid he would kill me, so I drew my gun again and fired. I do not know whether I hit him or not.”

Regarded the four negroes who were lynched at Russellville, Browder said he knew them well, and that they, like him, had always borne good reputations. He said they belonged to the “True Reformers,” a society composed of negroes, which was organized or the purpose of providing insurance and burial. Browder declared he was afraid for a long time that some members of the society would have to suffer because of the crime of which he is accused.
-Louisville Courier-Journal, August 2, 1908.

A few days later, Logan County was in a complete panic. The entire ordeal is best read about in the Courier-Journal from August 5, 1908.

Clipping from the The Alexandria Times-Tribune (Indiana), July 30, 1910.
Clipping from the The Alexandria Times-Tribune (Indiana), July 30, 1910.

Mr. Browder’s case went to trial on August 12, when he was granted a continuance until October. This is detailed a bit in the October 4, 1908 issue of the Courier-Journal. On October 9, Mr. Browder was saved from conviction by a hung jury. The next trial took place in February 1909.

On February 18, 1909, Mr. Browder was found guilty and scheduled to be hanged come April. However, he made an appeal, which was granted. His third trial took place in July, 1910. The jury then found him guilty, and sentenced him to life in prison.

By August 4, Mr. Browder was in the state prison in Eddyville. Though the trials received little press, it’s clear that they were quite the spectacle as state troops were called out for all of the trials.

Postcards created of the Russellville lynching.
Postcard created of the Russellville lynching.

Postcards Depicting Lynchings Finally Banned by USPS

The day following the lynching described above, a local photographer snapped at least one shot of the four victims still hanging. This photo was soon made into postcards. To date, at least one of the postcards survives. While the red caption on the front is too unclear to read in full, the undated writing on this particular card is legible enough.

Reverse of postcards.

“I bought this in Hopkinsville 15 cents each. They are not on sale openly. I forgot to send it until just now I ran across it. I read an account of the night riders affairs where it says that men were hung without any apparent cause or reason whatever.

“A law was passed forbidding these to be sent thru the mail or to be sold anymore.”

The law mentioned on the reverse of the card was passed specifically because of this lynching. The Courier-Journal of August 11, 1908 reported that “a Hopkinsville photographer has asked the Post-office Department for a ruling on the right to send postals with a picture of the recent Russellville lynching through the mail.”

A week later, it was decided and made national news.

Lynching Views Barred

Post-Cards Showing Grewsome Pictures Have No Place in the Mails.
Hopkinsville, Ky, Aug. 18 – Souvenir collectors of postal cards will be forced to fill their albums with other views than those depicting a Southern lynching, according to instructions received from the Post Office Department at Washington yesterday. Post-master Breathiff was officially informed that postcards mailed out of Hokinsville and other towns recently showing the four bodied of negroes lynched at Russellville, August 1, should not have been allowed to pass through Uncle Sam’s hands. The postcards showed the grewsome sight of four blacks strung up to a tree and were genuine reproductions.
-Harrisburg Telegraph, August 18, 1908

A museum in Russellville, Kentucky created an exhibit about the lynching. It was photographed by Abdul Sharif, and can be viewed here.

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing 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, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.