‘The Dead Father Fell’ – Lynching Frazier Baker, a Black Postmaster (1898)

On the night of February 21, 1898, a mob set fire to the post office and home of the Baker family. Frazier Baker, the father, as well as his infant daughter, Julia, were killed and burned. His wife and several of their children were shot and wounded.

Many in the Southern press blamed President William McKinley who appointed a number of his black supporters to positions in the Federal government. One of these positions, that of postmaster in the small South Carolina town of Lake City, was given to Frazier B. Baker, a 42 year old school teacher from Florence County.

To most of the 300 residents of Lake City, his appointment could not stand. The “proud people” of Lake City, as South Carolina Senator Benjamin Tillman would later defend, “would not receive their mail from a nigger.” 1Terence Finnegan A Deed So Accursed: Lynching in Mississippi and South Carolina, 1881-1940 (University of Virginia Press, 2013) Chapter 3.

In this post, we’ll examine several newspaper accounts of the events leading up to the lynching as well as the lynching itself. Over the next few days, we’ll look deeper into this event. We’ll explore the Federal investigation, the arrests and the trial, and try to piece together what happened to Frazier Baker, his family and the town of Lake City.

The Horrible Occurrence

Our first article, printed in the Willmington, North Carolina Messenger gives a bit of background while hinting that the Baker Family could have avoided all of this if only they had listened to the whites of the town.

The People Thus Protest Against McKinley’s Appointment.

Yesterday morning at 1 o’clock at Lake City, Florence county, S.C., a horrible affair occurred as a consequence of the appointment of Frazier Baker, a negro, as postmaster. A great many people were incensed at the appointment of a negro, and protested firmly against it and used every possible means to prevent his appointment when his name as spoken for the postmastership.

After Baker had been appointed, he received letters warning him that it would not be good for him if he accepted. He received many threatening letters, but was appointed and qualified.

Some of the citizens of Lake City endeavored to induce him to appoint a white deputy, and allow him to transact the business of the office, as the people objected to having their mails handled by a negro postmaster, and the idea of having their families to come into contact with him at the post office was repulsive to them.

Baker, however, refused to listen to any request or pay any attention to frequent threats, and declared he would die before he would resign or relinquish his office to a white man. 2The Wilmington Messenger; Wilmington, North Carolina; Wed, Feb 23, 1898 – Page 4. Link.

A much fuller article describing the lynching in detail was run in Newberry, South Carolina’s Herald and News. While the North Carolina paper above hinted at the Bakers being at fault, the headlines in the South Carolina paper blamed McKinley through his campaign manager Mark Hanna.

The term “Hannaism” had several different implications, but in this case referred to McKinley’s spoils programs which rewarded black supporters with jobs like being a small town postmaster.

McKinley spoke out against lynching in his inaugural address. “Lynchings must not be tolerated in a great and civilized country like the United States,” he spoke, “courts, not mobs, must execute the penalties of the law.” 3Link. And though McKinley tried to sooth whites by championing sectional reconciliation, in Lake City, a black postmaster was several steps of progress too many.

The Results of Hannaism

A Horrible Crime Caused By The Appointment of a Negro Post-Master in a White Community

Baker Was Killed – His Infant Child Was Shot Dead in Its Mother’s Arms and the Bullet Maimed the Woman. Every Member of the Family Was Wounded and Two or Them are Expected to Die. The Murderers Made Good Their Escape.

Kingstree, S.C., Feb. 22. – One of the most horrible deeds that has ever taken place in a civilized community occurred at Lake City, this county, last night. The negro postmaster and his infant daughter were killed and their bodies burned, and his wife and three other children, two of the latter grown, were horribly shot.

The affair is undoubtedly one of the most horrible that ever was perpetrated in South Carolina

Frazier B. Baker, a black negro, was appointed postmaster at Lake City by President McKinley last August. He was at that time a resident of Florence [sic] county, but moved to Lake City to take charge of the office. 4It seems clear that Baker was not from Florence County, where Lake City is situated, but from some other county some distance away. It seems to be unknown just where he was from originally.

Shortly afterwards he was shot and slightly wounded. Some time later, his assistant was shot but not seriously hurt.

In January the post office with its contents was burned. A few weeks ago the negro re-established the office in a rude hut about a mile from town.

One night last week a mob attacked the building and several shots were fired into it, but Baker held on to his job and the next day spoke in a braggadocia manner about not being scared, and said that he would have to be killed to get out of the post office.

The tragedy last night is the sequel.

The Tragedy

Baker lived with his family, consisting of a wife, three daughters and one son, in the rear of the rude hut used also as the post office.

The coroner’s inquest today brought out the following facts:

Baker’s wife was aroused about 1 o’clock this morning by some unaccountable sounds. Upon arising she discovered that the house was on fire and immediately awakened her husband.

Just as she did so, there was a volley of rifle shots fired upon the building and the bullets came clear through the walls and made things hot for the occupants.

By this time the entire household was aroused and efforts were made to check the flames. All this time the firing outside was kept up, when the man saw that there was no chance to check the fire. He told his family to follow him and he rushed to the front door of the house. Just as he opened the door he was shot down.

Instantly the woman, the three girls and the boy were shot. A ball passed through the baby who was in the mother’s arms and struck the woman’s arm, breaking it.

The little fellow was dead and the mother’s fractured limb could no longer support it, so it fell.

The dead father fell upon the dead body of the child.

Those of the household who were still able to walk ran from the burning building right into the faces of the assassins.

The mob quickly dispersed.

From the Boston Post, August 10, 1899.

This morning the charred remains of the postmaster and the baby were found and examinations by physicians showed that the woman was shot in the left arm and in the right thigh.

The oldest girl was shot through the left elbow and may lose her arm.

The boy was shot through the abdomen and through the right arm. He and the oldest daughter may die.

None of the family recognized any one in the mob. It is said that several hundred shots were fired into the burning building. The wounded negroes are receiving the best treatment at the hands of the white people of the town. Food, raiment and medical attention are being given them gratis.

Coroner Burrows adjourned his jury of inquest until next Saturday and will make every effort to get some clue to the assassins.

There is no excitement in the village, everything being unusually quiet – every one seeming to be awed by the dreadful occurrence. 5The Newberry Herald and News; Newberry, South Carolina; Fri, Feb 25, 1898 – Page 1. Link.

Subsequent articles detailed the coroner’s report and addressed the conditions of the surviving family members – getting nearly all of their names wrong.

Charred Bodies of Baker and His Child Are Buried

Lake City, Feb. 23 – At first it was thought that the body of the infant baby killed here in the morning of the 22d inst. was completely consumed by the flames, but further search developed the fact that the remains of the child were directly underneath the charred remains of its father, Frazier B. Baker.

During the time the coroner’s inquest was being held, Baker’s body was moved and that of the child was found.

At 2 o’clock today a party left here with the remains of Baker and his deceased daughter, Julia, for a point in Florence county, which was Baker’s home when he received the appointment as postmaster here.

The Condition of the Survivors

The surviving members of Baker’s family are Luvinia, his wife, gunshot wound in left arm and leg.

Rosello, oldest daughter, gunshot wound in left arm and leg.

Cora, next eldest daughter, gunshot wound in right hand.

Linkum, oldest son, gunshot wound in left arm and abdomen.

They are are all doing as well as can be expected.

Sarah and Willie, still younger, escaped unhurt. 6The paper got a few names wrong. Here is the actual casualty list:
Frazier Baker 42 M Killed by gunfire
Lavinia Baker F Gunshot to arm
Rosa Baker 18 F Arm broken by gunshot
Cora Baker 14 F Shot in right hand
Lincoln Baker 11 M Shot in abdomen/Broken arm
Sarah Baker 7 F Unharmed
Millie Baker 5 F Unharmed
Julia Baker 1 F Killed by gunfire.

The white as well as the colored citizens of the town are contributing liberally to the necessities of the surviving members of the Baker family.

The citizens of Lake City are now sending and receiving their mail from Scranton, S.C., which is three miles away.

Yesterday the negroes made threats of burning, etc., but up to this time everything has remained quiet and now there seems to be no further trouble anticipated.

The parties who committed this atrocious crime, so far as your corespondent can learn, are yet unsuspected. 7Ibid. – the same issue ran several articles from several different days.

The Federal reaction to the lynching was necessarily strong. Though hundreds, even thousands of previous lynchings had gone unnoticed, this one was different as it involved the murder of a Federal employee.

Deplored in Washington – Governor Offers Reward

Washington, Feb. 23 – The outrage at Lake City yesterday created a good deal of excitement in Congress here today. An investigation will be made by the post office department and an effort will be made to get the parties into the United States court as the United States mail was destroyed. I have it form pretty good authority that the post office at Lake City will be abolished.

The outrage will not help the contested cases of Congressmen Stokes and Elliot. It is very much deplored by the South Carolina congressmen.

Governor Offers Reward

In official and political circles yesterday great condemnation of the act of the Williamsburg county mob was heard upon all sides. It seemed hard to believe that people living in South Carolina could be guilty of such an act. Some vigorous expressions were heard and the opinion is unanimous that the deed will do more to injure this State than all the other lynchings of the last decade put together. 8According to the lynching database I’m using, there were 55 lynchings in South Carolina over the past decade – 52 against black citizens. In the decade following this lynching, there would be 54 lynchings – 51 against black citizens.

Governor Ellerbe, when seen, expressed himself very vigorously about the affair, but declined to say anything for publication. He simply made the announcement that he had promptly offered a reward of $500 for the apprehension and conviction of the parties unknown who had committed the deed. In addition to this announcement [it] is made that through the attorney general’s office Solicitor Wilson has been instructed to proceed to Lake City and take charge of the case in behalf of the State.

This case differs form the usual run of lynchings in that the victim was holding a Federal office and United States mail was destroyed by the fire. 9Ibid.

A few days later, anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells gathered her supporters in Chicago to send a message to President McKinley concerning Frazier B. Baker, as well as the nearly countless other lynchings throughout the nation.

Protest of Colored Citizens

Memorial Sent to President McKinley Over the Killing of the South Carolina Postmaster.

Colored citizens from all parts of the city crowded Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church last evening to take steps to secure action by the President and Congress to bring the murderers of Frazier Baker, postmaster at Lake City, S.C., and his family to justice. Edward H. Wright, County Commissioner, presided. Resolutions were adopted and forwarded to President McKinley.

The memorial to the President calls his attention to the “awful barbarism” which puts to death an American citizen every other day in the year. He is asked plainly: “What will you do about it?”

Then the memorial tells the President what the colored people want him to do in these words:

“By the memory of thousands of men, women, and children shot, hanged and burned to death by murderous mobs, we appeal to the President and through you to Congress to apprehend and punish the murderers of Postmaster Baker, and to take prompt and effective action to banish lynching from this land, and make perfect the protection of every man, woman, and child in the shadow of the nation’s flag.” 10Chicago Daily Tribune; Chicago, Illinois; Tue, Mar 1, 1898 – Page 3. Link.

President McKinley had already begun the investigation. In early March, United States Attorney Abial Lathrop was sent to South Carolina. There, he worked with state investigators and “secured the services of a first class detective.”

By March 5th, Lathrop wrote to the Attorney General explaining that he had “already secured valuable information.” He believed “that we shall be able to bring some, at least, of the guilty parties to trial.”

Lathrop held onto his optimism, writing that there was “a satisfactory public expression of feeling throughout this state in regard to this case, and a general desire on the part of the people to have the guilty parties properly punished.”

This expression and desire for actual justice was not necessarily localized to the citizens of Lake City.

“But while this is true in a general way, we cannot expect to receive any substantial assistance from the people of that immediate vicinity. Those who are not implicated themselves know that relatives and friends are likely to be, and this will deter them from acting in the premises, so that the only real advantage which we shall obtain from the public sentiment above referred to, will be in the probability of securing a jury that will be willing to render a proper verdict, but we shall have to depend upon our own efforts to procure the necessary evidence.” 11Abial Lathrop to Attorney General, March 5, 1898. As printed in Lynching in America; A History in Documents, edited by Christopher Waldrep (New York University Press, 2006) 209.

The second post in this series delves into the Federal investigation headed by Abial Lathrop. We’ll hear from witnesses, Learn more of the town of Lake City, and finally see an indictment.

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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.