The Lynching of John Roberts – Goldsboro, North Carolina

During the early 1900s, when a lynching was reported in papers across the country, the details would be condensed into a short paragraph or two. Such was the case of John Richards – a 25 year old black man who was lynching 101 years ago today.

Mob Lynches Negro Who Confessed Murder
Goldsboro, N.C., – Jan. 12 – A mob early today lynched John Richards, a negro, who confessed he murdered A.T. Gurley, a wealthy farmer, near here, last Thursday.

Five hundred men overpowered the sheriff and his deputies, stormed the jail, got the wrong negro, then the right one, hanged him to a bridge girder over the Little river and riddled him with bullets while he screamed for mercy. 1The Danville Morning News; Danville, Pennsylvania;Thu, Jan 13, 1916 – Page 1. Here. This, or something similarly short, appeared in papers across the country during this week of January 1916.

Though there’s no glaring errors in this report, it is miles away from the full story – at least as reported by the papers local to the murder and subsequent lynching.

What follows is, in some respects, typical of spectacle lynchings of the Jim Crow era. However, by 1916, many whites had shifted from positions of complacency to militancy, boldly defending their thirst for revenge and extra-judiciary violence.

The Murder of Anderson T. Gurley – January 6

On January 6, 1916, Anderson Gurley had just dropped off two bails of cotton in Goldsboro. For his crop, he was paid $35.35. The money was divided up into three envelopes containing the amounts of $21.50, $11.00, and $3.30.

On his way out of town, he stopped to talk with his neighbor, Haskell Edgerton, whom he met on the road leaving Goldsboro at 3:45pm.

Following their conversation, Gurley drove his team a mile farther. There, after he crossed the Hooks bridge and took a turn in the road, he was apparently met by one or more assailants, who struck him twice over the head and robbed him of nearly all of his money. Gurley’s body was then dragged to the river.

Gurley’s neighbor, who last saw him alive, less than a mile from the scene of the murder, claimed to see nobody around.

“No arrest has been made,” reported the Wilmington Morning Star the following morning, “nor is there as yet any clue to the identity of the murderer.”

By that time, Gurley’s body was found in the river with his pistol and watch mising. Two of the three envelopes of money were missing. All that was known for sure was that “Mr. Gurley had been waylaid and murdered.” 2The Wilmington Morning Star; Wilmington, North Carolina; Sat, Jan 8, 1916 – Page 2. Here.

Negro Confesses The Murder of Mr. Gurley – January 8

The next morning, the same paper reported that “John Richards, negro” was “arrested this morning charged with the murder of Mr. Anderson T. Gurley.” This was done in the presence of not only prison officials, but reporters for the Morning Star as well. During the confession, “he implicated as confederates in the crime two other negroes, Isham Smith and Ben Coley.”

Just how they had come to suspect Richards was not stated. What was reported was the exciting chase scene, as well as the murder itself, the latter of which follows:

In his confession this afternoon Richards said he had shot a fellow several days ago at a factory and was skulking to keep from being arrested; that he was in the neighborhood of Wayne Red Brick Company’s yard, near the Little river bridge, Thursday afternoon when Isham Smith and Ben Coley came up with him and told him they were on their way to hold-up a “rich old man who had sold cotton today in Goldsboro” and would cross the river on his way home and for him (Richard) to come along with them.

When they had been at the bridge a little while, they saw Mr. Gurley approach sitting in his wagon, alone, and Isham Smith said “there’s our man;” that the three of them started walking slowly across the bridge and when Gurley pass they said to him “good evening.”

He said “good evening;” then Ben Coley walked ahead of the team and Isham Smith, who had a slim piece of iron, walked behind the wagon, until they got into the curve of the road, protected form view; that at this point Ben Coley suddenly said “whoah” to the team and held them while Isham Smith sprang into the wagon and struck Mr. Gurley over the head with the iron before he could rise from his seat, falling him senseless and killing him with a second blow on the head.

They then turned the team back towards the river bridge, rifled the body of what money they could find and his watch knife and pistol, and then threw the body in the river.” 3The Wilmington Morning Star; Wilmington, North Carolina; Sun, Jan 9, 1916 – Page 2. Here.

Apart from a slight question of timing (3:45pm isn’t exactly evening), the confession fit all that was known about the murder scene. While John Richards, who seemingly played a minor role in the murder, gave the reported confession, Isham Smith was also captured, though he seems to have given no public statement. At this point, the other alleged assailant, Ben Coley, was still at large.

No Danger Negroes Held in Goldsboro Will Be Strung Up – January 10

By the following morning, the rumors of lynching had been spreading throughout the area. Wayne County Sheriff, Edwards (no full name was ever reported), assured the public that “There was never a thing in the world” to the rumors.

“Why we have a law-abiding population,” he continued. “I have heard of nothing which would indicate any intention of lynching the darkies. No, I do not believe any of Gurley’s neighbors ever entertained the idea of coming to the city to get the men out of jail.”

The night of the murder, Sheriff Edwards retired as usual to his own home, and placed no extra men on duty at the jail.

Sheriff Edwards concluded his reassuring interview by stating that Richards had “a very bad character.” During the initial confession, Richards implicated Isham Smith and Ben Coley – both of whom, the Sheriff believed, “will prove alibis.” He also claimed that the pistol and watch belonging to the murdered Anderson Gurley had been recovered and could prove that Richards disposed of the articles. 4The Wilmington Morning Star; Wilmington, North Carolina; Mon, Jan 10, 1916 – Page 2. Here.

Excitement Running High at Goldsboro – January 11

The next day, the Daily Argus, out of Goldsboro, ran an piece by editor Col. J. E. Robinson. He urged to “let no innocent man suffer” for the murder, referring to both Smith and Coley, whom he claimed were innocent. This information was gleaned, he said, following a personal interview with John Richards.

Richards, he claimed, “has either gone crazy or is attempted to dupe the officials. He raved like a wild man this afternoon, chewed up his hat and ate it and begged for a rope to hang himself.”

The editor, Robinson, claimed that Richards “tried out many tails” on him, but in the end, he was convinced that Richards “did this foul deed alone.”

While the initial report specifically claimed that just over $30 was stolen from the murdered Anderson Gurley, the editor Robinson claimed that it couldn’t have been more than $25, “so that the bloodstained $20 bill found with Richards was about all that was taken” from Gurley.

The editor also claims, contrary to the reports of Sheriff Edwards, that Richards had the pistol and watch (and otherwise-unreported knife) on his person at the time of the arrest.

While the headline and statements suggest that the editor of the Daily Argus was urging people not to lynch Smith and Coley, he was not-so-subtly laying the groundwork for the lynching of John Richards. His editorial clearly making assumptions about evidence, going farther than even the complacent Sheriff Edwards. 5The Wilmington Morning Star; Wilmington, North Carolina;
Tue, Jan 11, 1916 – Page 8. Here.

A Crowd of Men Gather Behind the Jail – January 11, Continued

Though not a single mention was made of either the Gurley murder or of John Richards in the next day’s edition of the Morning Star, that early morning, Goldsboro Police discovered what to most would seem a clue that a lynching was about to take place.

Around 1am, police officer Dan Norris noticed a crowd of men near the rear of the jail. Numbering around 25, they appeared to him to be holding a conference of some sort. Fearing the worst, Officer Norris went immediately to City Hall, reported his findings and returned to the jail in the hopes of assisting the jailers should a break in be attempted.

When the officers arrived back at the jail, the crowd of 25 was still there. As soon as they saw the officers, however, they dispersed, “but not before several members among the gathering had been recognized.” Since gathering behind a jail was not a crime, the officers felt they could do nothing about it.

It was believed yesterday [January 11] that the crowd had no intention of attempting to lynch the negroes yesterday morning [again, January 11], but had gathered for the purpose of devising plans and viewing the surroundings of the jail, in order to learn the best and easiest way to remove the prisoners later. 6The Wilmington Morning Star; Wilmington, North Carolina; Thu, Jan 13, 1916 – Page 1. Here and here.

Mob Lynches John Richards at Goldsboro – January 12

The lynching of John Richards followed the typical model seen thousands of times across the country at this point in our history.

Despite the obvious indication that a lynching was imminent, police presence on the night of the 11th was seemingly nonexistent.

The crowd began to form at 10pm – three hours before the lynching. At the same time, two military companies were at the armory hall having an oyster roast. The Morning Star reported that rumors that Isham Smith and Ben Coley were also to be lynched started there.

The Jailer’s Account
Robert Anderson, the jailer, was awakened shortly after last midnight by a party of armed masked men, who demanded the keys to the jail. Anderson complied with the demand, but it was said members of the mob party had entered the prison lobby already.

After the jail had been broken into, members of the party telephoned Deputy Sheriff Toler and, demanding that he report to them at the jail immediately, sent an automobile to his home for his use.

Deputy Toler Describes Lynching
Mr. Toler said he was at his home this morning when a dozen or more men knocked at his door and when he answered, was seized and bodily carried to the county jail. The officer says he had the keys to the jail cells, but when he arrived upon the scene the crowd had broken the locks to the cells in which Ben Coley and Isham Smith were confined, and the one in which John Richards was confined and had these prisoners in their possession.

Photograph of the lynching of John Richards, January 12, 1916. Goldsboro, North Carolina

He was utterly powerless to restrain the crowd of determined men, and, taking in the situation, he pleaded with them to respect the law and abide the early trial that would be given the accused within two weeks, but all in vain.

The crowd paid no heed to him but were hastily getting their prisoners out of the corridor.

Then Mr. Toler urged upon them that there was grave doubt as to the guilt of Coley and Smith, and that it would be terrible to lynch them if innocent. Upon this plea of Mr. Toler, Smith and Coley were led back to their cell by the men who had them in hand.

But no amount of pleading could cause them to give up Richards, and he was hurried from the jail, placed in one of the waiting automobiles [with their license plate removed], and in a few brief moments the whole cavalcade was gone – out the river road to the Hooks bridge, where, at the very corner of the bridge where Richards, on Thursday afternoon, is alleged to have dragged the body of his victim and deposited it in the river. There he was swung up to the limb of a tree overhanging the very spot and riddled with bullets.

After the masked mob left in their unmarked cars, news of an impending lynching spread throughout the town. This brought large crowds from their houses, apparently hoping to witness the lynching.

By the time the townspeople arrived, all of the cars were gone, except one, which was left in the jail yard – “which is about all the clue the officers now have upon which to apprehend the guilty parties, as it is said every man in the mob either wore a mask or had a handkerchief tied over his face.”

The following afternoon, John Roberts body was cut down, but not before at least one photo could be snapped of the spectacle. 7Ibid.

Used Government Rifles to Shoot John Richards? – January 13

In the previous-day’s edition of the Morning Star the report of an oyster roast at the local armory was being held by two military companies. They mentioned that rumors of a lynching began there.

The next day, following an investigation into the lynching by Coroner C.E. Stanley, “several 30-calibre steel jackets were dug out of the tree upon which John Richards was left hanging by the lynchers. If true, this confirms the report in this city today that several Government Springfield rifles belonging to the military companies of this city were sued by members of the mob during the proceedings of the lynching.”

Around the town, word of this was already on everyone’s tongues. The paper reported that those involved had been “doing too much talking for their own good.”

This was still all rumor, of course, as Coroner Stanley was tight lipped, and was likely to remain so until he gave some statement, expected later that day. 8The Wilmington Morning Star; Wilmington, North Carolina; Fri, Jan 14, 1916 – Page 1, 8. Here and here.

Sheriff Edwards Grieved – January 14

Two days following the lynching, Sheriff Edwards claimed that he was “deeply grieved.” This came after various papers around North Carolina had criticized him for not expecting a lynching.

The sheriff states that he had no thought that such a course was in contemplation until he was summoned to the jail yesterday morning by phone message stating that a large crowd had gathered around the prison. He says the lynching was promoted so unostentatiously and quietly that he did not anticipate it.

But there are two discrepancies. First, Sheriff Edwards himself made an earlier mention that he expected no lynching. He even publicized that he was keeping no extra guard at the jail. This practice continued even after the police had reported the large crowd gathered at the back of the jail – the same crowd they suspected of planning the lynching. It seems an unlikely stretch to believe that the police would have failed to notify the sheriff.

Second, the Sheriff states that he was notified of the crowd gathering. Yet neither his Deputy Sheriff nor the jail, nor anyone else claims to have seen him there on the night of the lynching. Sheriff Edwards, fully aware of the crowd, appears to have stayed home. 9Ibid.

Sheriff Says People Had Good Reason to Fear the Negro Would Escape Death – January 14 (continued)

The aggrieved Sheriff Edwards soon changed his tune completely. The Governor or North Carolina, Locke Craig, blamed Wayne county specifically for the lynching.

Governor Craig: “There is no excuse for this lynching from any standpoint. The negro would have been promptly convicted in the courts and would have been executed in the orderly administration of justice. His execution according to law would have been a terrible warning far and wide to all in like cases offending.

“Without any excuse this mob set at naught the law and did a murder on Wednesday morning another murder had been committed on the Thursday preceding. The good people of the State cannot stand for this crime. The obligation to bring these people to justice is primarily upon Wayne County.”

Sheriff Edwards took this personally, and soon countered Governor Craig’s statement.

That the “enraged people” of Wayne county had “good reason to fear that the murderer, John Richards, would escape death at he hands of the law, while his bloody work would soon be forgotten” is a declaration made by Sheriff Edwards this evening [January 14] in what he termed “a vanguard” to a statement he says he is preparing for the public “which will be a sensation quite of another nature.”

The sheriff continued, explaining that he would soon release “a paragraph of a little history concerning the actions of Governor Craig and a negro with a sore toe, all of which gave the enraged people of this county good reasons to fear that the murder, John Richards, would escape death for his crime at the hands of the law….” 10The Wilmington Morning Star; Wilmington, North Carolina; Sat, Jan 15, 1916 – Page 1,2. Here and here.

The case to which he was referring was that of “the Beatty murder” at Mount Olive, several months prior. This was the reason, claimed the Sheriff, that the lynching took place.

A black man named Best had murdered a white man named Beatty. “Instead of the death sentence,” the Morning Star reported, “the negro was given by Judge Bond a long prison term, and it is said this was later cut down.”

The paper continued: “‘And we are now reaping what we have sown,’ is the expression today of many prominent people in this city and throughout the county.” 11The Wilmington Morning Star; Wilmington, North Carolina; Sun, Jan 16, 1916 – Page 2. Here.

The Investigation Resumes – January 16

The rumor around Goldsboro had held that Government Springfields were used in the lynching of John Robertson. This claim was denied by Col. J.E. Robinson, and the Morning Star admitted that it was just a rumor.

The coroner had suspended the investigation on the 14th, but reopened it on the 16th. He explained that “there is no telling how long it may possibly be before the jury gets through with this matter and nobody, myself included, knows when the inquest will be resumed.”

Evidence, he said, was still being gathered. He admitted to making a “mistake,” presumably about the guns, but “they must nevertheless perform their duty and deem it discretion at present to keep their plans from the public.” 12Ibid.

Statement By Sheriff Edwards No Sensation – January 23

Over the next week, little was said of the murder, lynching or investigation. There were, of course, articles in support of Sheriff Edwards, one by an unnamed citizen, as well as some against.

It wasn’t until January 23rd that Sheriff Edwards released his full statement – the one that he claimed would “be a sensation quite of another nature.”

Sheriff Edwards appeared to have backed off from whatever bold words he planned upon using. Instead, he wished not “to enter into a newspaper controversy about the matter.”

“An investigation by the officers of the State will show whether or not I have been derelict in my duty, and while the newspapers cannot punish me, they have no more right to pass judgment on me without a hearing than the lynching crowd did to pass judgment on Richards.”

In Sheriff Edwards’ eyes, he was similarly being lynched in the press. He believed that he was just as much a victim as Richards.

He then went on to deny that he had ever brought up Governor Craig’s name. “The statement about Governor Craig attributed to me is a fabrication pure and simple,” he said. “I did make a general statement to the effect that the folks were getting tired of seeing criminals sent to the penitentiary for a period of years and then being pardoned out on account of a bad cough, or sore toe, or something else.”

Sheriff Edwards gave no specifics, but again denied that his statement had anything to do with the governor. 13The Wilmington Morning Star; Wilmington, North Carolina; Sun, Jan 23, 1916 – Page 13. Here.

Goldsboro Lynching and Murder Will Go Unpunished – January 29

Little was said of the lynching over the following week. The Governor issued a few statements, but the investigation into both the murder and the lynching seemed to have stalled. The Sheriff was quiet, as was the coroner and his jury.

Goldboro’s lynching will no doubt go down into history without being aired through the courts. At least that is the appearance the case now assumes, as no arrests have been made and the parties participating in the lynching are still unknown.

At some point, both Ben and Frank Coley had been apprehended, joining Isham Smith in custody for the murder of Anderson Gurley. As the Wayne County Superior Court was meeting, a trial was expected to follow shortly. However, according to the Morning Star, “indications now point towards the negroes gaining their freedom.”

There was, apparently, “not enough evidence against them to justify a trial.” Regardless, they would remain in the penitentiary in Raleigh until at least April while officers gathered more evidence for that month’s term of the Superior Court.

It is said there is very little evidence in the hands of the officers connecting the three negroes with the crime, and that when the negro Richards was lynched that about all of the important evidence against them was destroyed. It is stated that Richards, before being swung up, implicated Ben Coley and Isham Smith. 14The Wilmington Morning Star; Wilmington, North Carolina;
Sat, Jan 29, 1916 – Page 3. Here.

Epilogue – October 23

If anything more came of either investigation, it seems to not have been reported in the press. There is no mention of the trail for the murder of Anderson Gurley – it seems likely that Isham Smith and the two Coleys were released, though nothing is clear. As for the lynching trial, it should come as no surprise that nothing more came of this.

However, Sheriff Edwards appears to have learned his lesson. In October of that same year, a “little negro” named Willie Hines was “accused of attempted criminal assault upon Katherine Aswell.” Edwards, now understanding that he might be held responsible for the lynching should it take place, decided to remove Hines from Wayne county’s jail to the state prison.

“The sheriff left about 7 o’clock,” the paper reported. “Even then a mob was forming. By 11 there were clusters of excited men all about the streets and officials were having difficulty in convincing them that the negro had been sent to Raleigh. It was not until a deputy offered to show some of them the interior of the jail that they were convinced that their prey had been put beyond their reach.” 15Everything; Greensboro, North Carolina; Sat, Oct 28, 1916 – Page 8. Here.

References   [ + ]

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.