From May 17-22, 1918, Georgia’s Brooks and Lowndes Counties became a hellish landscape which saw eleven lynched and culminated in the brutal slaughter of Mary Turner’s unborn baby, who was cut from her womb as she hung upside down, and stomped to death by a mob of whites.
Through period newspaper reports, we follow this rampage from the initial murder to the final lynching.
Setting the Scene
Though senseless, mass lynchings do not happen in a vacuum. Though Brooks County saw more lynchings than any other in Georgia, it was a single event that set this massacre in motion.
Hampton Smith owned a large farm in the county, and employed many black workers. His reputation was that of a harsh disciplinarian, and in fact, he was basically a slave-driver, often beating his laborers.
Because of Georgia’s attempts to return poor blacks to a state of near-slavery, a wealthy enough farmer could take a trip to the court house, pay a criminal’s fine, and force the criminal to work for him until the fine was paid.
This is how Hayes and Mary Turner came to work for Hampton Smith. A year or so before, Hampton Smith beat Mary Turner, and in retaliation, her husband, Hayes, threatened Smith. This bought Hayes a sentence on a chain gang. Upon his release, he had to return to Smith’s farm, where he was once again abused.
Another of Smith’s laborers was Sydney Johnson, who had begun working for Smith not long after Hayes Turner was released. Soon enough, Johnston was being seriously beaten by Hampton for trying to take a sick-day. 1Meyers, C. C.. (2006). “Killing Them by the Wholesale”: A Lynching Rampage in South Georgia. The Georgia Historical Quarterly, 90(2), 214–235. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40584910
This continued abuse caused the black workers to band together in a plot to kill their boss, Hampton Smith. The workers met at the home of Hayes and Mary Turner, Sydney Johnson among them. Also in their number were probably four other workers – Will Thompson, Will Head, Eugene Ride, and Julius Jones – though it’s impossible to know for certain. 2The Savannah Morning News and Atlanta Constitution, both of May 19, 1918, are unclear as to who was in attendance and could possibly just be naming names.
Thursday, May 16, 1918 – The Initial Murder
Three days later, after Will Head stole a gun from the Smith residence, Sydney Johnson, aiming through a window, put a bullet into Hampton Smith, killing him. When Smith’s wife ran from the home, she was apparently assaulted and shot, though not fatally.
News spread quickly through the surrounding area. Hampton Smith was dead, killed by his black workers, and his wife, the rumors told, had been viciously raped and shot.
Though not raped, Mrs. Smith identified her attackers as Johnson and Julius Jones, hired by her husband two weeks previous.
A posse was assembled to search for Sydney Johnson, as word of his previous threats circulated. 3Walter F. White “The Work of a Mob” The Crisis, September 1918, 221. Here. Also Savannah Morning News, May 18, 1918. Here.
Friday, May 17, 1918 – The Lynchings Begin
What follows is part of an article from the May 18, 1918 edition of Atlanta Journal. It details the first two lynchings.
Valdosta, Ga., – Will Head, the negro who stole the rifle with which Sidney Johnson shot Hampton Smith and his wife, in Brooks county Thursday night, was swung to a limb at the forks of the road at Troupeville last night by citizens of Brooks county. […] Head confessed the part he took in it, his confession bearing out statements made by Mrs. Smith as to who did the shooting, and also as to Head’s getting his supper early that night under the pretext of wanting to go off on a visit which was really a part of his scheme to steal the rifle from the house.
Will Thompson, another negro, implicated in the shooting of the Smiths, was strung up to a limb at Camp Ground church in the neighborhood where the crime was committed. Another negro, Hayes Turner, said to have been in the plot to kill the Smiths, is in jail at Quitman.
Sidney Johnson, whose family resided near here, is said to be, surrounded in Knight’s swamp east of this city, by a posse of two hundred men, with the sheriffs of three counties, Lowndes, Brooks and Berrien, on the scene with track dogs.
Johnson came from the swamp last night [May 17th], but when he saw the crowd of men he ran back. He was fired upon several times. The swamp is so dense with undergrowth and brambles that it is impossible to make headway in it.
Julius Jones was also captured that night by a smaller mob. He was hanged near dawn, and his body was left dangling from a tree the entirety of the following day. He was the third man lynched for the murder of Smith.
Saturday, May 18, 1918 – The Lynchings Continue
With a mob still surrounding Johnson in the swamp, Brooks County sheriffs were able to arrest Hayes Turner. When the mob caught wind of this, they planned on raiding the jail to capture and lynch Mr. Turner. Because of this, the sheriff attempted to move Turner to another jail. About three and a half miles from town, a mob of forty masked men overtook them. 4White, 222. Here.
With Turner as their prisoner, they dragged him off into the woods and eventually hanged him at a nearby intersection. His body remained until Monday, May 20.
The mob (or one of several factions of it) then fell upon Eugene Rice, who had been under Hampton Smith’s employ, but whose connection to the murder is still unknown. It was rumored then that he was at the infamous meeting, though there is no proof. 5Meyers, 223.
The sixth and seventh victims were Simon Schuman, a black man who lived near the spot where Hayes Turner was lynched, and Chime Riley, about whom little is known. Neither seem to have been employed by Smith, and their connection to the other lynching victims seems to be tangential at best. 6Meyes, 223-4.
Sometime that day, Mary Turner, the eight-month pregnant wife of Hayes, began to speak up about the lynching of her husband. Newspapers reported that she said “unwise remarks” about the lynching. This put the mob in “an indignant mood” as they “took exception to her remarks as well as her attitude.” 7Atlanta Constitution, May 20, 1918, Here. Also, Valdosta Daily Times, May 20, 1918. Here.
Turner apparently swore that if she knew who those in the mob were, she would report them so that they could face arrest for murder and be punished by the court. 8White, 222.
Sunday, May 19, 1918 – The Lynching of Mother and Child
The fullest account of the lynching of Mary Turner and her unnamed baby is given in Walter White’s article in The Crisis. White was sent by the NAACP to investigate the lynchings. Through interviews with local residents, including members of the mob, he pieced together almost everything we know about the spree of lynchings, including the brutality that took place on this spring Sunday.
This news determined the mob to “teach her a lesson,” and although she attempted to flee when she heard that they were after her, she was captured at noon on Sunday. The grief-stricken and terrified woman was taken to a lonely and secluded spot, down a narrow road over which the trees touch at their tops, which, with the thick undergrowth on either side of the road, made a gloomy and appropriate spot for the lynching. Near Folsom’s Bridge over the Little River a tree was selected for her execution – a small oak tree extending over the road.
At the time she was lynched, Mary Turn was in her eighth month of pregnancy. The delicate state of her health, one month or less previous to delivery, may be imagined, but this fact had no effect on the tender feelings of the mob. Her ankles were tied together and she was hung to the tree, head downward. Gasoline and oil from the automobiles were thrown on her clothing and while she writhed in agony and the mob howled in glee, a match was applied and her clothes burned from her person.
When this had been done and while she was yet alive, a knife, evidently one such as is used in splitting hogs, was taken and the woman’s abdomen was cut open, the unborn babe falling from her womb to the ground. The infant, prematurely born, gave two feeble cries and then its head was crushed by a member of the mob with his heel. Hundreds of bullets were then fired into the body of the woman, now mercifully dead, and the work was over. 9White, 222.
It was also about this time that three other black men were lynched. A week later, their bodies were found, but quickly disappeared once again. It’s unknown who they were, what connection, if any, they had to the initial murder, or even if they were lynched in retaliation for it. They were however lynched at this time. It’s speculated that the mob was beginning to see just how brazen they had been, so they began to hide the bodies. It seems likely that these three men were the tenth, eleventh and twelfth victims. 10Ibid.
Wednesday, May 22, 1918 – A Postmortem Lynching
Though newspapers reported that Sydney Johnson, the man who actually committed the murder of Hampton Smith, was hiding in the swamps, it seems that he either never was or somehow escaped.
In some fashion or another, Johnson had alluded the mob, fleeing to a friend’s house in the town of Valdosta. There, he admitted to killing Smith, and claimed to have acted alone. He said that he was waiting for the violence to die down before he turned himself in to the police in the hopes of avoiding a lynching.
Johnson was, however, betrayed, and in the evening of May 22, the Valdosta police surrounded the house where he was staying. Apparently swearing that he wouldn’t be taken alive, Johnson began firing at officers, who returned fired themselves.
This commotion roused the public, and soon a mob of several hundred had formed. When the firing stopped and the house was rushed, Johnson was dead. 11Meyers, 225-6.
This, however, was not what the mob wanted.
Cheated out of its prey, the crowd took the body, unsexed it with a sharp knife, threw the amputated parts into the street in front of the house, and then tied an end of a rope around Johnson’s neck. The other end was tied to the back of an automobile and the body dragged in open daylight down Patterson Street, one of Valdosta’s business thoroughfares, and out to a place near Barney and near the scene of the crime. There, the dead body was fastened to a tree and burned to a crisp. 12White, 223.
In the days and weeks following the spree of thirteen lynchings, hundreds of black citizens moved away from the Valdosta area, despite threats of violence if they did so.
Immediately following the lynchings, Georgia’s Governor Hugh Dorsey released a statement to the Colored Welfare League of Augusta, condemning the violence. “The surest way to discourage lynchings,” he said, “is to convince the lawless element that such provocative outrages will not be tolerated, palliated or shielded by good citizens of any race.” 13Atlanta Constitution, May 24, 1918.
Taking him at his word, NAACP investigator, Walter F. White, submitted his report, which included two names of the mobs’ leaders, as well as the names of fifteen others. Reports continued to be filed with the governor’s office through the summer and fall of 1918.
Ultimately, Governor Dorsey claimed that he was “able to ascertain no definite results have been obtained in the effort to apprehend the guilty parties.” A few months later, in November, the governor again stated that he had “not had the opportunity to learn the facts concerning the lynchings to which you refer.”
The NAACP continued to press the case for months. In the end, they could find no white person willing to testify against the mob, and no government office willing to take the case. 14Meyers, 229.
Nobody was ever punished or even officially accused of the lynchings.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||Meyers, C. C.. (2006). “Killing Them by the Wholesale”: A Lynching Rampage in South Georgia. The Georgia Historical Quarterly, 90(2), 214–235. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40584910|
|2.||⇡||The Savannah Morning News and Atlanta Constitution, both of May 19, 1918, are unclear as to who was in attendance and could possibly just be naming names.|
|3.||⇡||Walter F. White “The Work of a Mob” The Crisis, September 1918, 221. Here. Also Savannah Morning News, May 18, 1918. Here.|
|4.||⇡||White, 222. Here.|
|7.||⇡||Atlanta Constitution, May 20, 1918, Here. Also, Valdosta Daily Times, May 20, 1918. Here.|
|13.||⇡||Atlanta Constitution, May 24, 1918.|