The Barnwell Massacre – Eight Black Prisoners Lynched by White Mob

On this date in 1889, eight black prisoners were removed from jail and lynched in Barnwell County, South Carolina. There had recently been two murders of white men in the area. Two of the prisoners were charged with murder, and the rest were held either as witnesses or accessories.

Through the use of period newspapers, we can learn not only the details, but the ways in which the stories can be told. We’ll also look at how the subsequent investigation into the lynchings was handled by the town, and the reaction of the black citizens to the massacre.

Eight Riddled With Bullets

December 28, 1889 – Barnwell, South Carolina

Prisoners and Witnesses Alike Were Taken from Jail by a Band of Lawless Masked Men and Shot to Death – The Jailer’s Thrilling Story of the Tragedy.

Charleston, S.C., Dec. 30 – The one topic of conversation here is the lynching of the eight negro prisoners at Barnwell Saturday. Full details of the awful crime have been received and all unite in denouncing it as an outrage against humanity. Not only were the principals charged with the murders of whites lynched, but accessories before the fact and even witnesses met the same fate. The people of Barnwell town knew nothing of the crime until they awoke on Saturday morning. How the prisoners were taken from the jail is best told by Jailer Neville’s statement, which he gave as follows:

Jailer Neville’s Story.
“About half-past 2 or 3 o’clock Saturday morning some one knocked at the gate. I got up and opened the window and asked who was there. Some one in the crowd said, ‘My name is Black, from Martin’s Station, with a prisoner. Come out and take him.’ I told them to hold on until I got ready. I dressed quickly and went out as usual to receive a prisoner.

In Rushed a Mob.
“I unlocked the gate, and as I opened it a mob of masked men rushed in on me. They demanded the prisoners from Martin’s Station and asked me where they were. I told them they were in jail. By this time they had taken the keys from from, but told me to go and unlock the doors. I told that I would not, that they must unlock the doors themselves, as they had the keys.

Threatened with Death.
“The crowd then went to the door of the jail, with the keys unlocked it and shoved me in the jail ahead of them. As I struck the second jail gate, which is of iron, they told me to take the keys and unlock it. I refused to do it, and then they threatened to shoot me, drawing pistols.

“I told them I could not unlock that gate, and they sent down to the yard for an ax and said if I did not open it they would knock the whole damned thing open and let the prisoners out. Just before the crowd got to the gate that leads to the cells and rooms I told them if they were determined to go into the jail to give me the keys and I would unlock the gate, but asked them not to turn out any of the prisoners except those they wanted.

Witnesses and Prisoners Alike Went
“They themselves took the keys, unlocked the door, went into the jail and took out first Mitchell Adams, who was charged with the murder of J.J. Hefferman. Then three of them carried out Judge Jones, Robert Phoenix, Peter Bell, Hugh Furz, Harrison Johnson and Ralph Morrall, all colored.

“Bell was charged with the murder of Robert Martin, who was mysteriously killed at Martin’s Station last Saturday. Hugh Furz was in as an accessory to the killing, and Ralph Morrall and Robert Phoenix were held as witnesses, but were supposed to have been accessories to the crime. Judge Jones and Harrison Johnson were held as witnesses.

“We’ll Kill Them Right Here.”
“The crowd next roped the eight prisoners, brought them down stairs and marched them through the principal streets, compelling me to go with them. We got seventy yards across Turkey creek, which is about a quarter of a mile away. They stayed there some fifteen or twenty minutes, and the crowd asked the prisoners a good many questions.

“After talking to the prisoners I heard some one in the crowd say: ‘We’ll kill them right here.’ I asked the guard who had me in charge to carry me back to the bridge, as I did not want to see the negroes killed. The crowd that had me said I should not go back. About that time two or three men ran up, caught hold of me and told the guards who had me in charge to carry me back to the bridge.

Many Shots Fired.
“One man on each side of me walked me back, and I, with the guard, sat there twenty-five or thirty minutes before the crowd left me. About thirty minutes after they were gone they commenced firing. It seemed to me they kept firing five or six minutes. I imagine 150 shots were fired in that time. The guard then said, ‘Let’s go up the road where the party are firing.’ I mounted a horse that a man was leading and rode up the road some 250 yards before the firing ceased.

“We went a few steps further, when we met the crowd returning to town. They escorted me back to town, and bidding me good night said I could go to bed or go tell the sheriff that they had wound it up. The crowd then dispersed.”

The Scene of the Executions.
The ghastly scene at the place of execution is thus described by a man who inspected it: “The bodies were lying on the roadside. When we reached there at 9 o’clock the bodies of Johnson and Adams had been removed, but the others were undisturbed. The mob divided the murderers, putting the Hefferman slayers on the left of the road and the Martin murderers on the right. The negroes’ arms were pinioned and tightly tied to trees with strong ropes before they were shot. They were not hanged, however. It is impossible to describe how many shots each man received and where they were struck, as their bodies and heads were literally torn to pieces.

“Mitchell Adams was tied to the post which marks the corporate limits of Barnwell. Just to his right his accomplice, Ripley Johnson, was fastened to a tree. The Martin murderers on the other side of the road were arranged in line.

A Horrible Death.
“Some of the negroes were old men, Morrall possibly being 60 years old, and Peter Bell about the same age. Some of the unfortunate men had their eyes shot out, others were wounded in the chest and face. Blood covered the ground upon which they laid, and a more horrible sight could not be imagined.”

Sheriff Lancaster was at home when the jail was attacked, and was greatly surprised when he heard of the shooting. He does not apprehend further trouble and has no guard on the jail.

1Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, the Evening News; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Mon, Dec 30, 1889 – Page 1. Here.

A subsequent article published the same day focused upon the coroner’s jury and the scene of the lynching. It also featured a short interview with “a leading colored citizen” of Barnwell County.

The Barnwell Tragedy

Columbia, December 30 – The coroner’s inquest into the death of the eight negroes, who were lynched at Barnwell, was held Sunday night at the scene of the tragedy. It was a terrible sight which the coroner and jury looked upon.

On the left side were the bodies of Ripley, Johnson and Mitchell Adams, charged with the murder of Hefferman. On the opposite side were the six bodies of the negroes charged with implication in the murder of young Robert Martin.

They were tied to young oak trees on the roadside – all except Mitchell Adams, who was tied to the post which marked the corporation limits of Barnwell. Johnson was tied to a little three close by Adams. The others across the road were tied two to the same tree with their backs to the sapling, the rope passed around the tree and around the body of the men, in some instances nearly all the way from head to foot.

When shot, however, the weight of their bodies had swung down on to the ropes and now they occupied all sorts of positions. One band swung forward over the ropes which encircled the waist, the heads hanging down and the tongues protruding. Another had dropped straight down, the legs bending under the weight. In one or two instances bullets had entered the head and blood disfigured the distorted features.

The frightful character of the wounds is shown by the testimony of physicians who examined each body. In brief, it is as follows:

Henry Furz: ten balls in his body; age about twenty-four years.
Peter Bell: one ball in his skull; age about sixty years.
Harrison Johnson: four balls in his body; age about thirty-five years.
Rafe Morrall: six balls in his body; about twenty-eight years old.
Judge Jones: eight balls in his body; about twenty-two years old.
Robert Phoenix: four balls in his body; about thirty years old.
Mitchell Adams: nine balls in his body; sixty-five years old.

On this testimony the jury returns a verdict that the eight men came to their death from gunshot wounds, inflicted by some part or parties unknown.

In order to allow a better examination and probe the wounds, the bodies were let down from the trees and laid on the ground. The clothes were cut from the bodies to enable the physicians to get at the wounds and the sight was not improved by their changed position.

The men lay around in whatever position the surgeon had left them – the on side, back or face, as the case might be. Three lay on the roadside, the others here and there among the little oaks on the side of the road, large parts of their bodies exposed and their cut and torn clothing hanging about them in a grotesque way.

After the coroner’s inquest, the negroes were notified that they might remove the bodies if they desired.

The families of Ripley, Johnson and Mitchell Adams removed their bodies to their homes, but the other six remained up to midnight. Treated as murders and outcasts, there were none to mourn them, to cross their hands or close their eyes. Neither the whites nor the negroes wanted to remove the bodies.

A prominent negro of the town said: “We never put them there. Let those remove them who are responsible for their being there.”

Said the mayor of Barnwell: “The bodies are outside the limits of the town and were prisoners of the county. We don’t care to place ourselves in the light of assuming responsibility in the matter. The town of Barnwell had had nothing to do with the affair. We have, however, notified the negroes that they could go ahead and bury the bodies and we would pay the expenses. Acting with the sheriff we have employed men to make the coffins for them and it will be done as soon as possible.”

A leading colored citizen was asked what his people thought of the lynching:
“We think it is a great outrage.” he said.
“What course do you all propose to take in the matter? Is it true that there is any idea of violence or vengeance entertained among you?”
“Not the slightest,” said he. “It would do no good, and nobody is thinking of it. But we have decided to call a meeting of all the colored people in Barnwell county.”
“For what?”
“To move away from here. We want every one of us to get out of the county and leave it forever. We would be willing to go even to a worse place, if that were possible, rather than stay here. No, sir; we contemplate no violence or revenge, but we mean to leave Barnwell county.”

This was assented to by all these present.

In view of the lynching of eight n negroes at Barnwell on Saturday last, Gov. Richardson has issued a proclamation offering a reward of $200 for the apprehension and conviction of each and every one of the parties concerned in the killing of the negroes referred to.

An Address to the People.
Charleston, S.C., December 30 – Great indignation is felt throughout the state at the massacre of prisoners at Barnwell, and the strongest appeals are being made to the governor to make an example of the fact.

The following address has been issued to the colored people of the sate by representative colored men of Charleston and vicinity:

“To the People of South Carolina: The events of the last few days in a portion of the state, of the commission of the most horrible crime ever known to modern civilization, in the murdering of eight defenseless colored men in Barnwell county, calls for immediate and sober action on the part of the law-abiding citizens of this state, looking to the enforcement of the law for the protection of life and property.

“To this end, we, the undersigned citizens of Charleston and vicinity, request the leading colored men of this state to assemble in the city of Columbia on the second day of January, 1890, at 8 o’clock PM, for the purpose of consulting and formulating a plan by which the law can be enforced and order preserved through the proper officers and the state.

“In this we place ourselves before the country as a part of the citizenship of this state that believe in upholding the strong arm of the administration and bringing to justice those who defame and traduce her fair name.”

The address is signed by about two hundred colored men. 2The St. Joseph Herald; St. Joseph, Missouri; Tue, Dec 31, 1889 – Page 1. Here.

The Meeting

Samuel J. Lee

Over the next few days, a number of things happened. First, the black citizens of Barnwell County held a meeting. It was presided over by Samuel J. Lee, South Carolina’s first black Speaker of the House, elected during the Reconstruction years. He held that the state’s black population “abandon such sections of the state wherein lawlessness prevails and life is unsafe and to go to sections where life and property are safer.” 3The Times; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Fri, Jan 3, 1890 – Page 1. Here.

He was not simply saying that they should move from Barnwell county, but from all such places. However, as another paper pointed out: “where can they go to better their condition? No other portion of the south gives promise of any better treatment, and no other portion of the country at large has so far offered them asylum.” 4The Wichita Daily Eagle; Wichita, Kansas; Thu, Jan 2, 1890 – Page 4. Here.

Rumors of Race War

There were, of course, rumors. Most seemed to come from conservative newspapers. The Arkansas City Daily Traveler, for example, reported that “the negroes intend to burn the town,” and that “a conflict between the blacks and whites appears imminent.” 5Arkansas City Daily Traveler; Arkansas City, Kansas; Thu, Jan 2, 1890 – Page 8. Here.

The New York Tribune, on the other hand, reported that “the white murderers at Barnwell, SC, fill the air with rumors of a race war.” They even suspected that the Sheriff of the county would be arrested for contributing to the rumors by petitioning the governor for troops. Additionally, they reported that “All is quiet in Barnwell tonight.” 6New-York Tribune; New York, New York; Fri, Jan 3, 1890 – Page 5. Here.

In short response, the Harrisburg Telegraph quipped:

Oh, to be sure, Barnwell, South Carolina, is quiet. It could not be otherwise with the negroes dead and dying and large bodies of Southern “nigger hunters” paroling the streets. Of course the town is quiet.” 7Harrisburg Telegraph; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Fri, Jan 3, 1890 – Page 2. Here.

More can be read of what the “Northern” papers wrote here.

The Short Investigation

Nearly a week after the lynchings, it seems as if at least two detectives from “the North” were poking around Barnwell looking into the whites who were responsible for the outrage. “The citizens resented such intrusion and the detectives were advised to move on,” reported the Leavenworth Times. They met the same coldness at Martin’s Station.

“It does not seem that the people of Barnwell desire the lynchers be arrested,” concluded the paper. “Their sympathy with the four white men who, within the last month or two have been brutally murdered, has blinded them to the enormity of the offense of those who took vengeance into their own hands. They look upon the lynching as the just deserts of the murderers and think that every man who was killed met his proper fate.” 8The Leavenworth Times; Leavenworth, Kansas; Sun, Jan 5, 1890 – Page 1. Here.

This sentiment seems to echo the words of Barnwell’s mayor: “We don’t care to place ourselves in the light of assuming responsibility in the matter.”

The Scene Today

The lynchings occurred at the town limits, just across Turkey Creek. Just east of the bridge, the road forks (and has forked for over two centuries). One road goes more northerly, the other most southerly. Just which road was taken by the mob wasn’t stated by the jailer in his report.

There is, as per usual, no mention of it in any official Barnwell town or county literature, website, historical society, etc. It is not even mentioned on their Wikipedia page. In fact, the whole event seems to be mostly forgotten, even though it was reported in nearly every newspaper across the country.

Note #1: A strange event was reported starting on February 11, 1890. Appearing across the country in nearly verbatim form was a story about a group of twenty to thirty black woman who dressed up as men in black hoods and robes. They fell upon a woman named Hattie Frazier, who had apparently did not “join in the chorus of condemnation of the act.”

Some papers printed that Frazier’s infant child was killed, others report that it was not. The story came out of nowhere, and though fifteen of the women were supposedly arrested, no more is mentioned of it anywhere that I can find.

Where the story came from is unknowable, but it seems to trace itself back to the Columbia Register and “a lady who recently arrived in the city.” 9The Intelligencer; Anderson, South Carolina; Thu, Feb 20, 1890 – Page 4. Here.

Whether or not there was any truth to the story is also probably unknowable.

Note #2: There was another lynching (or possibly two) in Barnwell County a couple of weeks after the massacre. However, it appears to be unrelated. 10The Weekly Star; Wilmington, North Carolina; Fri, Jan 17, 1890 – Page 1. Here. The man responsible fled to Florida, but was arrested the following month. 11The Manning Times; Manning, South Carolina; Wed, Feb 12, 1890 – Page 3. Here.

Note #3: Barnwell County was no stranger to violence against blacks. During the election of 1876, approximately 100 black citizens were murdered by white paramilitary groups called Red Shirts. 12More can be read here, but you need a subscription.

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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.