The Investigation of the Post Office Lynching of 1898

In our previous post, we learned about the 1898 lynching of black Postmaster Frazier B. Baker and his infant daughter, Julia, in Lake City, South Carolina.

In summation:

Baker was killed by a mob of citizens who had determined that no negro should be permitted to act as their postmaster. The rioters set fire to his house, and when he, with his wife and children, tried to escape, shot and killed him and a child. The wife and two other children were seriously wounded by men who shot at them from the woods. 1The World; New York, New York; Sat, Apr 8, 1899 – Page 14. Link.

We also learned of the Federal investigation by United States Attorney Abial Lathrop, whose optimism for a successful trial due to the white citizens of Lake City, who were already obstructing his efforts.

We now rejoin the story with the Coroner’s inquest, attended by Lathrop.

Baker and His Baby Shot, But Nobody Knows By Whom

Lake City, March 19 – The jury of inquest on the Baker post office tragedy met today in the tobacco warehouse Coroner H.M. Burrows, Solicitor J.S. Wilson and Mr. Abial Lathrop, district attorney for the State, were present. In addition to these and the jury there were about one hundred and fifty people; a good many colored citizens among them, to hear the verdict of the jury.

The members of the jury being seated, the coroner asked if they had heard anything new in reference to the killing of Baker and his infant. They answered, “No!” The same question was put to the others present, and the same response was given.

The following witnesses were examined as to what they saw upon the scene the morning after the tragedy:

Mr. Lewis J. Bristow, editor of the County Record, said he was there and saw the remains of a human body, which he supposed to be that of a grown person. He saw also the remains of the infant, but both were so badly marred and charred that hit was hard to tell what they were.

[Two others, both doctors, gave similar testimony]

Mr. W. T. Askins … testified that he heard two squads, with at least half-a-dozen, possibly twenty, in each squad, going out in a direction opposite from the postoffice.

Mr. H.H. Singletary stated as information that he had heard it rumored that the brother of Frazier B. Baker went to the latter’s office on the afternoon before the fatal night, and begged his brother to give up the office and go with him that very night, because he knew that someone would kill him if he remained. After refusing to listen to all his entreaties, he bade him good-bye, saying that he did not expect to see him alive any more.

After receiving instructions from Solicitor Wilson as to how their verdict should be framed, the jury retired for about fifteen minutes, and returned with the following verdict.

[…]

That said Frazier B. Baker came to to his death on the night of February 21, 1898 by gunshot wounds from the hands of parties unknown to the jury. 2The Watchman and Southron; Sumter, South Carolina; Wed, Mar 23, 1898 – Page 3. Link.

This was the typical finding for coroner’s juries when it came to lynchings. In most cases, the investigation ended there. But since this also involved the Federal government, Abial Lathrop, the United States District Attorney of South Carolina, pushed forward.

Writing nearly a month later to his boss, Attorney General John William Griggs, Lathrop described just what it would take to get anyone who knew anything about the lynching to speak.

While we have made some progress into the investigation of this case, we do not feel that we have sufficient testimony to justify us in causing warrants to be issued, and from the peculiar conditions of this case, it is probable that we shall not be able to identify the guilty persons with any degree of certainty until we can secure the testimony of some of the persons who are themselves to some extent connected with the crime.

We have taken the statements of a large number of persons living at or in the vicinity of Lake City, and these statements show that those persons who, not being directly concerned, saw the fire of the burning building, or heard the guns on that occasion, were too much frightened to go out or make any effort to identify any of the persons engaged in the deed.

We have some evidence of meetings held previous to the final tragedy, the purpose of those meetings being to devise means to remove postmaster Baker, and at which speeches were made by residents of the village advising extreme measures.

Some of the persons who were present at these meetings have intimated that they are willing to give information, but only upon condition that they shall be protected, not only from prosecution but also from the other parties interested.

I have not hesitated to offer immunity from prosecution, but in the matter of protection I have not felt authorized to make any expenditures for that purpose, and it seems clear from the statements of the Inspectors, and from my own observation, that some provision will have to be made in that behalf before we shall be able to get this testimony.

The whole community is absolutely terrorized to such an extent that it is difficult to get anyone there to speak to a person supposed to be interested in the investigation, it being generally understood that to do so will place their lives in jeopardy.

To be worth anything a witness must be removed from the vicinity of Lake City, and he must be assured that he will be kept away and protected from those who will certainly attempt to silence him. 3Abial Lathrop to Attorney General, April 18, 1898. As printed in Lynching in America; A History in Documents, edited by Christopher Waldrep (New York University Press, 2006) 210-211.

The Charleston News and Courier, a fairly progressive paper for South Carolina, bitterly complained about the inability to hold anyone accountable for the lynching.

While we cannot blame the solicitor or the jury it is evident that there is something woefully wrong in the judicial machinery of this state when a month after so atrocious a crime not even a coroner’s verdict can be obtained against a single person engaged in the outrage.

It certainly looks as if either the whole neighborhood of Lake City is engaged in conspiring to shield the malefactors, or else that the community is so terrorized by these outlaws that no man dares to testify against them.

We have said heretofore that the Lake City lynchers will never be convicted in a state court, and the coroner’s verdict goes far to justify our opinion. 4As printed in the Nebraska State Journal; Lincoln, Nebraska; Sun, Sep 11, 1898 – Page 12. Link. The Nebraska paper was clearly a bit behind on the times.

Over the next several months, Abial Lathrop devoted his life to this investigation. He paid protection money, and even sent an investigator to Cuba to track down a witness who had since joined the Army. 5Paul Finkelmen, ed. Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present (Oxford University Press, 2009) 222.

Though the precise methods and lengths to which Lathrop went have never been documented (and are likely lost to history), it was likely through promises of protection that he procured the names of seven white men.

Lynchers Will Be Tried

Seven men, all of them well-to-do, and some of them described as representing the “wealth and respectability of Lake City,” South Carolina, are in jail awaiting trial before the United States court on the charge of having been implicated in the assassination of the negro postmaster, Frazier Baker, on the night of February 21.

[…]

From the Boston Post, August 10, 1899.

It was one of the most dastardly and cowardly crimes on record and if the seven men soon to be tried are convicted, numerous other arrests will follow.

Whether they are guilty or not we have of course no way of knowing, but if they inspired or took part in the bloody crime with which they are charged, it is sincerely to be hoped that they will be convicted and punished according to their deserts.

As an evidence of the statement prevailing in South Carolina, it is worth while noting that large crowds gathered at the stations when the prisoners were being conveyed to Charleston, where they are to be tried, and cheered them vigorously.

Sad indeed must be the condition of civilization in communities where the participants in such revolting crimes as that perpetrated at Lake City are openly applauded by the people. 6The Scranton Republican; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Tue, Jul 5, 1898 – Page 4. Link.

A Grand Jury was called in early July, 1898 and indited Martin V. Ward and six others.

They indited them on charged based upon the Reconstruction-era Enforcement Act of 1870, which made it a Federal crime to interfere with Federal employees doing their jobs.

Specifically, the accused were indited on three charges:

1) That they “unlawfully, willfully, and maliciously did injure, deface and destroy certain mail matter.”

2) That they “unlawfully and feloniously did combine, conspire, confederate, and agree … to prevent, by force, intimidation, and threat, a certain person, to wit, one Frazier B. Baker … from accepting and holding a certain office, trust, and place of confidence under the United States, and from discharging the duties thereof, that is to say, the office of Post Master of the United States.”

3) That they “unlawfully and feloniously did combine, conspire, confederate, and agree, between and among themselves … to injure one Frazier Baker in his person, that is o say, by then … assaulting, beating, bruising, shooting, wounding, maltreating, killing, and murdering him, the said Frazier B. Baker….” 7Grand Jury Indictment in Frazier Baker Case. As printed in Lynching in America; A History in Documents, edited by Christopher Waldrep (New York University Press, 2006) 212-213.

A Year Later…

Though Abial Lathrop got some of his men, he knew it would be nearly impossible to get a conviction. Sentiment through much of white South Carolina was with the seven accused. Papers at the time of the indictment reported on the adulation showered upon Martin Ward and his accused co-conspirators.

It would take about a year to gather all of the evidence. Along the way, eight other members of the lynch mob were arrested and charged along with their compatriots. Two of their number turned states evidence – which is likely how the case was brought to trial.

Thirteen Men Charged With Killing Frazier Baker

Authorities succeed at last in induce two of the mob to turn state’s evidence.

Charleston, S.C., April 7 – In the United States Circuit Court today the names of the men charged with killing Frazier Barker, the negro Postmaster of Lake City, S.C., and his child, and with burning the Post Office, in February, 1898, were given to the Grand Jury.

True bills were found against thirteen men as follows: Ezra McKnight, W.A. Webster, M.V. Ward, Moultrie Epps [or Pipps], Henry C. Goodwin, Charles J. Joyner, Oscar Kelly, Edwin M. Rodgers, Alonzo Rodgers, Henry S. Stokes, Marion Clark, Early P. Lee and Joseph P. Newham. Many of them are prominent citizens of the town.

E.P. Lee and J.P. Newham have turned state’s evidence. The case will be called for trial on Tuesday. There are more than a hundred witnesses.

The Government officials have been working steadily for the arrest and conviction of the murderers of Baker ever since the crime was committed. Shortly after the tragedy it was decided at a Cabinet meeting to offer a reward of $1,500 for the capture of the perpetrators of the outrage.

[…]

In charging the jury today, Judge W.H. Brawley said:

“A more heinous crime has rarely darkened the history of this State. It would be an everlasting reproach to our Government and to our civilization if those charged with the administration of the law failed to bring to trial the perpetrators of this crime.

“It was stated in the newspapers at the time, and it is probably true, that Frazier B. Baker was very obnoxious to the community that he was appointed to serve. [Meaning that they found him unbearable.]

“It is not for this court to express any opinion on that point, or to attempt to measure the moral responsibility of those who were responsible for bringing about conditions which aroused the popular fury to such an extent that that should be considered by any community as in any measure an extenuation of this dreadful crime. No consideration of that kind can furnish palliation or excuse for the horrible offense charged in this indictment.

“Whatever reasons may have existed for the feeling of the community on this subject there were other and legal ways in which that feeling might manifest itself, and other and legal remedies for such complaints, whether well or ill-founded, and they very foundations of society will be broken up if the wild and lawless elements which in every community require the wholesome restraints of law are allowed upon any pretext or for any reason to take to themselves the right to say who shall discharge public functions and kill and burn the objects of their displeasure.” 8The World; New York, New York; Sat, Apr 8, 1899 – Page 14. Link.

In our next post, we’ll cover the trial, which will include the testimony of Lavinia Baker herself. Additionally, we’ll hear from Joseph Newham, one of the lynchers who turned state’s evidence. We’ll hear arguments by both the government and the defense, and finally see the trial go to the jury.

References   [ + ]

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