‘We Might As Well Die Running’ – The Post Office Lynching Trial (1898)

Over the past two posts, we learned about the 1898 Lynching of South Carolina Postmaster Frazier Baker and his infant daughter Julia. We learned of the investigation and arrests of over a dozen accused in setting the post office ablaze and shooting nearly every member of the Baker family.

Today, we’ll look at the trial. We’ll hear from not only Frazier Baker’s wife, Lavinia, but from one of the members of the lynch mob who confessed the entire plot. We’ll hear arguments by both the government and the defense, and finally see the trial go to the jury.

Trial of the Lake City Lynchers

Charleston, S.C., April 10 – The trial of the Lake City lynchers began in the federal court here today. The defendants’ attorneys contended that the federal court had no jurisdiction, but they were overruled. The defense made a second attempt to block the proceedings by technical challenges of the jurors, but again were overruled.

The jury was sworn and the district attorney outlined the charges. The witnesses will be heard tomorrow when members of the Baker family will give the story of the lynching and the burning of the post office.

Three of the defendants are volunteers in the Second South Carolina.

The government will first prove the crime and the fact of the killing and will then try to fasten it on the men who are now under indictment. Joseph P. Newham and Early Lee, who have turned state’s evidence, will repeat their bloody story to the court tomorrow. […] 1Asheville Daily Gazette; Asheville, North Carolina; Tue, Apr 11, 1899 – Page 1. Link.

For the prosecution there were two star witnesses. First was Lavinia Baker, the matriarch of the Baker family. During the lynching, her one year old baby, Julia, was shot from her arms, and she saw her husband fall dead immediately after. She herself was shot and fled for her life, her surviving children in tow.

Baker’s Family Tell Their Story

Charleston, S.C., April 11 – Members of the Baker family in the federal court today told a harrowing story of how Postmaster Baker and child were killed at Lake City and their dwelling burned. The story made a deep impression. 2Asheville Daily Gazette; Asheville, North Carolina; Wed, Apr 12, 1899 – Page 5. Link.

Lavinia Baker’s Testimony

Lavinia Baker, wife of the murdered postmaster, on the witness stand is as follows:
“On the night of February 21,” said the witness, “we were aroused by the roaring of fire. My husband hurried up and threw two buckets of water on the flame. He called Rosa [18 year old daughter] to help him put out the fire. This water helped to deaden the fire, but caught at the top of the house when it was deadened below.

“The guns opened. My husband called to Lincoln [11 year old son] to give the alarm. The boy said, ‘I’m shot; I can’t call any more.’

“Then Baker went to the door and gave the alarm. The flames advanced. Baker walked up and down and prayed. I was in the building with the baby [daughter, Julia] in my arms. He saw that I could not move, and he grabbed me, saying, ‘Come on; we might as well die running as standing.’

“At the door the baby was shot out of my arms. I said, ‘See, baby’s dead.’ Baker stepped back and saw his dead child. Then he opened the door and was shot. I followed. Baker fell over and died, leaning against my lap. I looked to see if the baby was breathing. It did not, and there as a wound on its right side. The wound looked like a bloody bruise. I twas large, as if it was made by a slug. There was a large hole in the side and blood was flowing.

“The baby was Julia Baker, aged one year old and 11 months. Baker was 42 years old. The blood was gushing from Baker’s back when he fell. I held my head down to hear if he was breathing. He said nothing. I held up my left hand and I was shot above the wrist.”

(The woman showed the jury the scarred mark on both sides of the arm.)

“I got the children,” continued the woman, “and we ran as fast as we could. We ran across the road in front of the building. We went one hundred yards form the building and hid in a field until the fire was out and the shooting was over. Then we went to Duke Burgess’s and remained until morning.

“When we left the building in the light of the fire, I saw men on the north side, a few steps from the building. Did not notice what they had and could not see whether they were white or colored.

“I found one of my daughters at Burgess’s when I got there, and the oldest child came in later. Rosa was shot in the right arm, Cora [14, daughter] was shot in the right hand and Lincoln was shot through the right arm and in the stomach. 3Asheville Daily Gazette; Asheville, North Carolina; Thu, Apr 13, 1899 – Page 1, 5. Link, link.

“I remained all night at Burgess’s, and then went to Lawrence Doe’s, where I remained until March 24, when I was brought to Charleston and taken to the Colored Hospital, Dr. McClennan in charge. He attended us fora month, and we remained at the Hospital two months….”

[Lavinia Baker was then cross-examined by the defense.]

“I did not hear any horses before the shooting. The roaring of the fire awoke me. I stayed in the old field until the fire and the shooting were over. I was in the field about a half an hour. Many shots were fired after I got in the field. None of us were shot outside the house.

“My husband had a gun in the house, but did not use it. Yes, I wrote my brother next day that I did not know if the mob was white or colored.”

Pressed by Mr. Legare, the witness said her husband was treasurer of the Colored Alliance at Effingham, but she did not know that he was accused of carrying off Alliance money. She did not remember that colored people were hunting her husband for carrying off the money.

“We had only been in Lake City thirteen days. My husband went there some time before and sent for me.” 4The last paragraph of Lavina Baker’s testimony, as well as the cross-examination were not printed in the Asheville Daily Gazette. These came from the Charleston News and Courier, April 12, 1899 as printed in Lynching in America; A History in Documents, edited by Christopher Waldrep (New York University Press, 2006) 214.

It was clear what the defense was doing. Painting the murder of Frazier Baker as a black-on-black crime, might be enough to cast doubt on all of the accused white men at once.

On the same day Lavinia testified, Joseph P. Newham, who claimed to be a member of the lynch mob, was also scheduled to give his testimony. The defense did everything in their power to stop this.

From the Asheville Daily Gazette:

There was a sensation today when the attorneys for the defense objected to a witness, who was one of the lynchers who turned stat’s evidence, on the ground that he was incompetent.

They base the claim on the fact that he has since been convicted on a charge of robbery, but the government claims the charge was trumped up to prevent his testifying. The judge will render his decision tomorrow. 5Asheville Daily Gazette; Asheville, North Carolina; Wed, Apr 12, 1899 – Page 5. Link.

After a night of thought, the Judge decided to allow Newham to testify despite the strange warnings of the defense.

Story of the Killing of Baker

Charleston, April 13 – Joseph P. Newham, one of the men who turned state’s evidence in the Baker trial was on the witness stand today and gave the following story of the killing of Baker:

“In February , 1898, I met these parties together in Lake City. Some one gave me information and from that I went to [Henry] Stokes’ that night, and found the crowd there waiting to go to destroy the post office. The men said there were not enough men there. [Moultrie] Epps said he could go and get hep at Cade’s and have help ready by Monday night.

“[Henry C.] Goodwin was to get a crowd at Half Moon Bluff. Monday night I went back to Stokes’ . I was in town all day, got supper and got to Lake city about 10 o’clock and went to Stokes’. I found Stokes, Goodwin, [Early] Lee, Epps, [William A.] Webster, [Martin V.] Ward, Alonzo Rogers, Martin Ward and Dunham Singletary.

“After I got there we were looking for more help. I was put on watch and stopped [Ezra] McKnight from going to the warehouse and took him to the store. I was sent out to watch for McKnight.

“Tody Goodwin was with me. They said, ‘Well, we haven’t the men we are looking for, but we can’t wait. Let’s kill him.’ Singletary said he could not go, and he remained at the store.

“Those who went were myself, Lee, McKnight, Henry Stokes, Moultrie Epps, Tody Goodwin, Alonza rogers, Martin Ward, William Webster and Charles Joyner. I am not sure Joyner came in Stokes’ that night. I think he met us at Goodwin’s store.

“I saw guns that night. Several had guns and Stokes went out and got more. We went to Goodwin’s and Dr. Williams’ and got other weapons, carbines. We got guns at Williams’ drug store, where Epps clerked. I think Stokes said he got the guns from Sheriff Daniels. He brought in a double-barrel shot gun and a Winchester rifle, a sixteen-shooter. The carbines belonged to the military company in Lake city, and I think they shot a 44-calibre ball.

“Before we left the store we had agreed to fire the post office and get Baker out and kill him. We then left the store and went to Goodwin’s store, where we got a two-gallon bucket of kerosene oil and a bag of shavings.

“We went from there to a spot near the post office and arranged for Lee to fire the post office, but Lee backed out and asked me to go with him. We had stopped forty steps from the post office.

“Around the house there was a fence, with a church near by. On one side of the house, next to Cade’s, was the wood which came to five or six steps from the house. One the side next to Lake City there was a cotton field. There was a rail fence on the Lake City side of the post office.

“At the point where we stopped we went down past the corner of the fence and went up the avenue and stood behind a tree. Lee back out about firing the office. They asked me and I said I would not go unless I could get a gun. They gave me a carbine, and I said I didnot know how to use it, so they gave me a double-barrel shotgun.

“I went with Lee from the crowd, and Lee and I went to fire the office, Lee poured Kerosene on the shaving and put some oil on the house. Lee gave me his gun, put the shaving in by the chimney of the house and then poured on the oil.

“He struck a match on his pants and it went out. He struck another. The flames hot up. Then the flamed died down. I heard cries from the house and then the shooting began.

“At that time, I was twenty steps form the chimney end of the post office. When it blazed, Lee and I ran to the church and got behind the well curb. When the house was burning brightly, lighting the town, we ran across the fields and got away.

“I heard the guns, lots of them, and saw the flashes. The shooting was from the Cade road side, near the fence corner. I saw no firing from any other direction.

“I went to the Baptist church. On the way I saw a man I thought to be Lawrence Dove, so I got in a ditch and hid until he passed. I was all alone at the time. The Baptist church is east of the railroad from Charleston and near Singletary’s. When I was in the ditch there was continued firing.” 6Asheville Daily Gazette; Asheville, North Carolina; Fri, Apr 14, 1899 – Page 1. Link.

Both Lavinia’s testimony and that of Newham’s seem damning to the defense. Nevertheless, the following day, they did what they could to hold their own.

Lake City Lynchers Begin Their Defense

Charleston, S.C., April 14 – The defense contended today that Newham, who turned state’s evidence against the defendants, was not at Lake City the day of the lynching but was at Kingstree, and the record of the Kingstree court was produced to show this.

The record, however, showed signs of being tampered with and will figure largely in further progress of the trial.

The most curious contention of the defense today was that Baker was killed by a masked mob, who came from unknown parts. No motive was shown for this and one reason given was that Lake City people had seen disguised men in the town four months before the killing.

The judge ruled this testimony out unless it could be proved that the masked men were in town on the night of the lynching. This could not be done.

Some curious things were shown in the task of proving alibis for the defendants. 7Asheville Daily Gazette; Asheville, North Carolina; Sat, Apr 15, 1899 – Page 1. Link.

As the trial moved along and scores of witnesses were heard, Newham’s testimony that he was indeed in Lake City on the night of the lynching was corroborated many times over. 8Asheville Daily Gazette; Asheville, North Carolina; Wed, Apr 19, 1899 – Page 1. Link.

Witnesses for the defense claimed to have alibis for those accused, though to all they sounded a bit shaky. Further, written records were submitted by the defense that also seemed to be doctored.

Finally, on April 19, both side presented their closing arguments.

Arguments Begun in Lake City Case

Charleston, S.C., April 19 – Arguments in the Lake City lynching trial were begun today. Special Counsel Bryan, for the government, made a strong plea for the prosecution, and was fierce in his attack on the witnesses who swore to the patched-up alibis of the defendants.

Speaking of the county officials who had been called on to testify, he said they had deliberately altered and defaced the records to help the prisoners.

George Legare, who spoke for the defense, said the Lake City crime could be laid at the feet of President McKinley, because he had persisted in putting negroes here in office over white men. 9Asheville Daily Gazette; Asheville, North Carolina; Thu, Apr 20, 1899 – Page 1. Link.

The following day, the closing arguments concluded and the case went before the jury.

Lake City Case Goes to Jury Today

Charleston, S.C., April 20 – The Lake City lynching case will go to the jury tomorrow. All arguments except the closing speech of the district attorney were made today. It is expected that a verdict will be reached during the afternoon. The public looks for a mistrial or acquittal.

Former Attorney General Barber made the leading argument for the prosecution today, ripping open the alibis presented for the defense. Lawyer Bass, of Lake City, defended the record of the town, saying this was its first lynching. 10Asheville Daily Gazette; Asheville, North Carolina; Fri, Apr 21, 1899 – Page 1. Link.

When all arguments in favor of the accused lyncher were exhausted, the defense turned to the philosophical. Rather than claiming that “parties unknown” were responsible or that it was a black-on-black crime, their lawyer laid the blame for the racial lynching at the feet of President McKinley.

After all, he reasoned, if McKinley hadn’t have appointed black citizens to positions of authority over whites, there would have been no problem. Besides, he concluded, this was the first lynching in Lake City – a town of only 300 persons.

The next post will conclude this series. The outcome of the trial, as well as the fate of the surviving members of the Baker family will be fully explored.

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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.