This week in 1908 saw the lynching of an entire family in Hickman, Kentucky. Caught up in race prejudice and a land dispute, David Walker, his wife, and at least three of his children were gunned down as they escaped the fire set to their home by Night Riders. Using period newspapers, we’ll look at the details surrounding the lynchings, as well as how a local paper tried to blame the Walkers for their own massacre.
Between the Civil War and World War II, the black community, especially in the South, was terrorized by an epidemic of lynchings. As opposed to public executions, the point of lynching was to avoid the court of law, judge and jury. Often times, the victim, in a holding cell for an offense, was kidnapped by a mob before even being arraigned. According to a recent report issued by the Equal Justice Initiate, there were 4,075 lynchings of black Americans across the South between 1877 and 1950. 1In this case, “The South” pertains to the dozen states where the most lynchings occurred: Mississippi (614), Georgia (595), Louisiana (559), Arkansas (491), Alabama (363), Texas (344), Florida (307), Tennessee (238), South Carolina (184), Kentucky (170), North Carolina (122), and Virginia (88). See the EJI site here.
Kentucky Mob Massacres Entire Negro Family (1908)
Setting the Scene
In the spring of 1908, white Kentuckians of Fulton County banded together. Their original intent was to wrest control of a nearby lake from the private ownership of the West Tennessee Land Company. By the autumn, their brutality knew few bounds. Their objections were, at least initially, understandable. The lake was a source of income, as was the land around it. If the private owner fully closed off the lake to the locals, they would likely be deprived of their livelihoods.
These various direct actions became known as the Reelfoot Lake Uprisings. But what might have been remembered as a grassroots revolt in favor of collective use is now remembered at terrorism, lynching and murder.
Their first action was to burn Burdick’s Fish Docks. After several warnings, in April the Night Riders set fire to the boards and J.C. Burdick, who leased fishing rights from the lake’s owners, was soon forced to close. The following month, the Night Riders threatened another fisherman profiting from the lake.
Before long, any locals belonging to the West Tennessee Land Company had left the organization. But still the company remained in control of the lake.
‘We are the 800 Mounted’ – Attacks on Black Citizens
Just what local black families had to do with this seems almost tangential. On the same night that Burdick’s docks were burned, a notice was posed in the nearby town of Hickman.
“To the Nigros of Hickman You are expected to Be absent May the 1st 1908… We are the 800 mounted. Well armed. Fare Warning.”
Many of the whites in the county hired low-wage black labor and were now fearful that cheap source of income would soon be rushed out of town. When one local spoke up, saying that the “nergoes” were better than the Night Riders, he was beaten so badly by the vigilantes that he died of his wounds.
Starting in May, they began to make good on their warning. Blacks, as well as the whites who supported them, were whipped mercilessly. Their attacks were often symbolic. For instance, they kidnapped a black man and attempted to force him to whip a white man profiting from the lake. The black man escaped and ran to the police. No arrests were made.
Through the late spring and early summer, small attacks were carried out upon black community members. They would take pot shots at random black neighbors as warnings to get them to leave town.
By August, the local whites had had enough. They petitioned the governor to do something about the Night Riders. Their pleas mentioned their black laborers, as well as the threats to white citizens. The governor, however, refused to help. 2Grove, Jama McMurtery, “Uneasy Waters: The Night Riders at Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, 1908” (2012). Electronic Theses and
Dissertations. Paper 1496. Thus far, all information was gathered from Jama McMurtery Grove’s thesis, available here.
Dave Walker, as he was known around Hickman, was a family man. Both he and his wife could read and write. Together, they were raising a growing family. Their oldest of five was in his early teens, while the youngest was but an infant. Unlike many local black families, they were not tenant farmers. The house they lived in, the land they farmed, was their own.
Among their closest neighbors, both white and black, they were far more prosperous. Most, including all of the whites but a widow, rented the land upon which they farmed.
Mr. Walker first comes into our story with a dispute with Joe Williams and his wife.
Dave Walker was fined $10 and cost Wednesday by County Judge Naylor for using abusive language. The warrant for his arrest was sworn to by Joe Williams and his wife. Walker was also charged with flourishing a deadly weapon, but the evidence on this charge was not sufficient to convict. 3The Hickman Courier; Hickman, Kentucky; Fri, Jun 5, 1908 – Page 4Here.
It was this incident, however, that would give the Night Riders an excuse to pay David Walker a visit. It was not personal. David Walker’s “abusive language” toward Mrs. Williams was used as a reason for the visit. But as he was one of the most prosperous black citizens in the area, using him as an example would potentially drive out any “lesser” blacks.
On the night of October 3rd, the Night Riders made their move.
Night Riders Wipe Out Negro Family
Shoot Woman and Five Children One by One as They Leave the Farm
Hickman, Ky., Oct 5 – A band of about 30 or 40 masked men made a raid on the home of Dave Walker, a negro living 4 miles southwest of Hickman, early Sunday morning and shot the entire family of eight members and burned their home. Three were killed instantly, five were wounded so that one died Monday and one more cannot live.
Those killed were:
Dave Walker, age 40.
Walker’s wife, age 38, who died Monday.
Susan Walker, age 16.
Ransey Walker, age 2.
The wounded are:
A 12-year-old boy – shot about the shoulders – not fatal.
A 14-year-old boy – shot in abdomen and head – cannot recover.
An 18-year-old girl – shot in hand and arm – not fatal.
A 20-year-old boy – shot in foot – slight wound. He escaped and was found Monday near A.H. Leet’s home – bare-footed, hatless and in his night clothes.
Those dead were all shot in the abdomen, and No. 12 shotguns seem to have been the instruments of death.
It is hard to get the real facts of the case, but it is said that Walker was a bad negro. He was recently arrested on a warrant sworn out by Joe Williams, a white man of the same neighborhood, for cursing Mrs. Williams and flourishing a gun when Mr. Williams interfered. Judge Naylor fined the negro, and he was released upon payment of the same. He is said to have remarked to bystanders after the trial that he would be fixed for him next time. In other instance he was charged with being brazen and impudent.
Night Riders Surround the House
Shortly after midnight the riders rode up to the home of Mr. Williams and called him out, telling him they were going to get the negro a thrashing and wanted him to go with them. Williams did not want to go – telling them that his wife would be left alone – and the riders told him he could stay behind and look after the horses.
Three of the masked men remained with Williams and the horses and the rest of the party walked to the negro’s home, arrive there about 12:30. The wounded negroes say that the night riders called to Walker to open the door. This he refused to do. Arming himself and two sons, they prepared for the attack, which was being made from the outside.
When the masked men burst the door down, Walker begun shooting. The riders then opened fire on the negroes ,while a part of them poured coal oil on the house and set fire to it, forcing the occupants to flee from the burning building. As they ran out, all were shot.
Shoot Baby In Mother’s Arms
Walker was the first to go out and was shot first. When Walker’s wife appeared in the doorway, she held in her arms their infant child and begged the night riders for mercy. Disregarding her pleadings they infuriated mob opened fire and a bullet pierced the body of the infant in its mother’s arms. A second shot struck the mother in the abdomen and she fell, still holding the dead body of her infant.
The disturbance aroused Tom Bone, a white man residing not far away, and thinking the shots were fired for the purpose of giving a fire alarm, he started in the direction of the Walker home, but was suddenly stopped as he turned into the lane when two men grabbed his horse’s reign. He was told to try going back over the same road. He was only told once – he went. 4The Hickman Courier; Hickman, Kentucky; Thu, Oct 8, 1908 – Page 4. Here.
Walker Looking for Trouble
It is evident the riders took every precaution, and did their work with the greatest secrecy. They came from the direction of Lake county, and numbered from 30 to 50. Most of them wore black masks.
Walker was doubtless looking for trouble, as he as well armed and had a good supply of ammunition. He always carried considerable money with him, and it was reported that $800 was burned in the house.
The Dead Bodies Buried
County Coroner Smith held an inquest over the bodies Sunday morning, and the jury’s verdict was that the negroes were shot to death by unknown persons. As soon as the last victim fell, the night riders mounted their horses and rode away, leaving no trace whatever of the identity of any member of the band. For this reason it is hardly probable that the law will take hold of the matter.
A wagon load of coffins went out of Hickman Sunday – the first thing of the kind to happen in a long time – and the dead bodies were buried Monday, in Tennessee. 5The Hickman Courier; Hickman, Kentucky; Thu, Oct 8, 1908 – Page 4. Here.
“Walker Was No Saint”
News of the massacre spread quickly across the nation. Most papers ran an edited down, Associated Press version of the story. 6Such as this from South Dakota, or this from Vermont. The local paper out of Hickman, however, was disturbed by the bad press. Their article, printed above, was obviously slanted, as they virtually blamed Walker for his own massacre. In a follow up piece, they were no different.
“There are two sides to a question,” read the paper. “Walker was no saint, neither his wife and 18-year-old girl, all of whom are said to have insulted a white lady with the most rank profanity.”
They denied that they were trying to “upload lawlessness,” but rather they wanted to “let truth prevail.” The Hickman Courier accusingly said that “the metropolitan papers, in their eagerness for sensation, seem to have lost sight of conservativeness and common honesty.” 7The Hickman Courier;
Hickman, Kentucky; Thu, Oct 15, 1908 – Page 5. Here.
The Stain on Kentucky
The conservative Courier complained further that the governor “jumps on with both feet” when he issued “a reward of $500 for the apprehension and conviction ‘of any person and each person of the band of some fifty men who banded together and went at midnight to the home of David Walker….”
The Governor’s proclamation continued:
This crime and the stain on Kentucky of the murder of four helpless prisoners at Russellville, both by bands of night riders, the outgrowth and logical result of the toleration of the night-rider crimes in the largest districts of the State, its only once removed from civil war and the very safety of our institutions and what we have of civilization, is involved, and the only salvation for the name, honor and character of Kentucky is for the whole people to rise up in their might to save their liberty, uphold their law and mercilessly put down murder, arson intimation and proscription wherever they dare to show themselves.”8Ibid.
Just Who Was Murdered?
This is something that is not easy to deduce. It appears that the obviously-slanted Courier is the only source for the names and ages of the family. This information, unfortunately, has to be taken as the most accurate we have.
In their October 8, 1908 issue, they claim that four had died: David, his wife, their 16 year old daughter Susan, and two year old Ransey (who is sometimes refereed to as “the infant”). They conclude that one more, a 14 year old boy, will certainly die. We must assume that they are correct in this.
We are left with the total of five dead. Yet, the Courier lists three others as wounded – a 12 year old boy, an 18 year old girl (the same they accused of cursing Mrs. Williams) and a 20 year boy who made his escape.
For further details, let’s take a look at the December 13th, 1908 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Several months had passed without arrests, but details of the story had a chance to be sussed out. They claim to have received their information from “the last daughter to fall” who “finally recovered.” She was, they reported, “the only direct descendant of David Walker left to tell of the terrible carnage.” This is likely the 18 year old girl who supposedly cursed Mrs. Williams (though the Enquirer gives her age as 17).
The twenty-year old boy is also mentioned: “A stepson of Walker escaped without injury by darting out a rear door into the night.”
As for the 12 year old boy, reported by the Courier as “shot about the shoulders – not fatal,” nothing can be learned of his existence. It’s possible that he died, but it’s also possible that in the confusion of the scene, he was either miscounted or not related to David Walker.
Unable to fully account for the 12 year old boy, we are left with five dead and two wounded. Other sources, such as the Hopkinsville Kentuckian, concluded early on that all perished in the fire, including the older daughter and step-son. Their account, however, is merely a sensationaized rewording of the Courier‘s and is hardly reliable. 9Hopkinsville Kentuckian; Hopkinsville, Kentucky; Thu, Oct 8, 1908 – Page 4Here.
As already stated, there were no arrests. Though the governor offered a reward and admonished his constituents, he did little more. That is, until the Night Riders struck again. This time they kidnapped and lynched a white man – a local business owner named Quentin Rankin. To this, the governor responded immediately.
Instead of offering $500 for the lynching of an entire black family, he offered $10,000 for the lynching of a single white – a statement if there ever was one. When the family was murdered, he offered not a single state trooper to the area. But when Rankin met his end, three entire companies of militia were sent to the area.
With this pressure, one of the night riders, Frank Fehringer, finally confessed. He turned states evidence at the forthcoming trial (for the murder of Rankin), and was given immunity. He was kept in jail during the trial for his own protection, fell in love with an old sweetheart, married her, tried to kill himself, tried to kill her, tried to kill himself again, and was finally moved to St. Louis.
Though many night riders were convicted of various crimes (never for the lynching of the Walker Family – that never went to trial), they were all let off by the Tennessee Supreme Court due to technicalities in how the case was handled. 10This incredibly confused uprising can be studied in greater detail in Jama McMurtery Grove’s thesis, available here. Grove, Jama McMurtery, “Uneasy Waters: The Night Riders at Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, 1908” (2012). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 1496.
Nearly Eighty Other Lynchings This Week
What follows is a list of all known racially-motivated lynchings between October 3 and October 9, 1877-1950. It should be in the forefront of your mind that the “crimes” listed are only what the victims of the lynchings were accused of committing. They were allowed no trials, and thus they were not guilty in the eyes of the law. Certainly some may have done what they were accused of doing, but in a constitutional society that values law and order over mob rule, each and every lynching was a miscarriage of justice and a horrible wrong. 11For more information on all of this, please see our post here.
It must also be remembered that this list is incomplete. Not only were there unreported lynchings, but the databases I draw from are understandably inadequate.
Year Victim City State Race Sex Form Alleged Offense
1882 Henry Holloway Giles TN Black Male Hanged Outrage on a married white woman 1885 Bud Mebane Caswell NC Black Male Hanged Rape and murder of a married white woman 1887 Oscar Jeffreys Little River AR Black Male Riddled with bullets Eloping with a white girl, daughter of a wealthy planter, and marrying her; miscegnation 1892 Alexander Bell Obion TN Black Male Hanged/RwB Attempted assault of white widow woman and her unmarried daughter 1900 — Williams Lake TN Black Male Hanged Murderous assault and robbery of an Italian peddler from Kentucky 1901 Walter McClennon Carroll TN Black Male Shot Assaulted a white man, a prominent citizen 1908 David Walker Fulton KY Black Male Riddled with bullets Cursed white woman and threatened a white man 1908 Mrs. David Walker Fulton KY Black Female Shot Race prejudice 1908 Baby of David Walker Fulton KY Black Unknown Shot Cursed a white woman and threatened a white man with a pistol 1908 Child of David Walker Fulton KY Black Unknown Shot Race prejudice 1908 Child of David Walker Fulton KY Black Unknown Shot Race prejudice 1908 Child of David Walker Fulton KY Black Unknown Shot Race prejudice 1908 Daughter of David Walker Fulton KY Black Female Shot Race prejudice 1910 Bush Withers Covington AL Black Male Riddled with bullets Criminal assault of a prominent young married white woman 1913 Wilson Evans Copiah MS Black Male Hanged and shot Criminal assault on an 18 year-old white woman, daughter of a prominent planter 1916 Mary Conley Calhoun GA Black Female Riddled with bullets Mother of accused murderer of a white man, a well-known farmer, and accessory to the murder 1916 Allen Nance Leflore MS Black Male Riddled with buckshot Assault on multiple white and black persons 1937 J. C. Evans Okaloosa FL Black Male Riddled with buckshot and bullets Attacking 12 year-old white boy
1879 Cicero Gilmore Baldwin GA Black Male Shot Race prejudice 1886 Thomas Israel Screven GA Black Male Hanged Outraged a 10 year-old white girl 1892 Charles Goff Rankin MS Black Male Hanged Robbery and murder of a white man, and shooting a black man 1892 Gabe Meeks Rankin MS Black Male Hanged Robbery and murder of a white man, and shooting a black man 1895 Toby McGrady Bullock AL Black Male Riddled with bullets Assaulted a married white woman, a farmer’s wife 1895 Neal South Dade GA Black Male Riddled with bullets Raped white girl 1901 Unnamed Negro #1 of 4 Marshall TN Black Female Shot Shot at white man 1901 Unnamed Negro #2 of 4 Marshall TN Black Male Shot Shot at white man 1901 Unnamed Negro #3 of 4 Marshall TN Black Male Shot Shot at white man 1901 Unnamed Negro #4 of 4 Marshall TN Black Male Shot Shot at white man 1902 Utt Duncan Columbus TX Black Male Hanged Entering office of woman, improperly clad 1904 — Rivers Taylor FL Black Male Unreported Attempted criminal assault on a married white woman 1911 Frank Mack Dodge GA Black Male Hanged/RwB Attempted rape of the wife of a prominent white man
1882 John Brooks Calhoun AL Black Male Hanged Rape of little white girl 1903 Edward McCollum Grant AR Black Male Shot Murderous assault on a white man, a constable 1907 William Burns Cumberland MD Black Male Beaten, Shot Murder 1912 Babe Yarbrough Macon GA Black Male Hanged/RwB Attempted rape of 12-13 year-old white girl, daughter of a well-known family 1916 William Spencer Graceton TX Black Male Hanged/RwB Dueling with a sheriff; unpaid cotton 1919 Mose Martin Lincoln GA Black Male Shot Praised murderer of a white deputy sheriff. 1920 Benjamin Givens Baker FL Black Male Riddled with bullets Implicated in the murder of a white man, a well-known farmer 1920 Fulton Smith Baker FL Black Male Riddled with bullets Implicated in the murder of a white man, a well-known farmer 1920 Rayfield Givens Baker FL Black Male Riddled with bullets Implicated in the murder of a white man, a well-known farmer 1920 Samuel Duncan Baker FL Black Male Riddled with bullets Possibly implicated in the murder of a white man, a well-known farmer
1878 John Thomas Williamson TN Black Male Unreported Rape of 5 year-old white girl 1885 — Huntley Jackson AR Black Male Shot Attempted criminal assault on an unmarried white woman 1894 Henry Gibson Fairfield TX Black Male Shot Assault on a white woman 1897 Harry Crowell DeSoto MS Black Male Hanged and shot Miscegenation with a 15 year-old white girl 1906 Unnamed Negro Jackson MS Black Male Unreported Attempted criminal assault on a married white woman 1906 Corneilius Robinson Mobile AL Black Male Hanged/strangulation Assaulted multiple white girls 1906 William Thompson Mobile AL Black Male Hanged/strangulation Assaulted multiple white girls 1909 Ap Ard St. Helena LA Black Male Hanged/RwB Murderous assault on a white man, a prominent planter 1919 Jack Gordon Lincoln GA Black Male Hanged/RwB Murder of a white deputy sheriff 1919 William Brown Lincoln GA Black Male Hanged/RwB Accomplice in murder of white deputy sheriff
1879 Bill Rearson Rhea TN Black Male Hanged Murder of white man, a store keeper 1879 Tom Jones Rhea TN Black Male Hanged Murder of white man, a store keeper 1896 Charles Williams Emanuel GA Black Male Shot Murder of a white man at voting polls 1906 Homer G. Blackman Pulaski AR Black Male Hanged and shot Mistaken identity 1910 John Dell Montgomery AL Black Male Shot Race prejudice 1911 E. B. Wheeler Dooly GA Black Male Shot Unreported 1911 Andrew Chapman Wilkinson GA Black Male Hanged/RwB Attempted assault on one “of the best known” young white woman 1916 Charlie Smith Washington GA Black Male Riddled with bullets Wounded a white man, a deputy 1919 Eugene Hamilton Jasper GA Black Male Shot Attempted murder of a white farmer and sawmill operator 1934 Curtis James McIntosh GA Black Male Shot Stealing turpentine and bootlegging it in Florida
1902 Curtis Brown Dyer TN Black Male Hanged Murder of a white man, a well-known farmer 1902 Garfield Burley Dyer TN Black Male Hanged Murder of a white man, a well-known farmer 1905 Thomas Seabright Decatur GA Black Male Hanged/RwB Rape of two black girls 1906 Anthony Davis Miller AR Black Male Beaten and strangled Attempted rape of a 15-16 year-old black girl 1910 Unnamed Negro Rockingham NC Black Male Shot Numerous robberies 1916 Frank Dodd Arkansas AR Black Male Hanged/RwB Insulted two young white women; annoying a young white woman 1924 William Bell Chicago IL Black Male Beaten Assault on white girl 1926 Bertha Lowman Aiken SC Black Female Shot Accomplice in the murder of a white sheriff 1926 Clarence Lowman Aiken SC Black Male Riddled with bullets Accomplice in the murder of a white sheriff 1926 Demmond Lowman Aiken SC Black Male Shot Murder of a white sheriff 1926 Herbert Bell Stewart TN Black Male Hanged/RwB Murder of a white man 1933 Benjamin Thompson Greenwood SC Black Male Beaten Arguing with and threatening white man; pulled a pistol on a white man
1883 Wesley Brown Madison AL Black Male Hanged Murder of a white man, a policeman 1891 Joe Coe Omaha NE Black Male Hanged Assault of white girl 1893 John Booker Davis Henry AL Black Male Riddled with bullets Found in a white girl’s bedroom 1893 Bob Hudson Weakley TN Black Male Shot Defending his wife from whitecaps 1896 James Anderson Jefferson AL Black Male Riddled with bullets Murder of a white man, a well-to-do farmer
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||In this case, “The South” pertains to the dozen states where the most lynchings occurred: Mississippi (614), Georgia (595), Louisiana (559), Arkansas (491), Alabama (363), Texas (344), Florida (307), Tennessee (238), South Carolina (184), Kentucky (170), North Carolina (122), and Virginia (88). See the EJI site here.|
|2.||⇡||Grove, Jama McMurtery, “Uneasy Waters: The Night Riders at Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, 1908” (2012). Electronic Theses and|
Dissertations. Paper 1496. Thus far, all information was gathered from Jama McMurtery Grove’s thesis, available here.
|3.||⇡||The Hickman Courier; Hickman, Kentucky; Fri, Jun 5, 1908 – Page 4Here.|
|4.||⇡||The Hickman Courier; Hickman, Kentucky; Thu, Oct 8, 1908 – Page 4. Here.|
|5.||⇡||The Hickman Courier; Hickman, Kentucky; Thu, Oct 8, 1908 – Page 4. Here.|
|6.||⇡||Such as this from South Dakota, or this from Vermont.|
|7.||⇡||The Hickman Courier;|
Hickman, Kentucky; Thu, Oct 15, 1908 – Page 5. Here.
|9.||⇡||Hopkinsville Kentuckian; Hopkinsville, Kentucky; Thu, Oct 8, 1908 – Page 4Here.|
|10.||⇡||This incredibly confused uprising can be studied in greater detail in Jama McMurtery Grove’s thesis, available here. Grove, Jama McMurtery, “Uneasy Waters: The Night Riders at Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, 1908” (2012). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 1496.|
|11.||⇡||For more information on all of this, please see our post here.|